Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Trials and Tribulations of the Revenants: Narrative Techniques and the Fragmented Hero in Mary Shelley and Théophile Gautier

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Trials and Tribulations of the Revenants: Narrative Techniques and the Fragmented Hero in Mary Shelley and Théophile Gautier

Article excerpt

Reanimation, as a fantastic subject, can be found in myth and literature of all times. But towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, as a result of the rapid development in the fields of medicine and science, revival from death and even physical immortality-until then belonging to the realms of magic, myth and the imagination -suddenly appeared plausible.1

Among the first writers to explore in a literary form the consequences of uncommonly prolonged life as a real possibility was William Godwin with his philosophical novel St Leon (1799). His daughter, Mary Shelley, also treated the theme of immortality and the closely related subject of reanimation, but chose to do so in the form of the short story or tale. This genre, restricted in terms of length, seems at first at odds with the subject of relating, not only one life, but two-let alone the limitless time of an immortal hero. In this paper I shall examine the different narrative techniques that Shelley uses to treat this subject in three of her tales, namely: "Valerius: The Reanimated Roman" (1819, first published posthumously in 1976), "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman" (1826, first published posthumously in 1863), and "The Mortal Immortal" (1833). Each tale uses a different narrative structure, as if Shelley was experimenting on the appropriate form for such a subject. These are written as a first person narrative embedded in a frame narrative, a chronicle based on information considered as factual, and a diary-testimony; they all share, however, the characteristic of the fragment. Time and space-including the space afforded in the literary annuals Shelley was often writing for-are simultaneously material constraints and literary themes that will be considered in relation with the notion of the fragment, which, in Shelley's work, characterizes the human condition.

In the same form of the short tale, but from a different point of view, which entails different narrative techniques, Théophile Gautier also treats the theme of reanimation in La Morte amoureuse (1836) and Arria Marcella (1852). Two beautiful women passionate about life come back from the realm of the dead to live an ultimate love story. Ancient Pompeii, which is the scene in the second story, echoes the ancient Rome constantly evoked in Shelley's "Reanimated Roman," but what a contrast between the two ancient characters that have come back to life in the nineteenth century! While the one laments the lost glory of Rome, the other fully embraces the gift of a second existence. Gautier's view is clearly different from Shelley's-he regards reanimation as a means to access the ideal-and his narrative techniques reflect his views. Gautier's main narrative device is the dream, which, as we shall see, is unexpectedly used as a means to authenticate the story. Like in Shelley's works, time and space play an important role, even though their connection to the notion of the fragment is of a different kind in Gautier.

Apart from the enthusiastic scientific climate of her times and her father's long philosophical novel relating the adventures of an immortal, there are many other reasons why Mary Shelley should have been interested in reanimation. Most importantly, she had had, ever since she could remember, the ardent desire to bring a loved one back to life, starting with her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth to her. Mary experienced a series of losses that intensified this feeling. Soon after the loss of her first born child when she was only eighteen, we read the following entry in her diary: "Dream that my little baby came to life again-that it had been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived-I awake to find no baby."2 Mary would lose two more children at a young age and, of course, her beloved husband Percy, who drowned in 1822. It is not surprising then that from her first literary attempt, Frankenstein (1818), the theme of reanimation is to be found at the heart of her work. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.