First published in 1757, Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful exerted a strong influence on the Romantic and Gothic movements. In the work, he discusses the attraction of the grotesque, the terrible and the uncontrollable, a stark contrast to the prevailing 18th-century preferences for the controlled and balanced.
Burke proposes that beauty stimulates love, but that the sublime excites horror. While beauty relaxes, the sublime brings tension. The feeling that something is sublime is triggered by extremes – vastness, extreme height, difficulty, darkness or excessive light.
When discussing infinity, Burke uses the phrase ‘delightful horror’ to describe the ‘truest test of the sublime’. Delight for Burke is the removal of pain. When we realise that horror portrayed in the arts is fictional, this allows us to experience pleasure.
This work provided a rationale for why grotesque or extravagant architecture, Gothic novels and vast wilderness were so attractive.
In her novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses several of the motifs examined by Burke: extremes of landscape in the Alps and the Arctic for example. Much of the action takes place in extreme cold or at great altitude, and the monster is a creature of extremes – great height, power and speed. There is a preference throughout for rocky and harsh settings and impetuous decisions and actions. For William, Elizabeth and Justine, the smooth, the delicate, the passive and the rational are destroyed.