This gothic short story by Mary Shelley (1797– 1851), the author of Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus (1818), explores the implications of immortality. In the story, alchemy, or artifice, overrides natural law and makes the impossible dream of immortality possible. The story contains many of the motifs found in Shelley’s famous novel, including a protagonist who impulsively and thoughtlessly moves forward with a scientific experiment, the effects of which he is ill-prepared to face. The story is narrated by the 323-year-old Winzy, who, as an aspiring scientist of 20, apprenticed himself to Cornelius Agrippa, a figure whose influence makes itself felt in Frankenstein as well. Tormented by the thought that his beloved Bertha holds him in contempt because of his poverty, Winzy imbibes a potion that Agrippa has described as “a philter to cure love.” Winzy does not realize that this is an “elixir of immortality” that will cure not only love but “all things” through the distanced perspective of immorality.
Immediately after he drinks most of the elixir, a heated disagreement between Bertha and her wealthy (but tyrannical) protectress convinces Winzy that Bertha is in fact devoted to him. Bertha leaves her patron’s home, rejecting the wealthier match her patron has championed. Winzy and Bertha marry, and they are happy until it becomes clear to both the couple and the townspeople that while Bertha is aging naturally, Winzy is not. The couple is ostracized, and on Agrippa’s deathbed, the truth comes out. Winzy, horrified, realizes that he may never die. He recounts the painful later years of his marriage, condemning his wife for her self-conscious affectations of youth, while recognizing that, although his deception is not as obvious as Bertha’s, he, too, lives a lie. He is by all appearances a young man of 23, even though he is well past 50. When an aged Bertha dies, severing Winzy’s final connection to humanity, he becomes a “sailor without rudder or compass—tossed on a stormy sea” for centuries. The story closes with Winzy’s proposed exploration of the Arctic, to find either death or glory.
With its emphasis on the natural supernatural, Shelley’s story is in the gothic mode, but it strays from gothic conventions by setting the narrative in the present. Shelley also explores the typically feminine motif of being trapped in and defined by one’s body and, in her tormented narrator, reveals the psychological damage that can accompany this condition.
Shelley, Mary. “The Mortal Immortal.” In Nineteenth Century Short Stories by Women, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, 73–83. London: Routledge. 1998.