The story begins on July 16, 1833, the apparent three hundred and twenty-third birthday of the narrator, Winzy, the self-styled “mortal immortal”. Winzy recounts the series of events that lead him to drink an “elixir vitae” at age twenty, during his employment under alchemist Cornelius Agrippa. Winzy was offered gold to stay under Agrippa’s tutelage after one of Agrippa’s former assistants had “raised [a] foul fiend during his master’s absence, and was destroyed by him” (219). Winzy is terrified, but accepts.
The story then briefly flashes back to Winzy’s youth, where he details the life of his childhood friend and neighbor – an orphan girl named Bertha who was taken in by a rich old woman living in an extravagant castle nearby. While close in their youth, age and economic disparity has since separated the two. Bertha turns her attention on more affluent suitors, and Winzy continues to work for the alchemist. As Agrippa makes further advancements in his work, he begins to consume so much of Winzy's time that Winzy is one day unable to keep a date with Bertha, and she “vowed that any man should posses her hand rather than he who could not be in two places at once for her sake” (221).
Jealousy begins to consume Winzy, unbeknownst to his master Agrippa, who continues to focus all of his efforts on a particular potion. Devoid of sleep, Agrippa requests Winzy to watch the potion’s development overnight, to wake him if anything if it changes, and under no circumstances should he drink the liquid – offering him the warning that it will cure love, which Agrippa believes Winzy would avoid at all costs. This effect is precisely what Winzy desires, so, when the potion changes, Winzy drinks it – but only half - before dropping it by accident. Instead of removing his love for Bertha, Winzy finds his emotions to be inflamed and multiplied. He continues to pursue her, and the two soon become married.
Five years pass, and Winzy's former employer Agrippa becomes ill. On his deathbed, he calls Winzy to confess to him that what he drank was not a cure for love, but rather an elixir of immortality. This revelation shakes Winzy, and begins to slowly errode at every facet of his life. His relationship with Bertha becomes controversial to their neighbors - as she ages and he does not – while Bertha becomes insecure about her own appearance and Winzy’s fidelity. The rest of the tale is devoted to Winzy’s preoccupation with his immortality, how one can define half of an eternity (as he only drank half of the elixir), and how he often wishes he could die, despite his overwhelming fears of it.
It is likely that Shelley was inspired by her father William Godwin’s novel St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799), in which the titular character finds both the elixir of immortality and the philosopher’s stone, but eventually leads a solitary, lonely existence. So, too, does Winzy in “The Mortal Immortal”. Since the death of his wife, Winzy cries “many have been my cares and woes, how few and empty my enjoyments!” (229). Winzy’s thoughts turn to suicide, and he continuously struggles over whether it “would be a crime in one to whom thus only the portals of the other would could be opened” (230). The insurmountable idea of immortality destroys the possibility of experiencing life, which is paradoxical – with all of the time in the world to enjoy life; one becomes overwhelmed, full of ennui, or completely dissatisfied. Winzy is incapable of thinking of goals other than those that relate to the hastening of his death, and increasingly finds himself as an outcast from his fellow men, mostly due to the fact that they can die, and he can not. Winzy experiences another enigmatic facet of his immortality, in that he envies the mortality of others, but he states that “the more I live, the more I dread death”, likely due to his experiences in seeing the death of so many people over the years, including his great love, Bertha (229). One of the major motivations for Winzy to write his story is to create a tangible warning for future generations, to caution other's on their search or desire for immortality, Not only for the ways in which it ruined his own life, but also consumed his master's life, as well.
A reoccurring theme in Shelley’s texts, especially in her body of short stories, is the role that people play in crafting history. In "The Mortal Immortal", it is specifically the way that people are able to manipulate their own history, and by extension, their legacy. Winzy is writing his story not only to serve as a warning or a moral tale, but also because he admits to having “a miserable vanity” and an intense desire to make sure that he leaves a name for himself, if he is indeed able to die (230). Winzy’s three centuries on Earth would not only be a waste of time because he seemed to do very little of merit or interest, but most importantly, because no future generations would know that he was able to live for a lifetime previously thought to be impossible. Winzy’s need for his name to “be recorded as one of the most famous among the songs of men” is also highly selfish, as he seems to be taking glory for doing nothing but simply living, and in doing so, neither credits or even mentions Agrippa as the man who created the elixir which gave Winzy such an extended life (230). His vanity echoes the speeches of Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s most famous novel of the same name; in particular, the scene where Captain Walton’s ship is trapped in the arctic. Frankenstein urges the men on the ship to seek glory, for they will be “hailed as the benefactors of your species” and to have their “name adored” (Frankenstein 170). Both Winzy and Frankenstein are in complete control of the way that their life is recorded, and both are able to decide how they wish to present themselves and those around them, leading to a biased history to be consumed as fact.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan J. Wolfson. Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. "The Mortal Immortal: A Tale" 1833. Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories. Ed. Charles E. Robinson. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 219-230. Print.
Suggested Further Reading
Godwin, William. St. Leon; a Tale of the Sixteenth Century. New York: Arno, 1972. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman " 1826/1863. Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories. Ed. Charles E. Robinson. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 43-50. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. "Valerius: The Reanimated Roman " 1819. Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories. Ed. Charles E. Robinson. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 332-344. Print.