Mobility in “The Mortal Immortal” by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
The short story “The Mortal Immortal” depicts a man who was cursed with being immortal, and the tribulations that arose out of never aging when the ones you love do. The text therefore centralizes on the never ending mobility of time of which Winzy is left in, compared to his lover Bertha whose life and time on earth will come to an inevitable end. In addition to this immaterial sense of movement through time, is a physical mobility that both Winzy and Bertha take part in. Shelley describes the difficulties of traveling, the consequences of always being in motion but simultaneously the hardships of staying the same, when time keeps moving past you.
The first indication of mobility Shelley includes is that of “The Wandering Jew” (Shelley “Mortal Immortal” 961), who Winzy compares himself with. “The Wandering Jew” is a medieval Christian figure who was cursed to wander across the earth because he taunted Jesus at the Crucifixion. Shelley motions towards this figure, and to Winzy, who are both cursed to wander aimlessly across the earth, and do not have the option to stay still like everyone else. This forced mobility is how Shelley begins the story, and continues to associate certain mishaps which occur when people are mobile, and thus, “absent”. Winzy, when referring to Cornelius Agrippa (a magician also known for wandering throughout Europe) states “I was absent when this accident took place” (962). Additionally, Winzy describes the frustrations Bertha has when Winzy is away: “We met now, after an absence, and she had been sorely beset while I was away; she complained bitterly” (963). It is not clear if Winzy’s absences were long voyages or not, but Shelley is clearly associating mobility away from home with accidents and turmoil. Does Mary Shelley therefore see mobility as a curse, like that of the Wandering Jew and the traveler Cornelius Agrippa, forced to be in constant movement?
Nonetheless, Mary Shelley goes on to depict mobility as a kind of escape or means of survival. Winzy has to “journey twenty miles, to some place where I was not known” to dispose of his property, and then the couple decide to emigrate: “we will move from this place, and, as you say, among strangers we shall be unsuspected and safe” (968). Evidently, the emigration is a way of the couple finding a better life, and their mobility provides Bertha with hope for the future.
However, the mobility is not without its sacrifices: “We were obliged to make great pecuniary sacrifices – it could not be helped… It was a cruel thing to transport poor Bertha from her native village, and the friends of her youth, to a new country, new language, new customs” (968). Mary Shelley is illustrating the mobility of the Romantic era as a difficult thing to do, with many hardships. Shelley understood travel unlike the ‘romanticized’ way society views it now: as an opportunity not without loss, an escape only when fleeing is necessary and full of difficulties.
The story concludes in a typical Shelley form, with Winzy deciding on an expedition as his only solution to being immortal in a world where time never stops being in motion. To end with a voyage is telling of Shelley’s view on the limitlessness and possibilities of mobility.
Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal” is cited from the Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period