‘Frankenstein’ was written in the 19th Century – how does the novel reflect some of the issues from this time
Frankenstein was written in an era of great scientific discovery and progress. The novel itself reflects the hopes and fears of those living in these times, and the reality of scientific discoveries and experiments going wrong, “Frankenstein is a warning about a hubristic, overreaching science that unleashes forces it cannot control.” (Ball, 2017) Fundamentally, Frankenstein is a story about creation and what happens when humans overstep.
The period in which Frankenstein was written was a morally controversial time in which reason ruled. The confidence that was previously placed in the traditions of society, had now been replaced by reason, experience and rational ideas. People began to gain confidence in the ability to discover causation, to determine the principles governing nature and began to reject and question traditional authority. The objective of the Enlightenment was, “To understand the natural world and humankind’s place in it solely on the basis of reason and without turning to religious belief” (Lewis 1992) Alike many people at the time, Victor Frankenstein was captivated by discovery and creating something new and never before seen. “So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein-more, far more, will I achieve; treading the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley, 1831) His thirst for knowledge and discovery is key to the time, challenging religion eventually ‘playing God’.
The creature too reflects many of the important characteristics of those living in the era, one of these being the ability to form morals without the influence of God, as people were slowly straying away from Religion and putting more trust into science. The monster learns morals and develops his own set of rules through human nature and personal experience rather than the religious right and wrongs people traditionally followed. While educating himself on morality, he says, “I read of men concerned in public affairs, governing or massacring their species. I felt the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the signification of those terms, relative as they were, as I applied them, to pleasure and pain alone” (Shelley, 1831) Shelley lived as a declared atheist, and believed herself that morals and ethics could and should be learnt through means aside from religious transcripts and the church. The creature gains his wisdom through self development, research and his own experience.
When setting out to write Frankenstein, Shelley aimed to “Speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror.” (Shelley, 2017) This idea is also key to the other great era of the time, the Romantics. Contemporary critics often believe that Shelley criticises the egocentric and antisocial tendencies of Romanticism through Victor. This was a time of great political and ideological upheaval, and provided compelling explorations into the dark side of human nature, born as a reaction to the Enlightenment period. Romanticism celebrated nature, and its juxtaposition of the beautiful and the surreal. A main theme in the book is the power of nature, which is possibly the greatest theme in the Romantic movement.
Using Frankenstein or The Creature analyse how Shelley might make the reader feel sympathetic, unsympathetic or ambivalent towards him.
Shelley continually causes the reader to feel a great sympathy for the Creature. Although he is initially seen and described as a monster, first being defined as ‘gigantic’ and ‘deformed’, his unfortunate appearance is something Shelley lucratively uses to elicit sympathy. The monster himself knows how horrific he looks, and is terrified at his own appearance, “But how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.” (Shelley, 1831) Shelley’s use of language – ‘despondence’ and ‘mortification’ – assist in expressing the horror the monster is facing, drawing further sympathy. His unfortunate appearance causes him to be rejected from society, yet in reality he is not as frighteningly unnatural as he is perceived to be. In fact, initially, he could be seen as far more natural and humane than those who reject him; his creator, the villagers who stone him or the ungrateful peasant who shoots him. This rejection is what later caused him to grow a great bitterness towards his creator and this world; “Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity…you, my creator, abhorred me… shall I not then hate them who abhor me?” (Shelley, 1831) He learns and adapts to the viciousness of human nature and the human society, and his ‘monstrous’ behaviour could be seen as more humane than the creature’s initial nature.
The monster is instinctually compassionate and this is shown throughout in his saving of a young girl from drowning and his various attempts to help the De Lacey family. His longing for companionship comes from his observation of the relationships between the De Lacey family, a longing that would not conventionally be associated with someone deemed as a ‘monster’. This desire contrasts drastically with Victor Frankenstein’s rejection of family, and Shelley uses this juxtaposition to further elicit sympathy for the monster. The ‘monster’ has more compassion and benevolence than his human creator, whom one would generally assume to possess the kind-heartedness a ‘monster’ could not.
The monster’s calm acceptance when Victor threatens to kill him further helps to gain the reader’s sympathy. Instead of reacting aggressively and instinctively as a monster would, he simply reacts with: “I expected this reaction”. (Shelley, 1831) By this point, he has grown so used to Victor’s hatred. The monster possesses the high intelligence and powerful voice which makes himself seem more humane and justified than Victor; “You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you comply I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.” (Shelley, 1831) The monster is attacking his creator for threatening him with death, and his self-taught articulacy, manner and intelligence causes more sympathy from the reader.
Identify and analyse two of the themes used by Shelley in the novel
Mary Shelley uses the novel to represent the never-ending cycle of revenge as it consumes both the monster and Frankenstein. The monster’s revenge stems from his great anguish, a consequence of the unfair rejection and prejudice he faces from society and his creator. Revenge consumes the monster, becoming the only thing he has in his life and his sole purpose: “You can blast my other passions, but revenge remains — revenge, henceforth dearer than light or food! I may die, but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery.'” (Shelley, 1831) The revenge is what truly turns the creature into the monster he resented being regarded as, and his actions assured that he would never be accepted into the human society, something he previously momentously desired. The monster’s revenge and corresponding actions consequently cause Frankenstein’s later desire for revenge, vowing “great and signal revenge on the monster’s cursed head” (Shelley, 1831) after the monster murders his relatives. This great overwhelming desire too becomes the only thing Frankenstein has left, with his family murdered by the creature and his only desire and drive being to kill the one whom caused this loss and resulting pain. Frankenstein makes it his life’s mission to kill the monster, and as a result is sent to the grave during his plight to do so. Revenge destroys both the monster and his creator.
Another key theme in the novel is knowledge and discovery. ‘Frankenstein’ explores whether people know far more than they should, and consequently have too much power. The novel is set at a time of scientific crossroads between the traditional alchemist scientific method and the more contemporary ideas of science. The newer ideas of science were effective in comparison to the previous methods of alchemy, as alchemy is based on misunderstandings. Shelley explores how this makes modern science a danger in comparison to the traditional methods – because it is proven and works – and how hazardous scientific experiment can be when one obsesses over it, such as Frankenstein himself does. “None but those who have experienced them can conceive the enticements of science. In other studies, you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.” (Shelley, 1831) Geographical discovery is another key aspect of this theme, as at this time there was far less knowledge and awareness of the globe and much exploration was yet to commence. Walton is overcome by nature on his exploration mission to find undiscovered territories, the same way nature eventually overcomes Victor in his challenge to play god. Both men are seeking knowledge and discovery but by different means.
Discuss Shelley’s style and some of the techniques used in her writing.
Shelley uses language to assist in effectively conveying her objectives, and she creates the monster to possess extensive vocabulary and eloquence. This comes as a surprise to the reader, as one would expect a ‘monster’ or ‘creature’ to be almost animalistic, however, we are confronted with ‘supreme rhetorician of his own situation’; he controls the oppositions and oxymorons ‘that express the pathos of his existence’ (Brooks, 1979) For example, the use of balance and antithesis in his injunction to Victor: “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which alone I am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous.” (Shelley, 1831) This later persuades Victor to make the monster a companion, his persuasive abilities have a power over Victor.
In comparison to the use of eloquent language, Shelley also uses insufficient and inadequate language. Characters repeatedly assert their inability to express their feelings in language, falling back on such phrases as ‘no one can conceive’ or ‘I cannot describe’ (Shelley, p. 1931) This is a traditional feature in Gothic literature, and this use of inadequate language is used to capture their inner experience. Victor’s nightmare after bringing the monster to life is another feature traditionally associated with gothic literature. Experience is conventionally captured through the description of dreams in Gothic literature.
Shelley uses an embedded narrative in the novel. The story is told from three narratives, the first being Walton’s letters – the frame narrative. Walton is telling his expedition story to his sister through a series of letters, in which he meets Frankenstein. The second narrative, being the main narrative, is told by Frankenstein himself. The final narrative is told by the monster, in which he describes his survival and his encounters. Shelley’s ideas were so complex and important that a normal narrative may have caused these concepts to be lost. This complicated narrative permits the reader to grasp these important ideas – ideas which are vital to understanding the later context. For example, due to hearing Frankenstein’s perspective before the monsters, once we read the monster’s story we are able to comprehend how he has become to intelligent and why he holds so much anguish. Her aims, such as eliciting sympathy for the monster, are also far more effectively pursued using this method as we are able to get varying viewpoints rather than just the one.