Author: Mary Shelley
Date Read: Mar 2000
Frankenstein and Revolution
by Blake Taylor
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, a romantic novel, at a time when the world was amid the turmoil of change and progress. Frankenstein reflects fear of the scientific revolution and symbolizes many aspects of the revolutionary spirit of the era.
Mary Shelley was born in London to parents who had both written various pieces of literature. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died ten days after giving birth to Shelley, was one of the first women feminist writers. Shelley?s father, William Godwin, wrote many political articles and advocated many revolutionary ideas. Shelley was largely educated by herself and also by her father?s intellectual circle, reading both her parents? and their friends? works many times and even alluding to them when she wrote Frankenstein. At age sixteen Mary ran off with Percy Shelley to Switzerland and they married in 1816. That year Lord Byron challenged Mary to write a ghost story, and thus Frankenstein began in the summer of 1816. (Liukkonen).
Frankenstein centers around the life of Victor Frankenstein, who was raised in Geneva by wealthy parents. When he is old enough and after his mother dies, Victor leaves his home to study in Ingolstadt, Germany. He had taken interest in ancient writings of alchemists and many out of date scientists and was criticized by a professor for doing so; nevertheless, he continues to take interest in the related fields of medicine, anatomy, and natural philosophy, rising to the top of his class in those subjects. His interests and studies lead him to discover the secret to creating life and he becomes fixated on the project of making a creature similar to a human being. Victor later states, ?No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world? (Shelley 58). Victor frequents graveyards and slaughter-houses to obtain materials for his project; ?often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion? (59).
After working on the creature for two years, Frankenstein finally infuses life into it. After doing so he is horrified at what he has created and immediately flees the room. Frankenstein?s creature becomes a plague to him. He constantly suffers depression and his life is ruined as he is overwhelmed by despair ? both at the thought of his creation and the murders which it eventually inflicts.
When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the scientific revolution had already changed the face of Europe and was beginning to fuel the industrial revolution. In the story, Victor combined both ancient sciences, like the writings of Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, with the new sciences such as chemistry and anatomy, which had been pioneered by men like Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey. Victor exclaimed, ?None but those who have experienced them can conceive of 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? (55). With this statement, Shelley shows some of the feeling of contempt for science because it delved into the unknown and often changed basic beliefs held in the world.
Frankenstein also reflects the industrial revolution?s effect on Europe, primarily the working class?s appeals for suffrage and other rights. The industrial revolution spawned the creation of large factories with wealthy owners and a poor working class. In the 1780?s, for example, steam machines were set up to make yarn and by 1800 factories could make cloth. In 1820 textiles were the top industry in Britain. However, these advances in technology also led to a working class with long hours and very low wages. Women were paid half wage and children that worked were paid a quarter wage. This led to the development of labor unions and working class demands for voting rights and a less demanding labor environment.
Similarly, in Frankenstein the creation demanded rights from Victor. After killing Victor?s nephew, the creation approaches Victor and demands that he make a creation equally hideous that will not abhor him but rather accept him and give him asylum in a world where everyone is repulsed by him. The creature promises that he will retreat to the ?vast wilds of South America? (129) if Victor meets his demands. Victor agrees but stalls for some time. Meanwhile the creature visits him on occasion and demands that he hastens to fulfill his promise. When Victor?s new creation is almost complete he regrets having made it and destroys it. This sends the creature into a fury during which he seeks revenge by murdering Victor?s closest friend followed by his bride. Thus the creature?s demand for rights mirror the demands for rights by the poor class during the industrial revolution.
Parallel to the Industrial Revolution, Frankenstein also symbolizes the revolutionary spirit of France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Beginning in June 1789, France had several revolutions. Some of them were extremely bloody, such as the September Massacres following the second revolution. Others were simply transitions to a new form of government. Just as the revolutions in France kept reemerging, the creature kept reappearing in Victor?s life. Sometimes, like when he made his proposal to Victor, he was peaceful. Other times, like when he killed Victor?s bride on their wedding night, he left a trail of blood.
Through the use of symbolism and various metaphors, Mary Shelley?s Frankenstein gives us great insight into the revolutionary spirit of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, showing us the contempt that some people had for the new changes and the results that revolution brought.
Liukkonen, Petri. ?Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.? 2003. November 4, 2004 .
Shelley, Mary. Smith, Johanna M. ed. Frankenstein. Second edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin?s, 2000.
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