Frankenstein: The Historical Context Greg Duncan
Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinis an early product of the modern Western world. Written duringthe Romantic movement of the early 19th century, the book providesinsight into issues that are pertinent today. Similar to JohannWolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Shelley’s Frankensteinconcerns individuals’ aspirations and what results when thoseaspirations are attained irresponsibly.
While Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin)wrote Frankenstein in 1816 she was living or in contact with bothPercy Shelley and Lord Byron, the two predominant romantic poetswho professed the romantic ideals of the age. One such idealwas the society transformed by the individual. For example, theBritish writer Thomas Carlyle wrote of romantic heroes makingan impact on the world around them. Also, the concepts of uniquenessand self-realization were born in this era. Authors were writingabout individuals’ feelings and emotions regarding their dailystruggles.
What is unique about Frankensteinis that it represents and almost foreshadows the romantic disillusionmentwith the established order. After the French Revolution, liberalismand nationalism were at all time highs. But with the responseby the monarchies (e.g., the wars of 1848), romantic ideals werespurned. The effect this had was an increase in disillusionmentamong romantics. The possibility of a society transformed byindividuals seemed less believable. Mary Godwin suffered fromthis disillusionment, but for different reasons. In his essayon Frankenstein, George Levine discusses the dream Godwinhad which inspired the book: “The dreams emerge from thecomplex experiences that placed young Mary Shelley, both personallyand intellectually, at a point of crisis in our modern culture,where idealism, faith in human perfectibility, and revolutionaryenergy were counterbalanced by the moral egotism of her radicalfather, the potential infidelity of her husband, the cynical diabolismof Byron, the felt reality of her own pregnancy, and a great dealmore” (Levine 4). The overwhelming reality of Godwin’s lifewas similar to the harsh reality going on in Europe’s politicalevents.
In Forbidden Knowledge byRoger Shattuck, Mary Shelley’s background is discussed further. She was swept off her feet by Percy Shelley at the age of seventeen. Without being married she lived in an irregular household ofmen who were intent upon achieving glory through their genius. Lord Byron was one such individual. “Surrounded by illegitimatebirths and infant deaths, they subsisted on high ideals to remakethe world through liberation and revolution” (Shattuck 84). It was the hollowness and vanity of these high ideals that MaryGodwin was reacting to when she wrote Frankenstein.
In the novel, Victor Frankensteinis a doctor who seems discontent and achieves satisfaction byexploring the supernatural realm. The creation of his monstercomes about because of his unchecked intellectual ambition: hehad been striving for something beyond his control. Consequently,his ambition is misled and his life becomes a hollow existence. Frankenstein states, “Learn from me, if not by my precepts,at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge,and how happier the man is who believes his native town to bethe world, than he who aspires to become greater than his naturewill allow” (Shelley 53). Here Shelley is describing thetragedy that accompanies ambitious aspirations. In this sense,she is commenting on the romantic sentiment of her times.
Among the seven themes in Frankensteinthat Levine discusses is that of the “overreacher.” Sparked by the French Revolution, intellectuals believed in “divinecreative activity” (Levine 9). Dr. Frankenstein also subscribesto this lofty belief. He states, “The world was to me asecret which I desired to divine” (Shelley 36). Yet as soonas he achieves his goal of creating life, he rejects all responsibilityand his life becomes a living hell. Through this example, MaryShelley is pointing out the dangers of “overreaching.” Part of the tragedy Shelley describes is how Frankenstein spendsmuch of his time running away from his monster. This resultsin the monster murdering members of Frankenstein’s family. Theneglect of responsibility shows that Frankenstein was not readyfor the results of his ambition. Instead, his lofty ideals becomeless heroic and more cowardly. But why did he reject his creation?
In a lengthy essay, Rhonda Ray Kercsmarcites Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories to explain Frankenstein’sresponse to the monster. According to Kercsmar, there is a fragmentationof consciousness that influences the monster. The fragmentationis what drives the being to seek a unity or completeness by findinghis “lost Other.” In telling about the monster’s desireto reunite with its Other (Dr. Frankenstein), Shelley is describinga central psychological drive that takes place in all human narratives. But, this desire for reunion can never occur according to Lacan. Consequently, Victor Frankenstein is horrified and runs awayfrom his creation. Kerscmar states, “The plot to Frankensteinis structured by the creature’s quest for reunion with his creator/Other,a failed quest that ultimately leads to the destruction of both”(Kercsmar 731). Ironically then, after attaining his goal ofcreating life, Frankenstein is pursued by his creation. His desireto transcend accepted knowledge is met by the monster’s desireto seek its lost Other.
The resulting saga produced by Shelleyexemplifies themes that were born from the romantic era. Alongwith the liberation of European revolutions came high ideals anda strong belief in man’s influence over his environment. Withthe perspective of Shelley’s novel however, the reader can seethe harsh reality that takes hold of such ideals. In the caseof Frankenstein, his aspiration for supernatural powers and knowledgecreated a monster who tormented him until the day he died. Hesought a fame greater than his nature would allow and, while hismonster knew nothing but a desire to be accepted and reunitedwith his creator, Frankenstein’s own “overreaching”ambition was met with disillusionment.
Kerscmar, Rhonda Ray. “DisplacedApocalypse and Eschatological Anxiety in Frankenstein.” South Atlantic Quarterly 95.3 (Summer 1996): 729-747.
Levine, George, and U.C. Knoepflmacher,eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’sNovel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
Shattuck, Roger. Forbidden Knowledge:From Prometheus to Pornography. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1816. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.