Analysis Of How Mary Shelley Conveys Her Criticism Of Contemporary Society In Frankenstein
In this novel, Shelley’s fear of science and what was once known as ‘modern’ society is prevalent throughout her work, most notably throughout the Creature’s account, wherein the structure of the Creature’s psyche is formed and molded, much like that of a infant. The semi-autobiographical novel takes a stance of highlighting the injustices of gender roles, financial hierarchy and physical appearance as a working organ of social prejudice; one could argue the continuation of the workings of her late mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. With that in mind, Mary strives to include the subjugation of women in the novel, by denying the female characters physical roles in speech, and are only mentioned through the letters of their male recipients.
In a society that was becoming more and more distanced from men and women, rich and poor, a malfunction that was being reinforced by the nearing industrialisation, and in retrospect the distancing of oneself from not just the natural world, but the nudity of human nature itself. Although Frankenstein was written almost two hundred years ago, one of the reasons why Frankenstein is such a transcendent piece of literature is because the critiques that Shelley presents of what was once her ‘modern’ society still affect our very own ‘modern’ society to this day. The ethics of creating life unnaturally through artificial means are still an issue today, but are much more entangled in the ethics of artificial intelligence, bringing about the question whether what we create will soon begin to control us in return. However, one could argue that Frankenstein eventually comes down to two subsets of social criticism, namely feminist and socio-political criticism. Generally during the Romantic Period, the depiction of women became more, what the modern reader would interpret as one dimensional and stereo-typical, focusing largely on the physical appearance of the female character, and many male writers strived to include females in their works due to the increase of women literacy rates. Therefore, the features male writers used in their pieces came from the experiences with their mothers. Women were regarded as passive, and rightful property of the husband; in other words, women were seen as sensible beings, with a natural sense for nature and intuition. This can also be seen in Frankenstein, most notably the prominent female character, Elizabeth Lavenza. She’s described as a ‘saintly soul… her smile, her soft voice and the sweet glance of her celestial eyes were ever there to bless and animate us. ’ She is fascinated by ‘the sublime shapes of the mountains; the change of the seasons. ’ She is even given as a present to Victor in his childhood years by his mother, to be his future wife, and is therefore treated like an object by Victor, but also by his mother – ‘I received her as made to a possession of my own… ‘I have a pretty present for my Victor. ’
Whilst Shelley does not criticise this oppression overtly, she manages to subtly hint at other features of the treatment of women. Since female writers struggled against the prejudice of being nothing more than sensible, Shelley carries her own intelligence through to Victor; whilst Victor may be an incredibly well-educated man with an extreme ingenious gift for scientific endeavours, he lacks the natural common sense that a person obtains throughout their life, through the natural struggles of the society that we live in. So whilst Victor achieves his aim to create life, he lacks the common sense to educate the Creature, which leads to the Creature becoming a murderer, and ultimately the downfall of Victor’s whole world. In continuation, the division of gender roles serves to emphasise Shelley’s initial feminist outlook on the novel. In the nineteenth century, there was a strict division of gender roles, taking place in the two separate spheres of domestic work at home represented by women, and public work, demanding intelligence and physical strength represented by men. In Frankenstein, the female figures function as housewives, broodmares, babysitters or servants. Similarly, Elizabeth has no demanding tasks, and is kept as a kind of pet that longs for Victor’s return whenever she is mentioned. In contrast, the males have their own workplace away from home, and are free to pursue any ambition in mind, such as merchantry, science, or explorers. However, many nineteenth century feminists believed, Mary’s own mother included, that this situation divided emotion from intellect, specifically in the female and male spheres. As a consequence of this division, Victor’s egoism and his inability of taking responsibility leads to his lack of empathy, including the separation from nature, and his family – ‘but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature. ’ Due to this emotionless state, it is no wonder Victor cannot feel love for his Creature, down to the social conditioning of the Western idea of masculinity.
On the other end of the spectrum, the women fail to perform publicly, due to the death of Justine Moritz, and society’s perception of female offenders, she is unable to defend herself after the death of William. She relies heavily on her emotions to guide her through the trial, and does not recognise the malicious intent that someone could bestow upon her. She never once brings the point that someone could have planted the picture of Caroline on her person, and fails to use her rationalisation, instead choosing emotion. With these two fatal examples, Shelley criticises the segregation of intellectual activity from emotional activity, which begs the reader to question the balance of women in the public sphere, and men in the domestic in order to cease these kinds of extreme outcomes. Alongside these enlightenments, Shelley also omits the female sexuality in Frankenstein. Beginning with the process of the conception of the Creature, Victor attempts to give birth to a humanoid creature, without the use of a female womb. By doing this, he flouts the laws of nature, which will carry serious backlash in his future that leads to his downfall. Traditionally, bearing children is an innate function and prerogative of women. Moreover, Victor decides against creating a female Creature twice, rejecting the Creature’s proposal for a mate, and opting for his first creation to be male. Thus, he intends to create a patriarchal society, even saying, ‘no father could claim the love of his son,’ when he predicts the creation of an all-male race, the idea protruding that women are no longer needed. This is also backed up by the fact that all three narrators of the framed narrative are male. However, if women are omitted during the procreation process, their sexuality is invalid, which is underlined by the lack of female sexuality in the novel as a whole. Victor and Elizabeth consider themselves cousins, Felix and Safie appear in only chaste situations, and Victor’s closest relations are to men, namely Clerval, Walton and the Creature.
Continuously, whilst the denial of female sexuality is present, many judge these relations as homosexual, which further proves this point. As aforementioned, Victor refuses to create a female creature for the Creature, which shows the basic fear of female desire. As he begins his second creation, he becomes increasingly aware of the possibility she could have a will of her own, and could equally deny the Creature as much as the other humans. Victor also fears the desires and fears she could have, that cannot be controlled by the male creature, and furthermore the ability to raise children. This imagination of a ‘race of devils’ terrifies Victor, and again, female sexuality is eliminated as he destroys her unfinished body in the most violent way- ‘trembling with passion I tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged. ’ Thus Victor restores male control over the female creature, who may have threatened male supremacy with her uncontrollable female desires. The utter destruction Victor unleashes on the unfinished female shows the oppression of women, and how scared men were of the female desire to procreate.
One of the most baffling points of the novel is that the Creature that Victor creates is neither classified as a human or as an animal. The ones who perceive him in the novel note him as something that has never been seen before, even the Creature himself stating he is able to ‘live from a much coarser diet,’ and possessing agility and strength that no other man has, declaring himself as first of his species. From the very birth of the Creature, he is seen as evil, even Victor running away from him in disgust at the ‘monster’ he has created, even though he doesn’t know his character traits. This behaviour is firmly believed within the Christian church, that ever since humans ate from the Tree of Knowledge, humans are predestined to go to Hell. However, the Creature thinks that the human mind is innately good, and at the very beginning of his life, before learning to speak, he finds and relates to the beauty of nature, which follows closely the ideas of Rousseau and Condorcet. Thus, the Creature also places himself in the same category as humans; that all are born good, and it is the way we are conditioned that makes us ‘evil. ’ Not until he sees his face for the first time does he realise why others reject him- ‘How I was terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!’ This also connects to the prejudice of physical appearance that Mary continuously highlights. When Elizabeth describes the physical features of the youngest brother, William, he is shown to have dark hair with blue eyes and a ‘celestial presence,’ about him. Therefore, most readers would assume that William is benevolent, and loving, however, when he is confronted by the Creature, he shouts ‘My Papa is a syndic – he is M. Frankenstein – he will punish you. ’ This shows that even the youngest Frankenstein brother has been socially conditioned to recognise the importance of hierarchy, and goes on to call the Creature ‘Hideous monster!’ showing he recognises the positive or negative connotations that come with one’s physical appearance. A concept that adds to this harsh rejection is the physiognomy theory, which was widely spread throughout the eighteenth century stating that the outward appearance is determined by character, a theory that Shelley was notoriously opposed to. Additionally, in Frankenstein, several social classes are represented which constitute the social order. However, as highlighted in the Creature’s account, the Creature does not fit into any social class, as he is called a ‘savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island. ’ Due to the fact that he has been rejected by his father, and everyone else he meets, he does not have any sense of community, or indeed anyone to reflect with, and is excluded from society. The monster becomes deeply hurt and shocked when he becomes aware of his status, and the constant refusals that he faces embitter him.
In consequence, the Creature starts to become multi-dimensional, and we begin to cross the liminal threshold between the Creature’s good side, and his dark. Shelley highlights that it is society that turns him into the ‘monster’ everyone presumes he is, as is sealed by the rejection of the De Lacy family, thus fully excluding him from any social community. Even still, when the Creature was still in his infancy, he dwelled amongst the animals of the natural world, feasting on the food supplied to him by nature; however, in his fit of rage at the rejection of the De Laceys, he begins a fire that destroys the cottage, and the surrounding wildlife, which not only finalises his separation from human society, but ultimately the natural society that once cared for him.
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