Mirroring Culture and Fear in Frankenstein
The story of how and why author Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein is a story within itself. Living as a young woman in 19th century England who experienced a notable amount of pain and loss was heavily reflected in her writing. Each aspect of the groundbreaking and controversial text is a striking characterization of the cultural anxieties and values of the time as well as exaggerated personifications of Shelley’s own experiences. To make meaningful connections between the character of the creature and cultural standards the time, one must dive into the historical context of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the Romantic genre, and the role of science in society. The text itself serves as a cautionary tale warning readers of the dangers of the misuse science and technology, represents the fragmented social and economic hierarchy that impacted the functionality of its society, and its genre of Romanticism brings forth the subject of individuality. Shelley’s Frankenstein confronts cultural movements, stigmas, and values with its commentary through science fiction.
In order to delve into Shelley’s subconscious and conscious motivators for writing about the themes that she did, one must analyze the impact of the greater culture on Shelley as an individual and author. 19th century life in England was defined by a bolstering economic prosperity and rigid class division. The Industrial Revolution shifted the economy and workforce from agriculture based to manufacture based. Not only did this change a multitude of industries, it had a widespread effect on the functionality and culture of communities. Just as agriculturally living was seen as slower paced, modest, and collaborative, living in an industrial boom mechanized society. Mass production and excess goods changed consumer habits and the requirements for the average worker to be hired drastically changed. The factory environment lacked any support of emphasis on individuality which is a key theme of Frankenstein. Piecing together this cultural history gives context on how individualism was portrayed throughout the novel as a reaction to a jarring shift in Shelley’s and her community’s reality.
As factory life became a staple in Europe, Charles Darwin’s scientific exploration on species strongly challenged religiously based Victorian values. Religion and science struggled to coexist in this era and were not the only two aspects of the existing culture that clashed. Things that did not align with the values of Victorian society did not fade out under oppression, rather, a number of counter culture movements surfaced. One of these movements was expressed in the Romantic genre of literature. Just as factory and industrial culture rose to become a keystone of 19th century Europe, individual expression became a primary value of the growing Romantic genre. In a similar way, the challenging of Darwin’s discoveries and the advancement of natural science as a whole resulted in nature being another strong aspect of the genre. Science was something new and contradictory but it was not embraced in the same way as factory production. Since science clashed with something as profoundly eminent as religion, it was seen in some ways as disturbing a natural order. Especially in the case of Frankenstein, science was portrayed to wrongfully allow individuals to play God. Understanding both the reasons why the Romantic genre gained momentum and how science was perceived by society are necessary prefaces to comprehend before exploring the specifics of the text.
The rise of the Romantic genre in itself is seen as a reaction of society not valuing individuality, emotion, art, and nature. As a famed Romantic text, Frankenstein has a myriad of examples of how deeply emotional individuality is and how for some, it is rejected by society. Since individuality was not a celebrated aspect of humanity, those who expressed it often struggled with humiliation and remorse. The rejection of individuality has its consequences and Shelley’s personification of the creature exemplifies the cultural standpoint. The creature is described physically as monstrous early in the text, but does not fully embody monstrosity until it is rejected by Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The creature is denied individuality and companionship which both yield detrimental consequences. Conceptually, individuality can be explored much deeper, however, it is crucial to acknowledge Shelley’s perceived value of individuality to achieve a greater understanding of the overall cultural values. As an author who is significantly influenced by her surroundings, her reactions to social standards can be observed through her work.
Shelley herself is a product of her environment and era, and while the experiences she had were undoubtedly sad, they were not objectively unique. Learning about those experiences is key in understanding how the reality of the culture affected her and in turn affected her writing. The concept of birth is portrayed as a complicated paradox in Frankenstein for good reason. After all, Shelley’s miscarriage was not only a devastating tragedy emotionally, but she nearly bled to death. Medicine was nowhere near as advanced as it is now and that is another effect of the cultural stance on science at the time. These experiences and societal values that impacted her life led to her portrayal of birth in the text to be both creative and destructive. The lens of the book and the genre as a whole suggests modernity lacks purity and simplicity. Both Romantic and gothic literature offer insights on the paradoxes within nature, life, death, and beauty at points of cultural significance. An exploration of Frankenstein, and specifically how Shelley conveys the creature, reveal society’s view on science and medicine in 19th century England.
The characterization of the creature as something profoundly ugly personifies and represents how society fears science. Doctor Victor Frankenstein is largely accused of “playing God” by many scholars and Shelley’s personification of the creature show that there are consequences to those actions. Science was feared and not accepted throughout most of society when conducted irresponsibly because it was considered mysterious and part of the unknown. This fear is demonstrated in Frankenstein since the creature becomes out of control and commits multiple murders while also serving as a living manifestation of fear and the unknown. While the world was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, innovation and creation were undoubtedly seen as valuable to society. The era was increasing prosperity and production for society, however, the creature was not created to improve the quality of life for the masses. He was created out of the curiosity of one individual who played with something that is only supposed to be controlled by God and nature: death. Society’s industrial capabilities were evolving at an alarming rate and giving the population more and more power. It is seen in the text that the more Dr. Frankenstein dove into the exploration of the taboo aspect of science, the more he faced repercussions: “I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge” (Shelley 141). The more the doctor learned and reflected, the more pain he experienced. His exploration of something he should not have been interfering with is depicted to cause him pain. Shelley is implying that by choosing to delve into this dangerous combination of science, life, and death the outcome is internally and externally negative. This exemplifies more than just the scientific values of the time. Rigid class structure only functions if those at the bottom are uneducated and unorganized. If the lower class is convinced that education will always bring sorrow then they will stay uninformed and ignorant.
The ways in which the creature is treated are also a representation of society and structure. He is automatically rejected because of his apparent monstrosity similarly to the lower class Europeans of the time. Dr. Frankenstein does not want any association with the creature which inevitably leads to the monster committing atrocities. At the surface, it appears that the creature is just an angry inhumane aberration, however, it is only when he is denied what most humans need that he acts out in devastating ways. Like the lower class, the creature came into the world capable of love and education just like everyone else. He only becomes a monster as a product of his environment and community. It is not unreasonable for anyone or anything to crave the same companionship that the creature does. There are quite a few examples of the creature’s humanity beyond him teaching himself how to read and write. When he is being treated equally or is not being attacked he expresses empathy. He feels obligated to help a family he is staying with and learning from and even stops taking their food because he can observe it is causing a struggle. The creature’s actions are objectively empathetic, however, Frankenstein’s skewed view of him is monstrous since he has never treated the creature as an equal or with respect. This is reflective of 19th century Europe’s social values since entire groups of people were automatically deduced to being uneducated and classless just because they were born into a lower socioeconomic community. Things such as wealth and property were directly correlated with an individual’s or entire class’s humanity. The creature’s reflection makes this clear: “…I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man… was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?” (Shelley 141). Shelley expertly articulates the reflection of an individual who is being rejected because of his lack of material items. He teaches himself how to read and write but he is still reduced to a monster with no humanity. As society and Frankenstein see him as a monster, he sees himself as a monster and starts to act like one. His uniqueness alienates him.
Shelley’s exploration of Romanticism and gothic literature also reveals that she had an opposing value of her era and culture: individualism. Her portrayal of individuality in the creature is personified in him being alone, having no trust in a human society, and being a product of science. Science at the time was a strong parallel to individuality because in essence it represents developing new and unique way to perceive the world. Frankenstein’s pursuit of science overstepped boundaries in his pursuit to discover the unknown. Both characters portray individuality in their own ways and both experience negative repercussions of said individuality. Frankenstein expresses individuality in his thoughts and actions while the creature is the only being of his kind. Both of them experiencing struggle in response to their expression of self is reflective of the rising era of the Industrial Revolution. The growing culture of factory assembly lines and mass production opposed science and creativity. The creature epitomizes Romanticism as a reaction to the oppression of his and Shelley’s apparent society. Shelley’s portrayal of the creature shows the torture that ensues towards an individual who was different than the rest of society. The creature loathes his own existence and creation: “Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed?” (Shelley 162). Both the creature and Frankenstein loathe themselves after the creature’s creation and individually have powerful internal battles. In some ways, Victor Frankenstein represents a Byronic hero. He is a fascinating character that expresses both Gothic and Romantic elements whose complicated paradoxes and bruting attitude ultimately lead him into a lot of internal and external struggles. Frankenstein denying to name the creature also alludes to his view on the relationship between individuality and humanity. By not giving the creature a name, he inherently loses aspects of individuality. The creature’s realization of his uniqueness is accompanied by his realization of his monstrosity is apparent: “I am an unfortunate and deserted creature, I look around and I have no relation or friend upon earth… I am an outcast in this world forever” (Shelley 159). His awareness of his rejection turns him into a monster. A creation being rejected by a creator did irreparable damage to the creature. Shelley’s portrayal of individuality suggests that not celebrating people’s uniqueness is what is truly destructive.
It is challenging to discern which aspects of Shelley’s writing reflected her own views or commentary on her culture and society. The cultural values of the time were very different than they were now, especially considering the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the value on religion. The rise of the Gothic and Romantic genres support that groups and individuals were reacting to the societal values or lack thereof with these counterculture movements. The creature personified the views of religion and science, individuality, the changing factory based environment, and the social and economic hierarchies that existed. He was an early personification of the fear of science and the dangers that amount as a result of the ignorant and curious man. Readers have questioned for decades why the the creature was not given a name by Frankenstein, and since having a name is a humanizing characteristic, his lack of one supports that Shelley was commenting on the concept of individualism. The creature lacked individuality and was also disrespected and disregarded by society similarly to the poor and working class. The culture of 19th century England had both deeply ingrained and also rapidly changing values. While they coexisted, the change in the culture left some alienated and monstrous. The creature was an amalgamation of the fears of science and rejection while also personifying Shelley’s commentary and criticisms of society.
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