Social and historical context
How do Mary Shelley’s descriptions of the setting and her use of language in Chapter 5 create tension and excitement and represent the social and historical context of 19th Century England? Frankenstein is the best-selling and most famous piece of work by Mary Shelley. It was first published anonymously in London in 1818; however Shelley’s name is printed on the cover of the third edition released in 1831. The story is set in 1790’s Europe and begins with a series of letters exchanged between a man named Captain Robert Walton and his sister about Victor Frankenstein’s story shortly after meeting him in the North Pole.
Victor Frankenstein is from a Swiss family and is highly interested in science, how life is formed and how the body works. He becomes obsessed with creating the ‘perfect’ human being. He collects spare body parts from which he conceives his being. He brings it to life by an electrical current yielded from lightening bolts. After all his efforts, anyhow, Victor is extremely horrified when the ‘perfect being’ comes to life – it is a hideous monster.
Victor is so frightened that he runs away, but then bumps into one his old friends, Henry Clerval. Victor falls seriously ill from the conscious knowledge of the huge, ugly mistake he had created and from working on the project incessantly for so many years with little rest; however Henry is there to look after him. The monster also had ran away to seek acceptance from society but he is completely rejected, which causes his loneliness. As a result, the monster decides to scout revenge on his creator for making him so abominable.
On the monster’s return to Geneva, Switzerland, he kills Victor’s younger brother during his rage. As Victor hears of his sibling’s death, he returns to Geneva and runs into the monster. The monster demands that Victor must create a female companion. Victor is obviously sceptical due to the results of his first project but the monster blackmails Victor into doing this by threatening to kill Elizabeth – Victor’s childhood sweetheart. On agreeing, Frankenstein returns to England to begin the task but ceased when he realised that he is only digging a deeper hole for himself and the people close to him. He resolves that the only way around this is to kill the monster. When Victor learns that the monster had killed Henry, he was more determined than ever and he becomes aware that time is short and marries Elizabeth as soon as possible. Sadly, Elizabeth is also murdered by the monster on their wedding night.
While chasing the monster throughout Europe and the North Pole, strong-minded and in desperate hope of saving the world from the monster’s peril, Victor meets Captain Robert Walton whom he recites his traumatic story to. Tragically, shortly after, Frankenstein is killed by the monster. Robert Walton had promised Victor to eliminate the monster if ever the chance but the monster convinced him otherwise. The monster returns to the North Pole never to be seen again.
This novel would have really fascinated the Victorians. The story was written before the medical and technological evolutions in body alterations in science, so the mere concept of building a being from spare body parts was far beyond their understanding. It would also seem fantastic, but not improbable bringing the being to life by electricity from lightning bolts, as it had only just been discovered that lightning is static electricity. Victorians were also very interested in death and life after death and this is shown through all the murders that the monster commits and the use of spare body parts.
There are quite a few reasons why Shelley may have wanted to write a story about a man creating a new human being. One of the main themes in the novel is the conflict between science and religion and the results that can occur when you try to play God. What Shelley is trying to portray is that when you try and play God, things will turn out wrong – in Frankenstein this happens when Victor attempts to build God’s creation through the means of science. This relates to the fact that Shelley sadly had lost children, and how she must have wanted to bring them back to life which may have influenced the idea of creating a being.
Chapter 5 is the point in the novel in which Victor finally gives life to the monster, yet realises how grotesque the creature is. This moment is pivotal because he recognises what a huge mistake he has made in creating the monster in the first place and has spent so much time on such a thing. Victor knows that the monster should be destroyed however, as soon as he has the opportunity to do so, Victor runs away. He then meets up with Henry Clerval and explains what has happened. After all the stress he has been through he falls seriously ill and Henry looks after him. Chapter 5 is an important chapter because it is the chapter where the creature is brought to life, a sort of climax to Victor’s hard work and interest. It is important that this part happens near the beginning of the novel so that all the disasters that are caused by the life of the monster can consume the reader afterwards. Shelley uses many devices to captivate her readers’ imagination. She really captures the dark, creepy theme by using gothic descriptions.
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