The Opposition of the Religion of Peace by Mary Shelley
In the early 1800s, tense relationships between Europe and the rest of the world greatly impacted modern world history. In 1803, the newly formed United States nearly doubled its domain after purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France. Soon after, in 1804, Haiti won its independence over France. Finally, the United Kingdom was unable to convincingly defeat the United States in the War of 1812 ( “1800-1899 (A.D.) World History.”). Following these events, many Europeans realized Europe was losing its strong grasp on countries elsewhere in the world. This created a sense of xenophobia among more powerful European countries who wished to maintain their worldwide dominance. The Middle East, and therefore Islam, was one area over which Europeans wished to prove their dominance because there were ongoing conflicts between Eastern European countries and the Ottoman Empire (“Ottoman Wars in Europe.”). Mary Shelley, author of the 1818 novel Frankenstein, was raised during this time when an attitude of European supremacy was common along with a strong disdain for the Middle East and Islam. In her novel, there are multiple examples of anti-Islamic connotations and opinions, each of which affect the general plot and attitudes of main characters.
Mary Shelley’s most obvious example of Islamic racism is the portrayal of the only true Muslim character, the Turkish merchant, as an inhumane and wicked being. The Turkish merchant, who is only called “the Turk” and “the Mahometan” through the novel, is one of just two characters in Frankenstein who remains unnamed by Mary Shelley, the other being the creature. This draws a purposeful comparison between the two. Mary Shelley is intending to point out that, like the creature, the Turk is too barbaric and fiendish to have the dignity and worth associated with having a name. Shelley further develops the Turk into a selfish and base character when he “‘became a traitor to good feeling and honour and had quitted Italy with his daughter…’”, undeterred that he never sufficiently repaid Felix for his benevolent actions (Shelley 89). In the sub-novel of Frankenstein that is the story of the De Laceys, the Turk is unquestionably the evil antagonist who brings about shame to the family and is “‘the cause of their ruin’” (Shelley 86). The Turk’s wicked, egocentric attitude and his inhumane characteristics are intended to represent the entire Islamic population and prove the “underlying assumption…that Muslims, and Turks, are not capable of human kindness” (“Frankenstein Chapters 13-16 Summary and Analysis.”).
Mary Shelley’s formation of the Turkish merchant as a dishonorable character affects the general layout of the novel in a drastic way considering the Turk is an underlying character in the novel. In brief, the fates of the De Laceys and the creature lie within the hands of the Mahometan. If the Turk had been a benevolent and trustworthy character in the novel, then it can be assumed that, like most completely innocent people, the Turk would not have been thrown in jail. In this case, the De Laceys would never have met the Turk, and thus never have been exiled to Germany. As a result, the creature could not have stayed at the cottage with the De Laceys, meaning he would have developed differently. Even on the condition that the De Laceys met the Turk if he was put in jail for simply being for “‘…his religion and wealth…’”, the De Laceys still could have prospered from this association supposing that he was a trustworthy fellow (Shelley 86). On these terms, the merchant could have provided the family with a generous sum of money for their help with his escape, which would have allowed them to live at a place other than their cottage. Again, it is nearly impossible that the creature could have come across the De Laceys if they had not been living at their cottage, and it was their presence that forms the creature into his future self in the rest of the book. Because of the De Laceys, the creature experiences intense “‘love and reverence for [his] protectors…’” (Shelley 86) but is greatly pained after being forcefully rejected by Felix and lives “‘without rest or in enjoyment…’” (Shelley 97). Neither the creature’s interaction with the De Laceys nor his behavior that results from their relationship would have been possible had the Turk not been a cruel man.
Shelley incorporates additional examples of anti-Islamic connotations by distinguishing between the goodness and virtue of Christianity and the inferior, plainly nefarious Islamic actions and beliefs. Like Safie’s father, who represents the Islamic and Middle Eastern culture, Safie’s Christian mother represents the general Christian and European culture. Shelley intends for readers to feel sympathy for Safie’s mother, and therefore the innocence of Christianity, when she is “‘seized and made a slave by the Turks…’” (Shelley 87). This is an act readers are sure to reprimand when they hear of the mother’s grand aspirations for “‘higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit…’” that she is unable to accomplish as a result of the merchant’s egocentric attitude (Shelley 87-88). Her own incapability to reach her desired levels of freedom in life do not stop Safie’s mother from instructing her daughter to strive towards the same goals. Subsequently, the superlative and grand aspirations of Safie’s mother are “‘impressed on the mind of Safie…’” (Shelley 86-87;Shelley 87). It is of no random coincidence that a generally charming and upbeat character in the novel, Safie, acts because of virtuous inspiration she receives from her Christian mother. In a span of just five pages during the creature’s tale, Shelley is able to effectively convey many similar iniquitous Islamic actions while clearly discerning the moral doings of Christians.
If Mary Shelley had only focused on disrespecting Islam instead of also rejoicing in the brilliance of Christianity, the storyline of this novel also would have differed greatly. Without the need to include Christian characters to contrast the Muslims, there would have been no Christian daughter of the Turk. Safie is a key motivator for Felix along his journey to help the Turk flee from prison, an act that Felix might not have been inspired to execute without the promise of a future wife. Even if the Turk had a daughter who was a Muslim, Felix, being a 19th century European without much contact with people of non-European backgrounds, might not have been as enchanted by a Muslim girl. Then, Felix would not have been as inclined to help the Turk get out of jail, possibly resulting in the De Laceys remaining in Paris to live. This instance would be an exact replica of the scenario in which the creature was not able to take refuge at the De Laceys. Consequently, the creature would have developed under different methods and experienced a different pattern of emotional maturity and emotional outbursts. Throughout the novel, the creature often acted because of intense emotion (such as when he burned the cottage because of his “‘state of utter and stupid despair’”), meaning that with a change in the creature’s emotional pattern would come a difference in the creature’s actions (Shelley 99). Without Mary Shelley’s adamant determination to prove her point regarding the differences between the religions, Frankenstein’s plot would not be the same as today’s famed version.
Mary Shelley makes a final attempt at condemning Islam by drawing comparisons between the stage of life the creature and Safie are at when they arrive at the cottage, albeit at separate times. At the time the creature arrives at the cottage, he is at the toddler stage of life. He had learned from simple physical trials, such as touching fire, not long before he created his hovel near the cottage. The creature’s series of physical trials is much like how a regular toddler is told by a guardian figure which of their actions are acceptable and which ones are not acceptable. Even though Safie is chronologically older than the creature is and it is certainly expected of young adults to have matured past the toddler stage, Shelley hints that Safie has not progressed past the small child period of life when “‘[she] tap[s] at the door’” of the cottage (Shelley 82). Safie takes new lessons about history, geography, and the “‘…system of human society…’”, as if everything she learned and was instructed to believe from Islamic culture was of such a low caliber that it was not respected as a true education (Shelley 85). Thus, Safie has to be retaught all basic knowledge so her mind is not filled with the discreditable Islamic teachings. Accordingly, it makes sense that in Arabic, Safie’s name means pure or clean ( “Felix, Safie, and Agatha.”). This represents the need for Safie to purify and clean her mind in order for her to be “rescued from the barbarity of the Arab Islamic world and…[receive] her first lessons of humanization” (Salama). Salama, author of Islam, Orientalism, and Intellectual History: Modernity and the Politics of Exclusion Since Ibn Khaldun, argues that the basis of both the creature’s and Safie’s lack of maturity at the cottage is because of their horrific backgrounds, meaning having an Islamic background is equivalent to a literally monstrous upbringing. Shelley’s boldness to call an Islamic background horrific, and to claim that Islamic culture simply cannot provide a reputable education is a final and significant addition to an already racist novel.
The effect of Shelley’s inclusion of the similar life stages of the creature and Safie can be condensed into the importance of the creature’s exponential acquisition of knowledge while living at the cottage. Without the need to teach Safie historical lessons to make up for her horrendous teachings as a child, the creature would not have been able to obtain “‘a cursory knowledge of history and a view of the several empires at present existing in the world’” (Shelley 84). It is because of these lessons, in which he is appalled by the frequency of human “‘vice and bloodshed’”, that the creature first begins to feel “‘disgust and loathing’” towards humanity (Shelley 84). Later on, Felix advances from the teachings of history to the explanation of basic societal structure, which results in the creature suffering in agony. He realizes that he is of no rank in society and is a solitary with little hope for future connection with other people. These strong, negative reactions that were due to Felix’s teachings were ultimately too powerful for the creature to overcome. He eventually murders multiple humans in an act of vengeance for his misery. The original cause of the creature’s misery, Safie’s lessons, are a main factor in developing the creature’s future wickedness and unsympathetic attitude towards all of mankind.
Mary Shelley is known for being a bold women’s rights activist who fought for mutual respect between the sexes. Her desire for gender equality apparently did not signify a desire for equality of all races and cultures, as Islamic racism is present in her novel Frankenstein. This malevolence appears to stem from an aspiration to shame European competitors, specifically the Islamic culture. Shelley also used the platform of her novel to promote women’s rights, without casting blame upon the European society that she, like other Europeans, deemed superior. By showing the limitations imposed by men on women, Shelley is advocating for greater feminist freedom and respect. Simply put, Shelley’s underlying drive to extend the fight for women’s rights into her novel Frankenstein led her to portray one group as the antagonist who inflicts misery on women. In this case, because of rising European competition and conflicts between Europe and the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Islamic culture was the victim of numerous examples of racism that drastically affect the plot of the novel.
“1800-1899 (A.D.) World History.” Infoplease. Infoplease, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
“Felix, Safie, and Agatha.” Shmoop. Shmoop, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
“Frankenstein Chapters 13-16 Summary and Analysis.” GradeSaver. GradeSaver LLC, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
“Ottoman Wars in Europe.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Feb. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
Salama, Mohammad R. Google Books. Google, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Dover Publications, 1994. Print.
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