Frankenstein: The Historical Context

Greg Duncan

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an early product of the modern Western world. Written during the Romantic movement of the early 19th century, the book provides insight into issues that are pertinent today. Similar to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, Shelley's Frankenstein concerns individuals' aspirations and what results when those aspirations are attained irresponsibly.

While Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) wrote Frankenstein in 1816 she was living or in contact with both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, the two predominant romantic poets who professed the romantic ideals of the age. One such ideal was the society transformed by the individual. For example, the British writer Thomas Carlyle wrote of romantic heroes making an impact on the world around them. Also, the concepts of uniqueness and self-realization were born in this era. Authors were writing about individuals' feelings and emotions regarding their daily struggles.

What is unique about Frankenstein is that it represents and almost foreshadows the romantic disillusionment with the established order. After the French Revolution, liberalism and nationalism were at all time highs. But with the response by the monarchies (e.g., the wars of 1848), romantic ideals were spurned. The effect this had was an increase in disillusionment among romantics. The possibility of a society transformed by individuals seemed less believable. Mary Godwin suffered from this disillusionment, but for different reasons. In his essay on Frankenstein, George Levine discusses the dream Godwin had which inspired the book: "The dreams emerge from the complex experiences that placed young Mary Shelley, both personally and intellectually, at a point of crisis in our modern culture, where idealism, faith in human perfectibility, and revolutionary energy were counterbalanced by the moral egotism of her radical father, the potential infidelity of her husband, the cynical diabolism of Byron, the felt reality of her own pregnancy, and a great deal more" (Levine 4). The overwhelming reality of Godwin's life was similar to the harsh reality going on in Europe's political events.

In Forbidden Knowledge by Roger 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 of men who were intent upon achieving glory through their genius. Lord Byron was one such individual. "Surrounded by illegitimate births and infant deaths, they subsisted on high ideals to remake the world through liberation and revolution" (Shattuck 84). It was the hollowness and vanity of these high ideals that Mary Godwin was reacting to when she wrote Frankenstein.

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is a doctor who seems discontent and achieves satisfaction by exploring the supernatural realm. The creation of his monster comes about because of his unchecked intellectual ambition: he had 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 be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow" (Shelley 53). Here Shelley is describing the tragedy that accompanies ambitious aspirations. In this sense, she is commenting on the romantic sentiment of her times.

Among the seven themes in Frankenstein that Levine discusses is that of the "overreacher." Sparked by the French Revolution, intellectuals believed in "divine creative activity" (Levine 9). Dr. Frankenstein also subscribes to this lofty belief. He states, "The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine" (Shelley 36). Yet as soon as he achieves his goal of creating life, he rejects all responsibility and his life becomes a living hell. Through this example, Mary Shelley is pointing out the dangers of "overreaching." Part of the tragedy Shelley describes is how Frankenstein spends much of his time running away from his monster. This results in the monster murdering members of Frankenstein's family. The neglect of responsibility shows that Frankenstein was not ready for the results of his ambition. Instead, his lofty ideals become less heroic and more cowardly. But why did he reject his creation?

In a lengthy essay, Rhonda Ray Kercsmar cites Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic theories to explain Frankenstein's response to the monster. According to Kercsmar, there is a fragmentation of consciousness that influences the monster. The fragmentation is what drives the being to seek a unity or completeness by finding his "lost Other." In telling about the monster's desire to reunite with its Other (Dr. Frankenstein), Shelley is describing a 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 away from his creation. Kerscmar states, "The plot to Frankenstein is 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 of creating life, Frankenstein is pursued by his creation. His desire to transcend accepted knowledge is met by the monster's desire to seek its lost Other.

The resulting saga produced by Shelley exemplifies themes that were born from the romantic era. Along with the liberation of European revolutions came high ideals and a strong belief in man's influence over his environment. With the perspective of Shelley's novel however, the reader can see the harsh reality that takes hold of such ideals. In the case of Frankenstein, his aspiration for supernatural powers and knowledge created a monster who tormented him until the day he died. He sought a fame greater than his nature would allow and, while his monster knew nothing but a desire to be accepted and reunited with his creator, Frankenstein's own "overreaching" ambition was met with disillusionment.

Works Cited

Kerscmar, Rhonda Ray. "Displaced Apocalypse 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's Novel. 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.

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