Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, a romantic novel, at a time when the world was amid the turmoil of change and progress. During this time, man was experiencing a series of industrial breakthroughs that in a sense, threatened a fragile way of life people had become accustomed to. Through the use of Victor Frankenstein, Mary Shelley reflects the fear and anxiety of the scientific revolution and symbolizes many aspects of the revolutionary spirit of the era.
During Victors youth, his need to gain knowledge was unthreatened. As a young man Victor was enamored with the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. Victors fascination with the elixir of life fueled his need for knowledge. However, Victor abruptly lost interest in these studies when he saw what had happened to a tree that had been struck by lightning. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed. (Shelley 32) At this point in time, Victor feared the consequences of unrestrained power.
However, after the death of Victors mother, throwing all ethical considerations out the window, Victors only goal was to give life to an inanimate object. Victor no longer cared about the potential consequences of his actions. This obsession with science is recounted by explaining curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.(Shelley 86)
For two years Victor labored and surrounded himself with the instruments capable of bringing life. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. (Shelley 47). Once the creature was brought to life, Victor realized what he had done and again feared the consequences of unrestrained power.
Mary Shelleys Frankenstein also reflects the industrial revolutions effect on Europe, primarily the working classs appeals for suffrage and other rights (Liukkonen). The industrial revolution spawned the creation of large factories with wealthy owners and a poor working class. In the 1780s, for example, steam machines were set up to make yarn and by 1800 factories could make cloth. In 1820 textiles were the top industry in Britain. However, these advances in industry also led to a working class with long hours and very low wages. Women were paid half wage and children that worked were paid a quarter wage. This led to the development of labor unions and working class demands for voting rights and a less demanding labor environment.
Similarly, in Frankenstein the creation demanded rights from Victor. After killing Victors nephew, the creation approaches Victor and demands that he make a creation equally hideous that will not abhor him but rather accept him and give him asylum in a world where everyone is repulsed by him. The creature promises that he will retreat to the vast wilds of South America (Shelley 129) if Victor meets his demands. Victor agrees but stalls for some time. Meanwhile the creature visits him on occasion and demands that he hastens to fulfill his promise. When Victors new creation is almost complete he regrets having made it and destroys it. This sends the creature into a fury during which he seeks revenge by murdering Victors closest friend Henry Clerval followed by his bride Elizabeth. Thus the creatures demands for rights mirrors the demands for rights by the poor class during the industrial revolution.
Parallel to the Industrial Revolution, Frankenstein also symbolizes the revolutionary spirit of France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. (Smith, Johanna M.) Beginning in June 1789, France had several revolutions. Some of them were extremely bloody, such as the September Massacres following the second revolution. Others were simply transitions to a new form of government. Just as the revolutions in France kept reemerging, the creature kept reappearing in Victors life. Sometimes, like when he made his proposal to Victor, he was peaceful. Other times, like when he killed Victors bride on their wedding night, he left a trail of blood.
Through the use of Victor Frankenstein, Mary Shelleys Frankenstein gives us great insight into the revolutionary spirit of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, showing us the contempt and fear that some people had for the new changes and the results that revolution brought. Now in the twenty-first century, while we no longer fear machines, we are faced with other complicated advances in science. The fear of consequence has kept us in check with topics such as envitro-fertilazation and cloning but for how long? If a strong faith in the scientific world and scientific development continues will the fear of consequence no longer be important?
Liukkonen, Petri. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 2003. November 4, 2004 .
Shelley, Mary. Smith, Johanna M. ed. Frankenstein. Second edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1999.