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Romanticism is a literary movement which is marked by several key components, many of which are observable in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
One element of Romanticism is the belief that imagination is able to lead to a a new and more perfect vision of the world and those who live in it. In this novel, Victor Frankenstein is the idealist who wants to create life from nothing; that is the ultimate ideal and marks victor as a Romantic.
In another sense, Victor's actions demonstrate the Romantic renunciation of science and reason over emotion and nature.
So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.
Victor's Romantic quest for the scientific ideal is paralleled by the monster's quest for an emotional connection both with other human beings and his environment.
Nature also plays a significant role in Romanticism and in this novel. Though it may not seem as prominent here as in other works, nature is a significant backdrop for Frankenstein. Victor does not give the monster life in Switzerland, where the winds are “but…the play of a lively infant”; instead the monster comes to life in the craggy, cold, and barren Orkneys. The consistent contrast between where Victor and his family live and where the monster lives adds to the monster's constant conflict with both man and nature.
While this novel is exemplary of the romantic period in that it uses a highly stylized and dramatized frame, more concerned with the realms of the fantastic than those of the real, the fantastic story becomes an allegory for very real emotions and struggles with which romantic writers were deeply preoccupied.
Even the title, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, is a reference to a Romantic reliance on mythological allusions. Prometheus stole fire from the gods (he reached too far) and was punished for it, just as Victor overreaches by playing God and creating life and is them punished for it.
Two other elements of Romanticism exhibited in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein contribute greatly to the psyche of the main character, Victor Frankenstein.
- Male friendship
Perceived as the greatest of loves, the friendship between two men was exalted by Romantics for its purity of spirit and trustworthiness. Concerned about Victor after the death of his brother William, Henry hurries to Victor to comfort him. Afterwards, Victor remarks,
Excellent friend! how sincerely did you love me, and endeavour to elevate my mind until it was on a level with your own! A selfish pursuit had cramped and narrowed me, until your gentleness and affection warmed and opened my senses.
- The sense of the sublime
The romantic poet William Wordsworth defined the sublime as the "mind [trying] to grasp at something which it approaches but which it is incapable of attaining." This feeling arises from the contemplation of awe-inspiring phenomena of nature that become symbolic of inner spiritual realities.
Often termed a "realm of experience beyond the measurable," the sublime is experienced by Victor Frankenstein when he sojourns with his friend Henry in the Alps. There Victor feels in communion with Nature as he contemplates the vast mountains, the icy glacier wall, and the "solemn silence of this glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature,"
These sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving. They elevated me from all littleness of feeling; and although they did not remove my grief, they subdued and tranquillised it.
This "sublime ecstasy" gives "wings to the soul" of Frankenstein, and allows him to forget the cares of his life.
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