In which ways does Mary Shelley criticize the Enlightenment in her novel Frankenstein?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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While the writers of the Enlightenment period were focused on leaving the "old ways" behind and turning to a new awakening of mankind in the most intellectual and forward-thinking elements of society. Those enlightened beings disregarded intuition and a confidence with the interaction with nature and the world (to better understand mankind and the world in which he lived), but looked at the world as an experiment, where life could be measured rationally, scientifically, without thought to the human component of society.

...the Enlightenment emerged as a social, philosophical, political, and literary movement that espoused rational thought and methodical observation of the world...leaving behind the dark ignorance and blind belief that characterized the past...[looking] to evaluate and understand life by way of scientific observation and critical reasoning rather than through uncritically accepted religion, tradition, and social conventions.

Mary Shelley was raised in the company of great minds from the time she was very young. She would hide in corners and behind chairs when her father entertained great writers and intellects, some of whom would lead the literary movement of Romanticism. One of these men was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was not only one of the second-generation Romantic writers, but who would also become Mary's husband when she was sixteen.

Subsequently, Mary was greatly influenced by the values of the Romantic writers, particularly Shelley, Lord Byron and John Keats. In her own writing of Frankenstein, Mary provided warnings to those who followed the tenets of Enlightenment by showing a man who had embraced the values of that time (Victor Frankenstein), turning his back on the human element, and pursuing that which was scientific, logical and progressive, only to lose all those he loved and his very life (perhaps his soul?) in playing God and creating life.

Victor Frankenstein believes his work will benefit mankind: he wants to stop disease and put an end to death. This is representative of a disciple of the Enlightenment movement who would believe his work to be ultimately advantageous to society. However, Victor loses sight of the human side of what he does: he creates a creature that he is not prepared to take care of, much like a new parent without any sense of responsibility, and he runs away when the creature, innocent in his creation, looks for guidance and acceptance. When Victor disappears, he acts as if the problem he has created has simply vanished, but it has not: the creature is trying to survive in a society that fears and abhors him, turning the creature into a monster.

In the subsequent days that follow, the poorly prepared Victor further alienates the creature and loses all his loved ones, as he stumbles about trying placate the creature and abide by the laws of mankind and God—steps that come much too late it would seem.

Mary Shelley's tale of Frankenstein is one of warning directed towards those who are too quick to embrace the strictly logical and scientific aspects of this new movement, without remaining aware of the human component—present in all things that are ruled by the hands of mankind.

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