The Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement emphasized different relationships between man and the world. In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment stressed the importance of using reason to understand every aspect of the world and humanity’s place in it. The Romantic Movement, largely a reaction to the thoroughgoing rationalism characteristic of the Enlightenment, embraced the mysteries of the natural world and did not seek to impinge on the power of nature. Candide (1759) is a work synonymous with Enlightenment rationalism; it attacks philosophical optimism, the position that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Like Candide, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) embodies many of the ideas celebrated by Romantic writers.
Though the two texts in many ways represent the intellectual and cultural movements of which each is a part, the depiction of each of the title characters is actually indicative of impulses that run counter to the prevailing attitudes of their respective movements. Voltaire presents Candide as a character who is wholly unfamiliar with the world. Everything he learns about the world is taught to him. Dr. Pangloss instills in Candide a Leibnizian philosophical optimism that ultimately rejects the experience of the world. In a period when rational investigation and empiricism, both of which require the active participation of an individual, a character like Candide who is essentially told how to interpret the world refuses to use his rational faculty, instead blindly trusting what his teacher tells him. Candide lacks the investigative spirit characteristic of the Enlightenment.
Victor Frankenstein, like Candide, embraces a perspective concerning the natural world which does not coincide with the dominant ideas of the Romantic Movement. In Frankenstein, the title character, while acknowledging the mysteries and awesome power of the natural world, refuses to adopt a passive appreciation of nature. Instead, Victor actively seeks to pursue knowledge of the most fundamental of nature’s mysteries: the mystery of life. Victor’s desire to reanimate dead tissue results in his essentially playing God.
Both Voltaire and Mary Shelley present deeply flawed characters, and they really express the same point. Candide and Victor Frankenstein serve as warnings for the reader. In an age when it was man’s duty to aspire to knowledge of the natural world, those who do not do so will encounter great misfortune. Conversely, those who aspire to too much in an age that seeks to preserve mystery also tend to meet with misfortune.