How does the context of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein contribute to greater understanding of the novel?
To begin, the word “context” must be defined in regards to understanding the two main meanings of the word in regards to literary use. First, context refers to the circumstances which form the setting, statements, or ideas within a novel or text. In this regard, one must understand the importance of the setting of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Second, context includes the words or images which precede another word or passage in order to clarify its meaning. In this regard, one must know certain things about the movement of the novel in order to follow what happened, what is happening, and what will happen.
In regards to the first definition of context, one must understand that the novel is both Romantic and Gothic. As for the Romantic aspects of the novel, much of the scenery is highly detailed in regards to the surrounding countryside through the highlighting of nature and the regenerative power of nature. In regards to the Gothic aspects, Shelley includes the context of frozen lands, horrific dreams (the death of Elizabeth in Victor’s arms), and the Creature himself.
As for the use of the second definition, a reader must know how Victor and Walton came to know each other, the history of Victor’s life, the creation of the Creature, and Victor’s pursuit of the creature through the ice fields. Without this knowledge, the story of Victor, his ambition, and the quest to end the Creature’s life would be lost to the reader.
Outside of these things, the study of a novel should always be rooted in the period which it was written in. Given the change in both scientific and industry, one should apply the changes within the period to the novel as well.
Frankenstein was published in London in 1818. This is during the very early stages of the Industrial Revolution.
We live in an age of modern science. For example, I can answer your question from anywhere in the world using the Internet :-) and instantly check the publication date of an old book on-line! We can explain rainbows and lightening and the stars and earthquakes and how babies are made etc etc. We have scientific knowledge and technology.
But imagine London almost 200 years ago. Modern science and industry were very new things. And new things always make people nervous. Science was starting to make startling discoveries and then build machines using these new discoveries. Machines were new things. Big noisy engines and pumps were just starting to appear and provide power for big, dark smoking factories. Cities were starting to become huge belching industrial horrors. These were very scary, noisy almost demonic things that challenged every-bodies way of life.
'The Scientist' was also a new idea. A person who pushes and peers into the unknown for a living, looking for hidden answers and new knowledge. What if they open the door to hell? What if they upset God? Maybe they will create a monster?
Just like today, people were very scared of change and of things they don't understand. A scientist trying to make dead things come to life plugged straight in to people's fear of this weird new "science and industry".
Frankenstein should be understood in the context of The Industrial Revolution and the massive change and uncertainty in brought to peoples' lives.