Romanticism In Frankenstein

Please reflect on the elements of Romanticism within Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

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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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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...

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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. 

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Discuss how romanticism is seen in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Victor, especially after the creation of his creature, is especially alive to the sublimity of nature. Walton describes him to his sister, saying,

Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions seem still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery and be overwhelmed by disappointments, yet when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him [...].

The Romantics believed in the positive effects of nature, that it could restore one to one's best self and improve one's spirits. It can produce intense and wonderful feelings that inspire the viewer. Victor is so affected by nature, here as well as throughout the story, and this is one very significant way that we see the tenets of Romanticism appear in the novel. However, this quotation also elevates the individual human being almost to the divine. Romanticism championed the individual's abilities, imagination, powers of creation, genius, emotion, and growth. When Walton describes Victor as though he is some kind of holy spirit or angel, he acknowledges this very Romantic way of viewing the individual.

We see a similar focus on Victor's descriptions of Elizabeth. He tells Walton that, when Elizabeth was a child,

She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home—the sublime shapes of the mountains, the changes of the seasons, tempest and calm, the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of our Alpine summers—she found ample scope for admiration and delight. While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes.

Notice that Elizabeth is very much aligned with Romantic values while Victor seems to be characterized much more by Enlightenment ones. She wants to create while he wants to discover. It is not Elizabeth's values and priorities that jeopardize the lives of her friends and family; instead, it is Victor's that lead to the misery and ruination of so many. In this way, Shelley seems to champion Romantic values over Enlightenment ones: emotion over logic, fellow-feeling and empathy over science.

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What elements of romanticism are found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?

Romantic literature often celebrates nature and places a great emphasis on ideals of individual solitude within nature. Victor Frankenstein retreats into nature when he faces conflict or turmoil, finding solace in the Romantic ideals nature offers. In chapter 6, Victor reflects that "rambling" through nature with his friend Henry restores his health and spirits:

A serene sky and verdant fields filled me with ecstasy. The present season was indeed divine; the flowers of spring bloomed in the hedges, while those of summer were already in bud. I was undisturbed by thoughts which during the preceding year had pressed upon me ...

When Victor learns that William has died, he takes time to pause in the midst of nature on his journey home:

I contemplated the lake: the waters were placid; all around was calm; and the snowy mountains, “the palaces of nature,” were not changed. By degrees the calm and heavenly scene restored me ...

The natural world often offers Victor a place of respite and inspiration; this influence is often found in Romantic literature.

Romantic literature also often idealizes women. Victor considers his mother fairly perfect, reflecting that she was possessed by both "kindness" and "indulgence." Elizabeth, who was selected as a young child to eventually become Victor's wife, is described in ways befitting an angelic being:

The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract ...

Because Elizabeth is so pure and innocent, her death at the creature's hands seems particularly vicious.

Romantic literature also places a heavy emphasis on individuality and nonconformity. The creature's isolation forces him to become self-reliant; his increasingly spiritual revelations after reading Paradise Lost reflect personal growth that stems from a life of isolation. Though the creature is denied the support of his creator, he ultimately attempts to create meaningful relationships—first with the De Lacey family and then by requesting a female companion—and thus demonstrates a capacity for individual thought.

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