Frankenstein Historical and Social Context
by Mary Shelley

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The revival of scholarly interest in Frankenstein has directly paralleled the emergence and development of feminist literary scholarship. On the one hand, Shelley’s novel has perhaps been an obvious subject of study for those who investigate the separate tradition of literature by women. On the other hand, Frankenstein anticipated and provided many of the concerns that feminist scholars would have. It expresses the rage and pain felt by those who are left out, who are not allowed a full place in their own culture.

Mary Shelley tells the reader that she felt some pressure to be a writer: Both her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were celebrated writers, and it was expected that she would continue the tradition. Yet her introduction is full of apologies for her work, and one sees everywhere the marks of difficulties she had being taken seriously. Not the least of these is the preface that was written by Percy Shelley in her voice, in which he acknowledges that the “humble novelist” needs to explain why she might aspire to the heights of great poetry. Frankenstein represents, symbolically, both some of the pressures on a woman writer and her critique of the culture that has created her but sees her as its “monster.”

The female characters in Shelley’s novel do not offer any kind of model response to the failures enacted by the males. Only in the novel’s symbolic vocabulary, in its acts of violence and its sympathies for the most hideous of creatures, do readers find a program for change. This work by a woman in a “feminine” genre—the gothic novel—is complex enough to provide generations of readers and scholars with puzzles to unravel. On the whole, it is not Mary Shelley’s prose that readers have admired; in any case, scholars are not sure how much of it is hers and how much Percy Shelley’s, since he went over it and rewrote many of its sentences. The power of this novel lies in its plot and in its central characters, the monster and his creator. Here is Pygmalion with a vengeance—and written by a woman.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Mary Shelley's Drawing Published by Gale Cengage

The French Revolution and the Rise of Industrialism

Most of the early Romantic waters strongly advocated the French Revolution, which began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, a prison where the French royalty kept political prisoners. The revolution signaled a throwing off of old traditions and customs of the wealthy classes, as the balance of economic power shifted toward the middle class with the rise of industrialism. As textile factories and iron mills increased production with advanced machinery and technology, the working classes grew restive and increasingly alarmed by jobs that seemed insecure because a worker could be replaced by machines. Most of England's literary thinkers welcomed revolution because it represented an opportunity to establish a harmonious social structure. Shelley's father William Godwin, in fact, strongly influenced Romantic writers when he wrote Inquiry Concerning Political Justice because he envisioned a society in which property would be equally distributed. Shelley's mother Mary Wollstonecraft, also an ardent supporter of the revolution, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke's attack on the revolution. She followed two years later with A Vindication of the Rights of Women, supporting equality between the sexes.

The bloody "September Massacres" in which French revolutionaries executed nearly 1200 priests, royalists, aristocrats, and common criminals, occurred in 1792. This event and the "Reign of Terror," during which the revolutionary government imprisoned over 300,000 "suspects," made English sympathizers lose their fervor. With the rise of Napoleon, who was crowned emperor in 1804, England itself was drawn into war against France during this time. After the war ended in 1815, the English turned their attention to economic and social problems plaguing their own country. Much of the reason why England did not...

(The entire section is 1,623 words.)