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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 644 words.)

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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 regulate the economic shift from a farming-based society to an industrialized society stemmed from a hands-off philosophy of non-governmental interference with private business. This philosophy had profound effects, leading to extremely low wages and terrible working conditions for employees who were prevented by law from unionizing.

Science and Technology

Eventually, the working class protested their conditions with violent measures. Around 1811, a period of unemployment, low wages, and high prices led to the Luddite Movement. This movement encouraged people to sabotage the technology and machinery that took jobs away from workers. Because the new machines produced an unparalleled production rate, competition for jobs was fierce, and employers used the low employment rate against their workers by not providing decent wages or working conditions. In addition to technological advances and new machines such as the steam engine, scientific advancements influenced the Romantic period. The most significant scientist was Erasmus Darwin, a noted physician, poet, and scholar whose ideas concerning biological evolution prefigured those of his more famous grandson, Charles Darwin. Both Mary and Percy were very familiar with his description of biological evolution, which became one of the central topics at the poet Lord Byron's home when Shelley conceived her idea for Frankenstein. Percy and Mary also attended a lecture by Andrew Crosse, a British scientist whose experiments with electricity bore some resemblance to Frankenstein's fascinations. Crosse discussed galvanism, or the study of electricity and its applications. This lecture no doubt fueled Shelley's imagination enough for her to suggest Victor Frankenstein's step-by-step invention of the creature in her novel.

Arctic Exploration

The late 1700s also marked the beginnings of a new era of ocean exploration. England's Royal Academy, which promoted the first voyage to the South seas, appealed to scientists and travelers alike. Explorers eventually wanted to find a trade route through the Arctic that would connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. In 1818, the year that Shelley published Frankenstein, a Scottish explorer named John Ross went searching for the Northwest passage and discovered an eight mile expanse of red-colored snow cliffs overlooking Baffin Bay, between Greenland and Canada. His journey reflected Walton's quest to the North pole and the era of discovery in which Shelley lived.

Social Concerns

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Frankenstein is a product of its time—the early nineteenth century—a world of social, political, scientific, and economic upheaval. On the one hand, the novel emphasizes the importance of the intellect in seeking out the secrets of the universe (rationalism). Yet it also validates the emotions and the importance of individual needs (romanticism).

Aside from its historical interest, why does Frankenstein continue to be so popular, and what does it say to us today? For one thing, at the heart of the novel is a question about science and its relationship to humanity. Does science always act for the good of man, or does it have a dark side? Does man have the right or the power and intellect to act as a creator or God? Mary Shelley's answer seems to be that science and progress are ethically neutral with the capacity to work for either good or evil. Science thus presents humans with the enormous challenge to handle its power responsibly and humanely.

Social Sensitivity

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In a tale of a murderous and revengeful monster, there are, of course, scenes of violence and terror; three murders, an execution and a cottage burned by arson, as well as three more deaths. Like classical Greek dramatists, Shelley to some extent mitigates the horror of these scenes by having the violence take place "offstage." That is, she never directly presents the monster strangling his victims. In each case she describes how the body is found and the sorrow the family members, friends, and community feel at the death. She emphasizes the grief rather than the grisly details of the murder or the horrible condition of the body. In no sense does she linger over gory details. The monster's victims are all innocent. If the monster had killed only his creator for cruelly abandoning him, the reader's judgment of the monster might be less harsh. The impact of the violence is further diminished because Frankenstein is reporting to Walton each murder long after the deed was done.

Compare and Contrast

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  • Early 1800s: After the French Revolution ended, England turned its attention to domestic and economic concerns—particularly to problems resulting from a rapidly growing industrial nation.

    Today: Domestic and economic concerns about employment and education also stem from rapid change, as the business world moves from emphasizing industrial production to a service and information economy.

  • Early 1800s: Scientific advancements, especially Erasmus Darwin's studies in biological evolution, caused individuals to question God's authority and inquire into matters regarding the generation of human life.

    Today: Animal scientists in Scotland successfully tweak the DNA from an adult sheep to clone another individual sheep. The U.S. government bans federal funding of experiments with cloning using human DNA.

  • Early 1800s: Romantic writers experience a literary Renaissance as critical theory affirms the achievements of the great poets of the age. Writers enjoy literary freedom, experimenting with a bold new language and new genres like Gothicism.

    Today: Appreciation of the arts seems to be on the decrease, as most individuals spend their time with television rather than with various art mediums. Funding has been greatly reduced for the National Endowment of the Arts, and even high school music and art classes have had to be cut at many public schools.

  • Early 1800s: Nautical explorations establish trading routes and open up communication to other cultures. Robert Walton's quest to find the North Pole mirrors the adventures of nineteenth-century scientists and explorers alike.

    Today: The continuing exploration of space that seemed so likely after the lunar landing in 1969 has slowed down, as governments can no longer afford to fund large space programs. Projects involving a space station around Earth and a manned mission to Mars are more likely to come from cooperative efforts involving several nations.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading