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The influence of Enlightenment and Romanticism on Victor Frankenstein and the novel


The influence of Enlightenment and Romanticism on Victor Frankenstein and the novel is profound. Enlightenment ideals drive Victor's pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement, while Romanticism emphasizes his emotional turmoil and the consequences of unchecked ambition. This duality highlights the conflict between reason and emotion, ultimately shaping the novel's themes and Victor's tragic downfall.

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How do Enlightenment and Romanticism shape Victor Frankenstein's understanding?

Until the completion of his experiment, Victor is very much influenced by and even seems to embody Enlightenment ideals. He describes himself, as a child, as follows:

[I was] more deeply smitten [than Elizabeth] with the thirst for knowledge. . . . While [she] contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearance of things, I delighted in investigating their causes. The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.

Victor is interested in what makes the world work, while his cousin is interested in imagining new worlds during her playtime. Victor wishes to understand, while Elizabeth wishes to create. He is interested in the science of nature, while she is interested in the beauty of it. Once he gets to college, it is no different; his "eager desire to learn" is in full effect, and his pride is engaged by one of his professors, M. Krempe, and he becomes even more driven. For him, "natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly [his] sole occupation."

However, once his experiment has ended, he turns from the science which had once thrilled him. He "had conceived a violent antipathy even to the name of natural philosophy. When [he] was otherwise quite restored to health, the sight of a chemical instrument would renew all the agony of [his] nervous system." It seems that, in view of what he feels to be a failed experiment (his creature was ugly instead of beautiful), Victor's health suffers greatly, and he eventually turns from Enlightenment philosophy to the Romantic. He says,

Study had before secluded me from the intercourse of my fellow creatures and rendered me unsocial, but Clerval called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature and the cheerful faces of children. . . . The present season was indeed divine; the flowers of spring bloomed in the hedges, while those of summer were already in bud.

Victor is now a great deal more interested in people and friendships, in the beauties of nature and humanity, and in the new spring life around him. We see that he has turned from Enlightenment values—science, discovery, experimentation—toward Romantic values, namely, nature, fellow feeling, and beauty. His new distaste for science will continue throughout the remainder of the book.

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How do Enlightenment and Romanticism shape Victor Frankenstein's understanding?

In the book, Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, the profound concepts of Enlightenment and Romanticism are seen in the portrayal of Victor and Frankenstein. In brief summary, Enlightenment was the idealization of the pursuit of knowledge and understanding while Romanticism focused on humanity, nature, and compassion. For both of these characters, the concepts profoundly impacted their understanding.

For Victor, Enlightenment played a crucial role; however, the influence of Romanticism can also be seen. For Victor, he illustrated that his passion for knowledge and learning were to bring fulfillment into his life. Unfortunately, Shelley showed that Enlightenment can leave a person feeling disillusioned, which Victor quickly realizes after reaching his goal of creating the monster (a pinnacle accomplishment according to Enlightenment). On the other hand, after this occurrence, Victor turns more to nature and the simplicity of life to regain happiness.

On the other hand, the creature’s understanding seems to be first shaped by Romanticism and later impacted by Enlightenment. The creature is presented as a Romantic character because he was born as rejected by society. Furthermore, Shelley encourages the audience to feel sympathetic for the creature. However, the creature eventually turns towards more Enlightenment perspectives, especially when he hopes to use knowledge to find a community and acceptance. Unfortunately, Enlightenment does not work for the creature either and he is left even more isolated. As the creature himself states:

I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!

Consequently, Shelley utilized these two characters to illustrate some of the prevailing thoughts about Enlightenment and Romanticism during the time. According to some scholars, these ideas might have been influenced by the people in her life, such as her husband (Percy Shelley) and friends, who were iconic Romanticism leaders.

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How does Frankenstein combine Enlightenment and Romantic philosophies?

One way in which the novel blends and comments on Enlightenment and Romantic philosophies is through its characters. Initially, Victor is very much aligned with the Enlightenment while his childhood friends, Elizabeth Lavenza and Henry Clerval, are much more associated with Romanticism. Victor is interested in discovery, with learning about the natural world and how it works. As a child, Henry writes his own fairy tale and is interested in fictional tales of knights and chivalry while Elizabeth prefers to create her own worlds and stories. Both Henry and Elizabeth are more passionate, but their passions are more short-lived; Victor doesn't burn with same emotion, but his ambitions are of longer duration. When Victor goes to Ingolstadt and turns his attentions toward the creation of a human being, his interest in discovery and experimentation (and personal glory) outstrips even his human nature which he claims "turns with loathing" from his activities (stealing body parts and dissecting creatures). In other words, Victor's association with the Enlightenment and obsession with scientific discovery far outweigh any emotional concerns, relationships, or even professional ethics, and Mary Shelley seems to imply that this sort of science, science without forethought, can be dangerous.

The creature, with whom we seem meant to sympathize (at least, at times), is born a tabula rasa (a blank slate): we seem him testing out his senses, learning to distinguish between them, developing an understanding of his emotions, reveling in nature's sublimity, and developing a moral code of his own (helping the DeLacy family, sympathizing with their sufferings, and so forth). His beginning as a blank slate seems to indicate that Shelley doesn't condemn Enlightenment ideas out of hand (as John Locke, the philosopher who coined the term, was of this movement); she seems to convey that our emotions and logic are of equal importance to our humanity and that, as we see from Victor, if a person's drive for discovery strips them of everything else, it becomes destructive. On the other hand, when the creature allows himself to become totally driven by his emotions, he also becomes destructive and unsympathetic in his maliciousness. Shelley seems to claim that a balance of humanity's emotions and intellect is best: one should not take precedence over the other, and it is to our and humanity's detriment if one does.

Captain Walton, however, seems to be associated with both Enlightenment (his quest to discover the secret of the compass and find the Northwest Passage at, perhaps the cost of his own life) and Romantic values (as a child, he wanted to become a poet, he is affected by nature, and his most significant desire is companionship -- a need he associates with the heart). Hearing Victor's story eventually compels him to give up his quest for discovery (unlike Victor) and protect the lives of his men. He exercises forethought and places the well-being of others before his own desire for personal glory. Though he is deeply frustrated and disappointed, he allows his heart to check his head -- his Enlightened ambitions do not run away with him.

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