Mary Shelley vs. the Forces of Modernism

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was and is a ground-breaking work for many reasons. It was the first work of science fiction as we know it, one of the only works written by a woman that is ranked among the Great Books of history, and a brilliant critique of the intellectual movements of the Enlightenment as well as Romanticism. Shelley was intimately familiar with the leaders of Romanticism; she married Percy Shelley and was well acquainted with Byron. It is then no mistake that Victor Frankenstein is modelled after the Byronic hero, and that his tragic death is essentially meaningless and without redemption. Shelley saw the flaws in the idealization - idolization, perhaps - of a hero who broke boundaries that were better left untouched, and so her work juxtaposes the flaws of the Enlightenment along side the flaws of the Romanticism, in characters that mirror the relationship between the two movements. In short, Frankenstein represents the Enlightenment, and his monster represents Romanticism.

“Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.”  

Frankenstein showed a consistent lack of respect for boundaries throughout the entire book, starting in his childhood and continuing until he died. His mentality, summarized in this quote, was simple: when boundaries are broken, advancements are made. Crossing the line brings knowledge. Exploring intellectual or physical places where no man has gone before benefits the human race. He fully intended to use his experiment of creating life to free humanity from death, saying “I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” However, his creation only brought more pain and suffering into the world, and he failed to discover how to restore life to the dead.

Prior to the Enlightenment, boundaries were seen as fundamentally good. Without lines, the world would be chaos, and western civilizations from the ancient Greeks to the Medieval Europeans believed that everything from nature itself to humanity was inherently ordered. But in the new era, reason, or rationality, replaced the concept of a harmonious relationship between different, distinct worlds, and the boundaries previously separating things known and unknown were destroyed. The idea that there are some things unknowable to human reason was deemed a weak superstition of a dark age to be cast away, and in its place was erected the ideal of human reason. Breaking boundaries would help humanity understand the cosmos, and with knowledge and scientific advancement, they would be able to cure all the ills of the world. Obviously this ideology has not succeeded: for as Frankenstein’s monster wreaked havoc on Frankenstein and his family, the Enlightenment’s monster continues to kill indiscriminately to this day.

“[S]oon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. 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.” 

Frankenstein truly believed that he would be able use his science and his knowledge to have control over life and death, things previously considered divine mysteries. He would follow in the footsteps of those who had gone before him, and he would surpass them - becoming, essentially, a god among men. With science, he would create life. With science, he could defeat death. His knowledge would give him ultimate power of nature itself, and all of its mysteries would be discovered and known.

This was the general attitude of the Enlightenment. No longer did humanity need divine revelation: they had a divine reason, and it made the entire universe knowable to them. Their brand of humanism was rank with arrogance and hubris; man was the measure of all nature, not because they were created in God’s image, but because they had Reason. Knowledge no longer was used to bring humanity closer to God, because humanity could be their own god. Knowledge gave men power over nature and power over men. But although knowledge and science gave humanity power, they were not inherently moral. The philosophers cried that science would bring about a utopia; Frankenstein believed that science could conquer death. But science created the atom bomb, and Frankenstein created a monster.

“I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” 

The monster was created a hideous but spiritually pure being. He instinctively sought after virtue and beauty, and was repulsed by evil and ugliness alike. It was only after multiple encounters with humanity - all of which ending with him being violently assaulted - that he became corrupted, and was almost completely taken over by the evil which he himself loathed. His nature and his impulses were good: it was broken societies that corrupted him, turning him eventually into the monster Frankenstein saw from the start.

Or, at least that is how he himself saw it. Despite the fact that he read two classical books, one of which being Plutarch’s Lives, which would have been strongly influenced by Aristotelian ethics and virtue, he believed that it was outward forces that caused him to behave evilly, and that being in community with another being fundamentally like himself would restore his former, unfallen state. This neatly mirrors the Romantic view of human nature, which was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He proposed that humans were inherently good, and that the further they were from society, the more virtuous they were. This idea of the noble savage proposed that flawed society was the only thing in between humanity’s current condition and utopia; if the social institutions were fixed, then humanity would be good. Virtue was not something to strive for, but a natural state. After all, as Rousseau said, the first impulses of nature were always right.

“I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him.” 

The monster’s first interaction upon entering the world was a microcosm for his entire life. Frankenstein gave him life, then recoiled from him in horror, and abandoned him to the wild. He knew nothing of his creator until long after his initial abandonment, and naturally, his feelings towards Frankenstein were not grateful, but deeply resentful. He had no connection to his creator, no real community of any kind. He was truly alone - the only one of his kind, hated by all the world. The lack of a creator, or father-figure, had a truly immense effect on the monster. He deeply desired to have a relationship with his creator but was entirely cut off from that possibility.

The monster’s relationship with Frankenstein, the flawed god who created him, was like the Romantics’ relationship with the rational Deity of the Enlightenment. Like the monster, they felt that this god had unjustly abandoned them to a cruel and hard fate, and that, through no fault of their own, they were doomed to be corrupted by evil and suffer until death. The blank slate philosophy fueled this bitterness; if humans were by nature good, and only corrupted by outward things, then why were they condemned to suffer? Why had this god created a world where suffering was unavoidable and then stepped away? The Romantics developed this idea further, thirty-odd years after Rousseau’s death, and after the Industrial revolution. They saw the ugliness of cities, the horror of the spreading mechanization, and proposed that nature was the solution. They saw nature as a force much greater than humanity that was beautiful, sublime, and mystical. In a way, their desire for a relationship with the sublimity of God was transferred to nature. As such, the monster came closest to experiencing any kind of sublime joy was while he was in nature. He recognized its beauty, and knew that it was good - just as the Christian God declared it to be. But nature itself was not enough to keep him good.

Frankenstein’s creation of the monster is paralleled with God’s creation of man throughout the book. There is, of course, one big difference: God was perfect, and so when He created man in His own image, he was also perfect. Frankenstein was fallen, and so his creation was even more fallen. If a human created in the image of God Himself fell so far, how much further could a creature created in a broken image fall? If the child of the Enlightenment was so imperfect, what would the child of Romanticism look like? The Enlightenment tried to make Reason god, and it failed; Romanticism tried to make emotion god, and it too failed; so what was there left in a world with no god and no way of knowing the truth? If the sleep of reason produces monsters, what do the monsters produce?