The Industrial Revolution was the cause of a great time of change, also referred to in literary circles as the Victorian period. The comfortable old social and cultural norms were being challenged in ways that had never before been experienced as new technology in the form of machines and new social structures in the form of growing cities emerged as driving forces in many people’s everyday lives. “By the beginning of the Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution, as this shift was called, had created profound economic and social changes, including a mass migration of workers to industrial towns, where they lived in new urban slums” (“The Victorian Age”, 2007). The rising middle class began breaking down the old class structure that had formed the backbone of European society for so much of its history just as advances in technology and machinery touched off a new debate regarding the existence of the soul and the nature of God. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution touched off a new debate as well regarding the veracity of the Bible itself. With the availability of new jobs in the cities, traditional women’s roles were also being challenged as more and more young women sought better futures for themselves within the factory setting. The public was becoming more and more involved in the debates being waged, particularly as newspapers and other periodicals became more prevalent with the introduction of the printing press, introducing and maintaining widespread discourse in the political and social issues of the day.
“The Victorian novel, with its emphasis on the realistic portrayal of social life, represented many Victorian issues in the stories of its characters” (“The Victorian Age”, 2007).
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explores many of these issues of enlightenment, eventually seeming to conclude that enlightenment was not the positive motion it was assumed to be.
Victor Frankenstein suffers from a serious lack of foresight or heedfulness in his endeavors. Goodson (1996) suggests that perhaps this was the result of Victor’s inner desolation and search for fulfillment and enlightenment.
While he was creating his creature, he could only envision something beautiful even though his instructors had warned him of the unnatural teachings of those ‘pseudo-scientists’ he had admired in his earlier years. “The ancient teachers of this science,’ said he [Frankenstein’s first professor], ‘promised impossibilities, and performed nothing.
The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera” (Shelley, 1993: 40). He purposefully and intentionally turned his back on the natural world as a means of concentrating on discovering the secret of bringing life to inanimate material, a process in which he was “forced to spend days and night in vaults and charnel-houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings” (Shelley, 1993: 45) while “my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature” (Shelley, 1993: 49). Thus, Shelley is seen to structure her novel around some of the more concerning features of her period, primarily the emergence of the factory and the machines that were replacing human workers in what was becoming a frightening question regarding the worth of a human. Despite the few warnings he’d received and the obvious challenge to the natural order of things, Frankenstein continued his search for deep knowledge, continued to work on the creature he had started, continued to envision it as a beautiful thing that would give all homage to him and remained unable to foresee the true nature of what he was doing until it was too late and the living monster stood facing him in all its horrendous grotesqueness.
Shelley’s protagonist makes a bid for knowledge beyond that of the ‘modern man’ when he attempts to create life on his terms, seeking enlightenment as it was then defined.
“Victor Frankenstein, the ‘modern Prometheus’ seeks to attain the knowledge of the Gods, to enter the sphere of the creator rather than the created” (Bushi, 2002). This is in keeping with the signs of the times in which men continued to work on new designs for machines that were intended to replace the hands and minds of human workers within the factories. Like these men who created machines that performed more uniform work at faster rates for less expenditure, Frankenstein envisioned himself creating a better human than the one created by God, presuming he could somehow circumvent the powers of nature established by God to impose the better, stronger and more economic powers of man. “The deification of science as described in Shelley’s work depends upon the defiance of God. Victor is at first charmed by natural science because of the grand dreams of its masters in seeking power and immortality” (Bushi, 2002).
In his pursuit of knowledge, Frankenstein can completely push aside any of the compunctions against his actions that normal men may face, braving the worms and other decaying matter of the charnel houses to develop his messy workshop in which he pieces together his oversized creation using terms that are as applicable to the feminine role of procreation as well as the mechanic’s role of machination. This, too, is consistent with the times. “The comment that seems evident in Frankenstein is that God has abandoned Man; the progression of history sees Man abandon God in the Victorian era” (Bushi, 2002). This was the process of enlightenment and, because of its inherent separation from God, is shown to have failure as its hallmark and trading card. In the end, of course, the creation of the monster leads to chaos and the ruin of Frankenstein’s entire family, beginning with the most innocent. Frankenstein’s search for the knowledge of the gods has led only to the ruin of his soul.
The creature, the product of the enlightenment, is unable to exist within the world in which he has been released because he is neither male nor female existing in a world in a world unprepared to accept him as he is. Yousef (2002) suggests a great part of the problems faced by the monster stemmed from his unenlightened status based upon his appearance and upon his enlightened status based upon his understanding of continued rejection. He is the only one of his kind and quickly comes to the realization that without a balancing influence, there is no means by which he will be able to find peace: “You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being” (Shelley, 2004: 195). He has learned the necessity of the balancing influence of family, which is brought by the natural order of the family, consisting of a man and a woman, by watching the De Lacy family after having been abandoned by his creator at the university and having struggled through the wilderness in ignorance. Within the greater society, the creature has even less chance of being heard than the female, as is proven when he attempts to converse with the blind De Lacy father yet is silenced by the screams of the De Lacy children upon their early arrival home. The creature of Frankenstein is a symbol of his mere existence. As the technologically produced, free-thinking, and self-aware being that he is, he represents the concept of man’s science taking over the reproductive powers of women, supplanting the natural role, and removing the feminine from the equation altogether. As a symbol of enlightenment, he illustrates that man knows not what he does. This produces horrific results both physically and psychologically that quickly escalate much further out of control than could have been originally imagined.
Throughout the novel, technology is shown to be man’s attempt to harness the female and the natural in ever tighter constraints even while society seemed to be embracing the uncontrolled experiment of enlightenment that was sweeping the developed nations at this time. Through characters such as Justine, Shelley tried to indicate how women were effectively silenced for no other reason than they were women while technology, in the symbol of the monster, was able to wander free and create mischief at will.
Frankenstein’s exploration into the arcane knowledge and pursuit of enlightenment is seen to destroy his soul, his family, and his science even though he succeeds in bringing about life not directly created by God. The creature becomes not only man’s attempts to supplant and destroy nature but also the object lesson of the evils of such attempts as the balance of nature is upset. In the end, Victor argues in favor of the natural order of things, urging his fellow man not to make the same disastrous mistakes he’s made in his attempts to attain the ultimate enlightenment.
Bushi, Ruth. “The Author is Become a Creator-God: The Deification of Creativity in Relation to Frankenstein.” Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. (2002). Web.
Goodson, A.C. “Frankenstein in the Age of Prozac.” Literature and Medicine. Vol. 15, N. 1, (Spring 1996): 16-32.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993.
“(The) Victorian Age.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007.
Yousef, Nancy. “The Monster in a Dark Room: Frankenstein, Feminism and Philosophy.” Modern Language Quarterly. Vol. 63, N. 2, (2002): 197-226.