Analysis Of The Themes In Frankenstein English Literature Essay

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Cultural, economic, and social trends influence the majority of our lives without much notice or realization. From housing market trends and stock market prices to movies, literature and music, these three key elements form and shape our society, personalities, and opinions. Literature has often been a reflection of cultural, economic, and social influence, once example being Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Frankenstein has abundant references and obvious influences from the time period Shelley wrote this novel, including Gothic fiction, the Romantic Movement, and the Industrial Revolution. The constant theme of this novel is an age old desire for the ultimate power: to be able to create, destroy and control life, or rather, to be a god. It is a tragic science fiction novel that draws the reader in by creating a world of fantasy that promises to quench the thirst for ultimate power and knowledge.

The evidence of Frankenstein's Gothic fiction influence can be found in multiple passages. Characters in Gothic fiction also tend to be more egomaniacal and walk a fine line between hero and villain, such as the madman, Dr. Frankenstein, who is in a constant search of power and knowledge, and the monster itself, which while physically is depicted as an abomination and ungodly creation, is gentle of heart and almost childlike in its actions and thoughts. The overall intent of Gothic fiction is to bring forth extreme emotion, an appreciation for fearlessness, seeking out the extreme thrills of such actions, and the inherent fight or flight reaction to such conditions. It allows readers to feed and experience that sense of fear in a more passive way, separate from reality. This need to separate from the social and economic woes and fears and instead enter a fantasy created by the author that still provides similar social and economic problems and fears, but still allows the reader to be in some form of control while they continued to have fears of the fast progression society was making industrially.

During this time period England was undergoing a drastic changes in its social, economic and cultural views and standards, as rationalism became dominant over religion, the role of women in society changed, and with the added growth and wealth of the industrial age, people became more materialistic. Further, the Enlightenment period generated a large following of people who condemned Catholicism and replaced it with rational thinking. And without the strict religious views of the church, those in literature and the arts began using this new void and delving into the supernatural realm. No longer were stories being written about great poets and romantics who overcame their internal struggles to win the heart of someone dear, but where now filled with fear and horror, monsters and tyrants, villains who no longer emerged immediately as villains but were disguised as heroes. Shelley's time was an age of reason and knowledge, and the belief that with that reason and knowledge was the chance to have control over all aspects of life. The mysticism of God and his powers of creation and death suddenly became a possible reality for the mere human if he could gain enough power and knowledge. The simple seduction of this power easily drew a large following for the genre of Gothic fiction.

Women suffered greatly during the Enlightenment, and then the Protestant Reformation, losing value in society and cultural standing. Throughout history, literature quickly recorded and documented all of man's accomplishments and strife, while women were mere background characters or forgotten completely. With the emergence of Gothic fiction, women authors could voice their frustrations for their place and standing in society and still be accepted socially. Yet, Shelley doesn't give her female characters any type of dynamic or aggressive role in her novel, rather, continues with the passive and sedate roles of women. Shelley keeps to two categories when introducing her female characters into the story. They are either the protective and endearing motherly type, or the innocent, naive child. Even Victor sees his mother as merely a delicate and fragile being that had to rely on a male to protect and care for her, as he states when describing his father's rescue of his mother, "came as a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself to his care" (Shelley, 55).

In typical Gothic fiction style, the reader is given a character who is deemed unworthy of a name and instead is called "monster" and "daemon", yet as the character develops, the line between good and bad is blurred and we glimpse a softer, lonely, confused side of this so called monster. What emerges is a caring, honorable, articulate soul who only wishes to be accepted into the arms of society and be given a chance at life, a family, and happiness. Yet each time he attempts to aid or befriend the humans, he is outcast and attacked, all in the pursuit of love and happiness. "Shall each man...find a wife for his  bosom, and each beast have his mate, and I be alone?" (212). These repeated occurrences begin to weigh on the monster as he questions his own existence and whether he is worthy or not of being a member of society. "Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me," (175). The monster also comes to the realization that the love and kindness he saw in the De Lacy family is not true of all humans, and that evil and suspicion are alive and close, "This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as recompense I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound which shattered the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness which I had entertained but a few moments before gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth. Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind." (Shelley 186).

While the story's characters are flawed and dark and somewhat border a fine line between genius and insanity, there is still a sense of longing and searching by the monster itself for the ultimate reward that all humans search for, love. Yet, Romanticism isn't just about searching and finding love and acceptance, but rather, Romanticism is about breaking free of the restraints of the materialism and excess so many were freely basking in and exploiting dubiously. This period in literature was a time for authors to express themselves creatively and openly, focusing on the emotions of the characters as well as exploring the irrational, the imaginative, and subject rather than the calm, balancing rational thinking of those still reeling from the Enlightenment period. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Romanticism period was seen as "a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism and Neoclassicism. It was a reaction against the Enlightenment…. Emphasizing the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental" (Britannica).

The focus on the subject and characters is evident in Shelley's novel, a key example being Victor and his constant suffering, which he continues to plague himself with rather than readily jumping at the rational, most evident solution and alleviating his and the monster's constant sorrows. The monster seeks love and affection, acceptance and companionship, stating "This passion is detrimental to me, for you do not reflect that you are the cause of its excess" (Shelley 191). As if sensing Victor's indecisiveness, the monster pushes forward, offering Victor a sound agreement, the disappearance of the monster himself, in exchange for this one request, Í swear…..that if you grant my prayers….you shall never behold me again" (193). This lack of rational thinking, the focus on the characters and their emotions and struggles, the dark yet romantic theme strung through the story are clear signs of Gothic fiction, yet there are also constant reminders of the Romanticism period's influence within the story as well. Victor is presented to the reader as a loveable, misguided, intelligent, yet egomaniacal character who is seeking his own sense of belonging and love, hence his creation of the monster. "A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me" (Shelley 101).

During the time of Shelley's novel, Romanticism had entered its second phase and was adhering more towards nationalism, allowing the surroundings and local histories and cultures affect the stories so many authors were producing. This also marked a time of great superstitions and legends began to come from Romania, Transylvania, and Czechoslovakia, all involving the supernatural and the constant struggle between good and evil, man and beast, light and dark. The use of supernatural characters such as the monster, can be seen in this time period as a "new manifestation" of the reader's belief in providence, which has slowly faded and disappeared with the Enlightenment period. God has now been replaced with rational thought, yet to keep from losing any and all ties to another world or life as they had with God, ghosts, witches, monsters, vampires, and werewolves were created to keep some hold on that world. For if there exist demons and the devil, then there must still be a God and heaven out there as well and that keeps hope alive in the people. Robert Geary makes this claim in The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction when he says that, "Providence, secularized out of existence, leaves only unappeasable terror" (16).

However, it isn't a physical struggle that we see the monster facing right away, but his constant internal struggle to seek out acceptance and companionship and fight back against those who are challenging him with pain and sorrow and death. It is rather ironic that the monster is created and made into this hellish figure, born into a world of hate and abhorrence to anything different, and the monster continues to keep a hope alive that there is something more for him in this world and perhaps he need only serve this time as punishment before he can seek out his reward, "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed" (Shelley 146).

The Romanticism influence is also evident when the monster discovers Justine sleeping and we see this other side to him, a softer more human side that allows the reader to almost form a connection with him and feel empathy and sorrow for the creature. Yet even as the creature feels the stirrings of emotions, he has come to a point where he cannot seem to forget the treatment or humiliation he has endured and his mood turns sour and angry again, even in the face of beauty and innocence. "In spite of my malignity, it softened and attracted me. For a few moments I gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips; but presently my rage returned; I remembered that I was forever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow and that she whose resemblance I contemplated would, in regarding me, have changed that air of divine benignity to one expressive of disgust or affright" (Shelley 148). 

It isn't the monster that is the only character to face turmoil and death, loneliness and despair, as Victor, suffering through the death of the child, distracts himself further from reality by reading classics like Percy Shelley (Journal Entries, Longman 939). And through this grief and desperation Victor is able to create life, no necessarily to replace the life long gone from this world, but to have control over life and the power to create life, which is quickly deemed as a monster. Critics have compared Frankenstein's monster to John Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost, as divine law unto God has been broken and punishment must be appropriately delivered. While Satan's motives were based upon evil, greed, and motivated by egoistic ideals, using pride, arrogance, ambition, disobedience against those who have become damned, ironically it isn't the monster who exhibits these same qualities and vices, but Victor Frankenstein himself who allowed his ambition, arrogance and even disobedience against God and nature to create the monster.

The idea of creating and controlling life, essentially playing God, has been seen as a blasphemous action, nonetheless, has not lost its seductive appeal to man. Even in today's culture and society we see great evidence of man's continued struggle to create, clone and control a living organism. In the media are various reports of companies cloning beef in the hopes of providing more food for the hungry and eliminating the constant demand for farms. Movies are also portraying the long thought notion of creating life and being able to have full control over its decisions, abilities, and behavior, as demonstrated in the 2010 movie Splice. Two doctors work almost maniacally to splice DNA and genes to create the perfect helpful creature, only to discover they have made a mistake and instead created a whole new breed of something with humanoid characteristics. The creature tries to learn and adapt herself to those around her and in her confusion and desire to be loved and accepted she is hurt and mistreated until those who created her turn her into the very monster they feared all along.

Another viewpoint upon Shelley's novel is that of German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, whose central belief was the idea of life-affirmation or a life where one questions all doctrines that may in fact drain that of life's energies. Nietzsche believed that humans built up a complex system of thought to justify their own prejudices and agendas. Victor uses his determination in science and technology, wishing to further his research and experiments and uses these same excuses to justify his actions. Victor describes his progression to construct this "monster" as "urged forward" by an "almost frantic impulse" rendering his "eyes . . . insensible to the charms of nature (ibid. 33)." These passages reflect the theme of Gothic fiction by demonstrating how far Victor had alienated himself from nature, a "reverse image of nature's reconciliation with her prodigal son, man" (Nietzsche 421).

Victor claims the need to create this creature, the driving force to endure and sacrifice until it is finished, was almost a religious experience, one he was forced to pursue, as a "variety of feelings which bore [him] onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success (Shelley 32)." Victor even maintains the ideology and belief that a "human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility (34)." As Victor discovers "the cause of generation and life " (Shelley 31), he proceeds with his creation, and after several years, confesses that once he is able to step back and look upon his work he is filled with "breathless horror and disgust" (35). Once he sleeps and dreams of his mother and Justine, he is continued to be plagued by death and visions of horror and grief, as he fails even in the dream realm to escape the fragility and sorrow of reality. And it is also here that the evidence of complete "subordination of active to reactive forces reinforces the ideologies of Nietzsche toward modern science as the triumph of reactive forces and nihilistic thought" (Deleuze 44).

Perhaps it is our own mortality that pushes others to seek out an answer for eternal life and power, the idea of holding that kind of knowledge and being able to not only escape death's dark shadow but to ultimately decide when and where one shall depart from this earth. Ponce de Leon searched most of his life for the Fountain of Youth in hopes of stopping or slowing down the aging process which ultimately leads to death. Man has worked diligently to fly to the heavens and stars in hopes of finding something more, perhaps a more advanced race and technology that could aid in longevity and increased life spans. Shelley's novel is no different. Victor faces death and despair, and the up close and personal experience with death has brought about a fear within him so terrifying, he is willing to go to any length to find an answer for immortality. The power and knowledge he gains on this journey only fuels his madness.

Perhaps the appeal in Shelley's novel isn't the paranormal "monster" the doctor created, but the true monster, Victor, who closes himself off to rational thinking and allows his fear and desperation propel him into a world where he is cruel and at times barbaric to his own creation. Instead of being a father to his creation child, he infuses his whole demeanor with bitterness, contempt, hatred and loathing and projects it onto the monster. Victor uses his creation to help ease the ache within him and to hopefully fill the void in his life all of his shortcomings have created for him. Yet the overall effect is the same, no matter the knowledge or power you gain, one can never escape reality and must at some point in life, face the consequences of playing God.

 

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