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The Age of Enlightenment occurred during the 18th century in France, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, with France being the center. The Enlightenment affected the way of thinking culturally, scientifically, and intellectually. The foundation of the Enlightenment was to question and reason; people questioned customs, morals, and traditional ways of thinking. The goal of the Enlightenment was, "To understand the natural world and humankind's place in it solely on the basis of reason and without turning to religious belief" (Lewis 1992). Jean le Rond D'Alembert, co-author of Encyclopedia of Diderot, wrote an illustrious introduction called Preliminary Discourse and it is one of the best introductions to the Enlightenment. The introduction presents the idea that man has the capability, through his own intelligence and wisdom to modify what happens in life. D'Alembert wanted the separation of church and state; he did not want theology to affect the way one thinks. D'Alembert believes that all men are equal in their sensations; the sensations being the source of the mind. The only difference between men D'Alembert believes is one's intellect, not one's social standing or knowledge. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein during the Enlightenment period and this paper serves to correlate how Enlightenment ideas were reflected in her work.
The story of Frankenstein gives us a villain as the hero and a hero as the villain. At the beginning of the novel, we hear the side of Dr. Frankenstein and almost automatically side with him, after all, who would side with a monster? It is not until later when we get to read about the monster and begin to emphasize; what if I were shunned from society and by my creator, what if I was a grotesque monster, what if I was never treated fairly, and what if I could never find a mate.
The ideas of the Enlightenment are obvious in Dr. Victor Frankenstein; he is fascinated with science and discovery. "None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit this is continual food for discovery and wonder" (Shelley 1818). He is also captivated by trying to create something new and never seen before, "So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein-more, far more, will I achieve; treading the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation" (Shelley 1818). Dr. Frankenstein is highly educated but he is still passionate about this specific area of work; creating and achieving the impossible. "I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possible mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind" (Shelley 1818). Dr. Frankenstein's quest for knowledge is apparent but it is not until the end of the novel, after the creature has killed his family that Dr. Frankenstein regrets his decision, "You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you as mine has been" (Shelley 1818).
The creature also reflects the ideas of the Enlightenment, perhaps the most important one being that one can have morals without the influence of God. The creature feels alone and rejected from humanity. "When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, the monster, a blot upon the earth from which all med fled and whom all men disowned?" (Shelley 1818) The monster learns morals from the observation of others and develops his own sense of behavior and set of rules without the knowledge of creation from God or Christianity, the creature looks to Dr. Frankenstein as his creator. Through the observation of the cottagers the monster is able to determine what is right and what is wrong, he explains when he meets with his creator, "I admired virtue and good feelings and loved the gentle manners and amiable qualities of my cottagers, but I was shut out from intercourse with them, except through means which I obtained by stealth, when I was unseen and unknown, and which rather increased than satisfied the desire I had of becoming one among my fellows" (Shelley 1818). Throughout the novel, we see the creature's desire to be accepted by society and his creator, when he speaks of the cottagers he says, "The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition" (Shelley 1818). The creature wants to understand, be accepted, and live among the rest of society; he wants Dr. Frankenstein to accept him but feels that he never will, "I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of you would not believe" (Shelley 1818). The creature goes on to educate himself on humanity without the influence of the church; it is here that he educates himself on the difference between right and wrong with the senses of what is "pleasure and pain." While educating himself on morality, he says, "I read of men concerned in public affairs, governing or massacring their species. I felt the greatest ardor for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the signification of those terms, relative as they were, as I applied them, to pleasure and pain alone" (Shelley 1818). Without ever having read the Bible or learned of God, the creature displays morals and the knowingness of right and wrong by comparing them to what is pleasure and what is pain.
Shelley wants the reader to side with the villain and break the typical shape of determining what constitutes a hero and a villain. Shelley was also a proclaimed atheist and wanted to portray to the reader, though not so subliminally, that knowledge, morals, and ethics could be learned without the church and its teachings, one of the major proclamations of the Enlightenment Age. Shelley's creature learns morality through his sensations and self-education and it is through these sensations that the creature gains his wisdom.