The Historical Context of Frankenstein
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel entitled “Frankenstein” depicts the life of a man as he tries to unleash the meaning and essence of existence. Victor Frankenstein is the main character in the story. He describes his struggle of finding the truth behind the physical world. In the beginning, Victor is excited, but after he creates his wild creature, he obtains physical, emotional, and psychological threats. Throughout the piece, the author relates the story to the situation of the society during 19th century. She creates a picture of the civilization wherein luxury, wealth, government, laws, and enlightenment are depicted. That is why it is interesting to discuss the historical context of the story based on Shelly’s perspective during 18th century. Therefore, Frankenstein encompasses the history of 19th century civilization through the representation of woman, enlightenment, the birth of science, and concept of Marxism.
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The monster himself is a symbolism of birth of science—an acquisition of intellectual power beyond the common learning. “At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification (Shelley 112).” This statement of Victor’s creature signifies his extreme power and knowledge beyond human thoughts. During the period of 19th century science emerged as a profession. It becomes one of the distinct points of learning during the said era. It means that Shelley is aware of the capability of science to create different entities. Science is one of the most significant points of the novel because it establishes the conflict of the story. When the monster perceives his face into the mirror, Shelley conveys the authority of science over human existence because it has the power to create abnormal creatures—beyond expectation.
Aside from the birth of science, Shelley also discusses the representation of women in the society within her novel. “At one time I considered whether I should not declare myself guilty and suffer the penalty of the law, less innocent than poor Justine had been (Shelley 185).” This statement of Victor encompasses his guilt towards Justine. He knows that this woman is not the murder—it is his creature, but because of his weak character, he lets Justine suffer. This idea is a depiction of women status in the society. During the period of 19th century when Shelley writes this novel, women have no voice in their culture. They remain as weak, unprivileged, and servants of men. Using the character of Justine as innocent, weak, poor woman, Victor tends to utilize her to surpass his sins. It happens without the knowledge of Justine because she does not know the situation within her midst. Therefore, Justine’s case is a composition of 19th century history wherein women are objects of the society and not treated as individuals.
Shelley’s novel is also a construction of social enlightenment during 19th century civilization. This is what Fred Randel (2003) believes in his article entitled “The Political Geography of Horror in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” “Victor now resembles the European intellectuals who flirted with or actively promoted radical ideas at home, but were aghast when overseas colonies chose to apply Enlightenment notions of human rights to their own condition (Randel 469).” Randel states that Victor’s character is a signification of social enlightenment through his acts and determination to unleash the secrets of physical life. It means that Victor tries to deconstruct the traditional perspectives of people towards the existence of humans. Shelley uses Victor’s character to encompass the idea of enlightenment towards the birth of science. Since science is also a form of physical and intellectual enlightenment, the novel produces a point of history that talks about the non-traditional structure of civilization.
Lastly, Shelley describes the concept of Marxism in her novel through the structure of Victor’s creature. According to Diana Reese (2006) in her article entitled “A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Inheritance of Human Rights,”
“Victor Frankenstein can hear the justice of the monster’s claim (as an ideal citizen) but cannot grant him the corollary rights of man: the protection of the necessities of his life. In the “series of his being,” as an unfinished citizen, the daemon comes to figure something akin to the “unreal universality” of the rights-bearer in Karl Marx’s analysis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.” (Reese 65)
When the monster states his story, Victor perceives the human thoughts of the monster but his physical appearance hinders him to become real human. The concept of Marxism emerges in this point because the creature is called as the “unfinished citizen” due to his appearance. Therefore, he could not obtain the privileges and rights of human beings. This scenario encompasses the history of the society during 19th century wherein people are not equal due to physical appearance. The civilization of this era is degrading as what Shelley is trying to convey because people perceive the beauty and humanness of a person through physical appearance—not by heart, mind, and soul.
In conclusion, it can be said that Frankenstein depicts the historical context of 19th century in different portions—social class, knowledge, and enlightenment. Shelley unleashes the fact that Frankenstein is not just a simple story of horror, but a narration of social issues during the period of 19th century—the period of revolution, knowledge growth, and social awareness. Therefore, history reflects throughout the novel as it unravels the life beyond the conventional.
Bowerbank, Sylvia. “The Social Order VS The Wretch: Mary Shelley’s Contradictory-Mindedness in Frankenstein.” ELH, 46.3 (1979): 418-431. JSTOR. (24 March 2010). Web.
Gigante, Denise. “Facing the Ugly: The Case of “Frankenstein.” ELH, 67.2 (2000): 565-587. JSTOR (24 March 2010). Web.
Randel, Fred. “The Political Geography of Horror in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”.” ELH, 70.2 (2003): 465-491. JSTOR. (24 March 2010). Web.
Reese, Diana. “A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and the Inheritance of Human Rights.” Representations, 96 (2006): 48-72. JSTOR. (24 March 2010). Web.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Macmillan, 1994. Print.
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