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Frankenstein and Romanticism: Comparative Analysis

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is a 19th-century masterpiece part of the literary canon. In the vast majority of cases, it has been classified as part of the Gothic genre. Moore and Strachan (2010) have pointed out that the Gothic novel is a key Romantic genre that deals with the supernatural and, as Ruston (2007) adds, the character’s psychological response to these supernatural events. Mary Shelley shared in her 1831 introduction to Frankenstein that her intention was to “awaken thrilling horror” by telling the story of an isolated scientist who goes beyond his limits as a mortal and suffers the consequences. Nonetheless, Hindle (1994) considers that Frankenstein is more than just a tale of terror. Despite having the Gothic elements of suspense, sublime landscapes, and supernatural presence, Hindle reasons that classifying Frankenstein as a fully Gothic novel is a mistake. Most scholars have agreed with Hindle on how complicated is to attribute just one genre to this novel. A number of them, such as Kroeber (1988), consider Frankenstein a precursor of the science-fiction novel because it deals with science and the presence of a monster, which will be key elements in the 20th-century science-fiction novels that will follow. On the other hand, there are some critics, such as George Levine, who see this novel as an early work of realism. Levine (1973) argues that Frankenstein consists of a number of techniques and heroic attitudes that are usually located within the realistic genre. However, if there is something in which the majority of them have agreed on, it is the Romantic nature of the novel.

Romanticism can be understood in two different ways: as a historical period from 1785 to 1832; or as a literary movement that spread all over Europe and focused on emotion, nature, and subjectivity (Breen and Noble, 2002). Romanticism in English Literature was born with the poets Wordsworth, Blake, and Coleridge. The second generation of Romantic poets, also referred to as the High Romantics, were Keats, Shelley, and Byron. Even though the poem was the highest Romantic form of expression, there was also a production of fiction, essays, and newspapers. According to Brown (1991), Romantic novelists used to write historical, social and gothic novels, and the two most common narrative forms were the picturesque and the epistolary. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an epistolary novel with three different narrators. Apart from its complex narrative form, the novel has other Romantic elements and devices: a Romantic hero with a Promethean quest, Romantic settings, the dichotomy between emotion and rationality, and the themes of nature and light. As an author writing during Romanticism, Mary Shelley was influenced by the philosophers Locke and Rousseau, as well as by other Romantic poets and contemporaries. During the summer of 1816, she spent some time living in the French Alps in the company of her husband Shelley and Lord Byron: “Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was devour but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communication” (Shelley, 1831 introduction). It seems certain that her novel was heavily influenced by these two poets and by the dilemmas of the time in which it was written.

The first relation between Frankenstein and Romanticism may be found in its subtitle: The Modern Prometheus. As it can be guessed from the subtitle, in this novel Mary Shelley deals with the moral consequences of going beyond the limits of your humanity. During Romanticism, there was a wide spread of the myth of Prometheus. As Hindle (1985) pinpoints, Mary Shelley relied on the two-existent versions of the myth of Prometheus to create her ambitious male protagonists: in the Greek version, Prometheus represents the freedom from the oppressor; whereas, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Prometheus is a creator who inserts life in men with the help of fire. This myth-character was considered the ideal Romantic hero, which is an archetype of character that rejects the social norms and codes, has a feeling of wanderlust and is isolated from the rest of society. The feeling of wanderlust of the Romantic heroes usually involves a quest of self-discovery, which Hindle defines as the Promethean quest. Victor Frankenstein is a Romantic hero whose quest is to discover the ‘secret of life’. In order to achieve his ambitious goal, Victor isolates himself from his family and friends, crosses all bounds and usurps God’s task of creating life. ? The myth of Prometheus is not the only literary work that inspired Mary Shelley’s novel. At the beginning of the novel, the author included these lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which fascinated and inspired many of the works of the Romantic poets:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me mass? Did I solicit thee

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From darkness to promote me?”.

(Milton 1667, 743–45).

The creature is a representation of Adam in Paradise Lost. He never asked to be brought into this cruel world that rejects his existence: “Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed? I know not; despair had not yet taken possession of me; my feelings were those of rage and revenge.” (Shelley 1818, p. 95). However, the main difference between Adam and Frankenstein’s creature is that God created Adam as the personification of perfection, while Victor created the monster by putting together pieces of dead men, his creature is “wretched, helpless, and alone” (Shelley, 1818). As Victor’s monster is not the perfect creation and has been rejected by society, he identifies himself more with the fallen angel, Satan. Baldick (1987, p. 180) expresses it in the following way: “Frankenstein takes part in [a] desecration [of John Milton’s Lost Paradise] by dramatizing Romanticism’s sympathy for the Devil”. There is a point in the novel in which Victor refers to the creature as ‘Devil’, and the creature’s answer is: “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed” (Shelley 1818, p. 68). Lamb (1992) clarifies that the creature’s to Victor calling him ‘devil’ settles the creature’s acceptance of this identity as his own.

Another element that recalls the Romantic tradition is the setting of the novel. As Knellwolf and Goodall (2012) have stated, Mary Shelley did not choose the location of the plot arbitrary. Geneva, which is Victor’s birthplace, used to be a symbol of freedom for a 19th century Europe dominated by monarchies. It was in Geneva where Calvinism was founded and was the philosopher Rousseau was born. Hindle (1985) remarks that Rousseau’s ideas about society and freedom are quite present in Frankenstein, especially his theory about the Noble Savage. The philosopher believed that when humans are born, they are at their rawest and most innocent stage. The Noble Savage embodies the innocence of someone that has not been corrupted by society. Frankenstein’s creature enjoyed this stage of innocence at the beginning, but in the course of the novel, he becomes evil and corrupted because of the cruel way in which society –and especially his creator– treated him. Knellwolf and Goodall (2012) and Hindle (1985) have recognized Ingolstadt as another significant Romantic location. This is a Bavarian town that stood out in the 19th century because of its progressive principles. It was also the place where The Illuminate, a revolutionary society, was founded in the early 1780s. The Illuminate were part of the Enlightenment and believed that it was possible to improve society through the refinement of sensibility and the exercising of scientific research (Knellwolf and Goodall, 2012). It is notably important to remark that the Romantic movement was certainly born as a reaction against its precursor, the Enlightenment. On one hand, the Enlightenment, also called the “Age of Reason”, focused on rationality and the scientific method. As Fay (1998) comments, the followers of this movement maintained that reason was the only way in which people could get to know the natural world and the human self. On the other hand, Romanticism was more interested in the subjectivity and emotions. Fay concludes that with emotion is possible to have a better insight of the individual self. Emotion, also called the passions, was considered a purer path to knowledge of the natural world and to understand the relation that is established between man and nature. Furthermore, this view on emotion and nature supports the Romantic idea that nature and sublime landscapes could have an effect on the mood. Although Mary Shelley was clearly influenced by the Romantics and their idea of the opposition between intellect and emotion, in Frankenstein she introduced the theory of the scientific method, which was praised by the Enlightenment. According to Zakharieva (1996), the introduction of the scientific method to create the monsters makes Frankenstein different and more innovative than other Romantic novels or folks which deal with the creation of artificial beings.

One more aspect which illustrates Romanticism in Frankenstein is the themes of the novel. As it has been mentioned, during the Romantic movement there was a focus on the emotion. As many other Romantic poems and novels, Frankenstein includes very intense and visual descriptions of sublime landscapes. The relation between the themes nature and emotion is quite clear in this novel, Breen and Noble (2002) have supported this by analysing the scene in which Victor walks to Montanvert: “It is a scene terrifically desolate. In a thousand spots the traces of the winter avalanche may be perceived, where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground; some entirely destroyed, others bent, leaning upon the jutting rocks of the mountain, or transversely upon other trees … My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy” (Shelley 1818, p. 66-67). Before this scene, Victor had an encounter with the creature that left him feeling hopeless and desperate. Now, the mere image of the sublime nature fills him with an emotion of joy and changes his mood. There are several references in the novel to nature and the effect it has on the characters, in other occasions nature is used as a mirror to the character’s emotions. There is a constant reference to the comfort that the creature feels when living in the landscapes that humans cannot access, namely, the glaciers. Breen and Noble (2002) have realized that this link between the sublime landscapes and the creature is connected to the Romantic celebration of nature and the creature’s immortality. According to Fay (1998), nature and emotion are not the only Romantic themes presented in the novel. The theme of light plays an important role in Frankenstein. During the Romantic movement, light was a symbol of knowledge, discovery, and life, which directly connects with the coming into life of Frankenstein’s creature. Hindle (1985) remarks that for the Romantic contemporaries, light also represented the medium by which people acquired their aspirations and wants. Mary Shelley establishes light as a symbol from the very beginning; Walton voices the motif of light when he refers to the North Pole as “the country of eternal light” (Shelley 1818, p. 7). When Victor discovers how to create life, his words are: “Until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me – a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple” (Shelley 1818, p. 36). It seems certain that in these passages the motif of light represents discovery and knowledge, even though this is not its only meaning. Mary Shelley also uses the motif of light to symbolise danger and destruction, such as the fragment in which the creature burns himself with a flame or Victor sees lighting destroying a tree.

In conclusion, several of the ideas behind the Romantic literary movement can be identified in Frankenstein. Mary Shelley was part of the movement and enjoyed the company of many Romantic contemporaries that influenced her writing. As Fleck (1967) asserts, she was especially influenced by her husband Percy B. Shelley and his “over-reaching heroes”. Victor Frankenstein represents the ideal Romantic hero whose ambitious quest leads him to his own downfall. By exploring the myth of Prometheus, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Rousseau’s Noble Savage, Mary Shelley deals with the moral consequences of going beyond your limits. Currently, there is an opened debate about Frankenstein and its references to Romantic ideas. Fleck (1967) started a trend that other critics and scholars have decided to follow. He postulated that Mary Shelley’s use of the Romantic devices is in reality not a praising of the movement and its ideas, but a critique to its idealism. It would be interesting for farther research to follow the line started by Fleck and read Frankenstein as an anti-Romantic novel instead of a novel written in the Romantic tradition.

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Frankenstein and Romanticism: Comparative Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 12 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/frankenstein-and-romanticism-comparative-analysis/
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