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Mary Shelley's Critique of Romanticism in Frankenstein

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written in 1817, in the midst of the Romantic Era. However, Shelley strayed away from the concepts of Romanticism and wrote Frankenstein as an anti-Romantic work. Four key concepts that Shelley negated in her work included the celebration of nature, the simple life, the idealization of women, and the presence of a one-sided perspective. Furthermore, Mary Shelley’s critique of Romanticism can be applied to the critiques of Marxism, the patriarchy, and racial discrimination.

The era of Romanticism began at the end of the 18th century in Europe and included literature and other art forms as well. Romanticism relied heavily on emotion and feeling, especially in relation to nature. Nature was thought to be a part of humans, or rather something separate, but awe-inspiring. The characters of Romantic pieces often lived modest lives and believed their connection to nature was very important. During the Romantic era, women were expected to be very submissive to their male counterparts. Although the Romantic era was the ideal time to recognize women as equals in society, with the importance of feeling and reflection, writers wrote women just as their society expected them to be. Soon, feminist romantic writers decided to combat the inequality and wrote the women of their novels as independent and defiant of the docile and weak expectations of women. Then, it became common for women to be idealized, or equalized, in Romantic literature. Finally, an aspect of Romanticism spoken of in this essay is the presence of a one-sided perspective in the story. These works were often written from the perspective of the protagonist, never giving the antagonist’s perspective. Although there were other aspects to literature in the Romantic era, these four pieces that Shelley worked against furthered her anti-Romantic style and each holds importance in applying Shelley’s anti-Romanticism to societal critiques.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein expressed social and political suggestions akin to Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx made class distinctions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The purpose of the manifesto was to predict the impending revolution of the working class in Europe, which the bourgeoisie intensely feared. Shelley wrote against aspects of the Romantic style, namely the celebration of a simple life and the connection to nature, to create the metaphor of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the relationship between Frankenstein and his Monster.

Frankenstein is written around a man of the same name, who studied ‘modern philosophy at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. He embarked on a two-year mission to create life in his lab, quickly becoming completely enthralled in his work. Frankenstein built his creation’s body from both human and animal parts. The origins of the body parts were inferred when Frankenstein recounted his tale, saying, ‘The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials…’ (Shelley 34). Once finally finishing his construction of the creature, Frankenstein electrocuted the Monster, bringing it to life. Frankenstein thought each piece of the Monster separately was beautiful, but when together he thought the large being was hideous. He soon realized he did not know what he was creating and feared the being that he brought life to. This dynamic ultimately created a power struggle between the two, both unable to connect as one is a man and the other is an entirely different species. The unnatural creation of the Monster opposed the connection with nature that the era of Romanticism tried to make, in turn creating a dynamic to fit the metaphor of the Marxist analysis of capitalism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Throughout the story, it also became very apparent that Frankenstein was considerably wealthy. He traveled often and never worked for the money he had. For example, while Frankenstein was traveling through the Alps chasing the Monster, he said, ‘I had money with me, and gained the friendship of the villagers by distributing it…’ (Shelley 147). It is inferred from this quote that Frankenstein was wealthy enough to give his money out to strangers in exchange for friendship alone. It was also made known that Frankenstein’s family was very distinguished and respected in Geneva when he said, ‘I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. My ancestors had been for many years counselors and syndics, and my father had filled several public situations with honor and reputation. He was respected by all who knew him for his integrity and indefatigable attention to public business’ (Shelley 18). Frankenstein’s wealth directly opposes the concept from Romanticism that the simple life, sans luxury, should be celebrated. This, in turn, placed Frankenstein in the role of the bourgeoisie, therefore the Monster as the proletariat, in the Marxist critique of capitalism as it is applied to Mary Shelley’s anti-Romantic work.

The construction of the Monster was far from what would be considered ‘natural’. Mary Shelley insinuated that life is nothing more than an electric current, very much unlike those of the Romantic period who strived to notice the connection between humans and nature. The unnatural dynamic that Mary Shelley created between Frankenstein and his Monster reflected the Marxist critique of capitalism. The relationship of Frankenstein and his Monster was very similar to that of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or the upper and working class. Just as Frankenstein created the Monster, the bourgeoisie created the proletariat. The control that each had over their creations ultimately developed into a consistent power struggle that instilled an abundance of fear in both the bourgeoisie and Victor Frankenstein. Neither truly understood the entity that they created, subsequently realizing they were losing control of their respective creations. The bourgeoisie’s fear of being overthrown by the proletariat became personified in Shelley’s work as Frankenstein had the same fear of revolution as the bourgeoisie, seeking to kill the Monster before he could kill any more of Frankenstein’s family and friends.

Mary Shelley’s critique of the Romantic style, namely the celebration of the simple life and connection to nature, aligns with the Marxist critique of capitalism and the problem of class division. Works of the Romantic era sought to celebrate the lives of the working class, thus not addressing and combating the problem of the class divide in Europe at the time. Mary Shelley inadvertently addresses the problem of capitalism by creating Frankenstein, a man with a luxurious life, and his Monster, a grotesque, unnatural being he has created that he wants no responsibility for.

Works considered to be ‘feminist’ are often thought to include a strong female lead. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, although considered to be a feminist novel, strays from the stereotype and is a novel controlled by male characters with just a few subservient females. The females in Frankenstein include Frankenstein’s love interest Elizabeth, Safie, the love interest of Felix De Lacey, and the incomplete construction of the female companion for the Monster. Unlike several feminist pieces of the Romantic era, Shelley does not idealize these women. By writing the strong male leads, Shelley portrays the treatment and perspective of women that men of her time had. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein took on a new perspective of feminist work by choosing not to idealize women, but to purposefully depict women as fragile, expendable, and submissive to men.

The first female character to be introduced is Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s love interest and eventual wife. Elizabeth’s presence is the most prominent of the three women, but she is still evidently viewed as submissive by Frankenstein. Although Frankenstein shows nothing but admiration and love for Elizabeth, it comes with a sense of degradation as Frankenstein’s perspective of Elizabeth is one of ownership. Even from early childhood, Elizabeth was predetermined to be Frankenstein’s future wife, a choice made by Frankenstein’s mother. Frankenstein constantly illustrates Elizabeth as a child-like companion, often describing her as an animal, as if she were a pet he owned. Frankenstein’s descriptions of Elizabeth included comments such as, ‘She was docile and good tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer’s insect’ and ‘I loved to tend on her, as I should on a favourite animal…’ (Shelley 20). Not only did Frankenstein portray Elizabeth in a dehumanized light, but the Monster’s use of her as a source of revenge against Frankenstein did as well. Elizabeth’s part in the Monster’s plan revealed her role as a possession to Frankenstein considering when the Monster decided to execute his plan: the night of their wedding.

Shelley’s choice to have Elizabeth’s death be on the night of her wedding with Frankenstein reveals Shelley’s opinion of marriage and what that meant for women. When analyzing the relationship that Elizabeth and Frankenstein had, the murder of Elizabeth as she still wore her wedding dress worked as a metaphor for Shelley’s attitude toward relationships of that sort. From Shelley’s perspective, a relationship like that of Elizabeth and Frankenstein would ultimately be self-destructive for the woman, signing herself away to be someone’s possession ’til death do they part.

The second woman that is given significance in Frankenstein is Safie, Felix De Lacey’s love interest. The Monster described Safie as ‘dressed in a dark suit and covered with a thick black veil’ (Shelley 80). The color black in clothing symbolizes power and strength and those words perfectly describe Safie’s character and her relationships. Safie and Felix are far from married, but their feelings for one another are still deep and strong. Mary Shelley also writes Safie as what can be considered the ideal woman in her eyes. Safie is independent, autonomous, and determined to create the life she wants for herself. Safie did not seek the validation of men, defying her father by leaving Turkey and traveling to Germany, where Felix De Lacey resided. Safie practiced autonomy and independence by leaving her culture behind and acting upon her desires, something women of that period seldom did. However, although Safie is a representation of the idealization of women, her presence was fleeting, only to be mentioned for fifteen pages. Safie’s presence seems to be something of a daydream to Mary Shelley, something she wished was a reality for women, only to be snapped back into reality by the presence of subservient women like Elizabeth.

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When finding representation for Shelley’s feminist interpretations, the female companion that Frankenstein agreed to create for the Monster is a strong example. Frankenstein refused to create a second monster initially, but upon finally caving, he began to have worries and fears of what a female companion to the Monster would be like. Frankenstein began jumping to conclusions such as, ‘She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation’ and ‘She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of a man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species’ (Shelley 118). Frankenstein is not afraid of the female companion the way he is of the Monster, rather he is afraid of the female companion becoming an autonomous being that would develop a consciousness of self. Frankenstein’s use of the words ‘refuse to comply’ insinuates that he is afraid of the female becoming a creature who refuses to be controlled by her male companion. Frankenstein’s fear of a disobedient woman is also accompanied by his fear of the female monster’s sexual liberation. Anne K. Mellor provided further elaboration on Frankenstein’s fear of females as ‘a woman who is sexually liberated, free to choose her own life, [and] her own sexual partner’ (Mellor 224). By destroying the half-finished body of the female monster, Frankenstein regained his control over the female entity and the creation of anything that could become outside of the realm of what Frankenstein believed to be the ideal woman.

Shelley’s critique of the idealization of women in post-feminism Romantic works provides an interesting approach to the critique of the patriarchy. By writing women as subservient and object-like, the book becomes a slap-in-the-face to the men of the patriarchy. The book’s perspective of women is quickly recognized as problematic, until the reader realizes that it was the reality and, in some cases, still is. By critiquing the idealization of women in Romantic works, Mary Shelley sheds light on the desire of control that the patriarchy had and still has, depicting the effects that the need for power has on the characters.

It was not until after some of the earliest race-sensitive events in the United States that people began to note the racial resonances of Mary Shelley’s story of Frankenstein. The Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 was a turning point for the perspective of the novel. After the revolt of the slaves and the subsequent murder of several white people, Virginia legislatures began comparing slaves to Frankenstein’s Monster, arguing that if they were freed, they would all revolt. The irony of this argument becomes apparent upon reading Frankenstein, as through the presence of both Frankenstein’s and the Monster’s perspectives, the metaphor exemplifies that it is the unjust relationship that leads to the Monster’s violent actions, not the way he looks.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Monster is depicted as both grotesque and ostracized. As soon as the Monster is brought to life by Frankenstein, he is ridiculed for his appearance. Frankenstein describes the Monster as such:

His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips. (Shelley 35)

The Monster was ultimately the opposite of the standards of beauty that Europeans expected. Because of this, the Monster became feared for his appearance, no matter his internal character.

As the Monster recounted his tale to Frankenstein, his speech was sympathetic and eloquent. He told the story of the De Lacey’s and how he would fetch firewood and leave it at their doorstep while they were sleeping. The Monster expressed nothing but care and admiration for humans, which he communicated by saying ‘…when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathized in their joys’ (Shelley 77). The Monster’s good nature continued throughout the torture he endured from humans, even saving a little girl from drowning, only to be shot by her male companion. After being shot, the Monster’s attitude changed. He recounted, ‘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 99). It was not until the Monster determined that integration into European society was not an option that he turned to violence and revolution.

Upon hearing the perspective of the Monster, the hypocrisy of discrimination becomes apparent. The Monster was not made to be evil and violent but rather learned to become that way after his treatment from humans. He wanted the love of a companion, and sought it several times, only to be faced with ostracization each time. However, even up to the end, through his revenge-filled perspective, the Monster said to a deceased Frankenstein, ‘…for the bitter sting of remorse may not cease to rankle in my wounds until death shall close them forever’ (Shelley 161), insinuating that he still felt a sense of morality and care for humans. When initially given Frankenstein’s perspective, it is easy to pity him and paint the Monster as a villain. However, the presence of the Monster’s perspective becomes increasingly important to accurately understand the novel, and the reader soon finds themselves questioning if the Monster was ever truly evil.

As previously mentioned, the application of the racial critique was applied a couple of decades later than when the book was published. Unfortunately, this application is still relevant today. For example, the murder of Michael Brown by a white police officer parallels the story of Frankenstein’s Monster in terrifying accuracy. The officer, Darren Wilson, described Michael Brown in several discriminatory ways, the use of the word ‘demon’ is one word he used. The Monster was often named ‘daemon’ by Frankenstein, and the presence of that language today to describe a person of color proves how the application of the racial critique if still relevant.

Mary Shelley critiqued the presence of one-sided narratives in the Romantic genre, which were excluded from the side of the protagonist. Shelley does not do that here, providing both Frankenstein’s and the Monster’s perspectives. This critique allowed for the application of the critique of racism in American and European societies. Racism is exclusively a one-sided narrative, as people such as white supremacists fail to address the perspectives of minorities. When applying this critique, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein demonstrates that the presence of another perspective is important, proving that the misunderstood antagonist is not an antagonist at all.

Mary Shelley’s critique of the era of Romanticism allotted for the application of several other critiques that were relevant then and now. Her critique of the simple life and nature made room for the argument of the Marxist analysis and the dangers of capitalism. When critiquing the idealization of women, Shelley brought a new perspective to the critique of the patriarchy by, rather than begging for society to see the wonderful qualities women possess, showing it that the treatment of women as objects is dehumanizing and unacceptable. When critiquing the presence of a one-sided perspective, Mary Shelley granted the application of the critique on racism by writing her book around the importance of learning every perspective of a story before labeling an antagonist. Although Mary Shelley did not necessarily intend to place each of these critiques upon the novel, they each bring about a new, deep analysis of the book and its application to society. These analyses, although made over a century ago, are still important to note because no drastic changes have truly been made in our society concerning each analysis. This is because, as Frankenstein said himself, ‘Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change’ (Shelley 142).

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Mary Shelley’s Critique of Romanticism in Frankenstein. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved October 3, 2023, from
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