The Cultural Historical Context of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Sandra M. M. Gastaldi
Sandra M. M. Gastaldi

Mary Shelley conceived her creature at the height of the literary and philosophical period called Romanticism. The forces that marked this period were the many changes that were being carried out, such as political (French and American revolutions), economic (from rural to urban economy and the beginnings of the industrial revolution), scientific (discoveries in medicine, neurology, electricity, and chemistry), and social (growing importance of education of the masses).

Mary Shelley introduces her very original story in the midst of this historical turmoil, and her story is closely involved with most of these changes in some way or another. Romanticism permeates all of Mary’s life and work.

Her father, William Godwin, and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, were crucial exponents of this era. Both were very famous thinkers representing the philosophical values of their time with a highly revolutionary nature.

Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist militant. She had written ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), where she asserted that intellectual companionship is the ideal of marriage and pleaded for equality of education and opportunity between the sexes.

Moreover, her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Men’ (1790) clearly shows Mary Shelley’s mother’s deep feelings to fight for the rights of human beings and the abolition of all sorts of human slavery, something that our writer later takes on again so as to defend her creature’s position and to make us, readers, ponder about how cruel scientist Victor Frankenstein was to leave his creature all by himself, depriving the fiend of the bare essentials: “But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses… I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I?” (Frankenstein 110)

Similarly, Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, voiced the political ideas of the French Revolution in his ‘Enquiry concerning Political Justice’ (1793). Here, Godwin also presents his objections to the social order of the times and expresses his profound belief in human beings’ power of reason.

In the meantime, Mary Shelley showed great interest in John Locke’s ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ (1689), which can be clearly seen in her novel, since Locke considered that character is acquired rather than innate “and we can surely perceive this principle in Mary’s conception of the creature. What is more, she had also read Rousseau’s Emile” (1759).

In it, Rousseau held the idea that we had to “educate for the development of natural virtue”, where nurture is more important than nature (Jean Jackes Rousseau 37-38).

Lilian Furst, in her book ‘Romanticism’ provides a definition of Romanticism which particularly suits the creature Frankenstein: “In general a thing is romantic when, as Aristotle would say, it is wonderful rather than probable; in other words, when it violates the normal sequence of cause and effect in favour of adventure… the savage, the peasant, and above all the child.”

Frankenstein is a vivid example of the Romantic spirit of the wild, the rough, and the innocent. However, all these characteristics we find in the creature are later twisted in the wrong direction by society, which changes the creature for the worse and turns him into a fiend.

Another romantic principle that permeates the story is, “The child is the father of the man” (Rousseau 38). Children (in much the same way as the creature Frankenstein) are conceived as superior in spirit and wisdom when compared to adults. Because of their ingenuity and innocence, they are far purer than the mature beings that compose society.

For the romantics “the return to Nature” (Rousseau 38) was crucial. In Frankenstein this is clearly seen since the creature turns to and depends on Nature for survival. Having been deprived of nurture and the motherly love that every child is entitled to, Nature is for him the main way to learn on its own about the outside world.

The laws of nature were considered by the romantics to be the best and safest choice to avoid mistakes. In his search for a cure to all illnesses, Victor also claims to be following the laws of nature. But in the creation of the monster, however, he contradicts himself because what he is trying to do, looking at his work from a different perspective, is to violate the natural death of people and play God by giving life to a very “unnatural” creature. Therefore, when the creature turns to nature, he should be good-natured and benevolent, but in fact, he is not so because he is missing the nurturing from his creator (Rousseau, in Emile).

As Victor Hugo mentions in the ‘Preface to Cromwell’ (1827), romanticism mingles “the grotesque with the tragic or sublime” (65). This is also true in Mary Shelley’s case, since her mingling of the grotesque with the sublime is evident in the portrayal of this “gross” creature and the sublime spirit she allotted to it.

The romantics showed a fascination with the Gothic, the demonic, and the mysterious. Lilian R. Furst puts it so: “Strange though it seems beside the traditional romantic cult of beauty, this penchant towards the darkly mysterious aspects of life represents another facet of the romantic interest in the exceptional and also the urge to explore the uncharted.” (29)

This fascination for the gothic and the mysterious is also present in Mary Shelley’s novel.

We can assert that Frankenstein is a truly romantic story, conceived by a truly romantic author whose own life was fully romantic as well. When she wrote ‘Frankenstein’ in 1818, Mary Shelley was only twenty. However, she had already eloped, at the age of sixteen, with a married man and famous writer, Percy B. Shelley, thus, showing her truly free spirit devoid of all pre-established rules and conventions.

On the other hand, however, Frankenstein also reveals that Mary Shelley was well acquainted with the scientific materialism that permeated her times. Her work presents both the romantic and the materialistic views, very subtly.

A further conception of the creature can be described as a product of the scientific advances of the moment, when scientists, like Victor Frankenstein, attempted to be like God, with the terrible consequences this dreadful sin carried out for the creature and his creator.

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