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semester 2007
Second coursework assignment: Romanticism

7) “Frankenstein is Romanticism's great anti-Romantic text”. Discuss.

The Romantic period is characterised by specific ideas which flow through the body
of work produced by its contributing authors. These include such themes as nature,
innocence, individuality and freedom. It is through these channels that writers began
to make political statements, governmental criticisms, and rally for revolution against
repression. The writers became much freer with their work and removed the strictures
of their predecessors to allow a greater scope and liberation to manipulate the text
how they wanted and needed. Superficially there are many aspects of Frankenstein
which render it both a part of and apart from this movement. In order to merge it into
or distinguish it from the period these must be explored to discover how closely it

The character of Frankenstein can be seen in many ways as anti-Romantic.

Romantic writers such as Keats and Wordsworth often used the ‘common man’1 as
the hero in their work, an idea begun by Rousseau. Shelly on the other hand presents
her reader with a man well educated, widely travelled, with an ease of access to
money and resources without working, or enduring the hardships of the impoverished
classes. Another element which flows contrary to Romanticism is that Frankenstein’s
liberation and fulfilment of his heart’s desires leads him down the path of destruction.
Romantic writing puts enormous emphasis on the heart ruling the head; emotion over
logic; intuition over reason. Although Frankenstein’s compliance with this relates it to
the period, his unfortunate outcome because of it suggests that it is not as important
as contemporary writers believed, and works in contrast to Romanticism.

Nature is a key theme of Romanticism, yet Frankenstein’s monster is completely

unnatural from pre-birth. He is denied the womb, and is created from fragments of
others by a human hand. The ‘daemon’ could only be more unnatural if he were

1 Cited on:, ‘The Romantic Style’, Paragraph 2

composed of a metal, and even then it would probably be more acceptable. This is
the contradiction of all that is emphasised in Romantic literature. Poets such as Blake
and Wordsworth place enormous energy into the importance of nature and our
complete submersion in it, yet Frankenstein’s monster walks above it. That one of the
main characters of the novel is so detached from nature is surely a removal, and thus
a reversal, of one of the key themes which appears in many of the main literary works
from the period. This supports the assertion that Frankenstein is an anti-Romantic

Frankenstein is very often considered as a Gothic novel before a Romantic one. It

certainly has the “terrified” hero and the terrifying villain and is etched with
supernatural and horrific events, details which are analogous to Gothicism 2. Perhaps
then there is insufficient correlation between Romanticism and Frankenstein to render
it a Romantic text above Gothic. However is it really anti-Romantic?

In many ways it can be seen to fit into the Romantic period with ease. Despite the
monster’s removal from nature due to his completely unnatural conception and birth,
he often describes the scenery around him with zeal 3. It seems as if, although not
from it, he is at one with nature, for when he is enraged the night is dark and “fierce”4
and, similarly, he is affected by nature5. This close association with nature and lavish
descriptions of it are integral to Romantic literature. Keats uses natural imagery in
poems like To Autumn6 to convey and disguise political messages, and Blake used
nature to represent innocence in poems like The Sick Rose.

Despite his claims that he “considered Satan as the fitter emblem of [his] condition”
and that “often, like him [Satan], when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter
2 “Rejecting the Enlightenment ideal of balance and rationalism, readers eagerly sought out the hysterical, mystical,
passionate adventures of terrified heroes and heroines in the clutches of frightening, mysterious forces.” - ‘The Gothic
3 “[S]pring advanced rapidly; the weather became fine” - Shelly, Frankenstein, p112

4 M. Shelly, Frankenstein, Penguin, 1994, p125

5 “The day… cheered even me by the loveliness of its sunshine” - Shelly, Frankenstein, p135

6 Keats, ‘To Autumn’ Lecture handout from Week 10, p1

gall of envy rose within me”7, Frankenstein’s monster is still an innocent at birth. It is
the inflictions caused by other human beings which cripple his soul, perhaps more so
because of his innocence and thus his fatal willingness to trust. The original idea of
innocence at birth is one developed widely in works by Blake. In his poems The Little
Girl Lost and The Little Girl Found8 the child Lyca sleeps through everything, blinded
by her own heavy eyelids from the truth that she is lost and in danger. The monster in
Frankenstein displays the same blindness but to his own appearance. The night on
which the monster's unwitting companions leave, "a fierce wind arose from the
woods"9 resembling not only the monster's rage but his rebirth into 'adulthood'. On
this same night he leaves his hovel and sets out into the world, fledging the nest.

The monster promises with conviction that a companion will return him to his innocent
ways, yet is it really possible to return? Surely once you have looked beyond the
quixotic veil of colour into the grey abyss of corruption, anything once again seen
through the veil would appear childish and false, and the vision would be readjusted
by the mind into one of transparency. This is an observation made by the monster
himself: "Of what strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once
seized on it, like lichen on rock". The monster, after his first shock of reality does
begin to return to innocence as he roams the forest and stumbles into a beautiful day
of "sunshine and… balminess"10, but almost immediately after he is jolted back to
reality with a bullet in his shoulder. This is a clear reminder of the inevitable fate of the
monster: he can never escape human corruption. These observations on innocence
and corruption are the central ideas of other writers such as Blake11 and
Wordsworth12 who were influenced by Rousseau’s notion that we are born free, but
that civilisation put us in chains13. Shelly’s exploration of innocence is a vital link to

7 M. Shelly, Frankenstein, Penguin, 1994, p133

8 W. Blake, Innocence and of Experience (Innocence), ed. R. Willmott, Oxford University Press, 1990

9 M. Shelly, Frankenstein, Penguin, 1994, p125

10 Shelly, Frankenstein, p135

11 Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience

12 Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, ed. R.L Brett and A.R. Jones, Routledge, 1991

13 Cited on:, ‘Libertarianism’, Paragraph 3


The text contains many links which anchor it firmly in the Romantic era. The monster
is often seen as a representation of industrialisation, steaming through the
countryside and destroying purity14. He can also be seen as a revolutionary, inverting
the master-servant relationship he should have with Frankenstein much in mimic of
the French Revolution, a major contributory spark to the ignition of Romanticism.
Intertextual references to contemporary works also tie Shelly’s novel to the Romantic
era. An example of this is Robert Walton’s comparison of his voyage to that of
Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner15. In many Romantic works vagrants are used to
represent utter madness. The Mariner in Coleridge’s poem can also be seen to
parallel Frankenstein in this sense as he is trapped in the mania of isolation, a lost
soul in a world of his own. This can also be seen in Frankenstein, for the monster
says that it is his isolation - or at least his realisation of it - which sends him spiralling
into his hateful madness where before he was "benevolent and good". Shelly also
incorporates themes of self-destruction, like in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, as
Frankenstein's egotistical need to create a new race who see him as a god is the
cause of his creation and thus his own downfall. The complex and imaginative
plotline is itself characteristic of the Romantic period as authors explored deeper
avenues of the creativity of the human mind16. Emotion became a treasured gift of
humanity in the Romantic period, a movement reflected in both Frankenstein's
approach to science (his idols' writing is based on feelings and imagination as well as
fact), and the monster's outlook on life17. All of these key features of Romanticism
which are present in Frankenstein argue contrary to the statement that it is an anti-
Romantic novel.

14 William and Elizabeth are two pure souls who are destroyed by the monster

15 Coleridge, ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, Lyrical Ballads, p51

16 “Thus, as romantic literature everywhere developed, imagination was praised over reason, emotions over logic, and
intuition over science—making way for a vast body of literature of great sensibility and passion. This literature emphasized a
new flexibility of form adapted to varying content, encouraged the development of complex and fast-moving plots, and allowed
mixed genres… and freer style.” -
17 “Surprised by… these emotions, I allowed myself to be borne away by them.” - Shelly, Frankenstein, p135

Romanticism is more than just a collective movement of imaginative writing about the
above mentioned themes; it is also about freedom. Not only does this extend to
freedom of the individual, social classes, prejudice, and government, but also the
freedom of writers themselves to explore and expand beyond the structural
constraints of previous forms. Shelly shows structural freedom in her work by jumping
between three separate narrators, each with completely different outlooks. The use of
first person makes these leaps even more effulgent to the reader as they are thrown
from voice to voice. When Frankenstein's monster tells his story it seems unbound
where she might land us next, for the story is taken into the hands of the villain. This
experimental style is paralleled by Shelly's contemporaries such as Wordsworth, who
in Tintern Abbey18 utilises enjambment, iambic pentameter and no rhyming scheme to
create a feeling of structural liberation.

In conclusion, although there are several aspects of Romanticism which either one
must strain to see or are simply not present, there are a great many characteristic
themes which Shelly has included. Nature is absent in the monster himself, but is
present in his actions and in what happens to him. Innocence is an enormous part of
the novel along with the loss of it. Emotion is shown to conquer the monster, but
creates a hellish outcome for the creator. Revolution, industrialisation and a vast
amount of Shelly's own imagination are also present. She references other writers of
the time and leaves inferable trails back to contemporary events. Perhaps the most
important part of the text which allows us to root it firmly in the Romantic period is its
freedom of style. For if Shelly does not quite fit into the boxes that we class as
'Romanticism', she must be stepping outside them, and surely this is part of the
purpose of Romanticism itself; exploring new avenues and imagining new worlds into
which the mind may retreat. Shelly's novel delves in and out of Romantic constraints,
but ultimately, in purpose, outcome, and approach, it is very much a Romantic novel.

18 Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, p156

W. Blake, Innocence and of Experience (Innocence), ed. R. Willmott, Oxford University Press, 1990
J. Keats, 'To Autumn' Lecture handout from Week 10, p1
M. Shelly, Frankenstein, Penguin, 1994, p125
R. Mayo, 'The Contemporaneity of the Lyrical Ballads', PMLA, 69, 1954, 486-522. (Academic Journal)
A. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, Routledge, 1989
W. Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, ed. R.L Brett and A.R. Jones, Routledge, 1991