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FRANKENSTEIN: THE MODERN

PROMETHEUS
M A RY S H E LL EY (1 7 9 7 -1 8 5 1 )

Mary Shelley had to circumvent patriarchal prejudices against female writers by having her book published
anonymously through a firm specialising in so-called shilling shockers. Both her parents were radical
intellectuals; her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft a feminist scholar, her father, William Godwin a philosopher and
political theoretician. Their relationship challenged the social expectations of the era and although her mother
died as a result of childbirth complications, Mary grew up within a highly educated environment.
Controversially, while still an adolescent, she herself formed a controversial and adulterous relationship with
Percy Shelley. Regimented social codes led to ostracism and financial hardship.

H I ST OR I C A L A N D LI T E RA RY C ON T E XT

The early nineteenth century was a period of great technological and scientific change. Discoveries were being
made in all fields of research including the evolutionary theories of Erasmus Darwin and various branches of
medicine, including the potential for electricity or galvanism to restore life to dead bodies. Many critics see
Mary Shelley as being a visionary in the way she uses scientific endeavour to drive her narrative, her own
scientist, Victor Frankenstein learning about such controversial scientific theories in his university studies. She
mirrored the scientific advances of her day by replacing the heavenly fire of the Promethean myth to
electrically spark the animation of Frankensteins monster.

Frankenstein exhibited popular, Romanticist and Gothic elements. It met with mixed reviews, some condemning
it as, a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity while others described it as being, very bold fiction with
the author demonstrating, the power of both conception and language. Described by Walton as the
strangest tale that ever imagination formed, the novel has become an iconic horror text, considered by many
critics as the precursor to the genre of Science Fiction.

Her novel presents science as a powerful force that can be used for good and evil. This shows her recognition of
its potential to fundamentally challenge mankinds attitudes to God and to existence itself. The dictionary aptly
defines Frankenstein as, One who creates a monster or destructive agency that he cannot control or that
brings about his own ruin. This reflects the way in which the name of the scientist has been transferred to that
of his nameless creation. The novels didactic strength lays with the subtitles inherent warning about the evils
that can be set loose is man plays God shown in Victors obsessive quest to bestow life. In one sense, he
becomes representative of the archetypal mad scientist.

The Romantic period ended with the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837, and the beginning of the Victorian
Period. It challenged the ideas of logic and fact espoused by the previous Age of Reason by promoting the
virtues of emotion, free thought, nature, the mind and the imagination. Its literary themes also explored ideas
of isolation, social disillusionment and the tragedy of loss as well as the otherworldly, imperfect and
inexplicable. As the Websters Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the English Language, states, Romanticism focused
more on the subject matter rather than conventional forms and as a result encourages, freedom of treatment,
introspection, and celebrated nature, the common man, and freedom of the spirit.

A second wave of Romanticists saw the negative connotations surrounding the sweeping social and economic
changes being brought about by Industrial Revolution. They, Mary Shelley amongst them, believe that mass
production was a primary cause of mounting social ills such as poverty, urban over-crowding and unhealthy and
dangerous working conditions. Many writers of the age were appalled by the dehumanising consequences of
such economic progress. They saw industrialisation as a serious threat to individualist ideals, their
condemnation at odds with prevailing attitudes and values which saw the profits of Englands industrial
transformation. The influence of such ideas is evidence in Shelleys imaginative emphasis on the forces of
unchecked progress, hoping her book, would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaking thrilling
horror. Her novel therefore can be seen as a rejection of the excesses of the Industrial Revolution.

GOTHICISM
Chronologically and thematically, Gothicism was closely related to Romanticism. Gothic and Romantic elements
found in Shelleys novel include her use of heightened emotions, sinister characters and macabre settings such
as graveyards and charnel houses. Thematically, elemental forces of good and evil wage a battle for souls as
vengeance leads to murder and suffering. Both styles were popular with reads because they appealed to the
imagination and explored the darker, secretive side of human psychology, passion and sensibility. The
supernatural is often involved with a resurgence of interest in ghosts and vampires, terror became something to
be proved. English Gothic novels gained popularity in the mid-18 th century, their mysterious, introverted and
haunted aspects of existence proving popular topics as were the feelings evoked of alienation and despair.
Gothic protagonists are often villainous, larger than life figures, passionately struggling with mania, obsession
or melancholy of some kind or another. They also tend to exist in social isolation in remote and gloomy setting.

Shelleys preface states that one of her purposes was to, exercise untried resources of mind. Frankenstein
clearly fits the definition of the Gothic novel that is given in Websters Dictionary, as being a type of fiction,
characterised by picturesque settings; an atmosphere of mystery, gloom, and terror; supernatural or fantastic
occurrences; and violence and macabre events. Her novels wild and mysterious regions are the icy wastes
of the North; a bleak and forbidding Arctic landscape that reinforces the emotional and intellectual isolation of
the two protagonists. Butter enmity casts these gothic outsiders from the, communal warmth of the hearth of
society. Windswept glacial fields as well as mountainous peaks provide a suitably desolate backdrop that is
beyond the bounds of normal existence. Both are alienated, representative of the warring sides of human
nature, love/hate, justice/injustice, good/evil and man/monster. Waltons ice-locked ship providence a
claustrophobic setting for the grippingly interwoven narratives.

Romanticist reactions to science and rationality are evident in Shelleys depiction of Frankensteins hideous
nightmares and the interference of his almost magical powers in harnessing life and death, the normal and the
abnormal. This couched in a tempestuous atmosphere of heightened emotions. Another genre trope is the
novels focus on decomposition and degradation and death. Frankenstein sees death as, that most irreparable
evil the void that presents itself to the soul the spoiler. His act of animation demands his relationship with
graveyards and charnel houses to procure the necessary raw materials needed in his workshop of filthy
creation.