‘Art is inconceivable without a matrix of culture … it is unthinkable without a history’.
Stephen Cox’s comment articulates the poststructuralist view that the meanings of a text always originate from its context. Definitely, much of Mary Shelley’s historical context appears in her novel, Frankenstein. Following the Religious Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the Age of Knowledge and even feminism, the society in which Shelley lived and wrote was characterised by change and questioning, and, like much of her contemporaries, Shelley questions the dynamics of society in regards to faith, science, bias (racial and physical), sexuality and gender. These interrogations appear in lots of aspects of the book; its plot concerning the principle of manufactured life; its hubristic lead character who horns in Nature and Science and the book’s demonstration of the subsequent impacts of these two on society and their lessons for society. Arguably, however, it is through the Animal that Shelley offers her readers the most powerful perspective on the oppressions and problems within society. As Judith Halberstam recommends, the Creature can be seen to represent Mary Shelley herself, class struggle, the item of industrialisation, a representation of the proletariat, all social struggle, a sign of the Reign of terror, technology, the threat of science without conscience and the self-governing device. The Animal for that reason, usefully highlights contemporary issues, hence showing how the historic context in which Frankenstein was composed manifests itself in the book.
The first significant context that forms Frankenstein is faith. Following the increase of Protestantism and the Age of Enlightenment, the nineteenth century bore witness to great modifications in, and mindsets towards, religion. Amongst the most important forces behind these changes was the Reign of terror; a special occasion that had actually allowed the possibility of religious and social liberty following The Declaration of the Rights of Guy and the Citizen. The early 19th century, then, was a time in which individuals searched for philosophical responses outside of spiritual organizations and questioned orthodox dogma. This questioning is evident in Frankenstein in its essential theme of challenging the role of God as the sole Creator that underpins Frankenstein’s hubristic quest to find the capability for man-made procreation. Shelley, nevertheless, appears deeply important of this. Attending to Frankenstein, the Animal states: ‘I ought to be thy Adam, however I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from happiness for no misdeed’. These allusions to Adam, Genesis and the Fall present Frankenstein as a spiteful, irrational developer, strongly suggesting Shelley’s view of the harmful nature of the kind of obstacle to the accepted order of life and the function of God as the sole Creator that Frankenstein embodies.
Indeed, this is further supported by the truth that the preface to the 1818 edition starts with a quotation from Paradise Lost: ‘Did I demand thee, Maker, from my clay/ To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/ From darkness to promote me?–‘ Utilizing this as the initial concept of the unique suggests Shelley’s awareness of and engagement with philosophical discourses that prevailed during the Age of Knowledge, thus describing why Shelley may wish to explore the concept that man and not entirely God might hold the capability of developing life. At the very same time, Shelley appears to use the Creature as a tool to show this revolutionary audience– an audience questioning the formerly undisputed church doctrine– the tragic results of confronting the familial approval of beliefs, including the function of God, too far in possible favour of the advancement of science that ultimately triggers destruction in society. In fact, it appears plausible that here Shelley is straight opposing the obstacles of the conformist Church; the supreme tragedy and damage that this development of ‘unnatural stimulus’ results in points to Shelley’s criticisms of a society that questions the natural order of life. Here, again, she uses the Creature as a lens through which the reader can look which displays her criticisms; through Frankenstein she reveals that human society is, if anything, more monstrous than unnaturally produced life because it is human society– God-created civilisation– that turns the Animal into a vicious monster.
Carefully connected to all this is Shelley’s critique of science and her worries of its harmful results following its advancement. Such concerns prevailed in the period, following the advancement of Erasmus Darwin’s theories along with The French Revolution. Norton Garfinkle keeps in mind that ‘when The French Revolution raised the spectre of an anarchistic society founded upon an atheistic science, spiritual opinion concerned fear the social implications of unrestrained clinical speculation.’ This fear appears in the book’s total presentation of the disaster of a scientist and his clinical job. But it can likewise be seen in specific information. For instance, contemporary researchers such as Humphry Davy, Luigi Galvani and Adam Walker checked out attempts to control or change deep space through human interference- a practice that Shelley describes the intrinsic dangers of through this novel. Also, as Tim Marshall notes, demand for cadavers increased as medicine advanced. Remarkably, Marshall points out the ‘Patent’ Casket registered in 1817 just before the publication of Frankenstein. This was promoted as a simple access into the afterlife, while explicitly meaning the lucrative market of grave robbing. And, as Anne Mellor points out, Frankenstein’s intro to chemical physiology at the University of Ingolstadt is based on Davy’s well-known lecture on an intro to chemistry. All this recommends Shelley’s awareness of new branches of science and scientific practices, hence supporting the view that she checks out these concerns and considers their possible outcomes in Frankenstein.
Again, though, Shelley appears crucial of synchronous ideas and practices. Significantly, Shelley uses the drastically paradoxical phrase ‘a godlike science’ to explain Frankenstein’s sensations towards his endeavours during the Creature’s development, more highlighting the atrocity of this kind of clinical job. Indeed, a lot of readers would immediately see the morbid nature of such an undertaking. For Frankenstein, however, it is already too late; he is so fascinated in such interesting, ingenious concepts he can dislike that he has crossed acceptable and ethical borders. Perhaps, for Shelley, this mirrors the prospective fate of her own society that continues to establish science and, to some degree, challenge religion. More definitely, nevertheless, through the microcosm of Frankenstein’s godawful job, Shelley depicts the possibly destructive nature of her society that seeks damagingly hubristic adjustments of the physical universe. As alluded to in the secondary title of The Modern Prometheus, Shelley symbolizes that Frankenstein (and the macrocosm of her society) need to be punished for taking ‘the light of reason’, or manipulative science, from the gods and providing it to the world.
Two other inter-related essential contexts for, and showed in, Frankenstein are those of prejudices– racial and physical– and ignorance, a lot of clearly revealed in the rejection of the Animal which in turn screens Shelley’s criticisms of both. Notably, when Shelley wrote the novel, the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act had yet to be passed and feelings of white supremacy were swarming. Moreover, as Britain sought to expand her empire, competing with other powers, there was a higher sensation of racial superiority, and undoubtedly new analyses of Darwin’s theories of natural choice; ‘eugenicists’ argued that handicapped people would diminish racial and national competitiveness and believed they might enhance this constraint through selective breeding. Increasingly, handicapped people were sterilised or kept in organizations completely. These mindsets are manifested in Frankenstein through the intolerant attitudes towards the Animal and his rejection, reflecting dominating mindsets towards foreigners as well as existing attitudes towards the disfigured or physically handicapped because of their appearance and/or origin. Through the Animal’s mistreatment and rejection, Shelley plays on audience compassion for the Creature and uses him to amplify the oppressions of prejudice in her and her readers’ social context through the point of view of the maltreated. This is exemplified when the Creature states: ‘I ended up being completely encouraged that I was in reality the monster that I am’.
As the story in this area is presented by the Creature and the occasions are translucented the Animal’s eyes, the reader is made able to value his really ‘human’ and compassionate feelings that make him far less of an outsider than his superficial appearance and the understanding of his abnormal origin initially recommend. Hence, his pronouncement of himself as a ‘beast’ permits the reader to see that the human beings who are rejecting him are indeed the monstrous celebration. Frankenstein does not hear the predicament of the Animal since of his own self-centered feelings of superiority and intolerance to things ‘queer’ to him. The reader, however, does hear and value this through the sympathies permitted by the journey of the Animal’s narrative, reinforcing the idea of 19th century society’s own xenophobia. Here, the Animal’s purpose is to teach the modern reader as the Creature discovers himself. Feasibly, Shelley is endeavouring to show her audience that humanity– through selfishness and greed– is unenlightened in regards to ideas of equality. After studying through reading numerous books from the De Lacy home, the beast concerns: ‘was male, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and splendid, yet so vicious and base?’ This leaves a resonating questioning of ideology that would have been directly pertinent and poignant within Shelley’s immediate society.
If English society in the early 19th century was characterised by racial and physical prejudices and ignorance, then it was also characterised by ignorance towards sexuality and specific taboos, as Michel Foucault highlights in his ‘repression hypothesis’. The topic of sexuality, Foucault argues, has actually been notoriously taboo in society and he alerts us to the truth that ‘we have discovered it hard to speak on the subject [of sex] without striking a different position: we are conscious of defying recognized power’. Due to this, the suggested homosexuality of Frankenstein straight defies conventions of the time in that Shelley presents sexual repression in her novel. When considering possible intents of Frankenstein’s efforts to produce life himself, it can be argued that these may have been centred around homosexual dreams. Halberstam recommends that the reclusive nature of Frankenstein’s endeavours to develop life followed by his prevention of the Creature to mate depicts the sexual nature of his pursuits and the ‘homoerotic stress which underlies the incestuous bond’. She then proposes that Frankenstein’s plans to develop ‘a resembling [his] self’ ‘mean both masturbatory and homosexual desires’. Indeed, Frankenstein feels ‘pleasure and rapture’ when he is creating his ‘guy’. With this reading, Frankenstein’s creation of his own sexual partner might be seen as Frankenstein’s desire to explore his sexuality that is repressed and unacknowledged in open society. It could be argued here, then, that Shelley is engaging, albeit in a veiled way, with a sexual taboo of her society. At the exact same time, however, Shelley is feasibly criticising such sexual desires and jobs, alerting the reader that the outcomes of such a curious person– if not society– who challenges the natural order of creating life and natural sexual practices are the unleashing of a monster into the world.
Undoubtedly, the effects of the letting loose of such a monster do not merely affect the individual. As Anne Mellor notes, Frankenstein’s relationship with his beast represents an implicit desire to produce a race of men in a world without the female species. As abovementioned, Shelley utilizes this suggested desire of male- not an explicitly and commonly talked about desire, however a possible result of the progress of used science and increased liberty of thought in the Age of Knowledge nevertheless– to highlight how a world without women would end in destruction and suffering, which excessive liberty enabling the development of originalities (such as the exploration of sexuality and human reproduction) could result in an uncontrollable society.
The last considerable historic context feeding into and shaping Frankenstein is gender standards and the role of women. Throughout, there is an evident theme of passivity of ladies in the novel. All female characters seem to serve little considerable function other than to be used and victimised. Frankenstein views Elizabeth as submissive and objectifies her by stating: “I looked upon Elizabeth as mine– mine to protect, enjoy and value. All applauds bestowed on her I received as made to an ownership of my own”– and yet he still fails to safeguard her. Similarly, Justine is presented as character who articulates her own passivity and subservience, mentioning: “God understands how totally I am innocent. But I do not pretend that my protestations need to acquit me; I rest my innocence on a plain and basic description of the truths”. And, ultimately, she is merely another female victim and makes no fight for her justice. She serves little purpose besides to be framed. Additionally, in the 1831 preface, Shelley explains how she herself sat quietly in on the conversations of her hubby and Lord Byron. On the surface area, these elements reflect the dominating attitude towards women during this period. However, this was likewise a time during which standard views of ladies’s roles in patriarchal culture were starting to be challenged, most notably in the works of Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792 ), which broadens on the predicament of females. This appears to have left resonating questions about the roles of the sexes in Shelley’s mind, causing her exploration of women’s functions, particularly in procreation, in Frankenstein. In her book, it appears Shelley recommends that the utter passivity of females, including in terms of procreation, results in disaster and destruction within households and society. When a guy like Frankenstein undertakes the female function of reproducer of the species, not just does he act aberrantly however he likewise produces an aberration.
At the exact same time, it is plausible that this male-centric unique proposes Shelley’s resentment of the biological roles of the sexes instead of her submission to the superiority of males. Ellen Moers explains Frankenstein as a female “birth myth” recommending Shelley’s uncertainty about maternity. That is, this plot that focuses on male’s intervention in procreation bespeaks a possible bitterness for the fact that women are needed to deliver and a female’s obligation to foster a kid in her womb and ensure its wellness. Certainly, Shelley’s mom had actually passed away as a result of childbirth, in addition to her losing her own infants through miscarriages. The Animal itself might also represent a feminine role, Shelley’s tool to satirise misogyny. Indeed, William Duff composed that females are ‘monsters, not quite human, not rather animal’. He explains Mary Wollstonecraft as the ‘hyena in petticoats’ because she went beyond the ‘natural and correct bounds for a lady’ in her statement of the rights of ladies. Once more, the Creature symbolises elements of socio-historical context, including misogyny, and is utilized by Shelley to discreetly denounce these effronteries. Therefore, it appears that on the topic of ladies at least, while Frankenstein does show contemporary views of ladies, it is these views about which Shelley is the most ambivalent.
From all the above, then, we can see that Shelley’s usage of the Animal as a window for the reader to observe the hazardous impacts of modern concepts and social practices offers among the most powerful methods which the book’s historic context appears. For, it is through the Animal that Shelley describes and criticises prevalent discourses and prevailing mindsets of her time, consisting of those of and relating to faith, science, bias (racial and physical), sexuality and gender. And, it is through this in turn that Frankenstein proves and exemplifies the poststructuralist view that ‘texts … are always enmeshed in situation, time, place and society’.
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Duff, William, quoted by Jenny Newman, ‘Mary and the Beast: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Maureen Duffy’s Gor Saga’, Chapter 5 of Where No Male Has Actually Preceded: Women and Sci-fi, ed. Lucie Armitt (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 87
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Mellor, Anne K., ‘Frankenstein: A Feminist Review of Science (1987 )’ in One Culture: Essays in Science and Literature, ed. George Levine and Alan Rauch (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987), p. 288.
Moers, Ellen, “Female Gothic,” The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979), p. 79.
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