“Art without a matrix or culture is impracticable…it is impossible without history”
Stephen Cox’s comment expresses the poststructuralist viewpoint that meanings of texts always stem from their context. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s novel, is a clear example of her historical context. Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is set after the Religious Reformation, Industrial Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment and even Feminism. Shelley’s Creature provides her readers with the best perspective on society’s injustices and problems. Judith Halberstam suggests that the Creature may be interpreted as Mary Shelley herself. It is a symbol of class struggle, industrialization, and all social struggle. The Creature helps to highlight current issues by illustrating how the historical context of Frankenstein is expressed in the novel.
Religion is the first significant context that shaped Frankenstein. The nineteenth century witnessed significant changes in attitudes and beliefs towards religion, following the advent of Protestantism, as well as the Age of Enlightenment. The French Revolution was an important force behind these changes. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen had enabled religious and civil freedom. In the early 19th century, people were looking for philosophical answers that didn’t come from religious institutions. They also questioned traditional dogma. Frankenstein’s central theme of challenging God’s role as Creator, is an example of this questioning. This theme underpins Frankenstein’s egocentric quest to find man-made procreation. Shelley is however deeply critical. Frankenstein was addressed by the Creature. These allusions make Frankenstein seem like a spiteful, irrational creature. Shelley’s view is strongly influenced by Shelley’s view that Frankenstein represents a dangerous challenge to accepted order of life, God’s only Creator, and God’s unique role in it.
This is further supported in the 1818 edition’s preface. It begins with a Paradise Lost quotation: “Did he ask thee Maker/ To mould me man?” Did I solicit you/ From darkness for me to prosper?– Shelley uses this to establish the beginning idea of his novel. Shelley is likely to be interested in exploring the idea that man may possess the ability to create life and not just God.
Shelley appears to be using the Creature to show the revolutionary audience – an audience that questions the church doctrine – the devastating effects of confronting family acceptance of religions, including God’s role, in order to promote science and technology that eventually leads to society’s destruction. Shelley appears to be directly opposing the challenges of conformist Christianity. Shelley’s criticisms regarding a society questioning the natural order and life’s consequences are quite plausible. Again, she uses her critiques of the Creature through Frankenstein. It is human society – God created civilisation – that makes the Creature into an evil monster.
Shelley’s critiques and worries about science’s destructive consequences are closely related to all this. These worries were common at the time, both after the development Erasmus Darwin’s theories and The French Revolution. Norton Garfinkle says that “when The French Revolution raised concerns about an anarchistic society built upon an atheistic science,” religious opinions began to fear the social consequences. The novel presents the tragic story of a scientist’s scientific project. However, it is also visible in certain details.
Humphry Daavy, Luigi Galvani, and Adam Walker, all modern scientists, explored the possibility of manipulating the universe by human interference. Shelley explains the dangers involved in this technique through his novel. Tim Marshall points out that cadavers were more in demand as medical technology advanced. Marshall mentions a ‘Patent Coffin’ that was registered in 1817 before Frankenstein was published. While this was intended to provide easy access to the afterlife, it also pointed out the lucrative market for grave robbing. Anne Mellor notes that Frankenstein’s introductions to chemical biology at the University of Ingolstadt are based on Davy’s famous lecture titled “An Introduction to Chemistry.” All of this supports Shelley’s awareness of new science and scientific methods, which suggests that she considers the possible outcomes of Frankenstein.
Shelley criticizes contemporaneous ideas, practices, once more. Shelley also uses the incredibly ironic phrase “a Godlike Science” to describe Frankenstein’s feelings about his creation of the Creature. This only adds to the cruelty of this kind scientific project. Many readers will immediately see the inhumanity of such an endeavor. Frankenstein is unable to see that he has crossed moral and acceptable boundaries. Shelley’s potential fate may mirror that of her own society, which continues science development and discredits religion to a certain extent. Shelley, however, shows the destructive nature and hubris of Frankenstein’s evil microcosm. Shelley refers to Frankenstein’s (and her macrocosm) punishment for taking the light of reason, or manipulative scientific knowledge, from the gods.
Frankenstein illustrates two other important contexts. Shelley’s novel was written in 1833, which meant that feelings of white supremacy and slavery were still strong.
Britain sought to expand her empire by competing with other nations, which led to a stronger sense of racial superiority. “Eugenicists” believed that people with disabilities would reduce racial and national competition and could therefore improve their ability to selectively breed. It became more common for disabled people to be sterilized or placed in institutions. Frankenstein’s intolerant attitudes to the Creature are a reflection of current attitudes regarding foreigners. Shelley uses the Creature’s rejection and mistreatment to gain sympathy from the audience and magnify prejudices in her social context by using him to highlight the persecution of the persecuted. The Creature’s statement that he was the “monster that I am” is an example of this.
The Creature tells the story and the Creature sees the events through his eyes. It allows the reader to understand his human nature and compassion. By referring to himself as a monstrous being, the reader is able to see that his rejections are actually from humans. Frankenstein is blind to the Creature’s suffering because he feels superior and has an intolerant view of all things ‘queer. This is reinforced by the fact that the Creature’s tale allows the reader to feel and understand the Creature’s pain. The Creature is trying to teach the modern reader the same lessons he learned. Shelley is trying to demonstrate that humans, through greed and selfishness, are not enlightened when it comes to equality. After studying several books from the De Lacy household, the monster asked: ‘Was mankind, indeed, simultaneously so powerful, virtuous and majestic, yet so viciously und base?’ This questioning of ideology leaves Shelley with a poignant and relevant question.
English society in the first century was markedly marked by racial, physical, and ignorant prejudices. It was also markedly marked by ignorance regarding sexuality and certain taboos. Michel Foucault’s’repression hypothesis” highlights this. Foucault asserts that sexuality has been a taboo topic in society. He warns us that it is difficult to talk about sex without taking a different position: We are conscious of challenging established power. Frankenstein’s implicit homosexuality in her novel defies all conventions. Shelley even presents sexual repression. It is possible to argue that Frankenstein’s attempts to create life were motivated by homosexual fantasies.
Halberstam suggests Frankenstein’s reclusiveness in his attempts to create life, followed by his refusal to allow the Creature-to-mate to be born, is indicative of his sexual pursuits and the underlying homoerotic tension. She suggests that Frankenstein’s plan to create a ‘being like him’ is a combination of masturbatory as well as homosexual desires. Frankenstein actually feels ‘delight, rapture’ while creating his’man. Frankenstein’s creation and subsequent sex relationship could be interpreted as Frankenstein’s attempt to discover his sexuality, which is often hidden or not acknowledged in society. Shelley may be engaging with her society’s sexual taboo, though it is veiled. Shelley also criticizes such sexual projects and desires, warning readers that the result of such a curious person, or society, are the unleashing a monster in the world.
The consequences of unleashing such a monster are not limited to the individual. Anne Mellor notes that Frankenstein’s love affair with his monster indicates an implicit desire in him to create a race and a genderless world. Shelley uses Shelley’s implicit desire of man to illustrate how a world that does not have women will lead to destruction, misery, and freedom for new ideas, such as exploration of sexuality and human reproduction.
Frankenstein’s final historical context is the gender norms and women’s role. The novel has a strong theme of the passive nature of women. The only purpose of all female characters is to be victimized and used. Frankenstein views Elizabeth in submissiveness and says of her: “I considered Elizabeth my own – mine to cherish, love, and protect.” She was praised so much that I made her my possession. Yet, he continues to fail to protect her. Justine, who is also presented, states that she is innocent of her own insubordination and passivity. I am not pretending that my protestations should excuse me. Instead, I trust the facts and rest my innocence.
In the end, she is just another victim of women and does not fight for justice. She is only there for the purpose of being framed. Shelley also describes her silence during Lord Byron’s 1831 preface. These aspects are typical of the attitude toward women in this time period. These aspects reflect the traditional views of women in patriarchal culture at this time. Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her Vindication for the Rights Of Woman (1792), which discusses the women’s situation. Shelley was left with resonating questions about gender roles. This led to Frankenstein’s exploration of women’s procreation roles. Shelley’s novel suggests that society and families are ruined by the complete inaction of women when it comes procreation. Frankenstein’s male counterpart in the role of female reproducer is not only an aberrant behavior, but it also results in an aberration.
It is possible that Shelley’s male-centric novel suggests she resents the biological roles of the female sexes and not her submission to men’s superiority. Ellen Moers refers to Frankenstein as a “female birth myth”, which suggests Shelley’s incontinence about maternity. This plot, which revolves around the intervention of man in procreation, suggests that there is some resentment about women having to give birth. Also, it is the responsibility of women to nurture and care for their child. Shelley lost her mother in childbirth and had miscarriages. Shelley made the Creature a metaphor for satire misogyny. William Duff said that women were’monsters’, not just human but not animal. Mary Wollstonecraft is the hyena in the petticoats’ as she broke the natural and proper limits for a women’s rights announcement. Shelley uses this Creature to decry these insolences. Shelley’s most ambivalent views are about women. Frankenstein, however, does indeed reflect modern views.
We can see that Shelley used the Creature in order to expose the dangers of modern ideas. It is an effective way of presenting the novel’s historical context. Shelley is critical of the Creature’s current discourses and attitudes, as well as those that relate to religion, science (racial/physical), sexuality, and gender. Frankenstein is a poststructuralist who believes that texts are always connected to circumstances, time, place, society.
BFI, Unspecified author, ‘The History of Attitudes to Disabled People’ http://www.bfi.org.uk/education/teaching/disability/thinking/#c19 [accessed 8.05.12]
Stephen Cox is quoted by Mark Tully in No Full Stop in India (London, Penguin Group, 1991), page 58.
Duff. William. Jenny Newman cites Duff. Lucie Armitt (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 87
Foucault Michael. The History of Sexuality. Robert Hurley (London/New York: Penguin Books. 1978).
Gagnier. Regenia. Subjectivities. History of Self Representation in Britain, 1832-1920. New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. P. 8.
Norton Garfinkle. Science and Religion, England, 1790-1800. Critical Response to the Work of Erasmus. Journal of the History Ideas Vol. 16, No. 3, June 1955 (Pennsylvania University Press, 1955), P. 377.
Halberstam Judith. “Making Monsters” Skin Shows: Gothic Horrors and the Technology of Monsters. Durham NC: Duke WP, 1995. p. 29.
The History of Birth Control, written by Kathleen London, offers an in-depth look at the practices and history of contraception. The Yale Newhaven Teacher’s Institute provides educational opportunities to instructors. Retrieved 10/05/2012 from http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1982/6/82.06.03.x.html
Marshall, Tim. “Frankenstein and 1832 Anatomy Act” In Gothick Origins and Innovations. Allan Lloyd Smith (Amsterdam; Atlanta, Rodopi, 1994), pages. 57-64.
Mellor, Anne Chapter 6 in Mary Shelley’s Life, Her Fiction, and Her Monsters (New York, Methuen 1988), pp. 115-26.
Mellor Anne K.: Frankenstein: A Feministcritique of Science (1987).” in One Culture. Essays in Science and Literature. George Levine (Madison University: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987), page 288.
Moers Ellen, “Female Gothic”, The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine (Berkeley Los Angeles, London: University of California Press in 1979), p.
Rose, Ellen Cronan. “Custody Battles.Reproducing Knowledge about Frankenstein” in New Literary History Vol. 26, No. John Hopkins University Press published an article in Autumn 1995, which was reported on page 811.
Said Edward The World and the Critic (Harvard University Press Cambridge Massachusetts 1983), P. 35.
Shelley (Great Britain: Penguin Group 1995)