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The Context of the History in Frankenstein

‘Art is unimaginable with out a matrix of culture… it is inconceivable without having a history’ .

Stephen Cox’s comment articulates the poststructuralist view that the meanings of a text usually derive from its context. Surely, considerably of Mary Shelley’s historical context is evident in her novel, Frankenstein. Coming after the Religious Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and the commencement of the Age of Enlightenment and even feminism, the society in which Shelley lived and wrote was characterised by change and questioning, and, like many of her contemporaries, Shelley interrogates the dynamics of society in terms of religion, science, prejudices (racial and physical), sexuality and gender. These interrogations are evident in a lot of aspects of the novel its plot concerning the notion of man-made life its hubristic protagonist who meddles with Nature and Science and the novel’s demonstration of the subsequent effects of these two on society and their lessons for society. Arguably, though, it is by way of the Creature that Shelley provides her readers the most strong viewpoint on the injustices and problems inside society. As Judith Halberstam suggests, 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 symbol of the French Revolution, technology, the danger of science without having conscience and the autonomous machine. The Creature consequently, usefully highlights contemporary troubles, hence displaying how the historical context in which Frankenstein was written manifests itself in the novel.

The first key context that shapes Frankenstein is religion. Following the rise of Protestantism and the Age of Enlightenment, the nineteenth century bore witness to fantastic adjustments in, and attitudes towards, religion. Amongst the most critical forces behind these adjustments was the French Revolution a momentous occasion that had allowed the prospect of religious and social freedom following The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The early nineteenth century, then, was a time in which men and women searched for philosophical answers outdoors of religious institutions and questioned orthodox dogma. This questioning is evident in Frankenstein in its integral theme of difficult the function of God as the sole Creator that underpins Frankenstein’s hubristic quest to uncover the ability for man-made procreation. Shelley, nonetheless, seems deeply essential of this. Addressing Frankenstein, the Creature states: ‘I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed’ . These allusions to Adam, Genesis and the Fall present Frankenstein as a spiteful, irrational creator, strongly suggesting Shelley’s view of the harmful nature of the variety of challenge to the accepted order of life and the part of God as the sole Creator that Frankenstein embodies.

Certainly, this is further supported by the truth that the preface to the 1818 edition starts with a quotation from Paradise Lost: ‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/ To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/ From darkness to promote me?— ’ Employing this as the preliminary idea of the novel suggests Shelley’s awareness of and engagement with philosophical discourses that had been prevalent in the course of the Age of Enlightenment, as a result explaining why Shelley might wish to discover the idea that man and not solely God may hold the capability of generating life. At the exact same time, Shelley appears to use the Creature as a tool to show this revolutionary audience – an audience questioning the previously unchallenged church doctrine – the tragic effects of confronting the familial acceptance of beliefs, like the part of God, also far in attainable favour of the improvement of science that ultimately causes destruction in society. In truth, it appears plausible that here Shelley is directly opposing the challenges of the conformist Church the ultimate tragedy and destruction that this creation of ‘unnatural stimulus’ benefits in points to Shelley’s criticisms of a society that questions the organic order of life. Right here, again, she uses the Creature as a lens through which the reader can appear which displays her criticisms by way of Frankenstein she shows that human society is, if something, far more monstrous than unnaturally developed life due to the fact it is human society – God-produced civilisation – that turns the Creature into a vicious monster.

Closely linked to all this is Shelley’s critique of science and her fears of its destructive benefits following its improvement. Such concerns had been widespread in the period, following the improvement of Erasmus Darwin’s theories as well as The French Revolution. Norton Garfinkle notes that ‘when The French Revolution raised the spectre of an anarchistic society founded upon an atheistic science, religious opinion came to worry the social implications of unrestrained scientific speculation.’ This worry is evident in the novel’s general presentation of the tragedy of a scientist and his scientific project. But it can also be seen in particular information. For example, contemporary scientists such as Humphry Davy, Luigi Galvani and Adam Walker explored attempts to manage or modify the universe through human interference- a practice that Shelley describes the inherent dangers of by way of this novel. Also, as Tim Marshall notes, demand for cadavers improved as medicine sophisticated. Interestingly, Marshall mentions the ‘Patent’ Coffin registered in 1817 just ahead of the publication of Frankenstein. This was advertised as an simple access into the afterlife, although explicitly hinting at the lucrative market of grave robbing . And, as Anne Mellor points out, Frankenstein’s introduction to chemical physiology at the University of Ingolstadt is primarily based on Davy’s well-known lecture on an introduction to chemistry . All this suggests Shelley’s awareness of new branches of science and scientific practices, thus supporting the view that she explores these troubles and considers their achievable outcomes in Frankenstein.

Once more, although, Shelley seems critical of contemporaneous ideas and practices. Notably, Shelley utilises the dramatically ironic phrase ‘a godlike science’ to describe Frankenstein’s feelings towards his endeavours in the course of the Creature’s creation, further accentuating the atrocity of this sort of scientific project. Indeed, most readers would instantly notice the morbid nature of such an undertaking. For Frankenstein, although, it is currently too late he is so engrossed in such exciting, revolutionary concepts he cannot appreciate that he has crossed acceptable and moral boundaries. Possibly, for Shelley, this mirrors the prospective fate of her personal society that continues to create science and, to some degree, discredit religion. Much more surely, even so, via the microcosm of Frankenstein’s atrocious project, Shelley depicts the potentially destructive nature of her society that seeks damagingly hubristic manipulations of the physical universe. As alluded to in the secondary title of The Modern day Prometheus, Shelley signifies that Frankenstein (and the macrocosm of her society) must be punished for stealing ‘the light of reason’, or manipulative science, from the gods and providing it to the planet.

Two other inter-connected important contexts for, and illustrated in, Frankenstein are these of prejudices – racial and physical – and ignorance, most clearly revealed in the rejection of the Creature which in turn displays Shelley’s criticisms of each. Notably, when Shelley wrote the novel, the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act had but to be passed and feelings of white supremacy were rife. Furthermore, as Britain looked to expand her empire, competing with other powers, there was a greater feeling of racial superiority, and indeed new interpretations of Darwin’s theories of all-natural selection ‘eugenicists’ argued that handicapped folks would diminish racial and national competitiveness and believed they could boost this limitation by means of selective breeding. Increasingly, disabled people had been sterilised or kept in institutions permanently. These attitudes are manifested in Frankenstein by way of the intolerant attitudes towards the Creature and his rejection, reflecting prevailing attitudes towards foreigners as effectively as current attitudes towards the disfigured or physically handicapped due to the fact of their appearance and/or origin. By means of the Creature’s mistreatment and rejection, Shelley plays on audience sympathy for the Creature and makes use of him to magnify the injustices of prejudice in her and her readers’ social context through the perspective of the persecuted. This is exemplified when the Creature says: ‘I became totally convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am’ .

As the narrative in this section is presented by the Creature and the events are noticed by means of the Creature’s eyes, the reader is created capable to appreciate his extremely ‘human’ and compassionate feelings that make him far less of an outsider than his superficial look and the understanding of his unnatural origin initially suggest. Thus, his pronouncement of himself as a ‘monster’ permits the reader to see that the humans who are rejecting him are certainly the monstrous celebration. Frankenstein does not hear the plight of the Creature simply because of his personal selfish feelings of superiority and intolerance to issues ‘queer’ to him. The reader, nonetheless, does hear and appreciate this by means of the sympathies allowed by the journey of the Creature’s narrative, reinforcing the idea of nineteenth century society’s own xenophobia. Right here, the Creature’s goal is to teach the modern reader as the Creature learns himself. Feasibly, Shelley is endeavouring to show her audience that humanity – by means of selfishness and greed – is unenlightened in terms of concepts of equality. Soon after studying by way of reading a variety of books from the De Lacy house, the monster concerns: ‘was man, certainly, at when so potent, so virtuous and magnificent, however so vicious and base?’ This leaves a resonating questioning of ideology that would have been straight relevant and poignant within Shelley’s instant society.

If English society in the early nineteenth century was characterised by racial and physical prejudices and ignorance, then it was also characterised by ignorance towards sexuality and certain taboos, as Michel Foucault highlights in his ‘repression hypothesis’. The topic of sexuality, Foucault argues, has been notoriously taboo in society and he alerts us to the truth that ‘we have found it challenging to speak on the subject [of sex] without having striking a diverse pose: we are conscious of defying established power’ . In light of this, the implied homosexuality of Frankenstein straight defies conventions of the time in that Shelley presents sexual repression in her novel. When taking into consideration attainable intentions of Frankenstein’s efforts to make life himself, it can be argued that these may possibly have been centred around homosexual fantasies. Halberstam suggests 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 tension which underlies the incestuous bond’. She then proposes that Frankenstein’s plans to generate ‘a being like [his]self’ ‘hints at each masturbatory and homosexual desires’ . Certainly, Frankenstein feels ‘delight and rapture’ when he is making his ‘man’. With this reading, Frankenstein’s creation of his own sexual partner could be noticed as Frankenstein’s need to discover his sexuality that is repressed and unacknowledged in open society. It could be argued right here, then, that Shelley is engaging, albeit in a veiled manner, with a sexual taboo of her society. At the identical time, however, Shelley is feasibly criticising such sexual desires and projects, warning the reader that the results of such a curious person – if not society – who challenges the organic order of making life and organic sexual practices are the unleashing of a monster into the world.

Indeed, the consequences of the unleashing of such a monster do not simply impact the individual. As Anne Mellor notes, Frankenstein’s relationship with his monster portrays an implicit wish to make a race of males in a world with no the female species. As aforementioned, Shelley uses this implied need of man- not an explicitly and extensively discussed desire, but a possible outcome of the progress of applied science and increased freedom of thought in the Age of Enlightenment nonetheless – to illustrate how a world with out girls would finish in destruction and misery, and that also a lot freedom enabling the improvement of new tips (such as the exploration of sexuality and human reproduction) could outcome in an uncontrollable society.

The final significant historical context feeding into and shaping Frankenstein is gender norms and the role of females. Throughout, there is an evident theme of passivity of females in the novel. All female characters seem to serve small considerable purpose other than to be utilised and victimised. Frankenstein views Elizabeth as submissive and objectifies her by saying: “I looked upon Elizabeth as mine – mine to protect, really like and cherish. All praises bestowed on her I received as produced to a possession of my own” – and yet he nonetheless fails to safeguard her. Similarly, Justine is presented as character who articulates her personal passivity and subservience, stating: “God knows how completely I am innocent. But I do not pretend that my protestations ought to acquit me I rest my innocence on a plain and basic explanation of the facts”. And, in the end, she is merely yet another female victim and tends to make no fight for her justice. She serves small goal other than to be framed. Additionally, in the 1831 preface, Shelley describes how she herself sat silently in on the conversations of her husband and Lord Byron. On the surface, these aspects reflect the prevailing attitude towards women throughout this period. Nonetheless, this was also a time during which traditional views of women’s roles in patriarchal culture were starting to be challenged, most notably in the writings of Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Lady (1792), which expands on the plight of females. This seems to have left resonating queries about the roles of the sexes in Shelley’s mind, top to her exploration of women’s roles, particularly in procreation, in Frankenstein. In her novel, it appears Shelley suggests that the utter passivity of ladies, which includes in terms of procreation, leads to tragedy and destruction inside households and society. When a man like Frankenstein undertakes the female function of reproducer of the species, not only does he behave aberrantly but he also produces an aberration.

At the exact same time, it is plausible that this male-centric novel proposes Shelley’s resentment of the biological roles of the sexes rather than her submission to the superiority of men. Ellen Moers describes Frankenstein as a female “birth myth” suggesting Shelley’s ambivalence about maternity . That is, this plot that revolves about man’s intervention in procreation bespeaks a achievable resentment for the fact that females are required to give birth and a woman’s responsibility to foster a kid in her womb and guarantee its nicely-getting. Certainly, Shelley’s mother had died as a result of childbirth, as nicely as her losing her own babies by way of miscarriages. The Creature itself may also represent a feminine role, Shelley’s tool to satirise misogyny. Certainly, William Duff wrote that women are ‘monsters, not really human, not quite animal’. He describes Mary Wollstonecraft as the ‘hyena in petticoats’ because she surpassed the ‘natural and suitable bounds for a woman’ in her announcement of the rights of ladies. As soon as a lot more, the Creature symbolises components of socio-historical context, including misogyny, and is employed by Shelley to subtly denounce these insolences. Therefore, it appears that on the topic of females at least, while Frankenstein does reflect contemporary views of females, it is these views about which Shelley is the most ambivalent.

From all the above, then, we can see that Shelley’s use of the Creature as a window for the reader to observe the damaging effects of modern tips and social practices delivers 1 of the most powerful methods in which the novel’s historical context is manifested. For, it is by way of the Creature that Shelley refers to and criticises prevalent discourses and prevailing attitudes of her time, which includes those of and relating to religion, science, prejudices (racial and physical), sexuality and gender. And, it is by means of this in turn that Frankenstein proves and exemplifies the poststructuralist view that ‘texts…are often enmeshed in circumstance, time, location and society’.


BFI, Unspecified author, ‘The History of Attitudes to Disabled People’ [accessed 8.05.12]

Cox, Stephen quoted by Mark Tully in No Complete Quit in India (London: Penguin Group, 1991), p. 58.

Duff, William, quoted by Jenny Newman, ‘Mary and the Monster: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Maureen Duffy’s Gor Saga’, Chapter five of Where No Man Has Gone Prior to: Females and Science Fiction, ed. Lucie Armitt (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 87

Foucault, Michael, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. By Robert Hurley (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1978)

Gagnier, Regenia, Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. eight.

Garfinkle, Norton, ‘Science and Religion in England, 1790-1800: The Crucial Response to the Perform of Erasmus Darwin’ in Journal of the History Tips Vol. 16, No. 3, June 1955 (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955), p. 377.

Halberstam, Judith, ‘Making Monsters’ in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technologies of Monsters (Durham NC: Duke WP, 1995), p. 29.

London, Kathleen, The History of Birth Control. Yale Newhaven Teacher’s Institute. Retrieved ten/05/2012 from

Marshall, Tim, ‘Frankenstein and the 1832 Anatomy Act’ In Gothick Origins and Innovations, ed. Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage (Amsterdam Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994), pp. 57-64.

Mellor, Anne Chapter 6 of Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), pp. 115-26.

Mellor, Anne K., ‘Frankenstein: A Feminist Critique of Science (1987)’ in 1 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.

Rose, Ellen Cronan, ‘Custody Battles: Reproducing Knowledge about Frankenstein’ in New Literary History Vol. 26, No. 4, (Autumn 1995) The John Hopkins University Press, p. 811.

Said, Edward The Globe, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983), p. 35.

Shelley, Mary Frankenstein (Great Britain: Penguin Group, 1994)
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