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Literary analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Though written at the height of the Romantic Movement, many scholars consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to be a critique of masculine romanticism. Irene Tayler and Gina Luria opine that "Frankenstein may be read as Romantic Woman's ultimate judgment on the alienated artist of male romanticism." While Shelley adopts a Romantic model of creativity in penning her most famous work, she also expresses serious reservations about some of the ideals espoused by the Romantic Movement. The Romantic idealism of the male poets and writers of that era was centered on man’s creative or divine power, and Shelley indicts this fatal overreach and egotism in her novel ‘Frankenstein’ by the use of various literary elements such as characterization, allusion, and language.
For years since it was published, Frankenstein was considered to be peripheral to the study of Romanticism, and it was considered to be a novel consisting of the usual patterns associated with romantic literature. But, recent studies have altered this notion, and have placed Frankenstein in the centre of Romanticism studies, whereby it is being recognized as a distinctly feminine voice in a male dominated literary era.
Shelley’s novel, when scrutinized closely, reveals that it is, basically, a critique of certain ideals of romanticism, particularly those found in works of poets such as her husband Percy Shelley. Critics argue that the book is a protest against the Romantic Titanism and against male aggressiveness that is hidden under the dreams of romantic idealism.
Some of the typical characteristics of the romantic movements are a deepened interest in the universe/nature, emphasis on emotions and imagination and rebellion against the established norms. Shelley takes on these romantic notions through the character of Victor, who embodies all these traits. His thirst for learning the nature’s secrets are intensified by his tutor’s words about science -
“They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places”
He wants to crack down the code of nature by finding the formula for creation and he is often at odds with the society because of his obsession with the power of nature. Imagination assumes magnitude proportions when he begins to dream of creating a life form and thereby conquer death. He intends to,
“Pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”
Victor Frankenstein is portrayed as a character who claims to be acting for the greater good of humanity, but due to his egotism ends up destroying himself and the ones he loved. The story of the novel focuses on a male’s attempt to displace a female from her role as a creator of a human life. In this way, the novel voices the distinctive concerns of the women of the nineteenth century. It voices the fear of the women who were increasingly marginalized and trivialized in a patriarchal society. The novel can be thus viewed as a protest against the effects of the romantic hero ideals.
The ideology of human freedom and equality was believed strongly in the Romantic era. Many writers of that era wrote works that viewed their positions in life as divinely ordained. Romanticism furthered the belief that human beings can be whatever they want to be. Victor’s character is an ideal romantic hero as he believes that his power is limitless, and he sets out to conquer the one thing that has always been unconquered by men – death. But this belief of his turned out to be his bane, as by taking the powers of creation in his own hands, he singularly destroyed both his life and the life of his creation.
Not just Victor, the character of Walton too stands as a parody too romantic ideals. Walton himself proclaims that he is a romantic at heart, and finds his shipmates to be too simple and not a quality company for him. He yearns for discovery and wisdom, and wishes to discover a new land of “beauty and delight." His character has many similarities with Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who Shelley saw to be a wanderer forever ostracized for killing an innocent creature. Walton acts as an alter ego for Victor and he is also an aspiring poet. Hence, it is explicit that Shelley’s work contains some direct message to the poets of the romantic era, such as Byron and Percy Shelley.
Shelley titled her novel as "The Modern Prometheus," and the entire book has allusions to the Prometheus myth. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan, who stole the fire from Zeus and gave it to the humans. He was punished by Zeus for his act, whereby he was fastened to a pillar and an eagle was sent to eat up his liver during daytime and in the night his liver would be restored again, thus, forcing him to endure a perpetual torture.Although, there are many forms of the myth existing today, the prominent version is that Prometheus was the creator of men and he stole fire from the gods and gave it to men.
Victor like Prometheus tried to pass on the powers of Gods to the humans and like Prometheus he suffers terribly for his mistake. Similarly, like Prometheus, Victor created a man without a woman, and tried to make mankind superior. However, while the mythological Prometheus loved his creation and empowered it with fire and guidance, the modern Prometheus, Victor, created a new species, horrified at the sight of it and deserted it without offering the light and warmth of education and compassion.
Shelley uses the subtitle of the novel, “the modern Prometheus”, to direct the reader’s attention towards the book’s critique of the works of the two well known Promethean poets of that era, Byron and Percy Shelley. Victor, who due to his selfishness fails to nurture and guide his creation, can be seen as an archetype of the irresponsible idealist or activist, who puts his interests before the collective good. Victor’s attempts to bestow humans with divine power are similar to the mythopoeic vision of the first generation Romantic poets such as William Blake, Godwin and Percy Shelley.
As both creator and savior of mankind and as a rebel against tyranny, the mythological Prometheus was often considered to be a self-image of the scholars of the romantic era. The legend of Prometheus features prominently in many works of Romantic poets, such as in Blake’s "Visions of the Daughters of Albion," Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” and Goethe’s “"Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus." In fact, in the same summer Shelley started working on ‘Frankenstein’ Byron penned his poem ‘Prometheus,’ in which he celebrates the defiance and will of Prometheus, and Percy Shelley would soon publish his own poem ‘Prometheus Unbound’ in 1820 (though it was after the publication of Frankenstein).
All these works portray Prometheus as a person who has liberated himself from serving authoritative Gods and as one who celebrates creative power. Hence, it is explicit that the Romantic poets considered Prometheus as a liberator and their thoughts and ideas were in line with that of the mythological hero. On the other hand, Victor, who resembles Prometheus in his attempt to empower human beings with the power of creation, had a destructive effect on the life of his loved ones and his creation. He is a tragic hero whose life is doomed because of his misplaced ideals.
The language and the narrative structure adopted by Shelley aims at giving three viewpoints of the experiment conducted by Victor. Through Walton’s narrative she warns the readers, who can relate to Romantic masculine ideals, to tame their ambition. Through Victor’s narrative, she highlights the fallacies of lofty ambition and through monster’s narration, she throws light on the effect such ambitions would have on the society.
The language used by Shelley brings forth her self-conscious and self-reflective approach. Many incidents narrated in the novel are closely related to the author’s own life and adopting a male voice (all three narrators of the story are male) enables Shelley to become an alien presence and view her own life from outside. For example, Victor blames Elizabeth for infecting his mother with the disease that killed him and blames his brother and Justine for robbing him of his mother’s affection. These passages clearly indicate the author’s own grief and the loneliness she felt, as her mother died immediately after her death. The language used by Shelley accentuates the self-absorption and insensitivity of Victor.
“Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.”
In his pursuit of glory, Victor ignores his loved ones and do not visit his family for a period of two years, just like Percy Shelley ignored his wife in his pursuit of romantic ideals.
Every time nature is mentioned in the novel, as moral presence presiding over human life, it is used only to denote catastrophic events. For example, when Victor comes to Geneva after hearing about William’s death, a thunderstorm breaks out and he cries, "William, dear angel! This is thy funeral, this thy dirge!" He sees the monster walking towards him, as soon as he utters these words, in a flash of lightning. Thus, nature, which is perceived by the Romantic poets to be the moral support and guardian of man, produces the destroyer in this novel. The monster, instead of grunting and roaring, speaks in the most eloquent of language. In fact, it is through the monster’s language, the novel poses its most important questions.
Shelley through this novel takes on the emotional narcissism, associated with the poets such as Percy Shelley, who in their quest for beauty, love and freedom, were unwilling to confront the impact of their demands on the persons dependent on them. Victor’s character shares many traits with romantic poets of his era, particularly of Percy Shelley, and the thoughts expressed by him delineate the various fallacies of these scholars. Victor’s belief in his abilities and his misplaced importance on his intellectual prowess made him insensitive to the feelings of others, in particular to feelings of the monster he created. As Mary Poovey opines in her book,
“Frankenstein calls into question, not the social conventions that inhibit creativity, but rather the egotism that Shelley associates with the artist’s monstrous self-assertion.”
Bloom, Harold. Frankenstein. Broomall: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.
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Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Web. <http://www.boutell.com/frankenstein/>. 30 March 2015.
Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology - Prometheus. 2015. Web. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DP%3Aentry+group%3D47%3Aentry%3Dprometheus-bio-1>. 30 March 2015.
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