Frankenstein's Historical Context: The French Revolution To Romanticism
Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley-Godwin, wife of author Percy Shelley. It was written in a time where feminism was just emerging, pioneered in part by Mary Shelley’s mother. Britain had just vanquished Napoleon for the final time, ending the Imperial byproduct of the Age of Reason revolution in France. The political violence of the French Revolution against its upper classes, followed by the emergence of Napoleon and his shattering of the established natural order is mirrored in Shelley’s Frankenstien. The Enlightenment had inspired the intellectual movement that created the French Revolution and Romanticism was overtaking Enlightenment. Competition between beliefs, genders, and nations are prevalent in Mary Shelley’s life, it is only natural Frankenstien should represent this.
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein during a writing competition between herself, her husband Percey and Lord Byron to see who could write the best horror story. Being the only woman amongst a couple of highly accomplished men would likely have been a source of movidation for her. This competition can be felt in the battle between Victor and his creation. Though both Victor and the monster’s motivations for their actions are nuanced with several interpretations, one way they can be interpreted is the monster is seeking recognition and validation from his creator. This could be interpreted to relate to the competition between Mary and Percy. Being an established poet and an older man, his status is well established compared to Mary. Mary wants to be recognized as as good a writer as Percy and their friends. We see this desire to be recognized in Frankenstien’s Monster. The Monster wants validation and what his creator has. Frankenstien’s Monster works to learn the ways of his creator’s species, the species he is made from but not one of. This is how a woman could feel during this time in history. The monster works to become as an eloquent speaker as Victor and learns as much as he can about the world he lives in, but this is not enough to earn recognition. For progressives and feminists, like Mary’s mother, this is a similar struggle. You can “learn” the ways of man and be as intelligent, well read, or as accomplished, but still be viewed as unworthy of admiration or love, even hated for being “unnatural”. Shelley’s experience, both personal and collective of the period’s women is put into her writing.
Shelley comes from an era of Romanticism’s emergence. It rejects the idea of reason and though governing all and instead offers that emotion and nature guide the human experience. In a literal sense, characters express considerable emotion. Love is ultimately what guides Victor to his occult science pursuits through his father’s encouragement to pursue whatever learning Victor’s heart’s desires. After seeing the poor families’ lover for another the Monster desires that feeling for himself. The boat captain is compelled to express great affection and sympathy for Victor after finding him. In perhaps a subtle condemnation of the Enlightenment, which was being supplanted by Romanticism on the artistic scene, science and rational thought is responsible for creating the monster.
After the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power, consertative circles feared how liberalism could challenge the established order and create disruption. Romanticism and its embrace of the individual’s freedom and rights were regarded with unease (source). Victor is a representation of the established order. He is the scion of a wealthy and powerful family, educated in a prestigious national university, never knowing want or grief until he created his monster. The members of the National Convention were primarily middle-class and well educated. The attempt of the National Convention to create a new government that had no King to rule it would end in disaster. Kings were legitimized as having a Divine Right to Rule and royalists considered no king to be against God’s natural order. The Reign of Terror and Napoleon would be the monster created by the National Convention’s experiment.
In the novel, Victor Frankenstein’s dangerous ambition leads to his downfall. Similarly, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France and nearly the conqueror of contenrtnal Europe is supremely ambitious. Victor wanted to create new life and Napoleon wanted to create a new order. During the writing of Frankenstien, Napoleon’s downfall, return, and subsequent second downfall would be as prevalent in conversation and analysis as the topic of Donald Trump is to our modern age. Analyzing Napoleon and the circumstances of the French Revolution through the relationship of Victor to his Monster is compelling.
In addition to Napoleon’s ambition being algorical to Victors’, the French Revolution and its creation of Napoleon share resemblance to Victor and his Monster respectively. The Revolution was born of the best intentions. France’s Ancien Régime was corrupt and toppled for its crimes, a new age of reason would guide France’s new society and government. What resulted was a Reign of Terror as France’s new leaders battled to silence enemies of the state, rivals, and the unfortunate innocent alike. From this experiment Napoleon would eventually emerge eager to conquer and avenge French hulimations. The irresponsibility of the French revolutionary leaders created Napoleon, just like the irresponsibility of Victor allowed his Monster to run amok and bring grief back unto victor.