A Critique of Society in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written in the early nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution had pervaded all part of European and British society. Rosenbrock had noticed that ‘the Victorian situation led to the danger of complacency. ‘ and Shelley, unlike most of her contemporaries, recognized this danger and foresaw the perils of the newly-born technological society, inherent in scientific research and the exploitation of nature.
In her polemical novel, Shelley is concerned with the threat of knowledge when used for evil purposes, and questions just how far humanity can push the boundaries of nature with experiments and technological advances until all conduct, manners and morality in our society is gone. This is illustrated through victor’s attempt to surge beyond accepted human limits for the acquisition of undiscovered human knowledge. Philip Allingham describes the means that Shelley uses to demonstrate this; ‘Instead of submitting himself to the will of the community and the family, the scientist [Victor] asserts his ego by challenging the laws of nature.
This is the most prevalent illustration of Shelley’s condemnation of society. Though many critics believe the novel offers ‘no lesson of conduct, manners or morality’ however, in my opinion, Frankenstein presents many arguments criticising different aspects of society which are still relevant to a modern reader. Within the novel, Shelley appears to criticise the patriarchal society that Victor Frankenstein and she herself, lived in. Mary Shelley, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminist writers and author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ (1792).
Throughout the text, the dominance of males is emphasised with every leading institution headed by men; the legal system, the Church, and the university professors are all male characters. However, Shelley constantly portrays these men in an unfavourable manner. When Justine speaks of her trial she states ‘My confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. ‘ Here, not only is the legal system condemned for the execution of an innocent, but the Church which is predominantly male, is also.
It could be argued that Shelley has done this purposefully to explore the view that men are responsible for the corruption and demise of society’s morality and she was trying to highlight the injustice’s that the patriarchal culture has brought about. Furthermore, Shelley illustrates through Elizabeth the dispossession that women faced at that time. Elizabeth never receives any formal education as women were denied this right at the time. This situation is mirrored by the monster who has to teach himself, as there were no other avenues available to him.
Also, Frankenstein’s mother never has a career and is seen to put all her efforts into looking after her children. Women are seen as possessions, for men to protect; Frankenstein explains ‘She presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift. Her whom I fondly prized before every other gift or fortune. ‘ Women are never viewed as equal to men in the society that Shelley describes, only the monster is seen to have a true longing and respect for women or what he describes as his companion. One of the most significant themes in the novel that Shelley criticises is that of the constant overreaching of man.
Even in Shelley’s subtitle of Frankenstein; ‘The Modern Prometheus’ there is a warning of how man’s ambitions can cause his own destruction. Like Prometheus, who is said to have stolen the fire from the gods to give to man for man’s own benefit, Victor Frankenstein, claimed “benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them in practice. ” However, as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Victor’s intentions were not innocent and for the greater good, but rather for his own personal glory which he even admits himself.
He advises Walton saying ‘Learn from me, if not my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier the man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater that his nature will allow. ‘. The Romantic period, from which the gothic movement derived, and in which Shelley wrote the novel, delved even further into philosophical ideas and questions such as those that Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, a radical philosopher and novelist, wrote about.
He believed that it is possible for man to achieve perfection. Godwin wrote “The perfection of the human character consists in approaching as nearly as possible to the perfectly voluntary state. ” It is evident that Shelley adopted many of her father’s ideas in the novel, most prominently, Victor’s desire to create a perfect being. However, Victor’s dreams are abashed when what he has desired for so long, turns out to be a ‘wretched daemon’. Therefore, Shelley is criticising how man is never satisfied and greed and obsessive ambition can ultimately end in ruin.
Another aspect that Shelley criticises is the superficiality and narrow-mindedness of society. The innate insularity and treatment of the monster illustrates this explicitly. He is stoned by the villagers, and shot at when helping a man’s drowning daughter. Men ‘shrieked’ at the sight of the monster merely because his appearance was different to theirs. Anne K Mellor comments on how Shelley ‘wishes us to see that human beings typically interpret the unfamiliar, the abnormal and the unique as evil. ‘ and how this is wrong, immoral and unjust. She is trying to make us aware of the constant hypocrisy within society.
In contrast to the monster’s horrendous treatment due to his ugly appearance, the beauty of Elizabeth and how she is plucked out of all the other children due to her ‘angelic’ features, and how Frankenstein is respected because he adheres to society’s conventions, is quite important. Daniel J Webber described how Shelley ‘asks the reader to re-evaluate their concepts about beauty and how it relates to evil’; The stark reality of the monsters horrid form and originally compassionate personality is juxtaposed with Frankenstein’s shameful ambitions, yet respected persona to illustrate this point.
Another example of society’s pretentiousness as Shelley presents in the novel is the story of Safie’s father. Shelley criticises how people are always judged on where they are from, what they earn, where they live, their religion, race, culture, or social status; not who they are. ‘The injustice of his sentence was very flagrant; all Paris was indignant; and it was judged that his religion and wealth rather than the crime alleged against him had been the cause of his condemnation.
Safie’s father, though yet again an innocent man, is sentenced to death because of his race, rather than his offence. Imperatively, it must be recognised that the only time in the novel that anyone is pleasant towards the monster is when the De Lacey father has a compassionate conversation with him; however this is only because he is blind and cannot see and therefore can not place any value on aesthetics. Similarly, an aspect of society that Shelley critises is the class-system.
Elizabeth is deemed worthy of the name of ‘Frankenstein’ as she was chosen due to her beauty, however, someone from the De Lacey family would not be; the monster learns that ‘… high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages, but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave’. The De Lacy’s boast neither of these qualities, so should they therefore be considered slaves? Shelley asks us to question what values are more important in humanity.
The De Lacey’s are hard working, noble and pure of heart, however their kindness and generosity count for nothing in society. They are impoverished; in comparison to Frankenstein who is selfish, arrogant and thoughtless yet lives in luxury and wealth. Ebey Soman writes that ‘In Rousseau’s original or natural state of humans, we are born pure, free of the evils of this world. However, the introduction of society, though its grandeurs, property and laws has made man into what he is.
Rousseau explains how society enslaves and shackles humanity and this is illustrated through the people’s treatment of the monster and how they forced him out of the city, and of the poor quality of life that the De Lacy’s have been forced to live by. One of the Romantic’s ideals, which Shelley believed in, is the celebration of individuality and the class-system defied this. Money produced power and influence, most obviously for Frankenstein, and she was trying to assert how this is unjustifiable in society and can lead to depravity.
Growing up motherless, Mary Shelley also lost her sister to suicide, as well as losing three of her own children to miscarriage and early childhood deaths. In 1822 her husband Percy Shelley drowned, and she was left, twenty-five years old, with only one remaining son. Isolation and loneliness are major themes in the novel which Shelley holds society responsible for. The monster suffers so cruelly due to his segregation and this parallels how Mary Shelley had grown up motherless herself.
At the beginning of his life, he is so astounded by the simplest things such as music and nature and his innocence shines through, which is in complete contrast to the apathy that humanity has towards life. The monster had stated how ‘the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy. ‘ However, as he becomes more rejected and aware that he will not be accepted in this world, he expresses his solitude through saying ‘I am alone and miserable: man will not associate with me’ and this condemnation of society creates great sympathy for the monster.
Shelley is criticising society’s selfish, judgemental and indifferent attitude towards those who have problems or who are different and the devastating affects, especially those of loneliness and desolation, that can result from these attitudes and this is a predominant message in the novel. It is evident that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does offer lessons of conduct, manners and morality. So much so, they can even be applied to contemporary society. Scientists appear to have learnt nothing from the novel, with the ever more real technological advances in cloning, IVF and stem-cell research.
Albert Einstein had said over fifty years ago that ‘It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. ‘, yet even in this past month, Cardinals have petitioned for politicians to abstain from voting on the Embryo Bill. What’s more, in China, babies are abandoned and left to fend for themselves everyday, just like Frankenstein’s monster. The patriarchal ideals are still in place, with the most important institutions in our society still controlled by men whether it be the church, the legal system or the medical profession; exactly what Shelley was imploring against.
Furthermore, humanity has still not learnt what valuable human qualities are. Celebrities and models are acquiring fame and money purely for their beauty and some even without any ‘real’ job, and many of the kindest people are left to live in poverty; this is especially evident in our third world countries. Therefore, I believe that it is undeniable that the novel does in fact offer lessons in conduct, manners and morality and therefore the reader can undoubtedly learn a lot from Frankenstein.