Social, Historical and Literary Context
Frankenstein is a text which needs to be read in light not only of Mary Shelley's personal views and background, but also in light of the era from which it came. The early Nineteenth Century was an exceptional time, generating exceptional events, people, ideas and also literature, of which Frankenstein is an example.
Shelley's text is indubitably a reflection on the people, ideas and events of the time in which she lived - for all her initial intention was to write a ghost story, she could not (any more than any writer can) avoid writing about what was current and important. For that reason, an understanding of the age and its concerns helps to illuminate Frankenstein.
There are a number of aspects of the time which are worth some study. You will find below information on some of them, and links to sites with information on others.
The term 'gothic' is used freely in our time, despite most people's having little comprehension of what it means with regard to literature. The simplest definition is a style of fiction charcterised by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious or violent incidents. This, however, deals only with the outward appearance of the genre. At a deeper level, the Gothic can be characterised by exploration of social values, prescriptions and proscriptions, concern with good and evil, and questions regarding the boundaries between what is human, monstrous, natural, unnatural, supernatural and divine. The Gothic uses monsters and the unknown to make readers consider and examine what knowledge is, and what being 'human' really means. It is a world which opened up "the dark irrational side of human nature - the savage egoism, the perverse impulses, and the nightmarish terrors that lie beneath the controlled and ordered surface of the conscious mind." (Introduction to the Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol II, 1993, M H Abrams ed.)
For more detailed information on the Gothic, its conventions and concerns, click the link to The Gothic page from the menu at the top of this page.
The Enlightenment (as the major cultural movement of the Eighteenth Century is called), was a culmination of previous thought and progress, and the beginning of new. New ideas and new approaches to old institutions - largely controversial - were setting the stage for revolutions to come. Predominant ideas in Enlightenment thinking were:
- Autonomy of reason
- Perfectibility and progress
- Confidence in the ability to discover causation
- Principles governing nature, man and society
- Assault on traditional authority
- Cosmopolitan solidarity of enlightened intellectuals
- Disgust with nationalism
The Enlightenment was an age when reason ruled. Confidence was increasingly placed in the rational, and analysis by observation and experience replaced trust in tradition and belief. It was belived that order and regularity came from the analysis of observed facts, and this principle (however naive and laughably positive that may seem from a modern perspective) was applied to psychological and social processes. Its legacy can still be seen in our museums - British museums are currently able to exhibit around 10% of the artefacts they possess, but continue to collect (the British Museum now adding even credit cards to its coin collection) working on the Enlightenment principle that to observe and categorise the material world sets us on the road to comprehension of the universe.
The principle of causality was supreme in all things.
This applied throughout society, even in the field of religion. The Enlightenment freed science from the trammels of theological tradition and paved the way for the growth of modern culture. It was an age of reason based on faith, but to a great extent, the faith was taken as read, and the reason principally explored. As a result, religion was humanised - no longer was it to be bound up in tradition, superstition and fear - man was at the centre of all things, capable of causing his own fall or achieving his own salvation. This could not be done in ways previously known, however. The greatest evil to the Englightenment was society's evil - in social justice lay the meaning of life and the way to salvation.
Politics was also affected by the new ideas of the Enlightenment. At the beginning of the Enlightenment period, there was no real antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy; by 1789 this had clearly changed, and an age of social revolution was ushered in. The French Revolution can be seen as both the epitome and the end of the Enlightenment: it was a great example of a movement in favour of social justice, and against traditional authority which held power by military and economic oppression of the masses; it was also, however, in the end, a disturbing and damning demonstration of the failings and flaws of man and of society. Reason and ideas of equality were not enough; they did not prevent abuse of power, or tyranny, or starvation and injustice.
With the possible exception of William Blake, Mary Shelley's mother (Mary Wollstonecraft) was the most influential of the Enlightenment radicals. Although she wrote in a variety of genres, it was a piece on women's liberation - A Vindication of the Rights of Woman that won her lasting fame.
To look at how the forces which acted upon literature also acted upon other artistic work, click the link to Art and the Enlightenment page from the menu at the top of this page.
The Romantic Period
Gothicism is part of the Romantic Movement that started in the late eighteenth century and lasted to roughly three decades into the nineteenth century. The Romantic Movement is characterised by innovation (instead of traditionalism), spontaneity (according to Wordsworth good poetry is a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" ), freedom of thought and expression (especially the thoughts and feelings of the poet himself), an idealisation of nature (Romantic poets were also referred to as "nature poets") and the belief of living in an age of "new beginnings and high possibilities."
Why does the Romantic era offer, amidst its soaring affirmations of the human imagination and the passions, powerful explorations of the dark side of human nature? Why, right alongside (or maybe just beneath the surface of) the dreams of "natural piety," the dignity of the individual, and the redemptive power of art do we find the nightmare world of the gothic, the grotesque, and the psychotic? Critics and literary historians have come up with three main ideas:
- the sleep of reason produces monsters: the Romantic rebellion against Right Reason undermines the moral, primarily didactic role of art, opening it up to all kinds of previously forbidden or irrational and maybe even immoral subjects; an aesthetics based on the imagination can just as well lead us down a "dark chasm" as deliver us to a new paradise.
- "reason" is in-itself a kind of sleep (Blake calls it "Newton's stony sleep"); over-reliance on rationalism will invariably breed fascination with the terms it banishes; we remember that the first gothic novels came during the zenith of the Enlightenment; this is essentially a Freudian model: the return of repressed content to haunt the official aesthetic doctrine--the eruption of the id upon a too restrictive super-ego.
- "sinners in the hands of an angry God": this theory stresses the return of traditional understandings of guilt and divine retribution upon the freethinkers of this revolutionary age; this is a rich source of terror, from Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to Shelley's Frankenstein
To look at how these changes in society had effects on forms of art other than literature, click the link to Art and the Romantic Period page from the menu at the top of this page.
History around the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
The Romantic Period is the historical period in which Frankenstein was written. It stretches from c.1785 to c.1830, a time of considerable political and social upheaval. It was a time which saw England change from a largely agricultural society to a modern industrial nation, and with this change came a shift in the balance of economic power - the aristocracy's influence waned as that of the wealthy, industry-owning middle classes grew.
It was also a time of revolution and war. First the American Civil War and later the French revolution brought ideas of popular freedom, of the power of the proletariat and of the right to equality. In England these ideas were at first enthusiastically received by a large number of Liberal and Radical thinkers, and William Godwin foretold, in his 1793 Inquiry Concerning Political Justice an inevitable but peaceful evolution towards a society in which property would be equally distributed and government redundant. However, the later terrifying and violent stage of the French Revolution dampened approval for this type of Republicanism.
In England the time of revolution was one of fear, for the ruling classes particularly, and as a result they passed a number of strict laws in an attempt to secure their hold and the nation's stability. Public meetings were banned, habeas corpus was suspended and those advocating even moderate political change were charged with high treason in time of war. Towards the end of this period, when demobilized soldiers returned home after Napoloen's defeat in 1815, there was a great deal of unemplyment, and what work was available was extremely poorly paid. Workers, as yet unenfranchised and legally forbidden from forming unions, turned to petitions, protest meetings and then riots to express their discontent. Some former manufacturing workers, now unemployed due to increasing mechanisation, attempted to destroy the machines which had replaced them. The government responded with the passing, in 1812, of a bill prescribing the death penalty for such sabotage.
Events and tensions escalated somewhat towards the end of the Romantic Period: in 1819 troops charged a large but orderly assembly of workers at St.Peter's Fields in Manchester, killing nine and injuring hundreds more, in an atrocity which became known as the Peterloo Massacre. Agitation continued, leading to such an atmosphere of revolutionary threat and social instability that in 1830, feeling that England was the closest it had ever come to revolution, Parliament was prorogued, and the age of the Whig Reforms was ushered in.
Some Major dates
1760 --- Accession of George III
1776 --- American Declaration of Independence
1789 --- French Revolution
1792 --- Publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman
1793 --- Execution of Louis XVI (Jan); France declares war on England (Feb); Beginning of 'Reign of Terror'(June); Robspierre executed, ending Terror, (July)
1795 --- Threats of invasion of England
1797 --- Mutinies in British navy
1800 --- Act of Union
1802 --- Peace with France
1805 --- War declared against France
1810 --- George III regarded as insane
1811 --- Prince of Wales declared Regent; Luddite uprisings begin
1812 --- Prime Minister Spencer Perceval assassinated
1815 --- Napoleonic War ended after British victory at Waterloo
1816 --- Spa Fields Riot
1818 --- Frankenstein published anonymously
1819 --- Peterloo Massacre
1820 --- Death of George III; accession of George IV
1830 --- Death of George IV; accession of William IV; Parliament prorogued due to danger of revolution