Historical Context: Frankenstein

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Date: Nov. 3, 2017
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 881 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1190L

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Mary Shelley's (1797-1851) classic horror novel Frankenstein is a tale about morality and the risks of playing God. The novel follows scientist Victor Frankenstein as he builds a monster that eventually turns on him. Shelley's influence of what was going on in the world around her at the time inspired much of her novel.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Why did the thinkers of the time welcome revolution?
  • What was the importance of the Luddite movement?
  • What was the topic of the lecture that influenced Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein?

The French Revolution and the Rise of Industrialism

Most of the early Romantic writers strongly advocated the French Revolution (1789-1799), which began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, a prison where the French royalty kept political prisoners. The revolution signaled a throwing off of old traditions and customs of the wealthy classes, as the balance of economic power shifted toward the middle class with the rise of industrialism. As textile factories and iron mills increased production with advanced machinery and technology, the working classes grew restive and increasingly alarmed by jobs that seemed insecure because a worker could be replaced by machines. Most of England's literary thinkers welcomed revolution because it represented an opportunity to reestablish a harmonious social structure. Shelley's father William Godwin (1756-1836) strongly influenced Romantic writers when he wrote Inquiry Concerning Political Justice because he envisioned a society in which property would be equally distributed. Shelley's mother Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), also an ardent supporter of the revolution, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke's (1729-1797) attack on the revolution. She followed two years later with A Vindication of the Rights of Women, supporting equality between the sexes.

The bloody "September Massacres" in which French revolutionaries executed more than one thousand priests, royalists, aristocrats, and common criminals, occurred in 1792. This event and the "Reign of Terror," during which the revolutionary government imprisoned more than three hundred thousand "suspects," made English sympathizers lose their fervor. With the rise of Napoleon (1769-1821), who was crowned emperor in 1804, England was drawn into war against France during this time. After the war ended in 1815, the English turned their attention to economic and social problems plaguing their own country. Much of the reason why England did not regulate the economic shift from a farming-based society to an industrialized society stemmed from a hands-off philosophy of nongovernmental interference with private business. This philosophy had profound effects, leading to extremely low wages and terrible working conditions for employees who were prevented by law from unionizing.

Science and Technology

Eventually, the working class protested their conditions with violent measures. Around 1811, a period of unemployment, low wages, and high prices led to the Luddite movement. This movement encouraged people to sabotage the technology and machinery that took jobs away from workers. Because the new machines produced an unparalleled production rate, competition for jobs was fierce, and employers used the low employment rate against their workers by not providing decent wages or working conditions. In addition to technological advances and new machines, such as the steam engine, scientific advancements influenced the Romantic period. The most significant scientist was Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), a noted physician, poet, and scholar whose ideas concerning biological evolution prefigured those of his more famous grandson, Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Both Shelley and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), were very familiar with his description of biological evolution, which became one of the central topics at the poet Lord Byron's (1788-1824) home when Shelley conceived her idea for Frankenstein. The Shelleys also attended a lecture by Andrew Crosse (1784-1855), a British scientist whose experiments with electricity bore some resemblance to Frankenstein's fascinations. Crosse discussed galvanism, or the study of electricity and its applications. This lecture no doubt fueled Shelley's imagination enough for her to suggest Victor Frankenstein's step-by-step invention of the creature in her novel.

Mary Shelley's original title of her 1818 novel was Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, but the subtitle was dropped from later editions. Prometheus is a figure from Greek Mythology who belonged to the Titans. Prometheus means "forethought," and he was considered one of the smartest Greek gods. Zeus tasked Prometheus with creating man. Prometheus later switched his loyalties from Zeus to man, which greatly angered Zeus. Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a mountaintop. Prometheus was immortal and spent each day suffering while an eagle fed on his liver, which regenerated the following day and began the cycle again. This Greek myth is related to Frankenstein because like Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein created life and was punished for it.

Arctic Exploration

The late 1700s also marked the beginnings of a new era of ocean exploration. England's Royal Academy, which promoted the first voyage to the South seas, appealed to many scientists and travelers. Explorers eventually wanted to find a trade route through the Arctic that would connect the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. In 1818, the year that Shelley published Frankenstein, a Scottish explorer named John Ross (1777-1856) went searching for the Northwest passage and discovered an eight-mile expanse of red-colored snow cliffs overlooking Baffin Bay, between Greenland and Canada. His journey reflected Walton's quest to the North Pole and the era of discovery in which Shelley lived.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2111500085