Essay: Frankenstein and Romanticism

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Frankenstein and Romanticism

Having long been viewed as peripheral to the study of Romanticism, Frankenstein has been moved to the center. Critics originally tried to assimilate Mary Shelley's novel to patterns already familiar from Romantic poetry. But more recent studies of Frankenstein have led critics to rethink Romanticism in light of Mary Shelley's contribution. Gradually emerging from the shadow of her husband, she is increasingly being recognized as a distinct voice within Romanticism, a distinctly feminine voice within what seems to be a male-dominated movement.

The trend of recent studies of Frankenstein has been to view it as a critique of Romanticism, particularly as developed in Percy Shelley's poetry. Critics have argued that Frankenstein is a protest against Romantic titanism, against the masculine aggressiveness that lies concealed beneath the dreams of Romantic idealism. They characterize Victor Frankenstein as a man claiming to be acting for the benefit of humanity but in his egotism only succeeding in destroying himself and all those he loves.

As a story focusing on an aggressively male attempt to displace the female from her role as creator and nourisher of human life, Frankenstein embodies on several levels Shelley's distinctive concerns as a woman in the early nineteenth century. Above all, the novel can be viewed as a protest in the name of domesticity against the destructive effects of the Romantic heroic ideal.

As Shelley's most powerful work, Frankenstein has inevitably played the most important role in helping reshape our notions of Romanticism. But Frankenstein is not unique among Shelley's works in providing a critique of male Romanticism. In 1822-23, she transcribed Byron's the Deformed Transformed at his request with a view to publication.

This unfinished poetic drama involves a bizarre twist on the Faust legend, telling the story of a tormented hunchback who invokes the devil's aid to give his spirit a new lodging in a scaled-down version of Achilles' body. In 1830, Shelley published in the Keepsake annual a story called "Transformation," which clearly constitutes a rewriting of Byron's work. First published in 1824, the Deformed Transformed has never received much attention from critics, partly because as a fragment it is hard to analyze, partly because in conception it is derivative from Goethe's Faust, and partly because its poetry is uneven in quality.

"Transformation" has lived largely in the shadow of Frankenstein, which it resembles in its use of the Doppelganger motif and its treatment of the body as the prison of the soul. Read separately, the Deformed Transformed and "Transformation" may seem relatively unimportant to our understanding of Romanticism. But viewing "Transformation" as a feminist revision of the Deformed Transformed does allow us to see this confrontation as a significant episode in the history of English Romanticism. I want to use "Transformation" to help reread its precursor text in Byron, and at the same time use the Deformed Transformed to help rethink a central pattern in Byron's poetry, the relation of love and aggression. This rereading of Byron should have implications for our understanding of Frankenstein as well.

II Research

What works like Frankenstein and "Transformation" call attention to in Romantic literature in general and in Byron's poetry in particular is the remarkable prevalence of aggression and violence in a movement that claimed to promote peace and love. In many ways Wordsworth shaped the image of Romanticism that traditionally prevailed in the Anglo-American world, with the result that critics tended to picture the Romantic poet typically at peace with nature. This characterization is in fact inadequate to the complexity of Wordsworth's poetry; it cannot account for the massive scenes of warfare throughout Blake; and it certainly gives a false impression of the second generation of the English Romantics. It is indeed hardly surprising to find so much violence in Romantic literature, given the fact that it was a product of a revolutionary age. It would in fact be strange if the violence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were not somehow reflected in Romantic literature. Even though the Romantics typically posited nonviolent goals for humanity, like liberty and equality, they did not always advocate nonviolent means to those ends. To the extent that the Romantics supported the cause of political revolution, they often found themselves in the position of portraying and even celebrating political violence.

Frankenstein is associated with Romanticism and the pursuit of the sublime in art. Both genres, Gothic and Romantic, offer intriguing pictures of male evil in relation to female victims, on the one hand, and to an alternative powerful female presence in sublime Nature, on the other.

Anne K. Mellor explains:

Masculine English Romanticism has long been associated with a love of Nature, or more precisely, with the epistemological relationship of the perceiving mind to the object of perception. When the fully conscious poetic mind grasps a Nature that is entirely unmediated by language -- or wholly constructed by its own linguistic tropes-it experiences what the Romantic writers called "the sublime."

The sublime has its threatening aspects, but it ultimately empowers the (male) poet. Mellor comments that "for Wordsworth, the knowledge of the sublime involves isolation, a struggle for power, adulation, and the absorption of the other into the magnificent self."

The male Romantic may be a hero, but in Mary Shelley's version of Gothic literature (as in work by some of her predecessors like Ann Radcliffe), he is presented as having dual aspects. He is both passionate and threatening -- much like the Romantic artist and much like both Victor and his Creature. Mary Shelley shows him -- at least in the guise of her passionate creator Victor Frankenstein -- to be a tragic figure destroyed by the powers of a sublime Nature that becomes not empowering but terrifying, overwhelming, and destructive.

Romantic poets and authors often revisited stories from the Western tradition, as if to reconceive classical notions of heroism. The old tragic hero was endowed with a new Romantic passion through an emphasis on his individual tragic consciousness: Prometheus being punished for his heroic gifts to mankind, Satan's rebellion in Paradise Lost, or Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. These epic figures are obviously referred to in Frankenstein -- its subtitle after all, is the Modern Prometheus. The monster listens and is moved as Milton's poem is read aloud by the De Lacey family, and he later speaks of himself as a creature who has been spurned by his creator and expelled from human society. The Creature's jealousy outside the cottage is compared to Satan's envy of Adam and Eve in Paradise. But the scientist, too, is a heroic sinner, like Milton's Satan: Victor's "pregnancy" and creation are said to be like Satan conceiving sin.

Some critics point out that in Mary Shelley's day, there were well-known paintings of Milton dictating to his daughters, and this presented a quite popular view in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of his daughters as repentant and obedient -- like Eve making amends to Adam for her sins.

By comparison, and perhaps as protest, Mary Shelley reworks male tragic heroes like Satan, Adam, and Prometheus to clarify their meaning in terms that speak to women. She depicts family devotion and domesticity as antidotes to isolated male hubris, and she also addresses the female author's special concerns about reproduction and sexuality.

We can see parallels between Mary Shelley's visions of Nature in this novel -- it is often associated with a fruitful land and domestic harmony -- and Wordsworth's picture of Nature as a living organism or sacred all-creating mother. But Nature for Mary Shelley is most beneficent when it is tied to pictures of domestic, peaceful family life. Solitary encounters with Nature are not always so tranquil, nor is Nature as amenable to exploitation as a resource for poetic contemplation by the exalted masculine self. In Frankenstein, she implies that Nature is a sort of sacred mother who will exact revenge if her proper role is usurped by a mere mortal man. He is in danger if he pursues solitary creativity so far that it becomes an end in itself -- an unnatural form of reproduction. A poet like Wordsworth sees the male artist as having the emotional depth and expressive power to depict and sustain a passionate relation to Nature. By contrast, feminists now see Frankenstein and Mary Shelley's later works as female reworkings of the standard male paradigms of Romanticism.

III Application to FRANKENSTEIN

To begin to address themes of good and evil in the novel, let us consider how Frankenstein treats the dualities commonly associated with science and Nature. I have described the early modern period's views about the "maleness" of science and "femaleness" of Nature. These and other dualities are discussed by Val Plumwood in her recent book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature.

Plumwood argues that certain forms of dualistic thinking are "key ones for western thought, and reflect the major forms of oppression in western culture."

A partial version of Plumwood's list will be an aid to begin thinking… [END OF PREVIEW]

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