"how effectively does frankenstein reflect and/or challenge the
dominant ways of thinking of the time in which they were composed?"
Imagine then - many women like Mary Shelley's mother died in
childbirth - a very dangerous event - is then the idea of creating
a human being or servant of human beings as unreasonable in that
With all of the disadvantages of being a woman (see chronology page
and note at the top that Mary's mother first wrote not as herself but
using a man's name) shelley_chronology.htm#chronology
don't we see a threat expressed, however metaphorically,
that women will be pushed out of the social scheme entirely if there
are advances in technology that make such a thing possible?
Right there you have an individual hiding her identity in order to
work in society.
Look at such matters that are different and see how they are reflected
or challenged. ie how will the children be raised if not by women?
It is Victor's mother who initiates the rescue of Elizabeth - see how
that supports this view of the worth of women as more than just
producing the offspring? Safie's mother ditto
Women vote not as do all classes - not so then - as participants are
they happier with their government than in the 19th century?
Doesn't the suggestion that inclusion improves society show itself
a little in the stories?
Doesn't Walton hide his brain in order to keep his place in the
society of Frankenstein - how else would you explain his ignoring
the gross flaws in the story he does not question?
How about the price paid by Felix when he acts to save an
innocent victim of prejudice? And what is needed if not
greater understanding of prejudice to see that Felix then does
not himself inflict injustice on another?
What about the blind father and what is revealed or suggested
about his unused talent to listen to a hideous yet valuable person?
re: point 1
Your first point, "the roles of men and women in the 19th century" is an
important one. Reading about the conditions of the period provides some
evidence of this. During this period many of the means by which women
could earn money to support themselves were disappearing, due to
manufacturing processes that were being introduced. The book by
Frances Sherwood, Vindication offers a view of this problem. The
only way left open to women, whose craft work was replaced with
mechanical methods, was prostitution. Sherwood's research reveals
the sad extent of this development. This, of course, relates to your second
point regarding social class.
I believe (am about 99 % certain of this) that Wm St Clair's book, The
Godwins and the Shelleys as well as a note in The Journals of Mary Shelley
point to some slight progress toward equality for women. There was a move
to provide some legal standing for women with regard to custody of children
below a certain age. This was, I believe, to relieve somewhat the difficulty of
women who were divorced. This situation would have been something that
Mary was painfully aware of. Percy was still married when he and Mary ran off
to the continent together. The law that provided for slight relief was enacted,
as I recall, about 1801 or a few years thereafter.
It is interesting to note in regard to the roles of men and women and progress
toward equality that the story of Elizabeth is changed in the 1831 version. There
is the sense in the later version that Victor's parents approach equality in their
relationship (the decision to adopt Elizabeth) more than in the earlier version. Of
course this reflects the condition of the upper class in a society that Elizabeth
in her letter to Victor says is more advanced than that of other countries.
re: point 2
I am not entirely clear on your second point, but think that I probably am
understanding it at least in part. The more powerful classes institute changes
in the course of their progressing toward their goals which are, as noted in
the above remarks concerning point 1, disruptive to those classes less able
to effect change or to adapt to change. The period is important in this regard.
The interest of Percy in expanding the right to vote, excellent details can be
found in St. Clair's book, shows part of this picture. The fear of the government
regarding the lower classes and the possibility of a revolution similar to that
that had swept France should not be forgotten. The Terror of 1794 and
Godwin's role in preventing harsh and heavy handed government repression,
or some of it, can be seen a bit at the pages on this site. Look for Mary Shelley's
life made possible by a newspaper.
Note that Walton and Frankenstein are of the same class more or less. Yet,
Frankenstein manipulates Walton. And Walton becomes a kind of monster.
There is evidence that Walton's action is the most likely of Frankenstein's
demise. And, like the reader does with the monster, Walton has misperceived
Frankenstein to be dead when he is not. These are among the many clues
Shelley provides for the robust reader (see her preface for her intention to
produce a novel that avoid the enervating effects common to others).
re: point 3
Godwin's idea was that society has defects which need to be corrected.
The individual and his or her careful observation regarding society in
discussion with other individuals is what is necessary to the correction.
Shelley's novel is much a reflection of her father's observation, yet she
goes further. The group, such as the judges in Justine's case, or the
representative of a group, such as the priest who frightens Justine into
making a false confession, in the novel can be seen as making serious
error, yet the individual, Victor, while condemning the error of the
group, may make the same kind of error. Justine could have been
found not guilty by anyone who examined the evidence. The fact that
Victor fails to see the evidence is part of the machinery of the story
that I see as identifying the novel as a work of satire. In Roman
programmatic satire, the person who criticizes others reveals himself
to be making the same kind of mistake. It is a very important part
of the point of view necessary to making progress. That is, we have
to identify the nature or way that error intrudes unnoticed.
It is vital to the best examination of the conflict between the individual
and society, with its many conventions, that we include, however rare,
those instances in which conflict of this kind is resolved. Shelley, and
very deliberately I am sure, before any other story is developed with
any kind of beginning, middle and end, gives us just such an example
of success. The parable of ths ship's master is that example. The
Russian father follows the conventions and is in conflict with the
individual who sees the better way. It takes some doing and some
time, but the resolution is wonderful and lasting. Shelley then offers
the story in which resolution is missing, but which we (note the preface)
may work out. For example, does the lonely monster really need a
mate made by Victor? A blind and equally lonely female, the story
suggests, would be a better answer.
re: point 4
While there are different readings of the novel, there are at the same time
some important ways of reading the novel that are common to the different
views. This is also quite important to note and to see as very likely a deliberate
effect of the author. Victor is often seen as more the cause of the misery that ensues
in the novel than the monster, yet, whether or not the villian and victim are clearly
defined, readers, however they might think themselves to be making up each
her own mind, accept the clearly flawed report as true, an indication that there is
insufficient thinking going on. This is a very unusual phenomenon.
It is interesting to note the connection with point 1 and the response to the
discrepancies in Victor's story and the contradictions in Walton. Again, it does
not matter what sort of reading is taken. The contractions and discrepancies are
seen as mistakes Shelley made. No serious consideration is given (except at
this site) to the possibility that the discrepancies were and remain deliberately
created parts of what she called the "machinery of the story". I have wondered
whether, had the intial misconception that the author was male continued, there
would have sooner been an examination of the novel such as I have made. There
is a tone of condescension in scholars such as Leonard Wolf that I find more
than mildly offensive.
Until a problem is understood, nothing devised as a solution to the problem will
effect correction. Indeed, any such solution will create further problems. Shelley
can be seen as having carefully created circumstances that result in universal error
of judgment. Wow! She had to have a remarkable understanding of human nature
and human potential to have achieved this. Not only was there universal error of
judgment during the period in which she lived, but more than 180 years later the
error of judgment is almost universal.
Here I will quote from Auden's poem September 1, 1939, which has been quoted
a good deal since September 11th of this year.
Readers generally agree, as you mention in your 5th point, that the monster onlyI and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
becomes destructive when his attempts to achieve belonging are frustrated or
denied. A reason for your seeing no absolute villian or victim could be that the
questions so important to the exercise Shelley poses are not often asked. These
questions arise from discrepancies Shelley carefully included, but which are ignored.
The monster, in his conversation with Walton, describes Frankenstein as "the select
specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men" and "generous and
self-devoted being" (you understand that self-devoted does not mean self-centered, but
rather has the meaning of being devoted [to a noble cause] by himself and not some
indoctrination). What a remarkable contradiction. Where in the story told by Victor
would the monster have come to such an appraisal of him? This is one of a number
of clues that are, when considered at all, jarring and suggest very strongly that vital
parts of the history of the two combatants are missing from the account Walton has
heard and recorded.
Readers tend to accept, as Walton does, a story full of evidence that it is a fabrication,
and with it the flawed conclusion which omits the essential ingredient - the one that
answers the monsters question, "where can I find rest but in death?" - redemption.
Readers disregard the sense of injustice done to the monster and accept that there
is no way in which the monster can find rest or peace in this world. This idea that
there is no solution exists only because the problem has not been understood. There
are important questions to be asked. Walton doesn't bother with them and neither
do we, at least not at first.
re: point 5
I have to begin to respond to this point by saying that there is a problem with the
premise of the point as you have stated it. Although this may seem contrarian, if
you see the evidence that supports my view that the novel is really about exercising
the minds of all readers and beginning a discussion that results in some "uniformity of
judgment" (see Godwin's point individual_society.html#uniformity ) then this should
make some sense or at least begin to do so. Shelley shows us that each of us, as an
individual, makes the same mistake in judgment that is made by society. The mistake
could be described as resulting from traditional ways of not thinking. So she also shows
us that Victor, as an "untraditional individual" makes the same mistake as that made
by the judges who condemn Justine. Justine could have lived if anyone had carefully
examined the evidence. In other words, uniformity of judgment could have saved
Justine, but it was not attempted. So there is good reason to see the separation or
distinction of the individual and society as not being the critical issue raised by the
novel, because the individual and society are, as so brilliantly demonstrated for the
better part of two centuries, susceptible to the same enervated response.
So within the story Victor tells, the conflict you describe works as an idea supported
by evidence, but only as long as the superficial view is maintained. The moment any
serious examination of the many clues that there are deeper or more real problems
present begins, well, that moment the evidence that the novel is at its core about
conflict between the individual and society disappears. Poof.
We as individual readers begin, just as the Russian father does, by thinking that we
are thinking. The ship's master abandons the one he longs to be with in order to
prompt the thinking necessary to the solution of the problem. Shelley (how brilliant)
does exactly the same thing. But we, who thought the Russian father silly, do not
respond to the abandonment (Shelley, like the ship's master, abandons her creation
- the monster novel). We had not thought for 174 years. It was in 1992 that the
first book was published in which the monster was sited from a higher part of the
ship than that from which Walton reported him to have disappeared in to the darkness
and distance. The prospect of a wholesome union of society and the monster was not
recognized for that long.
The real problem is not between the individual and society. The real problem is in
I am very interested in your further communicating your views regarding the points
you have presented and my responses. I realize that my view of the novel is very
different and may not seem useful, but hope that you will consider it carefully.