Mary Shelley's Frankenstein adds to the concept
of the individual and society. or
Of course, Shelley's contribution is rather unusual and is likely to be overlooked
in some ways.
The obvious view of the individual in relationship to society is that of Victor
Frankenstein, whose neglect of his own creation brings harm to his family
and community. These are useful, yet there is more to learn from the less
There is another view, one we at Hail Mary Shelley think is far more important.
It concerns the less obvious relationship of Walton to society. A close look at
Walton's intentions and the unintended consequences and they appear to be things
that Shelley thought the robust reader (note that her preface declares her interest
is not in enervating but rather in exercising her reader's mind) ought to consider.
She provides information of particular interest to the reader who is engaged in
examining the novel for patterns that are more like our own than those which, by
the inclusion of supernatural events and elements, dazzle us and therefore distract
us from more ordinary human courses.
Walton makes clear his intention to do everything he can to restore his guest to
health and happiness. Shelley indicates early on in the novel how these desired
goals may be achieved. "A little soup" restores the guest. The guest takes an
interest in the projects of those around him. It becomes clear when Walton
concludes Victor's story, that the "much recovered" guest has relapsed. And
we may guess why. It is evident that the story he has told Walton has been shared
with no one else. When the crew's fears are represented by the delegation, all
that they speak of is the natural danger posed by the ice and sea. If the crew had
any knowledge of a monster, at whose mercy the crew would certainly be those
long nights while the ship was trapped in the ice, the delegation would be sure to
include such in their message to Walton.
No history will tell everything that has happened, which is one of the lessons that
is important to anyone examining the relationship of the individual to society.
There seem to be two major changes that Walton does not explain. The guest,
who is on deck and interested in all activities, ceases evidently to go on deck
or take any interest in what others are engaged in doing. There is the period
of time prior to his decision to tell the story, in which it seems likely that some
significant event has taken place that Walton has not mentioned.
The surprise announcement of the deaths of many of Walton's crew is another
change that has not been explained. Thus we see, when we are not preoccupied
with Victor's fantastic and flawed tale (see this site's other pages such as the
exercise pages), that Walton's relationship with his crew (society) seems not to have
been what it could have been.
The importance of Shelley's having included the unnoticed yet discoverable problems
of the individual (Walton) with society is that those more ordinary problems are of
the kind that are likely to arise in our lives. By examining how, distracted by something
larger than life, we miss that which is essential to life itself, Shelley offers what is in
effect a most useful test of our ability to see where things have gone wrong and
to make corrections.
The reader (individual) who notices Walton's problem and the possibility that
Victor and the monster might be restored to life (how about a little more soup?)
will be in a society of readers who never thoght of looking at the novel that closely.
There cannot be a better demonstration of the individual and society than that.
If the student is to "explore the position of individual's within social institutions,
the conflict between the individual's sense of self and social convention,
and the individual as an agent for self determination",
it could be useful to compare the ship's master and Walton, noting that
the novel leaves it to the reader to explain or wonder how it is that these
two characters appear to hold the same office (captain of the ship, which
resolution is hinted at in Walton's first letter in the next to the last paragraph).
The ship's master changes his course based on information that he did not
have when he sought the hand of the young woman. Her father, of course,
follows the conventions of society, which, on account of what the ship's
master has done with his fortune, are in conflict with the purpose of the
agreement made. The parable of the ship's master (see page at this site
devoted to the parable) illustrates Mary's father's view that one ought not
to make promises, which he expressed in Political Justice.
Walton, if looked at closely, is an example of failure in the essential process
of putting to principled use of knowledge already in hand, which is Godwin's
prescription (in place of the promise and conventions of society).
So one could say that by providing the two examples, Shelley shows that
it is not the degree of self determination that makes the difference or creates
in the end the conflict, but rather it is the individual's remaining true to his or
her purpose. Walton, as mentioned before, disregards the evidence that the
history Victor has told him is unreliable and probably a fabrication. Walton,
when he has the opportunity, fails to ask the questions of the monster that
might resolve the discrepancies in Victor's story. The ship's master, so it could
be argued, asked the necessary question. So the view of the possible success
and failure represented by the two who are called captain could be used to
examine the possibilities for the monster at the end of the novel. Remember,
he is not dead yet, and the watch on deck may see him soon after he is out
of Walton's view.
I suggest considering this approach to the exploration, with the idea of remaining
open to the idea that the Roman virtue Godwin sought to introduce to European
society would likely involve the individual learning the way of the ship's master.
The kind of autonomy and independence he has only appears to be in conflict
with society etc. While Walton's actions, while appearing to be (with regard to his
enterprise) responsible, yet (and the end has not come - yikes- what will happen
if the monster is rescued and his story is heard?) eventually will result in serious
problems, as suggested by Ancient Mariner.
Of course the monster has an outsider's view of society, which may be useful to
explore with this topic.
Key to understanding the structure of Frankenstein:
"Uniformity of judgment" is what Godwin says is necessary to the proper relationship
of individuals. We see in the parable of the ship's master that readers come to that
point of agreement. The peculiar course taken by the ship's master is seen by all as
having been the best. Shelley then offers the unresolved case of the monster. Can
the readers come to agreement on what should happen with him, keeping in mind that
he is still alive and may be sighted by one of the crew, none of whom have heard the
fabrication Walton has heard?