Mary Shelley and the Horrors of Romanticism

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.”—Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s story begins with the English explorer, Captain Walton, on a cruise of exploration to the polar regions. At one point he contentedly proclaims “I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven, for nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose.” But as Frankenstein later warns him, this “steady purpose” can also be perverted into monomania.

Frankenstein is a child of its age. The author was influenced by Goethe and the Rousseauistic milieu, and her own father (William Godwin) was a leading English utopian radical. Shelley’s religious outlook is at times broadly Christian, yet her theology is a strange mixture of theism and neo-pagan fatalism. The narrator frequently declares that a certain moment or action “decided my future destiny.”

The problem with this outlook is that it is a half truth. There is an undeniable duality to our lives—we are a mixture of noble aspirations an base desires. Our acts reveal the conflict of free will and apparently relentless circumstances. The problem with Shelley’s philosophy, as enunciated by the precocious Frankenstein, is that it leads us to think that evil is equal to (and sometimes stronger than) the forces of good. Such a Manichean universe leads to apathy or despair.

As for Frankenstein’s superhuman/inhuman creation, sometimes he appears as a victim of a tragic alienation, the original Sartrean man. At other times he seems classically evil and demonic. It is not clear if Shelley is merely adding depth to her characterization, or if she is influenced by the new morality of Romanticism (or again, if she is subtly critiquing the latter by deflating its grandiose pretensions).

To her credit, the author explores the ambivalence of humanity’s new faith in itself. One wonders how much it reflects the aspirations and disappointments of her own life, since the novel offers a salutary discussion of what happens when a man “aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” Early in his career, Frankenstein confidently proclaims: “I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” Yet what follows is a tale of murder, hatred, disillusionment and despair. This leads the young Swiss scientist to confess his transgressions against mankind:

They were my brethren, my fellow beings, and I felt attracted even to the most repulsive among them, as to creatures of an angelic nature and celestial mechanism. But I felt that I had no right to share their intercourse. I had unchained an enemy among them whose joy it was to shed their blood and to revel in their groans.

Related commentary: Frankenstein as Literature and  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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