Context In Frankenstein Essay Research Paper What

Context In Frankenstein Essay, Research Paper

What influences of context are there to be found in Mary Shelley´s ‘Frankenstein´?

How does an understanding of these context help to shape your response to the text?

Discuss with reference to the three key different aspects of context.

The context of a novel is the circumstances in which it was written. The three

most important areas of context in literary terms are cultural, biographical, and

political contexts. The context of a novel provides clarification of meaning aswell as

giving a deeper understanding of why a particular text was written in a particular way,

by a particular author at a particular time. These three areas are evident in

‘Frankenstein´, however it is important to note that different contexts have relative

importance, both in terms of the type of context and how much emphasis it is given in

relation to key themes as well as the importance of a context as perceived by

contemporary societies. Both the context in which ‘Frankenstein´ was written and the

novel itself help to formulate a fair and balanced response to the text. The biographical context of ‘Frankenstein´ is key in order to understand the

themes in the book. It is important to point out however, that in analysing the text one

must avoid analysing the creator as opposed to the created. In literary analysis, the

main aim is to understand the work better, not the person who wrote it. Mary Shelley

was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a prominant feminist, and William Godwin,

a radical philosopher and novelist. Both her parents were noted freethinkers, and

objected to institution. This is evident in the text, for example, when the magistrate

presumes Frankenstein guilty of Henry´s murder, questioning the justice system. Mary

W died soon after giving birth and so Mary S was educated in the intellectual circles of

her father´s contemporaries. The death of the key women in the plot (Elizabeth,

Caroline, Justine) aswell as the imbalance caused by having no feminine influence while

Frankenstein made the monster, could be a projection of the lack of a dominant

feminine in Shelley´s own upbringing, aswell as relaying some of her mother´s own

feminist views. These feminist undertones are apparent when Frankenstein destroys the

female monster, symbolising male domination, and also when the monster finds a

portrait of Caroline, “a most lovely woman”, highlighting his need for a maternal


Mary was not formally educated and was brought up by an unloving

stepmother, and was often alone and unhappy. The idyllic upbringing of Frankenstein

can be seen as a reaction to this, “my mother´s tender caresses and my father´s smile of

benevolent pleasure” and along with the monsters isolated upbringing shows Mary´s

own views about the importance of upbringing, and nurturing. Frankenstein deals with

the idea of loss, which can be related to Shelley´s own life. Aswell as being motherless,

Shelley lost three of her children, her sister to suicide, and her husband. Mary Shelley

fell in love with Percy at the age of seventeen. She lived in an irregular household of

men, intent on achieving glory through their genius (Percy, Byron). In writing

Frankenstein, Shelley was reacting to the selfish nature of such ideals. “The labours of

men of genius,..are erroneously directed”. This can also be related to the detrimental

effects of Frankenstein´s own unchecked intellectual ambition.

The biographical context helps to understand some of the themes in the book

but is relatively limited in that it only tells the reader about the individual and not

society as a whole. It does not show the political aspect nor the established order that

Shelley was reacting against. Nevertheless, biographical context is very useful in order

to understand Shelley´s own situation and further explain some of the themes in the


The political or social context is key in order to understand themes, as well as

the perception of the themes by it´s contemporary society. Advances in science were

apparent at this time, with Darwin´s theory of evolution, and science had a great

impact on the work of Shelley. Indeed, Darwin was a close friend of Percy and

advances in medicine and the need for cadavers also figured at the time. At the time

grave robbing was a common occurence as the bodies were sold to hospitals so that

medical students could dissect and study them. This enforces the idea that science

fiction novels are merely “satirical versions of the here and now” as opposed to an

imagined world. Through Frankenstein, Shelley explores her own fears about the

dangers of science. Frankenstein is a victim of his own unchecked ambition, “the world

was to me a secret which I desired to divine”. He cannot deal, both emotionally and

physically, with the monster he has created. By neglecting the monster, it is reiterated

that Frankenstein is not ready for the consequences of his ambition. This highlights

Shelley´s own beliefs about the dangers of science and the dangers of overreaching by

connecting tragedy with ambitious aspirations. “Seek happiness in tranquillity and

avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself

in science and discoveries.” Other examples of political context are feminist views,

influenced by her mother, and the humanist beliefs of her father. The literary context of Frankenstein is vital in order to further understand the

ideas behind the key themes. The Prometheus myths have various connections to

Frankenstein. Prometheus created his creature using fire and this can be related to the

methods employed by Frankenstein in creating the monster, “That I might infuse a

spark of being into the lifeless thing”. Furthermore, Prometheus became symbolic of

breaking the boundaries of knowledge, he went to far and should have left things to the

gods. This can be related to Frankenstein´s similar tendencies, and his attempts to

usurp God. The comparisons between the legend and this text stop there as

Frankenstein offers slightly different consequences. Prometheus was admired for what

he did whereas Frankenstein was criticised by Shelley for his egocentric antisocial

tendencies. Furthermore, Frankenstein is punished for neglecting and not creating the

monster. This puts a slightly different emphasis on what he did wrong as well as

reinforcing Shelley´s own beliefs about the importance of nurturing.

The second literary influence is that of “Paradise Lost” where parallel themes

run throughout the book. For example, the isolation of the hostile being causing an

increase in hostility. “His vices are the forced solitude that he abhors”

Frankenstein also refers to the monster in terms used in “Paradise Lost”, “the fiend”,

“the demon”. Both the creature and the creator are torn by the consequences of

misapplied knowledge and a sense of isolation. Frankenstein becomes isolated because

of what he has done, and the monster is isolated because of what he is. The literary

context helps to evoke pity for the created and switches the blame towards the blind

ambition of the creator.

This book is hugely influenced by the generic contexts of romanticism and

gothicism. When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she was in contact with both Percy, and

Lord Byron, two poets who professed the romantic ideals of the age. The romantic

movement was also notably influenced by Godwin, Shelley´s father, and it included a

celebration of nature, an expression of the individual and basically a rebellion against

the structure of society pre-French revolution. The idea came to Shelley in a dream,

(perhaps drug induced) which in itself is the ultimate expression of the individual. Also

the concepts of uniqueness and self-realisation aswell as an increased emphasis on the

emotions and feelings of the individual are apparent here. The epistolary stlye

highlights the feelings of the characters, for example when Frankenstein sees Clerval´s

body, he cannot control the severity of his emotions. Frankenstein concerns the results

of irresponsible individual aspiration. This could be interpreted as Shelley´s own

pessimistic views about the power of the individual. Following the response of the

monarchies to the romantic ideals (e.g.. the wars of 1848), there was an increase in

disillusionment among romantics, and the possibility of a society transformed by the

individual seemed less believable.

The romantics sought inspiration from the sublime as a reaction to order an

convention, this is evident in the text where ideas about solitude, darkness, terror and

incomprehensibility are explored. The idea of isolation in the book can also be related

as the romantics felt isolated by their beliefs and their desire for progressive social

change. Mary Shelley highlights a pessimistic view of society through Frankenstein.

She seems to have little hope in the perfectibility of mankind, and relays her own

feeling about the corruption of social institutions. For example, Justine is killed for

something she didn´t do. Furthermore, even the DeLacey family who are egalitarian,

who have no gender-roles and are seemingly the perfect family reject the monster on

appearance. The monster also is typical of the concept of the noble savage, and the

belief that primitive cultures can have good intentions. This is shown through the

monsters fundamental benevolence and eloquent language. “The trait of kindness

moved me sensibly”.

The gothic movement was a reaction against political comfort and stability. It

explores the idea of terror through extreme suggestions such as death. Frankenstein

explores a more sophisticated fear, that of taking science too far. However, it does

have many gothic elements in if, for example, the extreme geographical settings are

evocative of things beyond our comprehension. this is the idea of the sublime, and the

idea that we can connect to it through contemplation of nature. “These sublime and

magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation”. Another feature of gothic

novels is that they resist reason, but the ideas are frighteningly possible as opposed to

absurd. This is another example of how the book is a projection of Shelley´s own fears

about what could conceivably happen with science. The context of a novel is vitally important in order to understand why a text

was written and the political and social beliefs that underpin it. Through context a

broader understanding of theme can be established and a balanced response to both the

text and its underpinning values can be attained.


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