Frankenstein and Romanticism Having Long Essay

  • Length: 8 pages
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  • Subject: Literature
  • Type: Essay
  • Paper: #33512926

Excerpt from Essay :

Her list includes the following:

culture / Nature

reason / Nature

male/female mind/body ( Nature)

master/slave reason/matter (physicality)

rationality/animality ( Nature)

human / Nature (non-human)

civilised/primitive ( Nature)

production/reproduction ( Nature)


At first glance, this list seems to capture the basic groupings and gender associations that are at work in Mary Shelley's novel. The Creature exemplifies animality, primitiveness, and physicality, whereas Victor represents the forces of civilization, rational production, and culture. Victor is part of a happy family and has prospects of marriage, as opposed to the wild and isolated monster. The Creature is "other," since he is forced outside the human community and is depicted in association with rugged and uncultured Nature. But second consideration should make us pause. I have been contrasting Victor with the monster rather than with a woman like his fiancee, Elizabeth. This sets up a dualism in which the monster is the feminine member of the pair. Where does this leave Nature -- or, for that matter, the women in the book?

Plumwood did not include "good" and "evil" as dualities on her list, but this is another pair that we may want to ponder. In Frankenstein, the treatment of evil is fascinatingly complex. And this complexity infects the monstrous Creature and our responses to him. We cannot presume that the Creature brought to life by Dr. Frankensteinis evil. Mary Shelley's novel is unusually sympathetic to this monster. The location or "gendering" of monstrousness and evil is much more slippery in the novel than most stereotyped movie versions suggest. Mary Shelley offers at least two other candidates for monstrous evil as she juxtaposes the repulsiveness and violence of the Creature against the unnatural experiments of the mad scientist and also against the elemental, fierce powers of a sublime female Nature.

Ann Radcliffe and Charles Brockden Brown respond to prevailing intellectual and philosophical trends. Radcliffe's version of subjectivity, for example, is in response to Romantic ideas about the intellect, the role of the imagination, and the place of the sublime. Brown's writings were influenced by Romantic notions of political justice derived from William Godwin's an Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).

However, the early Gothic does not passively assimilate pre-existing concepts (about nature, justice, beauty, and the sublime) but actively interrogates these concepts.

That Mary Shelley would respond to Romantic ideas is unsurprising given that she was married to Percy Shelley and knew Byron, and that her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (who died shortly after giving birth to Mary), were two of the foremost radical intellectuals of the time. However, in keeping with both the Italian and Wieland, Shelley debates such ideas rather than restates them, and this is achieved through a skeptical approach to Romantic idealism. Her interrogation of sublimity in Frankenstein provides us with a clear example of how a Gothic narrative mounts this kind of challenge.

Frankenstein addresses a central feature of Romanticism: the role of nature. For the Romantics, encounters with particularly dramatic aspects of nature are sublime because they stimulate the imagination and enable the subject to transcend the everyday world of duties and responsibilities, and so discover their place in a higher order of things. Immanuel Kant's 'The Analytic of the Sublime' is a key philosophical analysis of this moment, and he claims that in the sublime moment, phenomena (objects) become replaced by noumena (ideas).

For Kant, this also indicates that the mind comprises both the ability to imagine and a propensity for rationality (because we do not stay in a permanent noumenal state but return to a more terrestrial world of logic and order). What animates nature is key to understanding the sublime. Radcliffe finds God within nature; an atheist such as Percy Shelley discovers a secular creative force (see his poem 'Mont Blanc', 1817), for Kant the experience tells us how the mind works (its capacity for stimulation), whereas for Burke sublimity is linked to Terror. What constitutes the sublime suggests different things to different philosophers, poets, and novelists, and therefore what the sublime means was subject to some debate. Mary Shelley, however, takes the radical step in Frankenstein of suggesting that the sublime is little more than a culturally (or perhaps intellectually) constructed way of looking at the world. For her, accounts of the sublime rest on a false premise relating to the presence of meaning, and she makes this challenge by problematising the Romantic assertion that nature gives shape to that meaning.

The metaphysical status of Shelley's creature indicates how she challenges Romantic conceptions of nature. The creature is both natural (made up of human parts, and possessing a recognizably human inner life) and unnatural (because he has been stitched together from dead bodies). The fact that he is both real and unreal disturbs Victor Frankenstein's belief that the natural world is a transcendent one. This is clear when Victor meets the creature for the first time since he had created and abandoned him. The meeting takes place whilst Victor is grieving for his murdered brother, William (whom he knows has been killed by the creature). Victor attempts to gain some relief from his feelings of grief by seeking the kind of sublime transcendence that a visit to the Alps should, in a Romantic world, provide. Victor notes that in the presence of this 'imperial nature' the 'sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving. They elevated me from all littleness of feeling, and although they did not remove my grief, they subdued and tranquillized it'.

However, the scene symbolically illustrates Victor's egotism, an egotism which had led him to create the creature and turn his back on his family and fiancee (Elizabeth) in pursuit of scientific success. The scene ceases to be about nature but about Victor's egotism when he claims:

I retired to rest at night; my slumbers, as it were, waited on and ministered to by the assemblance of grand shapes which

I had contemplated during the day. They congregated round me; the unstained snowy mountain-top, the glittering pinnacle, the pine woods, and ragged bare ravine, the eagle, soaring amidst the clouds -- they all gathered round me and bade me be at peace. (p. 142)

Victor imaginatively recasts nature so that he lies at its centre (indeed his creation of the creature suggests his 'mastery' over nature). Shelley develops this egotism by suggesting that it explains the latent hostility towards domesticity which his scientific endeavors imply. This is apparent in Victor's somewhat heartless claim that he has been distracted, even if only temporarily, from William's death in this concord with nature because, 'The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind and causing me to forget the passing cares of life' (p. 143). The scene leads Victor into contemplating the supposed benefits of living a simple, more natural life: 'Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute[?]' (p. 143). However, all of this sets the scene for the arrival of the creature. This short, very densely argued passage from the novel implies a relationship between egotism and the sublime, and dwells on the misconstruction of nature as a form of transcendence. Victor's account of the brute is then literalized by the sudden appearance of the creature, at the sight of which 'a mist came over my eyes, and I felt a faintness seize me' (p. 144). This blurring of vision is central to how the novel challenges Victor with the alternative idea of the sublime which is embodied in the 'monster'.

IV Conclusion

Shelley's argument, and other Gothic novels such as the Italian and Wieland are at some level concerned with intellectual argument, is that nature is seen as sublime but that this perception is a cultural rather than a natural one. How Victor sees the landscape tells us very little about it, but reveals a lot about him. Ultimately the novel asserts that 'seeing' itself is not natural because it is tainted by cultural factors. The sublime constitutes a moment of projection for Victor and this is crucial to understanding how the novel replaces the sublime with a key Gothic motif: the double. Such issues are focused by how the creature, initially, exemplifies ideas about the sublime that are drawn from Burke's Philosophical Enquiry, which was discussed in the Introduction. In Frankenstein the creature appears to embody Burke's theory of sublime Terror. It is a mode of sublimity which supplants the seemingly more innocent version of it that Victor hopes to discover on his journey to the Alps. Indeed the arrival of the creature disturbs his Romantic reveries, but it is important to note that the creature seems to be a part of the drama of the landscape that Victor contemplates. He is the Romantic brute made flesh and as such represents the dark, Gothic, side of the sublime. However, Shelley…

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