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Life and Death in Romanticism
The Romantics were a group of writers and artists who desired to see a return to beauty in the world. The imagery they used was designed to elicit strong emotion in their audience. Like all literary or artistic movements, there were a series of unspoken rules about what could and could not be included in a Romantic work. One such theme was the parallel between life and death and the thin line that separates the two. Mary Shelley and John Keats were both writers of the Romantic era and their works in tandem reflect the understanding of the limitations of an earthly existence. Both authors led fairly traumatic lives, losing parents at young ages and were haunted by the specter of death throughout their lives. These questions about life and death and the nature of existence were no doubt influenced by the popularity of metaphysical philosophy during the period which was a movement wherein all components of the world were questioned, particularly the nature of existence. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and in John Keats odes, the theme of life and death permeates the works and explores the metaphysical and physical plains of existence.
In the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the theme of the story questions the definition of monstrosity and the right to create life. Doctor Victor Frankenstein takes it upon himself to create life without the necessary biological functions of intercourse or the laborious raising of a child to adulthood. Frankenstein takes up the ultimate metaphysical challenge: the creation of existence through scientific and unnatural means. In so doing he must bridge the gap between living and deceased by taking pieces from corpses and reanimating them, giving life to what had been dead. The monster is a creation comprised of unnatural means and thus he must perform evil actions. The Romantic Movement was one in which the natural world was cherished and anything not created from that natural order had to be other and wrong. The thesis of the story then becomes that questioning existence is the right and responsibility of man but that defying the natural world is an abomination. This is reiterated by David Hosette in "Metaphysical Intersections in Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's Theistic Investigation of Scientific Materialism and Transgressive Autonomy." He writes:
Frankenstein is a speculative narrative that asks, what would happen if man created human life without the biologically and relationally necessary woman and with indifference to God? What if Adam were rejected by his own Creator and create life after his own fleshly or material image? Mary Shelley's answer to these questions is not a triumphant humanist manifesto, nor is it an ironic subversion of a supposedly outmoded theistic perspective. Rather, she offers a philosophical nightmare revealing the horrific consequences of methodological naturalism taken to its logical conclusion (1).
Victor Frankenstein's crime is not so much that he has played God, but that he has transgressed the line between life and death and done so without care about the natural order of the world as perceived by the Romantics.
From the outset of his narrative, Victor Frankenstein explains that he had every possible advantage growing up. He was wealthy and adept at science and had parents who encouraged his interests and desired only to better him. Hogsettes writes, "Victor is basically claiming that his mind (which in the materialistic perspective is nothing but brain matter) was mechanistically predisposed to this kind of thinking and that he was physiologically fated to react the way he did" (26). The so-called monster, on the other hand, was created from dead tissue. His "father" rejected him from the outset, declaring him a failure. "The beauty of the dream vanquished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart" (Shelley 99). Frankenstein dared to tamper with the fragility of life to reanimate the dead and then refused to take responsibility for the creation. He was the father of this creature in the sense that it was his participation that led to its being and yet abandoned the entity to roam about in the natural world where it did not understand either the nature of its own existence or the rules of humanity.
When Dr. Frankenstein sets about his experimentation, they are all of his own choice. Instead of considering the potential negative implications of his actions, Frankenstein instead gives in to his need to discover even if his experimentations are unnatural. "I succeeded in discovering the cause and generation of life; nay, more, I became capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter" (Shelley 85). Frankenstein has discovered the border separating life and death and rather than consider what will happen if he takes that leap, he goes forward to create an unnatural thing. He uses his discovery because it satiates his own needs. On the other hand, the monster's actions are the result of Frankenstein's rejection. "You, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us" (205). He is abandoned without being taught how to interact with human beings and thus he has to learn of humanity from a distance.
In the end of the story, Doctor Frankenstein takes no responsibility for his actions. He does make the choice not to create a companion for the creation believing the pair would cause further destruction, thus finally gaining some understanding about not tampering with the barrier between life and death. However, he does not take blame on himself for what he has done in defying God or takes any responsibility for the actions of that creation, only lamenting that he created the thing in the first place (157). The monster on the other hand, understands that what he has done is wrong and he feels genuine guilt and remorse. "I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept, and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing" (276). He had believed that avenging himself on Frankenstein would ease some of his misery but the crimes only increased his despair. From a metaphysical standpoint, it would seem that the monster is the one who has gained true existence while the Doctor has given it up for curiosity. The monster understands that for every action, there is a reaction and that unnatural and immoral choices will yield unhappiness. By understanding this concept, he has been able to achieve true existence despite the fact that he is made up of dead parts illustrating that in Shelley's view it is not being alive that makes humanity, but the ability to understand our choices and accept responsibility for them.
Throughout Keats' poetry, he makes similar connections between life and death, concentrating on the fragile divider that separates these two aspects of existence. If we are alive, then it means one day we will be dead. The narrators of Romantic poems were always consumed by love and passion and one would assume this to be the case of the writer himself. Whether this is true or not, remains to be seen. What we know about John Keats is that he had a very short life, dying at the tender age of only 25, and that many of his family members died before he did, including both parents. It is not then surprising that Keats' poems are full of longing and appreciation for what is lost, given that he had lost so much. This is particularly evident in Keats' poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode on Melancholy," where Keats reflects on the past and how the present is far darker and sadder than what has come before.
The odes of John Keats, as exemplified by "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode on Melancholy" show how these early tragedies affected the man who wrote them. In her book on the odes of Keats, Helen Vendler hypothesized that Keats wrote the odes to explore "his own acute questions about the conditions of creativity…and the relation or art to human life and death" (6). If you look closely at the poems themselves, this analysis seems to make a lot of sense. His odes are tinged with words remarking on the nature of loneliness, regret, nostalgia and the frailty of human existence.
In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats writes a poem detailing a piece of pottery that depicts an age gone by. The first lines seem to beg the vessel to reveal its answers to him and stating that nothing that exists now will equal what was when the urn was made. "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on" (11-12). These words show that the narrator of the poem is longing for something he knows he will never hear again. Arguably, the same could be said for a man who has lost the majority of his family. The next lines, on the surface are talking to…[continue]
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