Liberalism introduced a very appealing idealistic perspective of the world, wishing for universal freedom and equality. Historical events, such as the French revolution or the industrial revolution seemed to change the world in this exact direction, but the truth is that liberalism failed to keep its promise regarding progress.
Society did undergo fundamental changes. Absolutist regimes were brought down. The industrial advancements allowed for the creation of a new social order with the middle class acquiring a better living standard and easier access to knowledge. However, all these positive changes had their own price that was paid dearly.
Modernism had the purpose of renewing all the important aspects of society (social, political, cultural, etc.) under the circumstances in which the entirely industrialized world served as a proof to demonstrate that the power is in man's hands while it is our actions which create the future and not the will of an omnipotent god.
Nevertheless, instead of constructing a future that would resemble the ideal society people had been imagining ever since the days of the Enlightenment, man created a world characterized by political tensions, continuous class struggle, inequality and global war.
This tragic development of the situation is reflected in the literary and scientific work of various authors. Some of the works which are worth being taken into consideration are represented by Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," Stefan Zweig's "The world of yesterday" and Perry Rogers' "Aspects of western civilisation."
Mary Shelley published her work in a period in which a lot of changes were going on at political and social level, but also in the scientific areas. Her book, "Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus" was inspired by these changes. It may be argued that the book mirrors the worries that the newly born society was facing.
The plot of the book concerns a young man called Victor Frankenstein. He has difficulty dealing with the death of his mother, caused by a contagious disease and his ambitions focus on managing to bring the dead back to life. He studies and he experiments and in the end he succeeds in fulfilling his purpose. He uses pieces of dead corpses in order to create a new man, the force of whom is overwhelming.
However, this man is cruel and causes a reaction of terror in his creator. Frankenstein abandons the nameless creature which will start killing all the people who are dear to him. The monster eventually asks him to create a fellow for him and Victor attempts to do so, but destroys it before bringing it to life. The creature chases him and the book ends with him dead and the monster acknowledging that what he did was wrong.
In a certain way, the plot of the book is a metaphor for the changes that society and man were undergoing. The importance of the book's subtitle becomes more obvious under these circumstances. According to a Greek mythological legend, Prometheus stole the fire from the gods and gave it to men. This allowed men to develop their own society, expanding themselves and conquering nature. Zeus however condemned him to have an eagle eat his liver up every day (the liver would regenerate every time allowing for the agony to continue).
It is obvious that Victor is a modern Prometheus. He is modern because he uses the scientific advancements as a tool for his endeavour and Prometheus because he wishes to perform an act which is against god and nature. In a certain way Prometheus is a symbol of absolute force.
The industrial revolution which increased the extent to which man dominated nature, bringing about advantages such as more work, more earnings, a better living, easier access to knowledge as a result of the development of society as a whole may have given man the illusion that he can do whatever he chooses. The desire of power and its acquisition could have positive consequences, but only to a certain limited extent.
Prometheus ended up having one of his organs devoured by an eagle. From a metaphorical perspective this can be considered as the victory of nature over man, even if man has super powers. Victor Frankenstein was in possession of a super power since he managed to give life to a sort of doll sewed up from dead pieces. His victory against god and nature seems to be absolute. The fall of the absolutist regime in France and the expansion of the industrial revolution gave people the illusion that their victory was absolute as well.
Nevertheless, it seems that Victor is unable to handle his own creation. The creature commits all those murders because he is rejected by his creator. The causes of the rejection are the ugliness of the creature which causes Victor to be afraid. Fear becomes terror when he takes into consideration the fact that the creature has an overwhelmingly big power. Just like the mortals used the fire to hunt down animals and eat them, the creature in Shelley's book eats children and animals to feed his tremendous appetite. And in the exact same manner Shelley's contemporaries try to expand their dominion in an absolute manner, literally devouring the newly available resources.
A legend related to the one of Prometheus is the one of Pandora. Zeus sends her to the wedding of Prometheus' brother, telling her that inside are to be found wonderful gifts. The book is opened and hellish things come out, such as diseases, despair, pain and death. The only thing that remains in the box is hope.
The industrial revolution may have had tremendous benefits upon society, but there were costs to be paid as well. Starting with the use of child labour and ending with the class confrontation that persists even nowadays, with a period of world wars and massive destruction and killing in between, it is safe to assume that the liberal ideal failed in its purpose of making a better world.
Just like the creature remained names, so do people become more and more anonymous in the middle of a society which aims at making them consume without thinking.
The reason for this tragic succession of events relies in the possession of too much power, possession which turns against the possessor. Victor Frankenstein can be considered a scientist. The main tool that he used in order to achieve his goal was reason. However, everything was ruined by passions (strong emotions, the fear and the hate which he felt in regard to the creature, the impossibility to accept his mother's death, etc.)
In a certain way one could see how the liberal ideal uses reason as a tool as well. Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers who believed in the almighty grace and mercy of an omnipotent and omniscient god, modern thinkers will believe in nothing else but the power that man has in creating his own destiny. Stefan Zweig, in his book, "The world of yesterday" manages to demonstrate how the ideal of reason turned out to be nothing more but an illusion.
The book describes his life and can be divided into three stages. The initial one, the Vienna period represents a sort of golden age in which people had hope and believed in the triumph of freedom, equality and the achievement of good living for everybody. "The world of yesterday" is an autobiography in which the author explains how his life was influenced by the major events taking place in the world.
His is an analysis of what happened and why, giving us insight upon the social changes and the so called "esprit du siecle" or spirit of the era.
Just like Victor Frankenstein who can be considered an idealist, Stefan Zweig in his youth believed that he was living in a golden age of security that could only get better. History brought the two world wars and Hitler. Together with Hitler there was anti-Semitism and slaughter. Society did change and develop from a large number of perspectives.
At a certain point of his life Zweig understood that people were kidding themselves when believing that reason will triumph over everything else. In his speeches, Hitler spoke about peace and other great ideals and under the effect of propaganda people forgot about his crimes allowing the whole thing to move on. It was in that period that Freud was publishing his works, basically explaining how instincts, desires and other repressed frustrations get to control human behaviour having their way on the almighty reason. Zweig believed that he was right and found the arguments to support his conviction in what was going on around him.
Under the circumstances in which people believed in the goodness of war as an act that could demonstrate the will do justice, with so many innocent people being killed and entire countries destroyed, it was obvious that both reason and the liberal ideal of a society in which all the people have equal rights and opportunities was nothing more but an illusion.