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Having lived between 18th and 19th century, author Mary Shelley was greatly influenced by the intellectual movement of Romanticism. Since she was closely associated with many of the great minds of the Romantic Movement such as her husband Percy B. Shelley and Lord Byron, it is natural that her works would reflect the Romantic trends. Many label Shelley?? s most famous novel Frankenstein as the first Science Fiction novel in history because its plot contains the process of a scientist named Victor Frankenstein creating a living human being from dead body parts, but that is only a part of the entire novel.
At its core, Frankenstein is a product of Romanticism featuring the traits of a Romantic hero on a Romantic quest, the embracement of nature?? s sublimity, intense emotions felt by fully experiencing life, imagination breaking away from social conventions, and anti-enlightenment. One of the key features found in Romantic literature is the Romantic hero, also called the Byronic hero after Lord Byron, pursuing a Romantic quest. Victor Frankenstein?? life story, which is at the heart of Frankenstein, is a Romantic quest toward self-destruction, and Frankenstein represents the Byronic hero almost exactly. The Byronic hero is not as virtuous as conventional heroes but, instead, has many dark qualities. He is an extremist considering his pride, intellectual ability, passions, hypersensitivity, and self-destructiveness. Frankenstein is such a person with genius, arrogance, and passion for the study of natural philosophy and knowledge of the world.
These are the reasons that drive him to the obsession with discovery of the secret of life. As the novel progresses, Frankenstein becomes increasingly self-centered, moody, irresponsible for his creation of the monster, and self-destructive, ultimately leading to his complete isolation which is yet another characteristic of the Byronic hero. Another feature of Romanticism found in Frankenstein is the attitude of anti-Enlightenment.
Whereas the Enlightenment emphasized rationality as the means to establish ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge using reason and science to explain life and forces of nature, Romanticism called for obtaining knowledge of life through intuition and experiencing life instead of studying it. Frankenstein at first may seem to be promoting the ideas of Enlightenment with Walton exploring the North Pole and Frankenstein studying natural philosophy and trying to find the secret of life through the deductive reasoning of science.
However, with Walton failing to explore the North Pole and Frankenstein?? s scientific creation spinning out of his control, Frankenstein emphasizes the theme of the danger of discovering knowledge with reason and science. Frankenstein devotes almost his entire life to the study of natural philosophy and the creation of the monster in eagerness to understand the secret of life, yet this act of creation eventually results in the destruction of everyone close to him and his ultimate isolation.
Likewise, Walton attempts to surpass previous human explorations by navigating to reach the North Pole but eventually finds himself trapped between sheets of ice unable to reach his goal. Mary Shelley is conveying a message as a Romantic, with the characters of Walton and Frankenstein, that the thirst for knowledge and the attempt to explain life through science, both of which are valued during the Enlightenment movement, can be destructive. Nature?? sublimity and intense emotions realized through connection with nature, a major emphasis of Romanticism, is another theme presented in Frankenstein, namely in the characters of Frankenstein and the monster. Sublime nature is continually seen throughout the novel with Frankenstein and the monster?? s numerous individual experiences with nature, and combined on the summit of Mountanvert. Time and time again, Frankenstein experiences spiritual renewal by turning to nature after remorseful, traumatic events such as the creation of the monster and the death of William and Justine.
While Frankenstein seeks the cold, harsh conditions of the Alps for comfort, as if to freeze his guilt about the death of William and Justine, the monster finds happiness in the soft colors and smells of a springtime forest, symbolizing his desire to reveal himself to the world. He says, for example, ? °It surprised me, that what before was desert and gloomy should now bloom with the most beautiful flowers and verdure. My senses were gratified and refreshed by a thousand scents of delight, and a thousand sights of beauty.? (Shelley 81) Cheered by the beautiful scenes of spring, the monster is able to temporarily push away the negative aspects of his life. Many more of similar occasions occur in the novel, all of which clearly demonstrates the influence of Romanticism in Frankenstein. Yet another trait of Romanticism of the emphasis of imagination and individuality free of social conventions is paralleled in Frankenstein with the characters of Walton and Frankenstein. Walton is self-driven with his persistent passion for the dream of navigating to the North Pole and unconventional thinking to explore the unexplored.
Frankenstein is also self-driven with his passion for natural philosophy and the creation of the monster. The idea that he is able bring a being pieced together by dead body parts to life is outrageous not only in the 19th century but today also. Frankenstein?? s boundless imagination and independent mind are what allows him explore the subject which society would tell him to avoid. In this sense, the novel is similar to others of the Romantic period in their plot of putting imagination into work and demonstrating what is humanly impossible.
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Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the midst of the Romantic Era influenced by many famous intellectuals of that time, and as a result the novel reflects the culture and values of that period. Many traits of Romanticism can be seen in the experiences of Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster told in the novel. While some may claim Frankenstein to be a Science Fiction novel for its inclusion of the scientific process of creating a live human being, it is foremost a Romantic novel, showing features of Romanticism from many perspectives.
Author: Donnie Mathes
Romanticism in Frankenstein
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