Crimson Education Comp. Q: What insights does Frankenstein by Mary Shelley provide in contrast to contemporary society romance?

Title says it all (:

Hi Jennifer, I’m an English tutor with Crimson and an English literature student at Oxford university. This is quite an interesting question! I have a couple of points that might help to start you off.

The first thing I try to do whenever I’m given a question like this is to define what it’s really asking (that might sound obvious, but really it can lead you to find all sorts of interesting and unexpected talking points!). So my starting point here would be to ask: ‘What exactly is ‘contemporary society romance’?’

‘Romance’ in the sense of literary fiction can have a slightly different meaning to what we generally associate it with. It can still mean ‘a love story’, but it can also just mean ‘a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents’ (as defined by Walter Scott, a 19th cent. romantic author). According to this definition, even science fiction, gothic fiction, and fantasy are subgenres of romance fiction! To read more about the romantic period, which was going on at the time Shelly was writing, head over to wikipedia.

Mary Shelley came from an intellectual background and was exposed to a lot of different authors writing in the romance genre - for example, there’s an anecdote of her hiding behind the sofa as a child as Samuel Taylor Coleridge read out his famous romance poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ - if you’re interested in comparing the two works, head over to this website or similar. By the way, her father was credited with writing the first mystery novel (mystery - another subgenre of romance?).

Some relevant themes being explored by Romantic novelists and poets at the time Shelley was writing:

  • The beauty of nature (as a reaction against the scientific rationalisation of nature that was going on in the period).
  • Placing emphasis on strong emotions (e.g. horror, awe) over rationalism.
  • The achievements of “heroic” individualists and artists.

It’s also tied up interestingly with some of the ideas behind the French Revolution, which was a big historical turning point during the time Shelley was writing. Many intellectuals at the time were chewing over what the Revolution ‘meant’ - a prevailing idea was that it was symbolic of the monstrous (the monstrous bodypolitik of France rising up against its rulers) - can you see a parallel between monsters and rebelling in France, and Shelley’s monster? (if that’s a bit difficult to grasp, then no worries; there’s plenty to say about other contemporary ideas).

In terms of the scientific tradition of the time, we could think about Mary Shelly as a person who was interested in both feminism and in science - she found things like galvanism cool. A lot of the rhetoric of scientific advancement of the 19th century was ‘to chase nature into her hiding place’, and in some ways this is what Victor Frankenstein does when he tries to take control of life itself by performing the experiments that lead to his creating the monster.

In the novel we see Victor’s (almost sexual, if you want to read that into it) obsession with creation. We could read this in turn as a parable of the male* scientist’s quest to subdue nature, to ‘chase it’ into its most mysterious hiding places. But we simultaneously see the cost that comes with doing so; Victor’s replication of nature, the monster, isn’t beautiful - it’s grotesque. Victor’s experiment has technically succeeded, but at the same time, it has gone wrong, and he struggles to control the after-effects. He is terrified of giving the monster a mate in case that then leads to the monster breeding and creating more monsters - it’s as if he realises he is not really in control of nature’s basic impulses and laws. How do you think that comments on or contrasts with romance fiction of the period?

*(both science and literature were still quite sexist at this point. Perhaps Shelley critiques that - what do you think?)

Likewise, Victor Frankenstein as creator or ‘author’ of the fate of the monster is brought into question - although he is a God-like pioneer who has managed to create life in a laboratory, Shelley certainly doesn’t show him as something to be looked up to. In fact, he’s presented as a bit of a narcissist. One way you could choose to read the book is that of a narcissus-like tale (but a narcissus tale gone wrong!) of Frankenstein trying to create something in his own image out of self-obsession - but it backfiring. There’s actually a scene in the novel where the monster, like Narcissus in the myth, looks at his reflection in the water - it seems like a direct reference to the classic tale (though it’s interesting that it’s the monster who looks at his reflection rather than Victor - what do you think that could symbolise?). So, maybe we could say that this is Shelley’s critique of the narcissistic tendency of artists to create something for the sake of their own glorification.

Lastly, the most basic reading of this in terms of ‘romance’ is if you were to take it as a love story. Certainly a lot of the emotional points of the book hinge around Victor Frankenstein’s attempts to marry, and his cruel denial of the monster’s desire to marry. Both characters are unsuccessful in love - this is perhaps linked in with Victor being self-obsessed again, as arguably that is what gets his wife killed by the monster, and what denies the monster any chance of happiness as well.

I hope that gives you a few starting points - if you are still a bit stuck, how about taking those three bullet points about romantic fiction I mention above, and starting by thinking about how the novel might present a contrasting or complex view of them? And please ask if you need me to clarify anything!