This is a course blog for the members of EH236 at the University of South Alabama, Spring 2006.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Frankenstein and Industrialization

It was a time of amazing scientific achievements. Man learned to harness the power of the machine on an unprecedented scale. For the first time, mankind abandoned the agrarian life and flocked into cities. This was the era of the industrial revolution. Although, this period boasted huge economic growth and marvelous industrial achievements, it was also a time of abject poverty and city-wide epidemics. Thus, while many put their hope in the great scientific progress, others warned of the danger this over emphasis on scientific achievement could bring. These dissenters helped to create a new school of thought that rejecting the Enlightenment import of science and reasoning and, instead, emphasized the importance of emotion and individualism creating the Romantic Period. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a product of this period. The themes and images of her novel reflect very powerfully Romantic ideals. They also serve to comment on the anxieties aroused by European industrialization.

At the outset of the story, Victor Frankenstein, as young child becomes a pupil of the archaic teaching of the alchemist Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. Yet, these teachings had long been considered ineffectual. By the time he entered advanced studies at Ingolstadt, he had to reject completely these misleadings and devote himself to Chemistry. As he learned more, he became consumed with the thought of bringing life to an inanimate creature. Thus, depending on his scientific knowledge, he completed his extraordinary task and then just discarded his creation, a monster of most hideous design. By this action, Frankenstein imitates the rational and scientific view of industrialists. He focused solely on the aim of creating a living being. He had no interest in fulfilling the parental duties he owed to his creation. Similarly, industrialists focused on huge yields their machines created and not the effects this work had on their employees. Many worked 14 to 15 hour days for seven days a week to still live in poverty. The working conditions were often hazardous and even the minutest error could cost the worker his life. Certainly, the little care business tycoons took for their workers is paralleled by the apathy Frankenstein exhibited towards his monster.

However, with the events that follow Frankenstein’s initial rejection of the monster, Shelley powerfully cautions her readers of the dangers of overemphasizing knowledge and industrialization. Although, Frankenstein thought abandoning the monster meant the end of their relationship. He soon learned that the monster was forever tied to him and, what’s more, he was determined to bring ruin to Frankenstein and all those he loved. The commentary is clear. If industrialists just concerned themselves with increasing production yields and not the well being of their workers, ruin was to come. Like Frankenstein, the working class could very well rise up and devote themselves to the destruction of these “Robber Barons”.

Although Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein before the heyday of the Industrial Period, her themes certainly apply. The notion of science and progress versus emotion and the individual is a universal concept that transcends almost any time period. This is perhaps why Frankenstein remains timeless classic.


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