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

Monday, March 06, 2006

Shelley's Nightmare Warns of Consequences

One prevalent theme in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is her warning against the dangerous acquisition and misuse of knowledge. This warning was fueled by the rapid industrialization of Europe at the time she wrote the novel, the early 1800’s. During this period, great advances in manufacturing, transportation and agriculture led to the expansion and overpopulation of industrial cities such as London.

Deeper rifts in social classes developed, and people working in stifling, low-paying work environments such as factories began to feel more like the machines with which they were working. People were working more to improve, produce, and expedite things while not taking time or having a chance to enjoy or experience life in a fulfilling, emotionally and spiritually rewarding way.

With Frankenstein, Shelley uses the feelings at the time of abandon and despair and turns them into a nightmare complete with a manmade monster, a product of rule-breaking ambition and the selfish misuse of knowledge. She was showing people the terrible consequences this thirst for knowledge and improvement can create. Victor’s disastrous creation of the monster is a signal that people should not let their creations control them. Just like Victor created the monster and became consumed by it, English industrialists and the majority of society became obsessed with producing bigger and better things faster.

Although some thought society was improving and others were led to believe this, the obsession was leading to a decrease in the quality of living and in the regard for human life itself. A few became wealthy while the majority remained or became poor and dejected. With her story, Shelley sends a warning that people should not create for selfish reasons. All advancements should be made with benevolent intentions.

When referring to how his feelings changed after he finished creating the monster, from those of beauty to horror and disgust, Victor remarked, “The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature.” Through this, Shelley is hinting that once one goes so far, there is no turning back. With the rapid industrialization and expansion at the time, if people were not careful, irreparable damage could be done to society and nature making life more difficult to endure over time.

Using the Romantic ideals that emphasize experience and a love of nature, Shelley constantly eludes that man cannot disturb the natural order of things without being negatively affected by his actions. This is apparent in the tragic implications Victor’s creation had on himself and those around him. “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow,” Victor warns Walton at the beginning of his tale.

Shelley puts a great emphasis on the beauty and healing power of nature. Her elaborate descriptions of the scenery through which her characters travel and by which some, such as Clerval and the monster, are affected are deliberate offerings to readers to understand the effect nature should have on their lives. The seasons (warm vs. cold weather) and surrounding geographical features have an effect on the characters’ moods and livelihood, giving nature an important role. The weight of Victor’s sorrows are lessoned by time spent outside in fresh air. The monster lives in cold, desolate, highly-elevated regions, intensifying his feelings of abandon and despair.

This appreciation of and identification with nature markedly decreased with industrialization. Shelley wanted to point out that people should not take nature for granted and avoid trampling on it on their path to “improvement.” As he is dying as a result of his own misguided manipulations of nature, Victor advises Walton, “Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.” With this advice, Shelley is saying people should appreciate the natural world around them and rather than attempting to change and distort it, work with it and try not to alter it too much. Otherwise, ruin is always on the horizon.


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