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Masaryk University Brno

Faculty of Education

Department of English Language and Literature

An Echo of Social Alienation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Bachelor thesis

Written by Michal Smolka Brno

Supervisor: Lucie Podroužková PhD. 2007


I declare that all the literary sources used in the bachelor thesis are stated in the Notes and in the Works Cited.

I would like to take the opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to Miss Lucie Podroužková for her valuable guidance.


ABSTRACT…………………………………………………. . 4
INTRODUCTION…………………………………………… 5

  1. HISTORICAL CONTEXT…………………………… 8

    1. POWER TURNS LOOSE………………………… …… 12

    2. BEYOND THE HORIZON…………………………….. 14

  1. BORN WITHOUT IDENTITY………………………. 17


    2. A “ROMANTIC” PREGNANCY………………………. 21

3 EXCLUDING THE FEMALE………………………... 24
3.1 WITH THE HELP OF SCIENCE………………………. 26

3.2 WITH THE HELP OF ART…………………………….. 28

CONCLUSION………………………………………………….. 30

NOTES…………………………………………………………… 32

WORKS CITED………………………………………………… 35


This thesis will explore how Mary Shelley uses Frankenstein to both reflect and criticize the position of women in the society in which she lived and wrote. The dangers of the repression of the feminine gender, either embodied in the female or its natural dimensions in the male, will be directly derived from her novel and the world she was acquainted with. Frankenstein can thus be read as a tale of the horrors that follow a society that is rigidly defined along gender lines.

When any one wants to think of the theme of alienation in Frankenstein, one crucial fact should be considered. The circumstances in which Mary Shelley was born in 1797 are of such a significant nature that a brief reference to this event seems very appropriate. Mary Shelley’s famous mother Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth and left two infants and their father William Godwin alone. He dealt with his deep grief by celebrating his wife in Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Despite the qualities of his work that memorialized his wife in the most sublime mode, depicting her political wisdom, literary reputation and personal courage, he completely misjudged his audience. His failure was accounted for revealing Mary Wollstonecraft’s former affairs, the birth of her illegitimate daughter (Fanny Imlay) and two suicide attempts when a lover deserted her. In his book, Godwin also admitted sexual relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft before their marriage. The result of the publication of Godwin’s memoirs was to undermine Mary Wollstonecraft’s influence as an advocate of women for almost a hundred years.[1] Before the publication of Godwin’s scandalous memoirs, M. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a trigger for many upper class English women to strive for equal-supported education for women and other achievements connected to early feminism. Anne Kostelanetz Mellor claims that “Godwin’s revelation made it impossible for a respectable English woman to associate herself with M. Wollstonecraft’s feminist views” (Mellor, 4). It must have been a burden especially for Mary Shelley growing up in these circumstances and its influence on her identification in society bore life-long stress.

The eighteen century was the century marked by the emergence of the philosophical concept of the Enlightenment, by erosion of monarchical authority and by the birth of democracy. While the questions of the rights of men raised a lively debate, the woman’s lot remained unconsidered. It was a legacy of previous centuries that Judeo-Christian tradition had bounded social relations in Europe. Laws and religious doctrines imposed monogamy, procreation of children as the purpose of marriage and, at the same time, giving birth outside this institution was banned. It was almost impossible to get divorced and a married couple led a life under the scrutiny of both religious and secular authorities. Most of the population of this time neither controlled nor produced much of the economic wealth and the basic means to obtain it was through heritage. This process worked within a family upon a male line and hence the dominant ethos had hierarchical and patriarchal character.[2]

Christianity and its patriarchal viewing of Western civilization is the most obvious source where the origins of patriarchal ordering come from. The story of Adam in the Old Testament as a part of the Bible, which accompanies the history of our civilization, seems as an idea that may explain the social construction of gender that values men over women. The story says that:
God forms a man ‘of dust from the ground’, and breathes into the nostrils, ‘and man became a living being.’ God sets the man in the Garden of Eden, to watch over it, and permits him to eat all the fruit within it, except that of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’ God decides that ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ God, therefore, creates ‘every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name…but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him.’ And so God causes the man to sleep, and creates a woman from one of the man’s ribs, and the man awakes and names his companion Woman, ‘because she was taken out of Man’ (“Genesis”).

This explicit preference of a male in the act of creation triggered ever-lasting determination to see women as appended to men. The resulting hierarchy imposed on human society serves as a model that can either be abused by one gender or turned to profit for both. Unfortunately, the tendency to exploitation of such circumstances is evident throughout the history, and the female part of the relationship is mostly the disadvantaged one. One of the most unfortunate consequences of this inequality is seen in the sexual division of labour, where masculine work is segregated from the domestic realm: “Hence intellectual activity is divorced from emotional activity. This separation of the sphere of public (masculine) power from the sphere of private (feminine) affection also causes the destruction of many of the women in Frankenstein” (Mellor 115). In Mary Shelley’s time there were still very strong contrasts in gender roles though they often differed according to social status of people. However, the poor were often in a situation in which family members had to live close to each other and relied on mutual contribution to struggle on economically. So the opportunity to be exposed to deliberate humiliation may have not been common.

The general attitude of public institutions (i.e. entirely represented by men) to women at the end of the eighteen century was mainly degrading and assumed that any effective liberation of women’s position in society would weaken the patriarchal constitution. Many feminist authors have emphasized the men and their unconscious horror of female sexuality. The power of human reproduction it enables poses a threat to the established patriarchal network which then resorts to science and laws to manipulate, control and oppress women. Anna Richards shows an example of men’s attitude to women in the eighteen century by saying that “the comparative weakness of the female body was another rich source of information of female nature: with a dazzling display of logic physicians argued, for example, that because they are possessed of less physical strength, women must have a weaker will than men” (Richards 22).

In addition to the political and economic restrictions that women had to suffer, they were deprived of medical knowledge and care. The exemplary case is that of Mary Wollstonecraft, who died because of puerperal fever after she got infected while giving birth to her daughter Mary Shelley.[3]

1 Historical context
Born in the time when major political and social changes of Europe shaped the whole social spectrum, Mary Shelley, a woman of a high intellectual credit, and her work can be seen as a certain indicator of the period that was very aware of upheaval and change. Around the turn of the eighteen century, the French Revolution must be considered as a factor of far-reaching influence.

The French Government structure, previously an absolute monarchy with feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy underwent a big change towards ideals based around Enlightenment paragons of democracy, citizenship, and inalienable rights. To sweep away the old and begin the new was the liberal solution; it was assumed that human nature was essentially good and mankind essentially rational. Liberty was the magic word that raced around Europe, exciting the middle classes and frightening the aristocracy. The following political havoc is well known and has been inscribed in many historical texts. It was accompanied by violence, including mass executions and persecutions, wars with neighboring kingdoms that endorsed the monarchical system, and finally flowed into Napoleonic wars that devoured the whole Europe.

At the basis of the debate over what the French Revolution could accomplish was the nineteenth century’s concern with liberalism and conservatism. Since the revolutionaries aimed to rebuild the Government from the foundation, substituting reason for tradition and equal rights for privileges, they inevitably provoked wide-ranging reactions.[4,a] The Revolution of 1789 gave birth to what soon came to be called ‘ideologies’, a defined doctrine about the best form of social and political organization. The revolutionaries had established a republic, and so the republicans would challenge the monarchists. Among the republicans, some preferred a government directed by the elite, while others, known as liberal republicans, advocated more democratic structure. Many other ideological alternatives arose during this era – nationalism, liberalism, socialism, or radicalism. For the purpose of terminology, it would be vital to mention that during the revolutionary struggle for power several political organizations played their role. One of them was the Legislative Assembly which tried to established revolutionary law-making. It consisted of constitutional monarchists, known as Feuillants, liberal republicans, known as Girondists, and radical revolutionaries (or republicans), known as Jacobins. In the sense of an extreme revolutionary opinion, the word ‘Jacobin’ passed beyond the borders of France and long survived the Revolution.[4,b]

The English who supported the French Revolution during its early stages were related to as Jacobins, and these included also some famous romantics as Samuel Taylor Coleridge or William Wordsworth. The influence of the Revolution on English society of those days may be clearly expressed with the help of mentioning two men. Edmund Burke, an English statesman, was one of the earliest critics of the Revolution. He considered it not as movement towards constitutional democracy but rather as a rebellion against authority and tradition, inevitably leading to anarchy and destruction of human society. His warning of the consequences that follow the mismanagement of changes is informative even today:

I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidarity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners (Burke, 9).
Thomas Paine, a radical intellectual, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic advocate of The Revolution who participated in the revolutionary events himself. He replied to E. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France by writing Rights of Man where he reveals:
Mr. Burke appears highly disgusted, that France, since she had resolved on a revolution, did not adopt what he calls ‘A British Constitution’; and the regretful manner in which he expresses himself on this occasion, implies suspicion, that the British Constitution needed something to keep its defects in countenance (Paine, 90).
In her Creature, Mary Shelley displayed both the naive ideals and the tragic consequences of the French Revolution, and thus, became a powerful critique of the revolution ideology, which A. Mellor explains:

The Craeture can not obtain the human sympathy he craves and is driven to violence by the constant suspicion, fear, and hostility he encounters. He thus becomes an emblem for the French Revolution itself. The Revolution failed to find the parental guidance, control, and nurturance it required to develop into a rational and benevolent state(Mellor, 81).

Any abstract idea, if not carefully developed in a supportive environment, can become a brute turning against its originators. Mary Shelley could see that Girondists, in their anxiety to end the monarchical tyranny, had given little thought to the fates of the aristocracy, clergymen and peasants who would necessarily be hurt, even killed, during the process of the social upheaval.[5] She saw at first hand the suffering inflicted on French villagers by fifteen years of warfare when she traveled through France with Percy Byshe Shelley on their journey to Switzerland in the summer of 1814. Around this time, when the first Romantics exhibited their revolt against social and political norms of the Enlightenment period, a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature in art and literature, other social changes had already been on the move.

Both the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution were the fuel for increasing the British Imperialism. Since Great Britain was during the Napoleonic wars, in a more less positive sense, isolated from the rest of Europe, it had a strategic lead in becoming the first developed country in the world. Britain had already harnessed many oversea colonies which, along with its mineral resources, slave trade and possessing the only merchant fleet of any useful size, enabled to produce emerging scientific and technological development.[6] The human resources were another key part that made the industrialization easier. Dense population and small geographical size made the process of enclosure of common land and the related Agricultural Revolution very effective. More sophisticated equipment and land management techniques indicated that the enclosure was a better way of farming the land. Many small laborers in the countryside were deprived of their ancient rights to grazing their animals and providing themselves with vegetable in the common fields. Jeremy Black in his History of England says concisely: “Enclosure made it easier to control the land and was accompanied by a redistribution of agricultural income from tenant farmer to landlord” (Black, 114). The unscrupulous big landowners in their quest for land consolidation often forced smaller farmers and allotment owners to sell to the landowners, creating large numbers of landless and dispossessed people who eventually migrated to the cities in search of living. These people were the source for the rising working-class of the industrial society.

This change witnessed the triumph of the middle class of industrialists and businessmen over the landed class of nobility, but working people who found opportunities for employment in the new factories were doomed to harsh working conditions. Pitiful wages caused that women and children had to work as hard as men, and all together suffered degrading treatment, diseases, and disintegration of the traditional rural family; such conditions were often factors that lead to public demonstrations, with the Peterloo Massacre being the most infamous one.[7] Prior to the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the public and private spheres held strong overlaps; work was often conducted through the home and was shared by wife and husband. Nonetheless, during this period, the two began to separate, with domestic life and work being distinct from one another. The analysis of the Industrial Revolution by T.S.Ashton says it lapidary: “Women held the distinction of being able to breastfeed and thus more often maintained the home, while men made up much of the family income” (Industrial Revolution). Their power in relation to women increased enormously and it was a great impact on the defining of gender roles. Anne Mellor’s allusion to Frankenstein is in these aspects an explicit one:
A creature denied both parental love and peers; a working class denied access to meaningful work but condemned instead to make ‘the same glass bead over and over; a colonized and degraded race: all are potential monsters, dehumanized by their uncaring employer and unable to feel the bonds of citizenship with the capitalist society in which they live (Mellor, 317).
At the time of Mary Shelley’s life, Britain had lost the America Empire but was well on her way to building a second in India, Africa, Pacific and elsewhere. One economic perspective of the imperial policy was, of course, slavery. Though Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1809, and slavery itself was abolished in Britain colonies in 1834, the phenomenon of indentured labor persisted long into the twentieth century. The principle of indentured servitude was that a laborer put under a contract had to work for an employer, usually for eight years, to pay off a passage to a new country or home.[8] Typically, the employer provided accommodation, food and training, but this kind of servitude was often abused by the employer, and it can be considered a euphemism to slavery.

These practices, as seen from now day, provide a foreboding feeling of connection to racism. Mary Shelley may have been well aware of the reason’s excesses that were established by the authors of the Age of Enlightenment, who often proclaimed erroneous conclusions about human appearance. In her Critique of Empire in Frankenstein, E.A.Bohls cites a natural historian G.C.LeClerc de Buffon, who presumed that: “The most temperate clime lies between the 40th and 50th degree of latitude, and it produces the most handsome and beautiful men. It is from this climate that the ideas of the genuine color of mankind, and the various degrees of beauty, ought to be derived” (Bohls, 30). In Frankenstein, an implicit reaction of M.Shelley’s awareness of this pseudoscience can be read when Walton’s first remark about Victor Frankenstein distinguishes him from the creature, sledging away in the distance: “He was not, as the other traveler seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but a European” (Shelley, 18). A pervasive supposition of a reader is that the creature’s yellow skin carries racial overtones. In her essay, E.A.Bohls adds: “An educated white European man was at Burke’s and Buffon’s time considered as a universal standard” (Bohls, 32). There is no question that this aesthetic ideology of the sublime and superiority contributed to justifying colonialism and slavery.

    1. Power turns loose

Frankenstein is distinctly related to a particular period of crisis in humanism: the failure of the French Revolution. Mary Shelley perceived the dangers of radicalism and abstract idealism that are ensued by brutal reality. In this sense, she endorsed Burke’s negative attitude towards the reckless striving for any inconsiderate political change. English society was consciously observant of the revolutionary events in France since they were still aware of the misery inflicted by the English Revolution between 1640 and 1660, the execution of Charles I and the havoc of the republican experiment of Oliver Cromwell.[9]

Mary Shelley suggested by Victor Frankenstein’s seeking his education at the University of Ingolstadt, where Jacobinism flourished, that he was the personification of the ideology that later caused the French Revolution to turn into barbarities. Jane Blumberg tells us concrete example how the revolutionary terror was perceived in Mary Shelley’s England: “The gruesome political cartoons produced in England during the French Revolution depicted, among other atrocities, commoners feasting on the limbs and entrails of the recently executed aristocracy” (Blumberg, 46). Victor uses dead bodies from charnel houses as the material for building a new body, a new and better humanity, and that assumes Mary Shelley’s conviction that that the revolutionary zeal had already been filthy and corrupted. Victor’s mishandling of his endeavor to create a better existence, an embodiment of a better human being, which subsequently transforms into evil, is predetermined from the very start. The deliberate association of the Monster with the bloody progress of the French Revolution echoes the author of Frankenstein’s rejection of the revolutionary ideas.

Girondists and other political factions, failing to calm their historical hatred towards the aristocracy and Clergy, could not create a state that would recognize the rights and freedoms of all its citizens. The inability to reconcile the traditional order to the new led to massacres and the execution of Louis XVI and Maria Antoinette in 1793.[10] The unreliable generators of the democratic vision of liberty, mainly Jacobins, turned into the selfish thirst for power, and thus, only usurped the previous political and economic leadership of the aristocracy and the church for themselves. Observing this, various revolutionary forces that opposed to so called the revolutionary government (mainly under Jacobins control) took action and the period known as the Reign of Terror turned loose. Mary Shelley created a metaphor for the revolutionary French nation by the vision of a gigantic body, the Creature that, abandoned by its creator, turns its aggression against him. A contemporary French controversialist Abbé Barruel warned the readers of his Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism:
Meanwhile, before Satan shall exultingly enjoy this triumphant spectacle [of complete anarchy] which the Illuminizing Code is preparing, let us examine how . . . it engendered that disastrous monster called Jacobin, raging uncontrolled, and almost unopposed, in these days of horror and devastation (Mellor, 82).
The Creature becomes the Monster when it is deprived of any human sympathy and social welfare: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me fiend” (Shelley, 95). In this respect, the Creature’s encounter of fire becomes symbolic. First, it experiences delight at the warmth of fire, but after having put its hand into the embers, an intense pain strikes the hand. In other words, the ideal becomes an enemy: “How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” (Shelley, 99). Furthermore, fire turns up a real devil when the Creature is rejected by the DeLacey’s family. In its despair, the Creature reverts to the harmful aspect of fire:

I lighted the dry branch of a tree, and danced with fury around the devoted cottage. . . . I waved my brand; [the moon] sunk, and, with a loud scream, I fired the straw, and heath, and bushes, which I had collected. The wind fanned the fire, and the cottage was quickly enveloped by the flames, which clung to it, and licked it with their forked and destroying tongues (Shelley, 135).

Fire now becomes the agent of destruction, a representation of the destructive force of the French Revolution.

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