Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and politics

Mary Shelley's political education

Mary Shelley was very conscious of the political issues of her time. Visitors to her father's house, when Mary was young, included many leading radical thinkers. She was also a keen reader of books written by her parents:

  • there are passages in Frankenstein that contain echoes of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
  • there are passages in Frankenstein that contain echoes of William Godwin's An Enquiry into Political Justice (1793).

She also knew her father's novel The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), which addresses issues about social justice and the abuse of power, and her mother's unfinished fiction The Wrongs of Woman (1798). (See also Author section: Political radicalism and various references in Frankenstein Synopses). More generally, she was widely read in history and philosophy and discussed contemporary political and social issues with Shelley and the members of his circle.

The monster as critic of society

From this reading and discussion, she developed an understanding of the cruelty and tyranny that may be inherent in human institutions and the social and political establishment, and this is echoed in the monster's many critical comments on human society and individual behaviour during his conversation with Frankenstein. The monster can be seen as a type of the outsider, a creature who is regarded as inferior and for whom society has no place, just as slaves were denied any sense of individuality.

The monster as representative of the mob

In a less positive way, the monster can also be seen as representative of a dangerous force. For all her passion for reform and her hatred of the despotic Tory elite in England, like many other middle-class writers Mary Shelley was anxious about the possibility of revolutionary mob violence. It was argued that, once people began to act collectively in this way, individual differences and moral scruples disappeared and the crowd was likely to commit atrocities that few of its members would tolerate as individual. From this point of view, the monster represents a dangerous, uncontrollable and unappeasable force at loose in society.

The monster: other images

In his book In Frankenstein's Shadow (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), Chris Baldick shows that, during the nineteenth century, the story of Frankenstein and his monster was adapted to a number of purposes. One of these was to represent the kind of monstrousness of behaviour created by the French Revolution: the crowd itself was represented as a monster, a fearsome being composed of disparate parts, a force created by the thinkers behind the Revolution, but now out of their control. In England, the image of the uncontrollable monster was attached to any large grouping threatening the political status quo, including the working classes, the Irish Nationalists, the Trade Unions and even the inhabitants of Birmingham!

The monster and other writers

Images of the monster can be found in writings by the prophetic historian and social commentator Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), both in The French Revolution (1837), and in his many comments on the growing strength and articulation of the mass of industrial workers and their increasing political demands. The novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) inherited from his reading of Carlyle a strong sense that society was becoming mechanised so that people were beginning to be transformed into a robotic state. Elizabeth Gaskell also uses the image of the monster in her novel Mary Barton (1848), which is about industrial interest in the rapidly growing city of Manchester. Like many other writers, she tends to confuse the name of the monster with that of his creator, but the force of her comment is clear: ‘The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul or a knowledge of the difference between good and evil.' (Mary Barton, chapter 15).

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