Enlightenment and Romanticism:
Themes and Conflicts
The Enlightenment and Modernity
Mary Shelley's 1817 novel Frankenstein
combines elements of two philosophical, artistic and cultural movements: The
Enlightenment and Romanticism. The novel's conception of social justice --
especially in the characters of Justine ("justice") and the DeLaceys -- are
firmly rooted in the Enlightenment, but the novel also offers a Romantic
critique of the Enlightenment belief that scientific knowledge could and would
end all of society's ills. Shelley's conception of the essence of
monstrosity and the process through which it is created, as
well as the antidote to that essence, are often interpreted as Romantic
criticisms of Enlightenment values.
the Romantic View of Science/Knowledge:
"'The ancient teachers of this science,' said he, 'promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise
very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted [alchemy] and that the
elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only
made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or the
crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of
nature and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the
heavens'; they have discovered how blood circulates, and the nature of the air
we breath. They have acquired almost unlimited powers; the can command the
thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world
with its own shadows'
Such were the professor's words [M. Waldmen ] -- rather let
me say such the words of the fate -- enounced to destroy me. As I went on I
felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; [...] more, far
more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a
new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries
of creation." -- Victor Frankenstein (27 Norton, 805 Wilke)
The Romantic view of Knowledge/Science:
"A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a
calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion to a transitory desire to
disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an
exception to this rule If the study to which you apply yourself has a
tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simply
pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly
unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were
always observed; if no man allowed to any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with
the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved;
Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more
gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed."
-- Victor (33 Norton)
Enlightenment Values and
1789 – 1824
Good/God: Science, Knowledge
of human feelings" - Wordsworth
|God's mind and will a "celestial
clockwork" manifest in scientific/mathematical understanding of natural
Natural world operates through
God's mind revealed through science.
God's mind and will manifest in childlike
innocence of Love and Emotion, devoid of Reason.
Natural world is
like Eden and will be corrupted through too much knowledge (science).
God revealed through emotional experience in Nature.
inherently bad and must be reigned in by society/laws. Primitive life
poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
inherently good and corrupted by society. Primitive man was a "Noble savage"
Quest for Empirical Knowledge
and the Sublime: spiritual/emotional knowledge of beauty
that defies understanding
Conception of Knowledge: "Truth" through math and evidence.
Conception of "Knowledge"; man evicted from paradise for knowing too much;
Prometheus reigned in by Gods
up my friend, and quit your books!
...We murder to dissect"
is Dangerous; return to Idealized Past (Noble Savage etc.)
Social Order, Law Based on Reason save us from Chaos of Primitive man
|Neo-Classical: Return to Greek and Roman
artistic, legal and republican/democratic values.
||Neo-Classical: Return to Greek and Roman
artistic, legal and republican/democratic values, tempered with more
freedom and emphasis on Romantic love; Greek themes vs. Greek form.
Romantics want to keep and further the democratic, egalitarian, liberties
espoused by Enlightenment thinkers (and first codified in the US Declaration of
Independence and Constitution), but Romantics also want to balance Enlightenment
Promethean Science, Reason and ambition with Love,
Both see the "Natural
World" as key, but in opposite ways.
Themes and Contexts:
Happiness thru tranquility
Tranquility thru nature/natural
Nature equals beauty, good,
"God"; Scientific exploration and knowledge destroys man's true, right
or natural relationship to nature
Emotional (feminine) response
privileged over rational, logical: feel more, think less
Scientific/Technological Advances revolutionize man's relationship to
sending electric shocks through dead frogs, resulting in twitching
movements of the frogs legs
Edward Jenner: smallpox vaccine (understanding of nature of disease;
concept of immunity; self contamination)
(Voltaire on innoculation:
Rossetta stone (deciphire hieroglyphics: ability to understand
lost civilizations thru scientific study)
George Stephenson: first steam locomotive (no
longer dependent on nature)
1816 - First stethoscope (ability to
"look into" human body when it's still alive!)
1818 - First steam ship crosses
Atlantic (no longer dependent on nature, can cross when one chooses regardless
of trade winds)
(N. Pole not reached
until 1909; Inland Passage found non-existent; death never
conquered: nature proves itself more complex than thought)
Man’s Control of Cows and Bushes:
Crop rotation: grass and grains
N. European farmers able to keep cattle alive thru winter
for first time.
Lung” when not busy inventing the seed drill (c.1791) horse-drawn hoe (c. 1730)
Scientific cattle breeding: Avg. oxen
weight: 1710: 370 lbs. vs. 1745: 800 lbs.
The Industrial/Agricultural Leads to:
Explosion: Massive child mortality
rate and spread of contagious diseases during colonialism balanced with beginnings
of the technological and scientific revolutions. Shelley context: growing up
seeing many people die (see Biography section) but at a time when defeating
death itself seems increasingly possible, even probable.
1750: 791,000,000 (64% in Asia)
European Population Explosion:
1870: 40 yrs.
Population Migration To
Advances Lead to:
Economic/Industrial Revolution 1760 – 1820:
Technology and industry are the commercial applications of
Enlightenment rationality and science: the harnessing of nature via math and
science. And this application immediately and directly changed our
relationship to labor, land, and the means of production.
The Industrial Revolution begins in England, fueled in part
by its Lockean/Newtonian/rational culture and by its massive coal reserves (and
moves next to Germany, for similar reasons). Thus, it's no coincidence
that, despite its French seeds, Romanticism takes root in England and Germany
first, as in a few short generations the nation is transformed from rural to
Effects On The Family: Before the industrial
revolution the majority of Europe and N. America's populations lived in rural
areas, in villages and on farms. Commercial good were produced thru a
mercantile system, via cottage industries, where, for example, each farm or
family produced commercial products at home: a miller lived and
worked with his family at his mill, milling grain; a cooper lived and worked
with his family at home making barrels etc. Education consisted of
families teaching their children the trades that family had conducted for
generations. Children, husbands and wives all worked alongside one another
toward the common goal of survival. The vast majority of these people
never ventured more than 20 miles from home in their entire lives; among other
things, this guaranteed that one's extended family, with the addition of the
local parish ministry, was one's universe.
Industry disrupted for good those patterns of living, and
those families moved to urban centers to work in factories or coal mines etc.
Women also became displaced from their traditional role as
co-worker and economic equal. In a cottage industry, a woman's ability to
weave, for instance, or spin wool etc, was every bit as valuable as a man's
ability to walk behind a plough. Further, in a cottage industry, a woman
could work -- weaving, spinning, preparing food etc -- while raising the smaller
children. Industrialism destroyed that economic equality.
Children continued to work but as unskilled labor, apart
from their mothers and fathers and extended families. Of course this is
also a good 100 years before the advent of public education, and 200 years
before birth control, so women were essentially removed from the economic sphere
and left home to raise a steady stream of small children.
In many ways, then,
Romantics like Mary Shelley see, quite accurately, that the Enlightenment laid a
foundation for the dissolution of the family.
Gallery Of Images
Effects On Perception Of Nature: It's also easy to
see how this shift from rural to urban living separated people from the
"natural" world. Even within our own classroom we can easily see how
differently students who grew up in rural areas or on farms see "nature" in
comparison to those who grew up in cities. Simply put, there is a vast
difference in experience between those who grew up shooting deer and those who
grew up only seeing them in Disney movies or at a national park.
In addition to the destruction of the family, consider the
environmental effects of industrialism, especially of early, coal-fueled England
and Europe, where the effects of industry were immediate, visible and
destructive. Imagine the radical shift in perspective in that very, very
first generation to move from always taking for granted clean air and water to
waking each day to air so clogged with coal dust that you could no longer see to
the end of the block.
Enlightenment Justice: Due
Process and the Necessity of Proof
Justice: becomes a scientific
topic instead of religious (end of witch trials,
Psychology: What is the nature of the criminal
mind? What causes crime? Who
Rousseau: noble savage:
society/materialism (property) destroys man's inherent goodness/innocence;
Confessions (442-443, 451-452): Rousseau is turned into a criminal thru
physical abuse, poor treatment, and inequality.
William Godwin (Mary's pappy) An Enquiry into Political Justice
(rationalist-ethical view of evil/crime (cause/effect instead of theological)
See: William Godwin notes
is guilty until proven innocent, a critique of Pre-Enlightenment conceptions of
justice and legal systems.
DeLaceys cannot achieve equal treatment under the law and suffer the same fate
unjustly accused of Clerval's murder.
Creature is unjustly judged by Viktor; the Creature's argument for just
treatment is rooted in classical Enlightenment values and Rousseau's and
Godwin's conception of the roots of crime and criminality.
Exploitation of the Brown Man:
Empire's (and European) colonial domination of heathens, savages, others, primitives
(Europe shifts from white
colonies to brown colonies)
FROM MONARCHIES TO DEMOCRACIES THRU VIOLENT REVOLUTION; Prometheus: man
challenges historical Divine Imperative of Monarchies/Rulers)
1776: American Revolution
1796 - 1815
(dangers of democracy and unchecked freedom)
(Mary and Percy travel thru war-torn France in 1814; Mary begins writing
Frankenstein roughly about this time)
1811: Wars of Independence in
S. and Central America
European colonial domination of heathens, savages, “Others”, primitives etc.
(Europe shifts from white colonies to brown colonies)
Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary's
mother) Vindication of the Rights of Women
Note Mary Shelley's criticism of "masculine" ambition
in Frankenstein; evasion of man's
responsibility to women and his children (his creations); need to balance
knowledge and ambition with love and responsibility; argument
rooted in the need for women to be educated with the same skills as men and how
women's weakness was a result of society training women to be so: we are what we
are trained to become.
Mary Shelley Biography