Monday, May 28, 2007

The Philosophical Background of Frankenstein


Rousseau's ideology of education and nature laid the basic ground work for many of the Gothic novels that saturated the English society from the 1764 to 1830. From The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe to the book which was able to forge a bridge of thought that was able to span the chasm formed by the age of reason between the supernatural and reason, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. As a predecessor of the romantic movement, the Gothic novel was a direct reaction against the age of reason. The predominate idea of the age being that the world which is governed by nature is rationally ordered and given man's ability to reason, analyze and understand nature, man possesses the innate ability to use nature to create a rational society based on nature's dominate principles. The Gothic novel allowed the reader to pass from reason and order of the day to a region born of the supernatural which inspired dread and abounds in death and decay as nature's only true end.

In Frankenstein, Shelley is able to create the antithesis of nature from various aspects of nature itself, creating a monster that is born of death and of decay yet enveloped in Rousseau's ideology. "It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishments of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, . . . I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breath hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs" (page 56). What was created that night was a creature of vast intellect, raised and educated in the harshest of conditions: Nature. Out of the decay that is nature's ambivalent end emerged a creature that was the antithesis of all that is natural. Mary Shelley had carefully chosen her genre, the Gothic novel was the only ground to act out the play between reason and the dark regions of horror. The stage was set for the creature to assume Rousseau's entire educational philosophy that stated: "We are born weak, we need strength; helpless, we need aid; foolish, we need reason. All that we lack at birth, all that we need when we come to man's estate, is the gift of nature. This education comes to us from nature, from men, or from things . . . God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil"(page 143). This allows society to view the creature with supernatural awe, repulsed at nature's most dreadful characters, decay and death, even when they form life.

The development of the creature was molded by nature, as a harsh school master, she exercised the creature's expanding mind while punishing the newly formed body. "It was dark when I awoke; I felt cold also, and half frightened, as it were, instinctively, . . . I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept"(99). Rousseau said, "Man is born to suffer, pain is the means of his preservation"(145). And thus it is with the creature, nature schooled him with cruel elements and treatments, yet slowly the creature developed several instinctual behaviors and began to delight in the nature that surrounded him. "I began also to observe, with greater accuracy, the forms that surrounded me, and to perceive the boundaries of the radiant roof of light which canopied me"(100). His actions were simple, in harmony with nature, it was not until his encounter with a society which held nature in reverence and saw the grotesque as unnatural. "I arrived at a village . . . But I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted . . . The whole village was roused; some fled, some attacked me, until, grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons, I escaped to the open country"(102). Rousseau stated: "Give your pupil no verbal lessons; he should be taught by experience alone"(153). Shelley developed the creature in nature, tutored only by experience and although his actions mimicked the society that encompassed him, they dismissed as wretched. He developed as Rousseau hoped, gaining wisdom and knowledge, through experience and contemplation. He possessed a quick mind and discerning temperament, yet the society which he longed to participate in, only exhibited irrational behavior towards him. Thus he was termed evil in that he was the antithesis of what is beautiful in nature. Society's own actions toward the creature, taught him how to brutalize society.

Rousseau's ideology of education and reverence toward nature lies at the basic ground level in the predominate Gothic motif. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley chooses the Gothic motif to create a monster in the semblance of the dominate form of thought that resounded in the age of reason. This monster, which is derived from nature, and subject to laws of this world, although schooled and tutored by nature becomes the antithesis of what the true aims of reason. Observation, experiment and rational thought resulted in distrust in society, mayhem, murder, and even the removal of God as man became brutally aware of his own godlike ability to reason. As in many Gothic novels, reason has limited ability to understand nature and in the end, the death and decay which we fear serves as ultimate reason.

written by Franz J. Potter

source: the gothic literature page