Discuss the extent to which one of the following novels is informed by contemporary social issues: Great Expectations Fathers and Son, Frankenstein. The novel I have chosen to discuss is Frankenstein. Written in 1818 by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein is classified as a gothic novel, however, Shelly uses both realist and non-realist techniques. I will be looking at her reasons for writing the novel and what influenced her, as well as the realist and non-realist techniques used. I will be looking at some of the contemporary social issues that affected Shelley’s life at the time she wrote her novel.
These will include Nature versus Nurture and Love and Responsibility. Frankenstein was written after Mary Shelley and a group of her friends were challenged by Lord Byron to each write a ghost story. The idea for her novel came to her after she had listened to a conversation between Lord Byron and her husband Percy Shelly in which they discussed ‘The experiments of Dr Darwin’ They also discussed ‘galvanism’ ‘Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated’ (Frankenstein p195) Later that night she dreamed of her monster and was awakened with fear and so it began.
Shelly was undoubtedly influenced by what she read.
She mentions literary works that she drew upon for her ideas ‘The Iliad, the tragic poetry of Greece-Shakespeare, in the Tempest (It is easy to see the parallels with the character of Caliban, who is viewed as monstrous, educated and betrayed by Prospero) Midsummer Night’s Dream – and most especially Milton, in Paradise Lost. ’ (preface) There are parallels with the story of Frankenstein and the bible story of Satan. ‘Satan is an angel who has fallen from a blessed and God- given state because he has pride enough to think he can rival God’ (The Realist Novel p70).
Victor Frankenstein could be viewed as Satan because he too is trying to be a creator of man. This dark image of Frankenstein necessitates the use of the gothic. Frankenstein is a hybrid; a mixture of realist and gothic. Shelly needed to incorporate both techniques in order for her story to work. ‘ It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it develops; and, however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield. (Preface) This suggests that she could not have shown the turmoil of emotions without the use of gothic techniques as nothing she could find in everyday life could sum up the torment and misery inflicted on her monster. The horrors that occur in the novel (the recreation of life from dead body parts) would have been unthinkable and because of the nature of Frankenstein’s experiments a gothic approach was needed. On the other hand the story needed to be believable; characters had to develop.
Shelley uses realist techniques: first person narrative, showing and telling, to help the reader believe that what they were reading was possible if not probable and this made the story all the more frightening. Walton’s Narrative is told in the first instance, through letters (epistolary style) written by him to his sister. This realism (a brother writing to his sister) draws the reader in and a false sense of security is established. These opening letters give little indication that this is a horror story. They carry no hidden message.
The language is simple and in parts there are elements of the romantic ‘There, Margaret, the sun is forever visible; its broad disc just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendour. ’ (letter 1) They do however frame Frankenstein’s narrative which is ‘embedded’ into Walton’s narrative and the creatures which is ‘embedded’ into Victor’s. (This story within a story is typically gothic. ) Another technique used is the use of first person narrative voice; this is easily achieved as the whole text is one person telling another a recount of a story. For this reason we should ask how reliable is the account being related?
Frankenstein’s narrative begins using the method of ‘telling’. Victor tells us about his family ‘I am by birth a Genevese; and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic’ (Frankenstein p18) He tells of how his parents met and how Elizabeth came to live with his family. He portrays a happy childhood with loving parents. We as readers have no reason to doubt what we are being told. Victor’s voice is authoritative and his descriptions believable. The language is ‘transparent’ it ‘does not draw attention to itself ‘(The Realist Novel p10). Shelley uses vivid descriptions of the locations.
The Shelley’s were well travelled and spent time in the Alpine region. She mentions actual place names ‘the bridge of Pelissier’ and ‘the Valley of Chamounix’(p73) Vivid descriptions are given ‘The view of the tremendous and ever moving glacier… the surface is very uneven rising like he waves of a troubled sea’. (p75) The use of simile here makes the language more elaborate and authenticates the location. She loved the Alpine region and was happy there. She spent time with some brilliant literary minds namely Shelley, Byron her father and others. She listened, if not always taking part in, conversations on politics and science.
Speaking in London in 1831 she said of her book, ‘its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion one who, in this world I shall never see more. But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations’. (Appendix A p 197) This shows that her time spent abroad certainly has links with the book. To relate the issue of Nature versus Nurture Shelly raises the question, is human characteristic hereditary or is it as a result of our life experiences? ‘All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated who am miserable beyond all living things! (p77). We see how the monster’s character has developed into a thinking feeling creature. (Realism) Would the monster have stayed benevolent had he not been rejected by humanity? The creature we see at first is indeed wretched. ‘I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but, pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept’. (pg 80) This shows the creature has human feelings. This could suggest that monstrosity is a product of society? The monster’s destructive path is parallel with Victor’s (another gothic convention) this could be likened to the destruction caused by the French revolution.
Richard Allen in The Realist Novel states that ‘both Godwin and Wollstonecraft were seen as sympathetic to events that appeared to the majority of English people to be the most awful violation of the laws of nature in recent times, namely the Revolution in France. ’ Shelley’s mother wrote in ‘ An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794) That the French revolutionaries are ’devouring, cannibal-like monsters destroying their own parents’ but insisting that they were ‘social products’ rather than innately evil’ (The Realist Novel p78)
Shelley would have been familiar with her parents political views and literary works and therefore could have incorporated some of these views into her writing. Wollstonecraft suggests society itself is responsible. Shelley’s views on love and responsibility echo throughout the novel. Victor’s account of family life is given using realist terms. Victor’s language is transparent. ‘No youth could have passed more happily than mine’ (p21) Victor feels responsible for the death of his family and friend. Here he is vindicating his actions; after all if he was nurtured as a child he could not be a monster.
He paints a picture of the perfect family. ‘Such was our domestic circle, from which care and pain seemed forever banished. My father directed our studies, and my mother partook of our enjoyments. (Pp25-6) However there is no mention of love. In contrast Mary Shelley’s family life was an emotional rollercoaster. She grew up motherless. Her mother died shortly after her birth. When Mary was four years old her father remarried. Her relationship with her stepmother was strained and she was seen as a ‘rival’ for his affections, Mary was eventually sent away.
Shelley’s experience of love and relationships grew when she met and fell in love with Percy Shelley, albeit unorthodox. Mary eloped with Shelley, a married man. She eventually married him and had a child. This child only lived a few weeks. Mary lost three of her four children in a four and a half year period. ‘Her suffering over their deaths was complicated by her own sense of guilt’ ( Frankenstein intro xiii) The link between birth and death is evident here. Therefore, the extent to which Frankenstein is informed by contemporary social issues is not always clear. Mary Shelley was well educated and very well read.
She came from a literary and political background Therefore I believe she would have been influenced mostly by what she read. This could represent the element of nurture. Shelley’s experiences with death, (her mother, Harriett Shelley and her child) would have enabled her to express the feelings of guilt felt by Victor and the sense of loneliness and depression felt by the monster. One could see representations of guilt and responsibility here. However according to Shelley,’ I have affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, hich found no true echo in my heart’ (Frankenstein, Appendix A p197) This suggests there is no hidden agenda in the story. The gothic side to the story suggests a dark inner meaning, or is it just a really good horror story? 1618 words. References Allen Richard, Chapter Three, reading Frankenstein, The Realist Novel, The Open University (1995) Butler Marilyn, Edited notes and Introduction, Frankenstein, 1818 Text, Oxford University Press. Byron Glennis, York Notes Advanced, Frankenstein 1831 edition. Shelley Mary, Frankenstein, 1818 text, Oxford University Press.
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