Historical Context in Frankenstein
Publication: First published in 1818, Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley, wife of author Percy Bysshe Shelley. Inspiration for the story’s setting came from her travels throughout Europe, while the motivation for writing arose from a competition between Mary, Percy, romantic poet Lord Byron, and novelist John Polidori to write the best horror story. While Percy’s and Byron’s stories were never finished, the competition produced two of the most famous horror novels in history: Polidori’s The Vampyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Mary’s story was published, initially to mixed reviews, but would later go on to be a defining novel in both horror and science fiction.
Romanticism: In the early 1800s, romanticism was the dominant literary movement. Its main ideas—prioritizing emotion over reason and glorifying individualism and nature—can be seen throughout many texts written during this time.
Industrialization: In terms of scientific advancements, electricity was being studied for many applications, including galvanism, which seeks to produce movement through applying electrical currents to deceased flesh. This may, in part, have served as a real-world scientific basis for Frankenstein’s experiments.
Historical Context Examples in Frankenstein:
"MARLOW..." See in text (Preface)
Mary Shelley’s husband Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote this preface under the pseudonym “Marlow” to give the story a more factual basis. At the time of the novel’s publication in 1818, science fiction was not a popular genre. Shelley aligns Frankenstein with science, great literature, and history in order to distinguish it from unsophisticated ghost stories as high-brow fiction. He takes the pseudonym from Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where Shelley and her husband wrote.
"Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than anything I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each story founded on some supernatural occurrence...." See in text (Preface)
Percy Shelley, posing as his wife and the author of this book, alludes to the competition that he, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley undertook in the summer of 1816. One night while the group read German ghost stories to each other around the fire, Lord Byron challenged them each to write their own horrifying story. Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein and his monster from a nightmare that she had had; Percy Shelley and Byron never finished their stories. Notice that Percy Shelley dismisses Mary’s work as less acceptable to the public than his own, even though she won the competition at Geneva.
"The Iliad, the tragic poetry of Greece—Shakespeare, in the Tempest and Midsummer Night's Dream—and most especially, Milton, in Paradise Lost, conform to this rule..." See in text (Preface)
Shelley argues that literature preserves the truths of human nature in order to tell stories and uses references to great literature in order to prove his point. The Iliad is an epic poem from ancient Greece that tells the story of the Trojan War, a battle between Troy and Greece over the abduction of Helen of Troy. The epic features multiple interventions from the gods and other supernatural elements. Shakespeare’s two most famous supernatural plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, rely heavily on the presence of magic to tell their stories. Milton’s Paradise Lost tells the story of Genesis by imagining heaven, hell, and Eden. While all of these stories use supernatural elements, they also preserve the principles of nature.
"Dr. Darwin..." See in text (Preface)
Dr. Charles Darwin was a geologist, biologist, and naturalist in the 1800s. Darwin is most known for his scientific theory of evolution published in The Origin of the Species. Contrary to religious ideology, Darwin’s theory suggests that humanity developed out of single cell organisms in response to environmental factors.
"He was not, as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but an European...." See in text (Letter IV)
Walton’s comment betrays the assumptions and expectations of British seafarers such as himself, and perhaps those of citizens more generally. The Victorian-era British possessed such a narrow understanding of the world that people were either Europeans or savages. There is a detectable note of relief in Walton’s realization that the stranger is of the former category.
"my more than sister..." See in text (Chapter I)
Mary Shelley heavily revised and republished Frankenstein in 1831. The original 1818 version of the story was much more radical and shocking to contemporary audiences. In the original story, Elizabeth was not an orphan but Victor’s cousin.
"Cornelius Agrippa..." See in text (Chapter II)
The German scholar Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535) was best known for his contributions to science and rhetoric through his work as a polymath, physician, theologian, and occult writer. Many of his works influenced later philosophers and writers such as Descartes and Goethe. Frankenstein’s father discounts Agrippa’s credibility, because many scholars, while acknowledging the impact of his works, considered his theories outdated or obsolete.
"Under the guidance of my new preceptors, I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention. ..." See in text (Chapter II)
Preceptors means teachers or instructors, and in this case, it refers to the aforementioned philosophers whom Frankenstein read. The philosopher’s stone is a legendary substance that is said to turn any metal into gold or silver. It is also often called the elixir of life (although Shelley differentiates between them), which grants immortality to whoever possesses it. Frankenstein is fascinated by this second power; he claims to have no desire for wealth, but instead dreams of the glory he would obtain if he was to find a means for eternal life. Frankenstein’s fascination with this life-giving substance is the first major foreshadowing of his future creation.
"Sir Isaac Newton..." See in text (Chapter II)
Sir Issac Newton (1642–1726) was an English mathematician, physicist and astronomer that would have been known in Shelley’s time as a “natural philosopher.” Newton most famously formulated the theory of gravity. However, Newton also dabbled in alchemy and the occult and was said to be looking for the philosopher’s stone for over half his lifetime. Frankenstein’s reference to Newton as a child picking up shells is an allusion to Newton’s memoirs in which he states: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Frankenstein compares his own frustrations to Newton’s in arguing that he has been unable thus far to make any major discoveries.
"Albertus Magnus...." See in text (Chapter II)
St. Albertus Magnus (1205-1278) was a German Dominican friar and Catholic bishop whose work ranged from the life sciences to philosophy to theology. He held the belief that religion and experimental science should be studied in tandem to discover the mysteries of nature and the universe. The influence of Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Magnus on Frankenstein is most apparent at this intersection between science and mysticism.
"Paracelsus ..." See in text (Chapter II)
Greek philosopher Theophrastus von Hohenhein (1490-1451), referred to as Paracelsus, is often considered the father of modern medicine. His studies contributed greatly to the development of thought around disease and treatment. However, much like Agrippa, many scholars discounted him due to his interest in the mystical and occult, which he saw as complementary to scientific observation.
"heroes of Roncesvalles, of the Round Table of King Arthur, and the chivalrous train who shed their blood to redeem the holy sepulchre from the hands of the infidels...." See in text (Chapter II)
Henry Clerval was fascinated by historical tales of heroism. He drew inspiration from a number of historical sources. These included soldiers of the Battle of Roncesvalles who sacrificed themselves for the salvation of their comrades. The knights of King Arthur’s Round Table also demonstrated legendary bravery in battle. Lastly, the holy sepulchre refers to Jesus Christ’s burial site, of which the crusaders attempted to recover from the Turks. All three of these historical references in some way or another exalt bravery and courage over cowardice and excessive pride. Their inclusion here may be seen as an ironic foreshadowing of Frankenstein’s fate.
"sublime..." See in text (Chapter II)
In aesthetic theory, the sublime is something which inspires great awe, wonder, or ecstasy, beyond the limits of human description. These feelings of awe and appreciation of aesthetic beauty are often mixed with a deep sense of terror. For many romantics, the most sublime object was nature itself, capable of inspiring great depth of feeling. Throughout her narrative, Shelley frequently links nature and the sublime, demonstrating nature as a beautiful and powerful entity through the encounters her characters have with their natural environments.
"science and mechanics..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Frankenstein is referring to the First Industrial Revolution, which took place over the course of several decades from approximately 1760–1830. He brings this up as a means to inspire and push himself to take on the task of animating a dead human. With all the advancements in science and mechanics at the time, Frankenstein considers himself up to the challenge. Frankenstein’s pride is revealed by this desire to bring life to a deceased human, rather than an animal, and his belief that he can achieve this task alone.
"how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Frankenstein tells Walton that he will not reveal the secret to creating life. Instead, he offers a warning, which extends as a caution to all readers, that all knowledge comes at a price. This theme continues to be explored throughout Frankenstein and has been popular in other tales throughout literary history, perhaps most famously in works which explore the Faust myth, such as Goethe’s Faust.
"I was like the Arabian who had been buried with the dead, and found a passage to life, aided only by one glimmering, and seemingly ineffectual, light...." See in text (Chapter IV)
This allusion refers to a story from the anthology of Arabian tales A Thousand and One Nights. In one particular tale, Sinbad escapes from his wife’s tomb, in which he had been interred by villains. This allusion to an Arabian tale, rather than a European one, serves as an important cross-cultural reference. Finding this “passage to life” serves as motivation for Frankenstein and, therefore, the plot of the novel. Romantics were often fascinated by Arabian stories and culture because they considered it exotic. That Shelley grounds the pivotal moments in this novel with allusions to Arabian tales supports the themes of romanticism throughout the tale.
"M. Krempe..." See in text (Chapter IV)
The abbreviation “M.” stands for the French word monsieur and serves as a means of respectfully referring to someone. Since Frankenstein studied in Geneva, French was most likely the principal language of instruction, which is why he refers to his professors in this way.
"the wisest men since the creation of the world..." See in text (Chapter IV)
It is important to note that the description here only pertains to men. During that time period, women did not have educational freedom like men; they were expected to remain in the sphere of domesticity, which limited them to household tasks and the role of being a mother and/or wife. The phrase “since the creation of the world” emphasizes the length of time that such gender inequality has lasted.
"and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams...." See in text (Chapter V)
Frankenstein mistakenly believes that he can escape the horror of his creation through sleep. For Frankenstein, going to bed is akin to going into denial. This reaction is similar to an episode in Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment. After committing a murder he had justified to himself, Raskolnikov, the novel’s protagonist, attempts to escape his feelings of guilt through sleep. For both Raskolnikov and Frankenstein, sleep offers no solace. Guilt proves to be a recurrent theme throughout the rest of Frankenstein.
"“We rest; a dream has power to poison sleep. We rise; one wandering thought pollutes the day. We feel, conceive, or reason; laugh or weep, Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away; It is the same: for, be it joy or sorrow, The path of its departure still is free. Man's yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but mutability!”..." See in text (Chapter X)
These lines represent the second half of Percy Shelley’s poem “Mutability,” which was first published in 1816, the year Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. The content of the poem does not appear to have a direct correlation with the developments of the story at this point. That being said, it is moving to hear the creature deliver a beautifully constructed and wise reflection on the nature of human existence. The central idea of the poem is that the only constant in life is inconstancy. This idea that the temperament of the soul is always changing and fleeting is pertinent to Frankenstein, whose restless reflections have carried him through extreme emotional highs and lows.
"I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars..." See in text (Chapter XI)
In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan god who created humanity. To help his creations build civilization and grow, Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity against Zeus’s will. As punishment, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock and sent an eagle to pluck out his liver every day. The creature’s encounter with fire symbolizes his growing humanity and emerging intelligence.
"“I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers—their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! ..." See in text (Chapter XII)
This moment is also an antithesis to the myth of Narcissus. In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Narcissus was so infatuated with his own image that he wasted away and died by this pool. The creature’s reaction to his image in the water is quite the opposite to Narcissus’s as he is shocked by his own ugliness.
"She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion, and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Readers should notice how Shelley distinguishes between Christianity as an “enlightened” religion and Islam as a “simple,” or even barbaric, one. This biased, Eurocentric worldview was typical of Shelley’s time and place.
"Sorrows of Werter..." See in text (Chapter XV)
The Sorrows of Werter, usually translated from the German as The Sorrows of Young Werther, is a 1774 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The novel, which details the romantic yearnings of a young man, was a widely popular work in its time. The writers of the romantic era were particularly moved by the novel, whose influences can be seen in Frankenstein. Like Shelley’s novel, Werther employs an epistolary style and centers on an emotionally turbulent young man.
"Plutarch's Lives..." See in text (Chapter XV)
Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, often referred to as Plutarch’s Lives, is a non-fiction work written by the Roman historian Plutarch in the early 2nd century CE. The Lives is a series of biographies of important figures from the classical world, including Romulus, Caesar, and Alexander the Great. While Paradise Lost introduced the creature to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Plutarch’s Lives introduced him to the Greco-Roman tradition.
"Paradise Lost..." See in text (Chapter XV)
Paradise Lost is an epic poem written by the English poet John Milton in 1667. The central theme of Paradise Lost is the archetypal fall from grace, a mythic pattern which plays out in Frankenstein. In Paradise Lost, Lucifer experiences a fall when God casts him out of heaven for his pride. Lucifer then tempts Adam and Eve into a fall from grace when he appears in Eden. Nearly every important character in Frankenstein undergoes a unique fall.