How does Mary Shelley challenge and unsettle the reader of Frankenstein?

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How does Mary Shelley challenge and unsettle the reader of Frankenstein?

Rosie Hill

    In Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’ she tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young idealistic student who discovers the secret of giving life to matter. Frankenstein creates a living being, but horrified by the monster he created, Victor deserts it. Isolated and lonely, the monster becomes alienated and exacts a terrible revenge on its creator. So follows a whirlwind chase across the world in Shelley’s revolutionary novel, blending Gothic horror and romance together to produce one of the most well known stories of all time. Shelley uses a combination of context, language, structure and themes to both challenge and unsettle the reader of Frankenstein, while also making them question their personal views on certain aspects of the novel.

    Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in London on the 30th August 1797. Her parents were radicals, revolutionary thinkers, subsequently she grew up with very radical and ‘out there’ ideas. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, a British writer and one of the early feminists. In her book ‘A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women’ she argued that the nature of women was actually a consequence of a lack of education forced on them by men and that marriage was legalised prostitution. She argued in favour of social order based on reason and free of superstition and prejudice. Shelley’s father was William Godwin, a journalist, political philosopher and novelist. He used to talk about experiments of reanimating corpses or galvanism. Galvanism is the contraction of a muscle stimulated by an electrical current, discovered by the scientist Luigi Galvani who investigated the effect of electricity on dissected animals in the 1780s and 1790s. This is perhaps where Shelley’s idea of using electricity to give life to her monster came from.

    Percy Shelley was a follower of Mary’s father Godwin and met Mary on the 5th of May 1814 when she was just 16. They began an affair behind the back of his 18year old wife. When Godwin found out, he banned the young lovers from seeing each other. They decided to elope and set across the channel to Calais. When Mary became pregnant at 17, her father disowned her. The baby was born 2 months prematurely and died soon after its birth. Mary’s life was full of so much death when she was so young, and this had a direct influence on ‘Frankenstein’.

    The idea for the novel came whilst staying in the villa of Shelley’s good friend, the poet Lord Byron. In the summer of 1816, known as the ‘Summer of Darkness’, Shelley, Byron and Shelley’s husband Percy, began a competition to write a ghost story. Shelley took it more seriously than the two men and she set out to think of an idea. Shelley herself said, ‘I busied myself to think of a story … One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.’ A nightmare Shelley had on several occasions gave her the basic idea, and she drew on many of her own person experience and beliefs to help write the novel.

    Many of the ideas in ‘Frankenstein’ are still relevant today, particularly that of Science versus Religion and whether man should interfere with nature. Religion was the core belief in 1830, and Shelley undermines the core belief. This would have caused controversy in Shelley’s own time and is unsettling for readers today, as it disrupts what the majority believe, creating chaos. This young woman had the nerve to challenge the core belief of her society, causing readers to question their own beliefs on the Science versus Religion debate.

    In ‘Frankenstein’, Victor is searching for the secret to creating life, an idea that is frowned upon by his college professors. With the cloning of life forms and genetic engineering now commonplace, the question of the morality of the actions of Victor is now more important than ever. It was Victor's opinion that it was morally acceptable to give life to his creation.  His creation then needed a companion. Knowing that his first creation was evil, Victor is unsure whether to make a second. With the knowledge at hand, to Victor, it is not at all morally correct to bring another monster into the world. With doubts in his mind, Victor sets about creating a second monster. The first monster threatened Frankenstein and even his family, it angrily said to Frankenstein, ‘I can make you so wretched.’ Trying to scare Frankenstein for not creating his mate the monster resorted to threats.  If the Victor does create a companion for his first creation he may be endangering the lives of many others.  ‘The miserable monster whom I had created’ says Victor looking back at his work.  If there is another monster there will be twice the power and possibly twice the evil, which could hurt or kill his family. If Victor creates another monster, he could be rid of the pair of them forever,  ‘With the companion you bestow I will quit the neighbourhood of man,’ promises the monster to the doctor upon the completion of his partner.  But if Victor dies create his first monster’s mate there is a chance that the monsters will not keep their promise and stay in Europe terrorising people and setting about on a murderous killing spree. With the knowledge at hand, to him, Victor knows that it is not at all morally correct to bring another monster into the world.  On one hand if the second monster was created Frankenstein's family would be saved.  On the other hand the rest of the world could have the fury and terror of two monsters thrown upon it. Even though Frankenstein began his work for the good of man his experiment ended up hurting himself, his family, and society. 

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    The theme of Victor leaving the monster to fend for itself could be related to abortion today. It wasn’t the monster’s fault that it looked as hideous as it did, and perhaps if Victor has showed it compassion instead of fear, and welcomed it into the world, teaching it morals and the difference between right and wrong, it wouldn’t have become such a monster. Unfortunately, as Victor fled from it’s sight, and showed it nothing but hate and disgust, that is all it knew. It didn’t know the difference between right and wrong and didn’t know how to ...

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