The 18th century was a tumultuous time; from revolution to innovation the world saw many changes in technology and ideals. These changes were rapid and they were feared, for good reason. The monarchs and those who had been in power for centuries that had grown comfortable believed that the past life was sufficient and thought that change was unnecessary. However, the people wanted change and with that came revolution. From the French to the Industrial Revolution, change was everywhere and it was spreading rapidly. There were those who opposed some of these changes however, and they expressed this in the way they best knew how to; through literature, prose and art. Romanticism found a home in this turbulent time. They rode the line of Enlightenment and Industrialism, choosing to go against the definition of nature by science but also oppose the long-standing aristocracies. One such romantic was Mary Shelley, and her novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. The novel tells the story of a scientist and his desire to become like God and create life. It is through the creation of the monster and the relationship between it and its creator, that we see the fears about the rise of Industrialism and it’s affect on science and religion.
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The fear of Industrialization can be seen as early as the creation of the creature. Frankenstein works night and day for two years in creating this being, gathering materials and building the necessary equipment. He represents man and our need to push boundaries. Technology can be likened to Pandora’s Box, just one part of ancient Greek mythology that the novel can draw upon. Discoveries build on the foundations of previous ideas, and the creation of this monster is equal to opening the box. The myth is connected with that of Prometheus. When Prometheus stole fire from Zeus to give back to mankind, Zeus sent Pandora, the first woman, to live with them. At this time she was given a jar (despite the moniker of “box”) that contained all the evil in the world. Pandora unknowingly opened it and unleashed it upon the world. Frankenstein has unknowingly created a monster and unleashed it upon the world. With the creation of this monster, technology can build upon this evil which defies nature and religion. Frankenstein himself is repulsed by his own creation just moments after creating it, and says that after he finished, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I create, I rushed out of the room…” (Shelley 58) The creation of the monster violates nature and Frankenstein’s selfish attempts to become God will become his downfall. Frankenstein struggles to become the “Modern Prometheus”, as referenced by the title of the novel. But this title is ironic; Frankenstein starts to embody Prometheus in the worst ways possible. He wants to find “fire” and return it to Man but he fails where his Greek idol and counterpart succeeds. He is doomed to suffer the same punishment however, and feels guilt over his creation and his punishment can be seen as divine retribution. Instead of having his liver eaten by an eagle , everyone he has loved and cared for is murdered by what he has created.
The first death is that of his five-year-old brother, William. It’s a murder of something young and innocent by something of the same nature. The monster himself is confused, young and innocent, until this point. After saving the girl from the river and being shot for it, he has grown to hate mankind and begins to lose hope. However, he soon comes upon a child and thinking that the child is unprejudiced he can capture him, educate him and have a companion. The creature is repeatedly taunted by the child though and he learns that the child is the son of Frankenstein. The creature’s disposition changes and he seeks to silence the boy and claim him as his first victim. “The child still struggled, and loaded me with epithets which carried despair to my heart; I grasped his throat to silence him, and in a moment he lay dead at my feet. I gazed upon my victim, and my heart swelled with exultation and hellish triumph…” (Shelley 144) This act signifies the loss of humanity and disconnection to nature that the Industrial Revolution brings with it. If this creature, this new idea, is corruptible then the new ideas brought by the revolution can easily be brought down as well. Technology is a disconnection with nature and in a sense, leads to a loss of humanity. In the name of progress, ideals may be forgotten.
Religion becomes an important factor when considering one the books the monster reads, Paradise Lost. Published in 1667 and written by John Milton, it is a poem which details two story arcs; the first being the banishment of Satan and a variety of other angels to Hell after attempting to take over Heaven, and the second being the temptation of Eve by Satan and the expulsion of Adam & Eve from the Garden of Eden. After reading the book the monster feels a connection with Satan, stating, “Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.” (Shelley 132) However, it can be seen that both Frankenstein and the creature are like Satan, while the monster feels anger towards his creator, Frankenstein also shares many qualities with Satan. They both wish themselves to be God, they both are self-absorbed and egotistical and soon, their ego is their own downfall. Satan is overconfident and when he is faced by guilt, like when entering Paradise or tempting Eve, he simply remembers his expulsion from heaven and his feelings are re-affirmed (similar to the Monster as well.) Frankenstein is also egotistical and soon when he becomes so self-absorbed in believing the creature is only after him, Elizabeth, his wife, is murdered in her sleep due to his carelessness. Both characters draw traits from Satan, which add to the idea of science defying religion. Science brought progress, but it could also bring the downfall of man. It can even be thought that science was like Satan tempting us with the apple once again, offering us knowledge that God kept away from us but in truth, it would be our undoing.
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However, the truth is, and what Mary Shelley is trying to portray with the book, is that we sit on a precarious edge with science and we me must watch where we step. Science is only half of a whole, like the characters of Frankenstein and the monster. They represent logic and emotion and trade places throughout the novel. They represent science and religion and what she wants to be realized is that they can co-exist together and should. Through both we can better humanity, discovering new ideas but keeping our ideals. Throughout the novel she presents the idea that scientific progress can be the downfall of man, and that it goes against nature and religion. At the same time however, we can reach a conclusion at the end of the novel: Mary Shelley will be right if we don’t tread carefully with scientific discovery. Science and Religion must learn to co-exist, or both are doomed to be destroyed, like Frankenstein and the monster at the end of the novel. Through the relationship between the creator and his creation, we can learn about the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the world, and gain insight into the thoughts of the Romantic thinkers of the time.