Sunday, 26 May 2013

A2 English Literature: Frankenstein - Philosophical Context

Before I write all this, I should make it clear that knowing a philosophical context of the novel is not required. It just turns out to tie in AO3 and AO4 nicely if you can apply it to the novel.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that "man is born free but everywhere he is in chains" (The Social Contract). By this, he meant that every human lives their life in a prison of sorts - society is what chains us down. Like many ideas in the novel, Rousseau's beliefs were revolutionary at the time. He believed that the key to freedom lay in individual realisation and emotion. Rousseau also argued that people are at their happiest when they are in their natural state. He said that man should live as a "noble savage".

Is the creature a 'noble savage'? It could be argued that the creature is happiest when he is in his natural state (bounding over mountainous terrain and the like). It could also be argued that Victor is often happiest in his natural state; he frequently isolates himself from others and takes pleasure in placing his solitude within natural or sublime landscapes: "solitary grandeur", "sublime and magnificent scenes", "sublime ecstasy", "terrifically desolate", "perfect solitude", "perfectly solitary" etc.

However, you could conversely argue that although Victor may seem happiest in his natural state, this is not so. Sometimes nature fills Victor with insuperable dread: "I looked upon the sea, it was to be my grave." You could also suggest that Victor is in fact at his 'happiest' in his "workshop of filthy creation"; the place where he trembles with passion and is full of "ardour" - a place far from nature.

Rousseau thought that people should be brought up learning how to live with others and contribute towards a common good, and Shelley may be doing something similar with her presentation of the creature. It is as though the creature is a modern version of the 'first man'; as though society-oppressed humanity is given a chance to start again. The fact that the creature memorably discovers fire at one point in the novel alludes to the early days of mankind. Perhaps the creature is given the chance to start again, but is chained down by the neglectful nature of his creator and the torment of society who persecute him because of his appearance alone. This may link to Rousseau referring to himself as a "frightful creature" when people reacted to his philosophy aggressively, deeming it to be politically threatening.

John Locke, a philosopher frequently associated with the Enlightenment, argued that everyone's life starts as a 'blank slate'. According to Locke, experiences are 'written' upon this slate and eventually form our personalities. Locke stated that people learn through sensation and reflection - "all ideas come from sensation or reflection."

Locke's ideas seem to fit very well with the nature of the creature in Frankenstein. As a bit of AO4 to enforce the Locke view, you can mention the fact that in the winter of 1816-17, Shelley did in fact read Locke's work.

It is coherent to argue that the creature is born as a 'blank slate'; he has no real personality or experiences to draw upon. Then, when we think of his earliest experiences, it makes sense to argue that these experiences (being neglected by his creator and shunned by local villagers) help shape his tormented personality, and perhaps lead to his murderous streak.

The creature's 'blank slate' is overloaded with desires and sensory information - the creature is arguably not monstrous at all, but in fact very human in his development. He 'discovers' fire, as mentioned above, and even looks at his own reflection in water (as Eve does in Paradise Lost) - this links to a very literal reading of 'sensation or reflection'.

However, although we can argue that the creature is a product of experiences, this doesn't necessarily explain his act of kindness in collecting wood for Felix and Agatha de Lacey without showing himself. The creature has had no positive experiences to fall back on, so why did he show such an act of kindness? Perhaps the creature is inherently benevolent, which links to the William Godwin view.

Locke's philosophy doesn't just apply to the creature, however; it can also apply to Victor. It can be argued that Victor's desire to assemble his own creature comes from past experiences. Specifically, the experiences of doubt expressed by his father and M. Krempe alongside his experiences of "Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus ... the lords of my imagination."

William Godwin arguably has his philosophy referenced in the novel, since he was in fact Shelley's father. Godwin, like Rousseau, believed that the government was corrupt; this certainly ties in with the unjust execution of Justine and Victor's criticism of "laws and governments" when he's locked up himself. Godwin also believed that mankind harboured "universal benevolence" and inherently shows love and pity. This clears up the issue of the creature's benevolence in Locke's philosophy; Godwin would argue that we are all born as peaceful, loving creatures. Perhaps Victor is the creature's corrupting force?

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