The context of a novel is the circumstances in which it was written. The three most important areas of context in literary terms are cultural, biographical, and political contexts. The context of a novel provides clarification of meaning aswell as giving a deeper understanding of why a particular text was written in a particular way, by a particular author at a particular time.
These three areas are evident in ‘Frankenstein however it is important to note that different contexts have relative importance, both in terms of the type of context and how much emphasis it is given in elation to key themes as well as the importance of a context as perceived by contemporary societies. Both the context in which ‘Frankenstein was written and the novel itself help to formulate a fair and balanced response to the text. The biographical context of ‘Frankenstein is key in order to understand the themes in the book. It is important to point out however, that in analysing the text one must avoid analysing the creator as opposed to the created.
In literary analysis, the main aim is to understand the work better, not the person who wrote it. Mary Shelley as the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a prominant feminist, and William Godwin, a radical philosopher and novelist. Both her parents were noted freethinkers, and objected to institution. This is evident in the text, for example, when the magistrate presumes Frankenstein guilty of Henry s murder, questioning the justice system. Mary W died soon after giving birth and so Mary S was educated in the intellectual circles of her father s contemporaries.
The death of the key women in the plot (Elizabeth, Caroline, Justine) aswell as the imbalance caused by having no feminine influence while Frankenstein made the monster, could be a projection of the lack of a dominant feminine in Shelley s own upbringing, aswell as relaying some of her mother s own feminist views. These feminist undertones are apparent when Frankenstein destroys the female monster, symbolising male domination, and also when the monster finds a portrait of Caroline, “a most lovely woman”, highlighting his need for a maternal influence.
Mary was not formally educated and was brought up by an unloving stepmother, and was often alone and unhappy. The idyllic upbringing of Frankenstein can be seen as a reaction to this, “my mother tender caresses and my father s smile of benevolent pleasure” and along with the monsters isolated upbringing shows Mary s own views about the importance of upbringing, and nurturing. Frankenstein deals with the idea of loss, which can be related to Shelley s own life. Aswell as being motherless, Shelley lost three of her children, her sister to suicide, and her husband.
Mary Shelley fell in love with Percy at the age of seventeen. She lived in an irregular household of men, intent on achieving glory through their genius (Percy, Byron). In writing Frankenstein, Shelley was reacting to the selfish nature of such ideals. The labours of men of genius,.. are erroneously directed”. This can also be related to the detrimental effects of Frankenstein s own unchecked intellectual ambition. The biographical context helps to understand some of the themes in the book but is relatively limited in that it only tells the reader about the individual and not society as a whole.
It does not show the political aspect nor the established order that Shelley was reacting against. Nevertheless, biographical context is very useful in order to understand Shelley s own situation and further explain some of the themes in the ook. The political or social context is key in order to understand themes, as well as the perception of the themes by it s contemporary society. Advances in science were apparent at this time, with Darwin s theory of evolution, and science had a great impact on the work of Shelley.
Indeed, Darwin was a close friend of Percy and advances in medicine and the need for cadavers also figured at the time. At the time grave robbing was a common occurence as the bodies were sold to hospitals so that medical students could dissect and study them. This enforces the idea that science iction novels are merely “satirical versions of the here and now” as opposed to an imagined world. Through Frankenstein, Shelley explores her own fears about the dangers of science. Frankenstein is a victim of his own unchecked ambition, “the world was to me a secret which I desired to divine”.
He cannot deal, both emotionally and physically, with the monster he has created. By neglecting the monster, it is reiterated that Frankenstein is not ready for the consequences of his ambition. This highlights Shelley s own beliefs about the dangers of science and the dangers of overreaching by connecting tragedy with ambitious aspirations. Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. ” Other examples of political context are feminist views, influenced by her mother, and the humanist beliefs of her father.
The literary context of Frankenstein is vital in order to further understand the ideas behind the key themes. The Prometheus myths have various connections to Frankenstein. Prometheus created his creature using fire and this can be related to the methods employed by Frankenstein in creating the monster, “That I might infuse a park of being into the lifeless thing”. Furthermore, Prometheus became symbolic of breaking the boundaries of knowledge, he went to far and should have left things to the gods. This can be related to Frankenstein s similar tendencies, and his attempts to usurp God.
The comparisons between the legend and this text stop there as Frankenstein offers slightly different consequences. Prometheus was admired for what he did whereas Frankenstein was criticised by Shelley for his egocentric antisocial tendencies. Furthermore, Frankenstein is punished for neglecting and not creating the monster. This puts a slightly different emphasis on what he did wrong as well as reinforcing Shelley s own beliefs about the importance of nurturing. The second literary influence is that of “Paradise Lost” where parallel themes run throughout the book.
For example, the isolation of the hostile being causing an increase in hostility. “His vices are the forced solitude that he abhors” Frankenstein also refers to the monster in terms used in “Paradise Lost”, “the fiend”, “the demon”. Both the creature and the creator are torn by the consequences of misapplied knowledge and a sense of isolation. Frankenstein becomes isolated because f what he has done, and the monster is isolated because of what he is. The literary context helps to evoke pity for the created and switches the blame towards the blind ambition of the creator.
This book is hugely influenced by the generic contexts of romanticism and gothicism. When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she was in contact with both Percy, and Lord Byron, two poets who professed the romantic ideals of the age. The romantic movement was also notably influenced by Godwin, Shelley s father, and it included a celebration of nature, an expression of the individual and basically a rebellion against he structure of society pre-French revolution. The idea came to Shelley in a dream, (perhaps drug induced) which in itself is the ultimate expression of the individual.
Also the concepts of uniqueness and self-realisation aswell as an increased emphasis on the emotions and feelings of the individual are apparent here. The epistolary stlye highlights the feelings of the characters, for example when Frankenstein sees Clerval s body, he cannot control the severity of his emotions. Frankenstein concerns the results of irresponsible individual aspiration. This could be interpreted as Shelley s own essimistic views about the power of the individual.
Following the response of the monarchies to the romantic ideals (e. … the wars of 1848), there was an increase in disillusionment among romantics, and the possibility of a society transformed by the individual seemed less believable. The romantics sought inspiration from the sublime as a reaction to order an convention, this is evident in the text where ideas about solitude, darkness, terror and incomprehensibility are explored. The idea of isolation in the book can also be related as the romantics felt isolated by their beliefs and their desire for progressive social hange. Mary Shelley highlights a pessimistic view of society through Frankenstein.
She seems to have little hope in the perfectibility of mankind, and relays her own feeling about the corruption of social institutions. For example, Justine is killed for something she didn t do. Furthermore, even the DeLacey family who are egalitarian, who have no gender-roles and are seemingly the perfect family reject the monster on appearance. The monster also is typical of the concept of the noble savage, and the belief that primitive cultures can have good intentions. This is shown through the onsters fundamental benevolence and eloquent language. The trait of kindness moved me sensibly”.
The gothic movement was a reaction against political comfort and stability. It explores the idea of terror through extreme suggestions such as death. Frankenstein explores a more sophisticated fear, that of taking science too far. However, it does have many gothic elements in if, for example, the extreme geographical settings are evocative of things beyond our comprehension. this is the idea of the sublime, and the idea that we can connect to it through contemplation of nature. “These sublime and agnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation”.
Another feature of gothic novels is that they resist reason, but the ideas are frighteningly possible as opposed to absurd. This is another example of how the book is a projection of Shelley s own fears about what could conceivably happen with science. The context of a novel is vitally important in order to understand why a text was written and the political and social beliefs that underpin it. Through context a broader understanding of theme can be established and a balanced response to both the text and its underpinning values can be attained.