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Mars Shelley's "Frankenstein". A Representation of the Dichotomy of Nature versus Civilization

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2014 19 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Nature versus Civilization – Philosophical Approaches and Theories
2.1 The Noble Savage and Emile
2.2 Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Theory of the Blank Sheet

3. Representation of the Dichotomy of Nature versus Civilization in Frankenstein
3.1 Nature
3.1.1 Nature and Science
3.1.2 Motifs and Themes of Nature
3.1.3 The Challenge of Understanding Nature
3.2 Civilization
3.2.1 The Monster’s Civilization
3.2.2 Educational Differences between Victor and His Creation

4. Conclusion

Bibliographic References

1. Introduction

Civilization is hideously fragile [] there’s not much between us and the Horrors underneath, just about a coat of varnish.

(C.P Snow qtd. in Bhimeswara 178).

What does it mean to be human and what does it mean to become civilized? Questions of origin and purpose constitute strong themes in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. In the following chapters the seeming interdependence between civilization, its scientific pursuits and nature will be examined and illustrated by appropriate examples.

Before exploring how the dichotomy of nature versus civilization is represented in the story and which motifs and themes are incorporated in order to create such contrast, two philosophical approaches thought to have inspired the author will be introduced and put into context. After a theoretical frame is established, ‘nature’ and ‘civilization’ as major themes of the novel will be analyzed and compared. It is hoped to illustrate how each theme is represented and what effect it has on the overall reception and interpretation.

2. Nature versus Civilization – Philosophical Approaches and Theories

Mary Shelley’s scientific gothic novel can be interpreted as a representation of a Victorian woman’s reaction to experiments in natural science and galvanic electricity. To what extend her sophisticated and critical reflection on contemporary societal issues draws from theories of much cited social analysts like Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke will be explored in the following chapters.

2.1 The Noble Savage and Emile

Influenced by her father’s literary and philosophical knowledge and having read Rousseau’s works herself as well, Mary Shelley models the novel’s monster to resemble many attributes typically assigned to the concept of the ‘noble savage’ (cf. Feldman and Scott-Kilvert 95 and 670).

In his philosophical theory, Rousseau proposes a state of being, a state of human nature which has not yet been corrupted by experiences made in the civilized world, a state shared by all other animals and the condition man was before the creation of civilization and society. Thereby, modern society and the entire civilization of mankind are interpreted as artificial, man-made constructions which are claimed to be responsible for all evil and harm befalling man (cf. Rousseau 2014: 58 et seq. and Gutek 71).

Adapting Rousseau’s theory at least partially, Shelley assigns a kind and good-natured character to her monster right after his creation. The being appears to be able to experience human emotions such as enjoying the observation of nature awakening during spring time, feeling despair when natural life around him seems to disappear during fall and winter (cf. Shelley 82 and 92) and being “delighted” by the “pleasant sound […] from the throats of the little winged animals” (ibid. 81).[1] His positive and curious view upon the world surrounding him is characterized by an almost childlike innocence. He describes the hovel, his “place of refuge” (ibid. 83) in which he lives during his stay at the De Laceys as “a paradise compared to the bleak forest” (ibid. 84). Once he experiences civilization with its amenities, however, this easiness and contentment begin to slowly fade as he approaches society as an outsider (cf. Millhauser 248 and Rousseau 2014: 44). The discovery of the use and the positive side-effects of fire (cf. Shelley 81 et seq.) appear to mark the creature’s entrance into the civilized world and as a result of this his change in nature, even though his experiences are largely based on testing “by natural impulse and unsophisticated reason” (Millhauser 248). He is eager to learn and study “human nature” (Shelley 104). His exposure to humans and the way they live appear to initiate a continuous learning process in which the transformation from good and natural to bad and civilized takes place.

During his studies he not only gains important insight in the “views of social life” (ibid. 102), he also begins to develop highly cognitive abilities such as self-reflection and the urge to find his own identity:

As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike the beings concerning whom I read […]. My person was hideous, and my stature gigantic: what did this mean? Who was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?

(Shelley 103 et seq.).

It seems as if the more he educates himself, the more questions arise. Besides longing for answers concerning his own being and his purpose in life, he also has difficulties grasping the diversity of human nature when he asks:

Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.

(ibid. 95).

Rousseau’s theory of the ‘noble savage’ describes a human being in an Eden-like situation: man only surrounded by nature and God, who created him. As long as man turns only to God for support and embraces his God-given nature he will continue to be good. As soon as “man meddles with them”, however, “they become evil” (Rousseau 2013: 5, also cf. Gutek 71). Frankenstein’s creature seems to find himself in such an ideological conflict. On the one hand he compares himself and his loneliness to Adam’s initial situation in Eden (cf. Shelley 105). On the other hand he is well aware of the differences between them. Instead of being a perfect, prosperous and educated creature, he feels “wretched, helpless, and alone” (ibid.) and in his condition closer to Satan than to God (cf. ibid.). Such thoughts may be interpreted as foreshadowing of the emergence and acceleration of the creature’s diabolic traits. They emerge and intensify with his proceeding education and civilization and constitute an apparent parallel to Rousseau’s theory of the ‘noble savage’ (cf. Rousseau 2014: 58 et seq.).

Aspects of Rousseau’s Emile (1963) appear to be adapted by Shelley as well. The work mainly deals with the educational process of a child and stresses the important role motherly love plays in such, thereby, ignoring any paternal responsibility for a good education and a civilized upbringing. The absence of a caring and nurturing mother is claimed to result in utter moral failure (cf. Mellor 45). Since Victor’s creation never had a mother, and since Victor himself suppresses and denies any fatherly emotions, the creature is left alone, deserted and without love – predestinated to become a monster:

Under existing conditions a man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster than the rest. Prejudice, authority, necessity, example, all the social conditions into which we are plunged, would stifle nature in him and put nothing in her place. (Rousseau 2013: 5).

2.2 Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Theory of the Blank Sheet

Concerning the mental and moral development of the fictional monster, Mary Shelley appears to have been influenced by works of the social analyst John Locke. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1996a) he states that a newborn is to be compared to a tabula rasa, a blank sheet - white, innocent and without any knowledge or inscriptions of civilized social life (cf. Locke 1996a: 7 et seq.). Right after birth, however, and during his entire life the human being is constantly exposed to developmental processes influenced by the world surrounding it. As a result, societal traces and marks of civilization are left on the former untainted, pure mind and character, changing it gradually (cf. ibid. 8 and 21 ).

John Locke claims that during this changing process it is essential to assure a good education, which is said to be the fundamental prerequisite in order to responsibly fill the child’s blank sheet. This process of educating the child includes, according to Locke, a trustworthy teacher assisting the student in learning proper moral concepts and virtues of society in order to become a well-functioning member of the civilized world (cf. ibid. 21 and 31). Transferring this theory onto Mary Shelley’s novel, it becomes quite apparent that Victor utterly fails at fulfilling his responsibility to teach his creation, thereby, condemning him to live a life in isolation and despair.

In his work Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1996b), Locke describes that “a sound mind in a sound body, is a short but full description of a happy state in this world” (Locke 10). Since Frankenstein’s creature neither had the chance nor the ability to acquire a “sound body”, it appears, by Locke’s definition, impossible for him to develop a “sound mind”. The creature is not born but created – oversized, sewn together from parts of different human bodies, with “watery eyes” and “yellow skin [which] scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath” (Shelley 39). Under such circumstances, developing a healthy sense of self and the ability to socially interact appear to be an unachievable quest. The creature’s outer experience not only hinders him from taking part in normal social life, it is also the source of all the painful and negative experiences he has to endure during the time of his educational development. Victor’s creation never has the chance to experience the state of a “sound mind”. Instead, his mind seems solely formed by social factors he experiences, most of which are negative and traumatizing (cf. Mellor 51).

3. Representation of the Dichotomy of Nature versus Civilization in Frankenstein

Rooted in the period between Enlightenment and Romanticism, it is not surprising that Mary Shelley centralizes two of the most discussed themes of that time: nature and civilization. Even though one may argue that civilization derives from nature, it is also of importance to stress that it changes nature in the process.

How Shelley exactly adapts nature and civilization as opposing entities and by which attributes they are represented in the novel, will be explored in the following chapter.

3.1 Nature

When exploring the theme of ‘nature’ in Shelley’s novel, it is necessary to note that there are two separate and quite opposing concepts of nature adapted in Frankenstein. In the following chapters it will be attempted to analyze concepts of the natural world surrounding us, concepts of Mother Nature and the role they play in the diegetic civilized world. The second concept to be considered is that of human nature, which will be focused on in the contexts of education and civilization.

Nature as the “source of human growth and development” (Gutek 69) constitutes the foundation on which, according to many contemporary naturalists, civilization is based on. Influenced by the Enlightenment, nature as well as the people living in it are viewed as “perfectly functioning […] machine[s]” (ibid.). The observation and analysis of those natural machines, including human beings, are believed to reveal natural laws, which could be applied to very diverse aspects of society, economics, politics and education (cf. ibid. 69 et seq). The continuous quest for knowledge always seems to include a very close look at nature and its principles:

One of the phænomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered a mystery; […].

(Shelley 33).

Due to this apparent fusion between nature and science in the attempt to answer the questions of life, civilization appears to be impelled.

3.1.1 Nature and Science

As previously mentioned, nature and science seem to be linked in a causative way. Mother Nature constitutes a somewhat mysterious realm in which many processes and developmental factors are unknown to mankind. The emergence of diverse scientific fields attempting to reveal those secrets of nature may be interpreted as man’s innate curiosity, his urge for more knowledge (cf. Hindle 166 et seq.). In Shelley’s novel, however, nature is not appreciated or cherished by the scientists observing it. Victor Frankenstein’s mentor Waldman declares in his introduction lecture:

The modern masters […] have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and shew (sic) how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens […]. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.

(Shelley 30).

The hierarchy suggested by Waldman seems clear. Nature has been overruled by science and is now its slave, no longer obeying its own laws but following the scientific order of the civilized world. With God-like arrogance, nature is not only violated in “her hiding-places” but also depreciated and downgraded in its complexity and uniqueness (cf. Mellor 122 and Hindle 169). In the context of the novel, Waldman’s statement may be interpreted as foreshadowing Frankenstein’s upcoming project, in which he attempts to break down the final division between man and God by creating a living being.

Victor Frankenstein’s eagerness to acquire more knowledge is accompanied by a derogatory attitude towards nature. His arrogance increases the more he studies and with this increase his respect for nature lessens:

I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; […]. The astonishment which I had at first experienced […] soon gave place to delight and rapture. […] But this discovery was so great and overwhelming, that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result. What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world, was now within my grasp.

(Shelley 34).

The result of his scientific work fills him with pride. However, it is the pride of a manufacturer admiring his designed product, not rooted in any paternal feelings (cf. Sailer 124 et seq.). Even though Frankenstein views his production as a process of creation, his motivation behind it proves to be self-centered:

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to be. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.

(Shelley 36).

So, even natural feelings such as paternal love and affection appear to be overruled by scientific pride and an obsession of conquering nature, leading Frankenstein in the course of his disastrous enterprise of self-fulfillment to the point of self-destruction (cf. Sailer 128.).

In the following chapter, the importance Shelley places on nature by incorporating various motifs and themes will be explored.


[1] In due consideration of the requirements of this term paper and its textual extend, the examples given from Frankenstein are exemplary and by no means to be considered exhaustive.


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Frankenstein Mary Shelley nature science civilization monster Noble savage Emile rousseau blank sheet John Locke sound body sound mind education Victor Frankenstein motif iddentity gothic novel scientific novel creating life human creature romanticism enlightenment woman



Titel: Mars Shelley's "Frankenstein". A Representation of the Dichotomy of Nature versus Civilization