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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Romantic Reimaginings: Victor Victorious? Frankenstein’s Creation as Failed Romantic Revolution

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Garrett Jeter discusses Frankenstein’s monster as a metaphor for a failed Romantic revolution.

When Victor Frankenstein gazes at his Creature in admiration, then horror, in reality he contemplates a failed revolution. More, he witnesses the failure of a Romantic project. What had fuelled a passion, a glowing vision for radical improvement in human existence, ended in wrecked hopes: “I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but … the beauty of the dream vanished” (43). Victor had employed science to advance a revolution in the human condition, dethroning the tyrannical rule of Nature, and realising a utopia of human happiness. As Peter Vernon notes, he speaks of his experiments “in visionary terms” (278). Fred Randel asserts that Frankenstein (1818) is Shelley’s “astute extension and complication” involving revolution and revolutionary ideas (466). In his estimation, Nature’s imposition of mortality on humanity constitutes oppression. Victor’s creative process and quest set two ideals of Romanticism – revolutionary spirit and the glorifying appreciation of both Nature and beauty – at odds. The result is the debacle of a revolutionary dream. With Frankenstein, Mary Shelley critiques the failure of Romanticism to achieve that vision – namely, the perfection of human existence.

Victor maintains a conflicted attitude toward Nature that undermines his revolutionary dream. She is both wondrous and oppressive. He admires her but wishes to subdue her in her “secret hiding places.” As a Romantic admirer, Victor extols her aesthetic achievements in human appearance and design. He seems “to view creation as a mystery” (Vernon, 274). Nature practices artistry in endowing “beauty” and a “fine form” to mankind (40). This handiwork includes fashioning physical perfection: “strength” (40). A creator himself, Victor lauds Nature as a transcendent creative force. Nature is the perfect Designer and Builder of “the wonders of the eye and brain” (40). His science, much like Romantic humanism, honours Nature in that it desires to recreate – to imitate – and preserve what Nature gives. Certainly, Victor’s Romantic secular humanism admires man as an ideal of Creation, but glowing praise of the human form and construction implies a Romantic exaltation of Nature’s divinity.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, painting by Richard Rothwell

Yet, the same Nature that giveth taketh away; she is both Creator and Destroyer. For this scientific revolutionary, Nature is an obsolete medieval aristocrat, an ancient relic of privilege that tyrannizes man with mortality as an encastled lord. He besieges “fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature” (25). Victor regards himself as a liberator of man from mortality’s chains. Authors have used the Gothic to “align the author and reader with the supposedly enlightened against the anachronistic and benighted” (Randel, 466). A revolutionary needs an army. His new species is a legion of “soldiers” who will conquer death and overthrow the ancien régime of Nature. A revolutionary desires to liberate the common people: the Creature’s parts originate from the corpses of the anonymous masses.

Victor’s Creature’s body incarnates both the success and failure of the Romantic revolution. At his birth, he is a corporealized locus of Romantic and anti-Romantic principles, his physique contradictorily marrying exaltation and mockery of those ideals. Some features recall those of the Greek heroic ideal: he has proportion, perfectly balanced beauty according to natural measurements; here the Creature honours Nature. In terms of physique, he has “the work of muscles and arteries,” Victor’s gesture to artistry and aesthetics, including the handiwork of Nature herself (43). His hair is a “lustrous black” and his teeth are pearly white, all “luxuriances” (43). In forming his Creation, Victor attempted to emulate aesthetic sensibility, for he “selected the features as beautiful” (43). However, Victor subverts his own glorious revolution with a “horrid contrast” of Romantic ideals and parodic-Romantic (43). The eyes and skin are yellow, the eyes dull, suggesting sickness and lifelessness. Dull, watery eyes mock Romantic optimism and the “vision” of a glowing future, metaphorizing failed foresight. Shrivelled skin opposes beautiful appearances with ugliness. Furthermore, Victor forcibly enlists Nature in his hideous experiment, raiding slaughterhouses; comely Nature participates in a grotesquerie of itself. A crowning Romantic achievement of the noble heroic ideal becomes the corporealized travesty of the Revolutionary New Human.

Frontispiece for Frankenstein, 1831 edition

Victor’s valorization of the body over mind and spirit completes the Romantic failure. Privileging ancient over modern science exacerbates that debacle. In “infus[ing] a spark of being,” Victor employs a mystical, neo-alchemical vivification (43). The terms Victor employs “relate more to alchemy and miracle than they do to science. … [H]e is … like a magus” (Vernon, 275). In Romanticism’s credo, the human being’s soul possesses a divine spark; that ideal valued intuition, spirit, aesthetic sensitivity—transcendent components of mind. However, Victor neglects this aspect. If revolution espouses “progress,” Victor states that modern science encourages him: “I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics” (39). His mention of mechanics is notable; it implies privileging exclusively physical design over attention to intellectual and emotional development. He forgets to equip the revolutionary body with the necessary revolutionary mind and soul. Abdullah identifies the crux of this failure in a confused scientific perspective: “In order to go out of the infinite circle of obsolescence and achieve the desired scientific finalization, Frankenstein uses the right means, but with faulty procedure. He uses the means and resources of modern science, but he maintains the attitude of ancient chemists” (47). When that body sprung from the anonymous masses in its parts, the Romantic Victor failed to imbue it with the uplift of spirit and beauty. Instead of elevating humanity, it is destroyed by undeveloped souls and conscience. Mark Hansen argues that Victor’s methods undermine Romanticism: “Shelley highlights the impotence of inspirational science (and romantic poetry) to control its creation; the inspirational leap, she suggests, gives rise to forces which act beyond the poet-scientist’s control” (582). Ironically, Victor’s liberatory dreams turn on themselves. While his vision is to free man to thrive, he also unchains destructive drives. Life and existence are not necessarily synonymous; full life entails the Romantic values of intuition, spirit, and aesthetic appreciation. The alchemical elixir of life contemplates only freedom from disease and mortality, not a dark heart. Perhaps the greatest travesty of Nature lies in this failed emancipation. Narcissistically, Victor sought to liberate humanity from Nature’s restrictive boundaries, but unwittingly removed the restraints on the Creature’s natural primitive impulses. The Romantic appreciation of Nature’s beauty is mocked when he negligently frees her equally ugly side to reign.

In its depiction of a hideous creation’s horrific consequence, Frankenstein critiques Romantic revolutionary ideals and their failure to achieve the radical purpose of overturning an old order for a liberated utopia. Frankenstein articulates our contemporaneous society’s reluctance to shape the ideal individual during periods of radical social change (Abdullah, 48). The Romantic Movement reacted against what it saw as the cold, sterile rationalism of the Enlightenment. What it substituted was spirit, sensitivity, and intuition. However, Victor neglects these in his reanimation. Shelley wrote to promote the liberal version of enlightenment “as the only alternative to the spread of violent revolution” (Randel, 466). Frankenstein’s visions of beauty suffer from a conflicted perspective of Nature as both creator and destroyer, of science as working both within and outside of Nature’s limits; he represents the “ideals of the present  … that modern science should not adhere to certain limits” (Abdullah, 48). In so doing, he both exalts and debases the Movement’s ideals in the Creature’s body. Romantic liberatory drives emancipate the horrific along with the comely. Shelley captures the hellish reality of the Romantic project’s disaster in Victor’s shocked realization; after the beauty of the dream vanishes, “breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. … [The Creature] became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (43, 44). In this way, Victor and his Creature both uneasily combine the twin antagonists of the beautiful and the hideous.

Works cited:
Abdullah, Shamil Taha. “The Moulding of the Scientist Individual in Frankenstein.” The Eskişehir Osmangazi Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi Aralık 19:2 (2018). 37-50.
Hansen, Mark. “Not Thus, after All, Would Life Be Given”: “Technesis”, Technology and the Parody of Romantic Poetics in “Frankenstein” Studies in Romanticism 36:4 (1997). 575-609.
Hindle, Maurice. “Vital Matters: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Romantic Science. Critical Survey 2:1 Science and the Nineteenth Century (1990). 29-35.
López-Varela Azcárate, A. and Saavedra, E. “The Metamorphosis of the Myth of Alquemy in the Romantic Imagination of Mary and Percy B. Shelley.” Icono14, 15:1, 108-127.
Randel, Fred V. “The Political Geography of Horror in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” ELH (2003), 70:2. 465-491.
Sha, Richard C. “Romantic Skepticism about Scientific Experiment.” The Wordsworth Circle, 46:3 Romanticism and Experiment (2015). 127-131.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Introd. Diane Johnson. New York: Bantam, 2003.
Vernon, Peter. “Frankenstein: Science and Electricity.”  Études Anglaises (1997), 50:3. 270-83.

Garrett Jeter has a Ph.D. in English literature with a focus on 19th-century Gothic. His dissertative work addressed the Gothic as an intellectual, empirical reader experience. He currently teaches Composition and Literature as an Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Military College in Warner Robins, GA.