Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Frankenstein: Contextual Documents (pp.190-223)

(at left: Henry Fuseli's painting of Ariel from Shakespeare's The Tempest)

Readings: Godwin, Caleb Williams; Wollstonecraft, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman; Paracelsus, On Creation; Rousseau, Emile, or Education; Davy, A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry; Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Easy question this time: Choose TWO of the above readings and explain how they provide useful context for reading/interpreting some aspect of FrankensteinBe specific--show how individual passages and ideas from the excerpts relate to the novel, and influence what we read either in small passages or the entire work.  Remember, Shelley read all of these works prior to writing Frankenstein, which means that even subsconsiously (though more likely, quite consciously) these works were eager co-collaborators. 

As a bonus, here are some works that she recorded as reading in her Diary from the years 1815-1816, just prior to and during the composition of Frankenstein.  These are only a FEW of the many works she consumed in this relatively short period of time--she was a voracious reader, and probably slightly in compeition with her husband; she kept a strict record of all the books both read, and if we trust her accounting, she always came out ahead!  You might consider visiting some of these works as primary sources for your Paper #2, especially if you've already read them.  Note how many Gothic works occur in these formative years!  Also, some of these works she was merely re-reading, such as works by her parents. 

1815: Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther; Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Ovid's Metamorphoses; The Arabian Nights; Wordsworth's Poems; Spenser's The Fairy Queen; Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland (an American Gothic novel); Rousseau's Confessions; Beckford's Vathek; Milton's Paradise Lost; Sir Walter Scott's Waverley; Swift's A Tale of a Tub; Lives of Abelard and Heloise; The New Testament; Coleridge's Christabel and Other Poems; Shakespeare's Plays (doesn't say which ones); Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad; Voltaire's Micromegas; Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; Plutarch's Lives; George Ansons's Voyages Around the World; Lewis's Tales of Wonder (Matthew "Monk" Lewis--author of The Monk); Radcliffe's The Castle of Udolpho...

1816: Livy's History of Rome; Euripides' Plays (doesn't say which ones); James Machperson's Ossian poems (he was a poet who claimed he had discovered the "lost" Celtic epics, which he claimed were written by a Homeric bard named Ossian--later discovered to be a fraud); Mungo Park's Journal of a Journey in Africa; Byron's Seige of Corinth; Godwin's Caleb Williams; Montesquieu's Persian Letters; Rousseau's Emile, or Education; Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent; Cervantes' Don Quixote; Richardson's Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison; Swift's Gulliver's Travels; Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman...


  1. In the excerpt from William Godwin’s Things as They Are, a first person narration exposes how the main character feels about their life. Compared to the creature in Frankenstein, the voice and tone are strikingly similar, especially in the passage “I was shut up, a deserted solitary wretch, in the midst of my species.” This statement is exactly what the creature experiences as he is composed of human parts and human emotions, but is horribly disfigured and is a terror to all who see him. The parallel between the creature and Caleb is obvious as both are rejected by their father on page 195. While reading Things as They Are, I really felt that it was like hearing the creature’s voice and felt viewing it in this light helped give more personality and insight into the mind of the poor monster.

    More to follow later : )

  2. Chad Large

    Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

    If we look at what Goethe wrote in The Sorrows of Young Werther, the influence on Shelly's Frankenstein is unmistakable. First, the language usage of both Goethe and Shelly is very similar: both are very image oriented in their description painting a vibrant and romantic landscape in which nature itself is almost personified. Goethe's description of nature in the passage is vibrant, descriptive, and comes alive on the page filling the reader with the sounds and sights of a bright spring day. In the same manner, Shelly's description of the creature's reaction to spring emotes a flurry of visual images in the reader as well. Shelly writes, "The birds sang in more cheeful notes, and the leaves began to bud forth on the trees. Happy, happy earth! fit habitation for gods" (Shelly 106). Goethe writes an almost identical description in his account of spring, "when I heard the birds around me bringing the woods to life with their song...[f]rom the forbidding mountain range, across the barren plain...to the ends of the unknown seas, the spirit of the Eternal Creator can be felt rejoicing over every grain of dust that comprehends Him and lives" (Goethe 222).
    Another of the similarities between Shelly and Goethe which illustrates Goethe's influence on Shelly's writing is found in the extremes that each of the characters occupy over the coarse of the narrative. For Shelly and Goethe both, each of their characters swing from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other in response to the fact that the object of their affection does not reciprocate. Werther states, "Why does that which makes a man happy have to become the source of his misery" (Goethe 222), and the creature, "from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species (the species that had previously brought him so much pleasure)" (Shelly 122).
    Finally, we are also able to see influence from Goethe's work in terms of the structure. Although not exactly similar, the fact that there are letters present in both narratives lends support to Goethe's influence on Shelly's writing as well.

    William Godwin

    In Godwin's Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, Godwin draws a picture of a character that could pass as Shelly's creature in almost every respect. Godwin writes of his character, "I was born free: I was born healthy, vigorous, and active, complete in all the lineaments and members of a human body" (Godwin 193). This depiction is not far removed from that of Frankenstein's creature. Shelly writes, "His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful, Beautiful!-- Great God! his yellow skin scarcely covered his muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black...his teeth of a pearly white" (Shelly 60). From this we can see that both Shelly's and Godwin's character's were physically sound and arguably healthy, however, in similar manner, both were responded to in a manner that was unjust. Both Shelly and Godwin go to great lengths to illustrate to the reader that each character was blameless initially, and that the catalyst is found in that of others response to them. Godwin's character states, "I was ignorant of the power which the institutions of society give to one man over others; I had fallen unwarily into the hands of the person who held it as his fondest wish to oppress and destroy me. There is little doubt as to the influence of this passage on that of Shelly's Frankenstein. Shelly uses the same ideal when the opposition between Frankenstein and the creature matures. Even though the species of man is depicted as the "oppressor" initially, the reader later finds that in the eyes of the creature, Frankenstein, by his creating the creature, has "wish[ed] to oppress and destroy" (Godwin 193).

  3. Post Cont'd
    As I was reading the excerpt from the
    heartbreaking story of Maria by Mary Wollstonecraft, I was initially so overcome by the inhumane treatment of such an innocent girl. Maria was treated like a slave by her father and stepmother (possibly for being his first illegitimate love child) and our young narrator was treated no better by a woman who she went to work for later in the selection. She was treated so poorly, she compares it to being treated like an animal, especially when she writes on page 200 “I was the flinching cat, the ravenous dog, the dumb brute who must endure it all”. I think in a way, Maria can be applied to the creature in Frankenstein as well because both were never given the love that they so desprately wanted and needed.

  4. On the topic, I just wanted to express how much I enjoyed the discussion over this today in class!
    The history of the author can inform the reader with so much of the "back story" of where the who, what, where, when and why. It helps us to firmly ground into the era without framing it from a contemporary viewpoint.

    I often think that the great divide that exists between meaning/intent at the time of writing versus implied meaning and intent at any other point in time can be a slippery slope.
    While a reader tries to find the merit and connection to their own time and life--as readers we do need to realize that the world of THEN can be very, *very* different from the world of the right now. We have to make sure to keep a line between the writers feelings, the characters feelings and our own feelings that may be sort of displaced onto the writer and character.

    One thing that came to my mind--as we talked about questions and innocence (to be like a child that is the father of the man) that ultimately that serves the sublime purpose. If we take apart something and begin asking the questions--our logic circles backwards and forwards at every turn.

    For example: Let's say we were considering a desk. It is put together by pieces of wood and nails. But what is the wood? What are the nails? The wood is organic, has a life all its own. The nail made of iron.. from whence does iron come... we can trace this then via question to the Iron Age.. what was the feeling and the consensus on it? What did it mean for man? If it meant something--and it changed the course of humanity down the road.. why is this important?
    Ultimately I think it could be said that life is full of questions leading up to the very last one that a person will ever wonder about.."What is after *this* life?"

    Anyways.. that was just something I thought I'd share. I'd love to discuss it more if anyone is of a mind to keep the conversation going here throughout the Spring Break.

    Hugs to all and please guys and gals... be safe on your vacation! :)

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