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Science and Progress in Frankenstein and Hard Times

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KWB 724: 19th CENTURY LITERATURE

MAJOR ESSAY

SCIENCE AND PROGRESS IN FRANKENSTEIN ANDHARD TIMES

The 19th century was a time of massive change socially, politically and scientifically. This time saw the rise of Imperialism and of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, seeing massive changes in the way industry was run. Also during this time the literary movements of Romanticism and Victorianism emerged. Romanticism dealt with the issues of reality versus illusion, childhood and man versus nature. The first book I will examine in this essay, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, comes from this literary period and focuses on the man versus nature theme, namely the theme of scientific development and it's contrast to nature. The second book I will look at in this essay comes from the Victorian period of the 19th century. This period saw the rise of the Industrial Revolution and of huge social and political change. Hard Times by Charles Dickens deals with these issues very closely, focusing

mainly on the rise of industry in Britain and its effects on the people of Britain. Both of these novels challenge the social, political and scientific developments of the 19th century, namely the advent of science and technology.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has become almost a myth in our culture; it so deeply probes the collective cultural psyche and our fear of science and progress. "Frankenstein is our culture's most penetrating literary analysis of the psychology of modern 'scientific' man, of the dangers inherent in scientific research, and the exploitation of nature and of the female implicit in a technological society" (Mellor, 1988:38). The interesting thing about Frankenstein is that there can be multiple readings of the text. It can be seen as a conservative criticism of science, a Promethean belief of the unlimited progress of science, the feminist anti-female principle angle to the story, even a religion versus science story. What I will explore through this essay is each of these readings and shed some light on this wonderful novel. "The value of Mary Shelley's novel lies not in presenting a clear morale but encouraging the readers to make up their own" (members.aon.at.htm).

The most obvious and well-known theory of the story of Frankenstein is that of a warning to the dangers of science: " Mary Shelley's implicit warning against possible dangers inherent in the technological developments of modern science" (Mellor, 1988:114). Shelley was very interested in science and she researched it before writing the novel, using this knowledge to create her story. The creation of the monster was based largely on the scientific research being undertaken in the 19th century; the use of electricity and chemistry in the reanimation of dead tissue and animals. The power and danger of electricity is described early in the novel when Victor recalls his first encounter with electricity:

"When I was fifteen years old...we witnessed a most

violent and terrible thunderstorm...and the thunder

burst at once with frightful loudness...as I stood at

the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue

from an old and beautiful oak...and so soon as a

dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared,

and nothing remained but a blasted stump"

(Shelley, 1996:23).

This passage shows Shelley's continuing comparison between nature and science; how electricity can destroy something beautiful. "She used this knowledge both to analyse and to criticise the more dangerous implications of the scientific method and its practical results" (Mellor, 1988:89).

Although Shelley studied the sciences in which she has written, she remains very distant from it refusing to totally involve the reader in the creation process. "Her vision of the isolated scientist discovering the secret of life is no mere fantasy but a plausible prediction of what science might accomplish" (Mellor, 1988:107). What Anne Mellor suggests here is quite interesting; the "isolated scientist" is what Victor becomes. Shelley portrays the scientist as someone who displaces normal emotions and healthy human relationships, totally oblivious to the outside world. This can be seen in volume one chapter five of the novel:

The summer months passed while I was thus

engaged, heart and soul in one pursuit. It was

a most beautiful season...but my eyes were

insensible to the charms of nature. And the same

feelings which made me neglect the scenes around

me caused me also to forget those friends who were

so many miles absent, and with whom I had not seen

for so long a time"

(Shelley, 1996:33).

It seems Shelley through this passage is trying to contrast the "good" science -the detailed and reverent descriptions of the workings of nature with "bad" science-the hubristic manipulation of the elemental forces of nature to serve man's private ends. Victor takes this force of nature (electricity) and uses it for his own ends to reanimate his monster. It becomes increasingly clear that Shelley had a good understanding of the science, which she describes, but she didn't like what she saw and to communicate this she makes Frankenstein's creation uncontrollable.

The role of myth, in this case Greek myth, is also a reading available for Frankenstein. The title itself offers the beginnings to this type of reading; Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. The myth of Prometheus is that he created humankind out of mud and water, and then stole fire from the gods to give to his creation. There are obvious parallels between the two stories; Frankenstein also created a human but instead of fire there was electricity involved, a natural but deadly force just like fire. In chapter four Victor becomes the modern Prometheus by stealing his fire from the gods to create his own human:

"With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony,

I collected the instruments of life around me, that

I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless

...

...

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