Thousands of young people move west to ride the wave of knowledge, led by innovators with bold goals to control nature itself. The movement is now cultural, characterized by disciplined individualism, workaholics, and faith in the ability of science and reason to triumph over any obstacle; and when these bright-eyed thought leaders take chances, they often succeed at disrupting not just a field of technology, but fundamentally restructuring the fabric of society as we know it. Now: am I writing about today’s disrupters out in Silicon Valley, or the thinkers of the 18th century’s Enlightenment?
Some 200 years after the Enlightenment, we still have much to learn from its philosophies—and from its consequences. For although it introduced significant technologies such as the battery and the steam engine, it also generated the guillotine, culminating in Robespierre’s bloody Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic wars. For that reason, we should take care to not drop the subtitle from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. As Peter Thorslev argues, “It was Prometheus who became symbolic… of man in his fight for liberty against oppression in all its forms [as] he combines… the concern for individual liberty, and the concern for society” (108). Coming off the heels of Napoleon’s 1815 campaign, Mary Shelley’s text offers modern readers a stark cultural critique of her contemporaries’ venerated Enlightenment ideologies by exploring their repercussions. What will happen, the novel’s central tragedy asks, when high-minded ideologues are allowed to run free into uncharted terrain without social guardrails? Victor Frankenstein embodies the allure of a Byronic Hero as he solves science’s quintessential problem of redefining life and death. But, the text emphasizes, neither he nor society could control the consequences of this technology’s disruption to the status quo.
I. Great Man: Theory
To properly contextualize Frankenstein, we must first understand two of its key ideological predecessors: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract theory, and the critique of that theory articulated by Shelley’s father and husband. Rousseau’s 1762 Du contrat social argues that the needs of the society outweigh the individual’s rights to complete autonomy. As Francis Fukuyama notes, although human individual’s inner selves have been regarded as sources of limitless potential, for Rousseau, “human happiness depended on the liberation of that self from artificial social constraint” (Fukuyama 97-8). Thus, in order for government to develop, citizens must necessarily give up some of their rights in order to coexist. The necessary and implicit question then becomes, how are these rights given up? Who decides?
Mary’s father, William Godwin, was one of the bright souls who took it upon himself to guide the sprawling masses toward the Enlightenment principles of personal autonomy and perfectibility of the human spirit. In his libertarian credo Political Justice, he outlines his belief that society’s “power of intellect can be established over all other matter [including] over the matter of our own bodies” (Godwin 581). However, his path to achieve this perfectibility is troubled by two assumptions: First, that “society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals” (87); and, second, that of those individuals, a “life ought to be preferred which will be most conducive to the general good” (81). Thus, in a precursor to the Great Man theory of history that dominated much of the 1800s, Godwin argued that an individual’s worth in the social contract should be qualified relative to the discoveries they make furthering humankind on its path to perfection.
Godwin’s philosophical disciple Percy Shelley applied these key elements of anarcho-utilitarian ideology into his own writing, calling for a societal restructuring designed to elevate the pursuit of knowledge even at the expense of social ties. He most explicitly defended these notions in “A Defence of Poetry,” arguing that “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination, and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause” (87), coming to the famous conclusion that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (118). Young Percy had a penchant for the Poet’s plight, perhaps only outweighed by his political idealism. Both manifested in his early poetry, including his admittedly sophomoric Queen Mab. Using an omnipotent vantage point to levy his political critiques, Percy’s titular divine being shows the reader a utopian view of the world from across space and time: “This is thine high reward:–the past shall rise;/ Thou shalt behold the present: I will teach/ The secrets of the future” (sec. 2, lines 65-7). Neither kings, the clergy, nor the common man manage to escape the young Percy’s critical eye. With this eye on perfectibility as a salve for cynicism, the Queen offers that “Futurity / Exposes now its treasure; let the sight / Renew and strengthen all thy failing hope” (8.50-2). Given the text’s aspirations, it is ironic that its lack of subtlety has left it on the fringes of the canon.
However, a later iteration of Percy’s theme of individualistic pursuit of inspiration ended up considerably more nuanced and successful. Alastor, alternatively named The Spirit of Solitude, features a “Preface” (penned by Percy) that introduces us to the poem’s protagonist: “His mind . . . thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself. He images to himself the Being whom he loves” (69). A great deal of the lasting appeal of the poem is predicated on its inversion of Queen Mab’s didacticism: in contrast to the painstaking way the Queen tightly grasps the reader’s hand to guide us through Percy’s worldview, the Poet of Alastor is an enigma. Though “obedient to high thoughts” (line 108) that allow him similarly to behold the “thrilling secrets of the birth of time” (128), this hero is far more about searching for inspiration than explaining what to do with that knowledge. Indeed, the Poet forsakes all of his previous life to become an Enlightened individual, the “One human step alone [that] has ever broken / The stillness of its solitude” (589-90). In attaining inspiration, his narrative ends, and even we the readers are foreclosed from following him in his success.
The isolation at the heart of Alastor is vitally important when read as an expression of the Byronic Hero archetype, drawn from the Shelleys’ mutual friend and literary celebrity, Lord Byron. Byron’s fictional characters and real-life personality inspired many imitators of “his capacities for feeling,” which Thorslev identifies as “a natural product of that great spring thaw of sentiment which affected most of western Europe… in the beginning of this period” (35). Fukuyama argues that human social evolution at this crucial juncture of the French Revolution gave rise to a profoundly new sense of inner self (34), so it is no surprise that Byronic heroism began to resonate; the archetype’s heroism is founded in opposition to existing social structures that subjugate the common man. They Byronic hero diminishes the prestige that more traditional markers like class or riches might confer, and proportionally raises the intrinsic dignity of the inner self that the common man could identify with.
Given the degree to which Mary and Percy collaborated, it is little surprise that Frankenstein features varieties of that Byronic hero. As Charles Schug remarks, “none of the novel’s narrators represents the norms of the work; each is limited in his understanding of the others’ experience and of the total import… Each narrator… takes a strong moral position that is inadequate to encompass the experience of the other two” (612). Yet by playing off one another, Shelley’s primary characters comprise a different and more holistic view of the Byronic hero. Frankenstein owes considerable amounts of its lasting appeal to the ways in which these character arcs work in tight orchestration; only through understanding their tripartite overlaps can we see the ways Mary rehabilitated Rousseau’s social contract theory to partially accommodate Godwin’s and her husband’s critiques, simultaneously cautioning against society voyaging forward with these isolated protagonists at the helm.
II. The Social Network
Frankenstein is told through the lenses of three separate individuals: Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the Creature. The similarities between these three viewpoints triangulate the main causes for the destruction that follows in the wake of Victor’s creation. As each narrator suffers from an isolated and thus limited vantage point, Schug argues, “each tries to force the listener into participation in his vision, just as Shelley seeks to force the reader into participation in hers” (609). Yet I would argue that intrusive metafictive moments, such as Victor’s correction and augmentation of Walton’s notes (M. Shelley 179), ultimately force the reader to ascertain their own path: we are tasked with judging these respective narratives by combining their perspectives to guide ourselves through their blind spots. That these individual narratives are each ideologically flawed clarifies for readers the idea that a functioning individual must indeed stay part of the social contract in order to live virtuously and understand the modern world.
The three protagonists, in their isolated existence, all suffer from an incomplete sense of identity. As Fukuyama argues, there are three crucial elements that comprise Post-Rousseauian identities:
The first is thymos, a universal aspect of human personality that craves recognition. The second is the distinction between the inner and outer self, and the raising of the moral valuation of the inner self over outer society. This emerged only in early modern Europe. The third is an evolving concept of dignity, in which recognition is due not just to a narrow class of people, but to everyone. (37)
These categories provide a useful lens for reading Walton’s, Victor’s, and the Creature’s separate issues of recognition, each of which fuel their respective character arcs.
Walton is a bridge between the audience and the more sociopathic protagonists, as he shows a degree of self-awareness in his reckless ambitions. Though Walton is shortsighted in many respects, he recognizes that, although he was privileged to a great deal of academic education, “it is a still greater evil to me that I am self-educated”; he is approaching his thirties, but confesses that he is “in reality more illiterate than many school-boys of fifteen.” He goes on, “It is true that I have thought more… but [the thoughts] want keeping” (M. Shelley 9). When Walton first stumbles upon Victor in the frigid wastelands near the North Pole, it seems that he will at last find a friend of some sympathy—and he wastes no time before he starts “to love [Victor] as a brother” (15). In desperate pursuit of thymos, Walton implores the scientist to share his story because he recognizes that their ambitions are so similar. But despite Walton’s initial show of sympathy, Victor proves recalcitrant.
Crucially, in the 1831 edition of the text, Mary makes clear that Victor’s arrival should be more a warning than the serendipitous fulfillment of Walton’s desire for a friend. Walton, eager to participate in Victor’s story, proclaims that he would “sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought” (202). With this grandstanding, Walton does gain recognition, but not in the way that he may have wanted. Victor exclaims, “Do you share my madness!”, and it is only at this point the eponymous narrative commences. In contrast to the 1818 version that launches into Victor’s history unprompted, the 1831 version rejects the Godwinian notion that “one man’s life or death” is a small price. As Harriet Hustis remarks, Victor “notably sacrifices creative precision for speed,” with “blatant disregard” for the “moral complexities and physical impracticalities of life in its concrete manifestations” (849). Despite his impetus to elevate his inner life’s ambitions over society’s guardrails, Victor comes to recognize the repercussions of this reckless pursuit when his Creature enacts his revenge.
Shelley’s portrayal of these repercussions of megalomania becomes increasingly clear when those dear to Victor begin to die; he says he is more tortured than Justine, the wrongly-executed woman “on whom the public indignation was turned with renewed violence” (M. Shelley 64). Society’s attempts at justice are misplaced at first, rendering Justine a scapegoat for Victor’s failure to fulfill his responsibility to the Creature. After the suspicious circumstances surrounding his dear friend Henry Clerval’s death, Victor again makes it explicitly clear to Walton and the reader that social backlash was misplaced: “I am the cause of this–I murdered her. William, Justine, and Henry–they all died by my hands” (156). He later clarifies, “I am not mad” but rather the “assassin of those most innocent victims” (156). This guilt is so poignant precisely because Victor and Walton, as solipsistic Byronic heroes, so thoroughly abdicate responsibility that otherwise could have integrated the Creature into society.
Speaking to the last element of his formulation of modern identity, Fukuyama argues that modern society has changed to give all persons a right to dignity. This is the core issue of the Creature’s character arc. It is important to not mischaracterize the Creature itself as a violent aberration that is inherently incompatible with society; while it is true that the Creature is rejected by society whenever he extends compassion, most notably in the case of Felix DeLacey reacting to his presence with violence (M. Shelley 110), these are the consequences of Victor’s rejection and not cause. When the eldest DeLacey’s blindness prevents him from prejudging the Creature, the Creature is afforded hesitant compassion. The Creature longs to be recognized by Victor and, later, by a sympathetic mate, a desire similar to Walton’s yearning for thymos from Victor and Victor’s close bonds with Elizabeth and Clerval. The same Victor who “saw an insurmountable barrier placed between me and my fellow-men” (M. Shelley 131), and who declares “I abhorred society” (M. Shelley 132), has an outsized effect on whether the Creature will be integrated into society (Hustis 850). The Creature’s self-awareness does little to help him in a violent world where he has no power to himself integrate into society. And although he proclaims that his rational self resonates more with socialization than war (M. Shelley 104), he argues that “I am malicious because I am miserable; am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” (119). The Creature’s rational individual pursuit of benevolence is rejected by society, rendering him tragically anti-social.
The consequences of Victor’s solipsistic existence are real and immediate for him and for his social network. In the pursuit of proportional dignity above the rest of his social system, a type of thymos called megalothymia (Fukuyama 22), and without adequate social skills to take responsibility for his Creature, Victor causes massive destruction to those around him. A great deal of this destruction stems from the isolation within which Victor forms the Creature, and the degree to which he attempts to shield the public from his creation. Modern readers must read Frankenstein as a cautionary tale which, as with modern disruptions, emphasizes “the inability of society to harness the available technology to address [social problems],” thus leading to “disenchantment with the scientific enterprise itself” (Juma 281). We therefore must take deliberate, precautionary steps to socially integrate those who are making technological leaps on our behalf, ensuring that the Enlightened few are well informed by the sympathetic many.
Fukuyama, Francis. Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. 1793. Batoche Books, 2000. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Hustis, Harriet. “Responsible Creativity and the ‘Modernity’ of Mary Shelley’s Prometheus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 43, no. 4, 2003, pp. 845–858, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4625101.
Juma, Calestous. Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. Oxford UP, 2016.
Schug, Charles. “The Romantic Form of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 17, no. 4, 1977, pp. 607–619. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/450311.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Oxford UP, 2008.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, pp. 69-87, Norton, 1977.
—. “A Defence of Poetry.” Selected Prose Works of Shelley. pp. 75-118, Watts & Co, 1915.
—. Queen Mab. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, pp. 14-68, Norton, 1977.
Thorslev, Peter. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. University of Minnesota Press, 1962.
 Both Shelleys will subsequently be referred to by their first name.
 The full title Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem; With Notes helpfully outlines the dual genres that Percy attempted to reconcile.
 This presumably refers to Walton’s own life being on the line, as he is speaking from the first-person perspective. However, it is important to note the ambiguity of this statement—this line could also be read as Walton explaining to Victor that he would be willing to kill in order to achieve his ambitions.