Imagine a machine - one with four wheels and a gas powered engine just like a car - except instead of instead of traveling down streets and roads it travels through time. As awesome as that would be I feel such machines may never be anything more than the subject of movies like Back to the Future. But literature, while no time machine, can still be a sort of porthole to the past. One prime example of such a porthole is Mary Shelly's Frankenstein; a book which provides excellent insight into what it was like to live in the early 19th century; but not only that: within the books pages are valuable remnants of the 19th century European Weltanschauung. As the reader read this book it's almost as if you too are aboard Robert's vessel, as you gaze through this porthole you can almost see a sleep deprived Victor Frankenstein toiling over his work; unfortunately you can't warn him of what going to happen, but you can think about and learn a great deal from this horrific tale.
Mary Shelly's Frankenstein provides excellent insight into the lives of the educated upper ****in the 19th Century. Both the Frankenstein and Walton families show that it wasn't uncommon for the literate to stay in touch with friends and family through lengthy letters. In fact the entire novel takes place within letters and even in letters within letters. Also in this novel are lengthy stories such as those of Frankenstein and those of the Monster. It would seem that in this period of time people are farther apart than ever- ships going every which way trading and exploring, people away on business, young men away at college; yet still very close with the help of the postal system.
Frankenstein also gives us a glimpse at university life and higher education, or at least higher education in Germany. In the University of Inglostadt you attend a few lectures throughout the day, but aside from that you are largely left to study the material for yourself. That's why victor has so much time to do his own research and experiments. The professors appear to be more like mentors than teachers. It appears that the University of Inglostadt does not have housing, or at least Victor and Henry stay in apartments. Weather this sort of educational experience would have been the same somewhere is England, or France I don't know; but I do know that this isn't all that different from Germany's Universities even today.
The women of Frankenstein all possess positive traits but at the same time are, for the most part, very passive. Justine shows great internal strength during her final moments with Elizabeth and Frankenstein in the prison before her execution. While her friends (practically her siblings) were there to comfort her she was not bitter about her predicament but rather attempted to comfort them in return. Elisabeth is kind, caring, and gentle; again not the most proactive young lady. The only woman who was really proactive was Safie who defied her father and traveled through a foreign land in order to meet up with her boyfriend Felix. And for what it's worth Safie is also the only eastern woman in the Novel. Based off of the fact that Mary Shelly herself was a woman how she portrayed her gender it makes sense to me that passive wasn't necessarily a negative trait for 19th Century women.
The time period when Frankenstein was written represents not only a time of enlightenment, but also the immerging movement of romanticism. The main character of the novel Victor Frankenstein is a man of the enlightenment; he is a man with an inequitable thirst for knowledge even it comes at the cost of his health or social interaction. Also Victor cares very little for the sacred and the spiritual. He feels no restraint in playing God, and he is not bothered by disturbing burial grounds and desecrating the dead. Another enlightened characteristic is the seeming lack of a divine being in this novel; I God is not to be found in the lives of any of the characters of Frankenstein. There is the Creature who was not destined to be evil and lonely- well perhaps his appearance did seal his fate- but it was rejection, hatred, his experiences that turned him bitter. In the words of the Creature to his creator: "I ought to be thy Adam: but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.Because of his hideous outer shell Frankenstein's Creature finds himself terribly alone in a cold, God-less world with no one to whip the tears from his eyes. Also of note are some of the scientific ideas expressed in this book, such as the idea that emotions such as guilt and stress can cause physical sickness, as is the case with Victor.
Yet in spite of these very strong, enlightened themes you see quite a bit of its opposite-Romanticism- as well. While romanticism manifests itself in many ways it is most apparent in the role of nature in this piece. This novel is filled with an immense awe of nature. Weather its Frankenstein, his family, or the Creature all of them find great comfort and joy in gawking at the world around them. After the deaths of William and Justine, Victor and his family spend time in the mountains in order to get their minds off of the misfortune in their lives. Victors often sights moments in nature as his only relief from his chains of guilt.
Also very potent is the message about the dangers of knowledge. An obvious example is Victor who had an ideal life- he came from a wealthy family, had an adoring father, a very close friend, he had girl he was going to marry, he was intelligent and gifted and bound for great things. But Victor's striving for knowledge leads to abomination and eventually the destruction of everything he holds dear. By the end of the novel he has lost his humanity, like the creature he created he has nothing to live for but revenge.
"Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat! Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like lichen on a rock." Knowledge also plays a huge role in the Creature's life. As he devours the fruit of knowledge he loses his innocence- the harsh realities of his existence become increasingly clear. As he develops the ability to speak he realized he has no one to converse with. Once he develops the ability to read he gains knowledge of how he came to be, and the hopelessness of his existence.
Indeed Frankenstein is truly a porthole to the past. It reveals a time when, people although far apart, could still keep in touch with letters. It reveals a time of science, ambition and striving after knowledge. And it reveals the beginning of a time of the glorification of nature and when science would be brought into question.