Frankenstein & the Industrial Revolution

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  • 0:01 Frankenstein &…
  • 1:43 Industrial Innovation
  • 2:42 Human Expendability
  • 3:59 Industrialization &…
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores the Industrial Revolution in Mary Shelley's iconic 1818 novel, 'Frankenstein'. We'll explore how Shelley uses her classic horror story to present a warning about the forces of the Industrial Revolution.

Frankenstein and Industrialization

Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein, appeared at a pivotal moment in modern history. The world was changing. Europe and the US were leading the forces of the Industrial Revolution, or the transition from primarily agricultural to modernized, technology-based societies. It was a breathtaking time. Innovation was driving the way forward and impacting almost every aspect of human life, from where people lived (cities and towns versus the countryside) to how people worked (factories and offices versus farms) to how many children were born (many versus only a few).

But not everyone was on board with the forces of industrialization. Mary Shelley was a leading figure in the Romantic movement, and like her fellow Romantics, she was skeptical of this rapid march of industrialization and rampant technological advancement that was changing so many aspects of life. Shelley reveled in the beauty, power, and promise of nature. She feared the consequences of industrialization on nature and the humans whose body, mind, and spirit depend on the natural world. In this way, Shelley's story of Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation might be seen as a warning against reckless progress, a glimpse of where the Industrial Revolution, if not undertaken wisely, may lead. In her novel, Shelley acknowledges the benefits of modern innovation. However, she also warns of the risks that accompany the rewards.

Industrial Innovation

In his own way, Victor Frankenstein represents the very spirit of the Industrial Revolution. He uses the most cutting edge science to give the greatest gift of all to humanity: immortality. Like the great innovators of his day, he has the creativity to envision the impossible and the knowledge to make that vision a reality. Victor's creation is in itself a remarkable specimen. Its size and strength are superhuman. It can scale the Alpine peaks of Victor's native Geneva with astonishing speed. When it comes to power, no human can hold a candle to it.

In this case, modernization has truly bested nature. Victor has built a bigger and better man. And like the machines of the Industrial Revolution that could do in an hour what twenty men couldn't do in a day, the creature's incredible physicality promises a new and once unimaginable future.

Human Expendability

Despite this incredible achievement, though, some terrifying questions remain. If the future belongs to beings like Victor's creature, then what happens to the rest of us? How do our weaknesses, our susceptibility to sickness, injury, and age, figure into this modern, industrial world? Many in this era feared that machine power would make humans unnecessary and expendable. For instance, what happened to those twenty men who couldn't do in a day the work of a machine could do in an hour?

Similarly, humans are also expendable to Victor's monster. This is not his choice, of course. The monster initially seeks love and acceptance. But his size, strength, and deformity are horrifying. Victor rejects him within moments of his birth. Mere hours later, he is driven into the forest by terrified townspeople. Though technically just an infant, the monster learns to fend for himself in the forest. He survives and eventually thrives in conditions that would have killed a human newborn, proving himself stronger and more resilient than any human. He draws Victor to the ends of the earth, the Arctic, where Victor dies because he can't survive what his monster endures with ease.

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