Romanticism in Frankenstein

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  • 0:01 What Is the Romantic Movement?
  • 1:12 Romantic Themes in…
  • 6:29 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.

Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece, 'Frankenstein,' is a classic Romantic-era novel. Learn about a few of the most prominent features of the Romantic movement and see how Shelley used these features to construct her classic horror tale.

What Is the Romantic Movement?

Romanticism was an aesthetic movement with modern origins primarily in Germany in the 18th century. Inspired most especially by writings of J. W. Goethe and Friedrich Schelling, the Romantic movement was a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on empiricism, reason, and rationality.

The artistic and philosophical sensibilities emerging in Germany in the late 1700s were quickly embraced by artists worldwide, and most notably in Britain, where iconic figures such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge quickly transformed Romanticism into one of the most significant and recognizable movements in all of English literature.

Romanticism's most important features - its celebration of nature, its juxtaposition of the beautiful and the grotesque, and its valorization of the struggle of the individual against society - all play vital roles in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, combining to create one of the most important and fascinating novels in the English language.

Romantic Themes in Frankenstein

Perhaps no theme plays a greater role in the Romantic movement than that of the power of nature, and this theme also serves a vital purpose in Frankenstein.

Time and again, the majesty and mystery of nature are invoked in the novel - especially in moments of crisis. When Dr. Frankenstein is in rage, fear, and despair, only the magnificence of the Alps can provide solace. When the monster makes his appearance, only the eternal, quiet strength of the natural world can rival him or mitigate his fearsomeness.

This focus on nature as at once wondrous, restorative, and fearsome is a direct reaction against Age of Enlightenment principles and the forces of the Industrial Revolution which coincide with them. Whereas the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution prize modernization, urbanization, and the march of civilized progress above all other things, the Romantics seek a return to and a respect for the natural world.

Another theme that is explored in Frankenstein is the individual versus society. While the Age of Enlightenment positions civilization, or the creation of highly evolved societies, as the be-all-end-all of human endeavor, the Romantics see the individual as the great and worthy thing in him- or herself alone, distinct from and, indeed, threatened by society. In contrast to the Enlightenment perspective, for the Romantics, civilization is not the greatest human good. Rather, it is a corrupting, abusive, and insincere system that deprives members of their individuality and their humanity - the uniqueness that makes them human.

When Dr. Frankenstein leaves his Alpine home to join the University, his manic pursuits begin. He is corrupted by the fervor of ambition and hubris that saturates these large university towns. This unchecked pursuit of knowledge and progress at all costs leads only to dehumanization and the destruction of the individual.

For this reason, the Romantics celebrate the so-called noble savage and the uneducated peasant - those untouched by civilization, the corruptions of the city, the perversions of ambition, and the deformations of formal learning.

The corruptions of society are most evident in the townspeople's reactions to Frankenstein's monster. Early on, it becomes clear that the 'monster' is not intrinsically malevolent. He has a naturally brilliant mind and a strong capacity for feeling, including an immense desire to love and be loved. But at every turn, he is rejected and abused, driven through the streets with blows, threats, and curses.

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