Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in 1818, in a time where Romanticism was in full swing in England. During the 1790s, when the novel is supposed to take place, the French revolution was going on and no more than one hundred and fifty years before that was the English revolution of 1640 to 1660. In Frankenstein many themes of unrest and revolution are expressed which are fundamentally similar to those in 17th to 19th century Europe. In looking at the novel through a Marxist lens Frankenstein can be seen as a reflection of the social establishments of the late 18th century. There is clear evidence of class struggle in the novel, and Shelley uses this theme in a way that criticizes society of that time period, and brings to light some of the deeper problems of living in that era, like social and economic inequality and corruption, and the effect that that has on the individual and the society.
One of the main causes of both the French Revolution of 1789 and the English revolution of 1640 was the increase of wealth and strength of the bourgeoisie as capitalism developed. (Rees) During the English revolution King Charles sided with the upper class landowners and the nobles, not the common people. Victor Frankenstein and his family are a representation of the bourgeoisie in the book, and he implies sympathy toward King Charles in a passage when he and Clerval Visit Oxford, England. Victor writes “It was here that Charles I. had collected his forces. This city had remained faithful to him, after the whole country had forsaken his cause to join the standard of Parliament and Liberty. The memory of that unfortunate king, and his companions…gave a peculiar interest to every part of the city” (Shelley 140) Victor is sympathetic toward the king, taking his perspective on the matter and describing his downfall as unfortunate, rather than liberating. Exemplifying the fact that Frankenstein is a member of the upper class and sympathetic to the ruling class during the English Revolution Shelley alludes to the superstructure of society in the story.
One of the more obvious conclusions that can be reached while looking at the text through a Marxist lens is that the monster represents the Proletariat while Victor represents the Bourgeoisie. The monster is physically bigger and stronger, while Victor is weak, but wealthy and educated. This is comparable to aspects of the working and upper classes of society in 18th and 19th century Europe. Shelley insinuates the idea of the working class rising above the upper class when Victor halts the creation of the monster’s companion. The monster says to Victor “Slave, I have reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension.” “You are my creator, but I am your master; – obey!” (Shelley 146) This threat of “revolution” can imply the tensions experienced leading up to the French Revolution. The working class began the French revolution with good intentions, but it ended with massive violence and thousands of beheadings. Another important passage is said by the monster upon his first meeting with Victor on the summit of Montanvert. He says:
Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine; my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. (Shelley 93)
The important words to notice here are “lord” and “king”. It implies that “the king” (Victor) must do his part (to care for the monster), which he owes to the people (the monster). If he can do that, the nation can live in harmony, if not, then the people will rebel, and almost always win due to their numbers and strength. The bourgeoisie exploit the working class’ numbers for profit, and ideally the bourgeoisie, who are profiting from the proletarians, should give something back, but in the case of Victor and the monster, and in the case of the French and English Revolutions, what they are giving back, is not nearly enough. In both passages mentioned in this paragraph the monster is a clear reference to the proletariat, while Victor represents the bourgeoisie. Again this brings up Shelley’s criticism of the class separation in society during 18th century Europe because it plays on the idea of social inequality.
During the early phases of the French Revolution the Bourgeoisie reigned over the country of France completely. Only Nobles could become officers in the army, become bishops, or hold any real power, and 95 percent of the population of France were peasants and of lower classes. (Rees) Abbé Sieyès, the author of a revolutionary pamphlet released during the French Revolution titled What is the Third Estate? says, “What is the Third Estate? It is everything.” (Sieyes) Meaning essentially that the common people which are the third estate make up most of the country of France, however they had no power in government because they were in the minority vote in the General Assembly and always outvoted by the Nobility and Clergy. Shelley uses the De Laceys as an example of the third estate, or the common people. They are presented as powerless and poor, but virtuous. They are victims of the French Government’s oppression and are stripped of everything they have. The reason behind Safie’s father’s imprisonment is never truly revealed, the only clue Shelley gives is that “he became obnoxious to the government.” (Shelley 111) and that landed him in jail. Shelley depicts the government as an evil presence to the De Laceys, and it’s no surprise that she used the French government as the tyrannical imprisoners of the good people.
Shelley criticizes the Bourgeoisie for contributing nothing to society and living an empty lifestyle detached from reality. She especially puts emphasis on the importance of human relationships. The monster asks, “But where were my friends and relations?” (Shelley 110) when he sees how much joy those things have given the De Laceys. Through the monster’s eyes “nothing could exceed in beauty” (Shelley 101) the way of life of these people. The Bourgeoisie in Frankenstein have estranged their families in pursuit of their work. This includes Victor, Walton, and Clerval, who in the pursuit of knowledge have ended up ultimately failing at their goals. Victor has attempted to create man, while Walton is striving to reach the North Pole. Both are obscure and seemingly unreachable goals. Victor even comes to the point where he “appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines, or any other unwholesome trade, than any artist occupied by his favourite employment.” (Shelley 60) He has turned his labor into work that he despises, and it’s arguable that if his creation came out as anything less than perfect Victor still would have abandoned his monster. Shelley is saying that essentially these people have their heads in the clouds, and that they should pay attention to the down to earth things that matter. By putting the De Laceys in a simple cottage we can see through the monster’s impartial worldview and see the beauty in the simple things, and by this Shelley is essentially saying that money can’t buy happiness.
The fact that Victor created the monster is related to the idea that the Bourgeoisie is entirely in control of the proletariat. Victor produces the monster in an entirely insensitive way, treating him as a science experiment, not fully grasping the idea that the monster will soon be a living thinking person with emotions. This is not dissimilar to the social separation between the upper and lower classes in society. The upper class often looked down on the lower class and saw them as inferior or as mere peasants. Detachment of the bourgeoisie from the proletariat happened in France during the 18th century. Every citizen was forced to pay high taxes except for the nobles, and on top of this they had privileged access to top positions in the state as well as great wealth. Eventually the Proletariat will seek to rise above the Bourgeoisie like the monster seeks to rise above Victor.
Shelley seeks to emphasize the effects of social class differences in our world by looking at the class difference in the text through the monster’s eyes. The monster realizes early on the great importance of wealth in his society. He says that without wealth he is “doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few” (Shelley 109). The same basic principles apply in our world as in Shelley’s society that she has created. This passage is meant to be read as a reference to real society, saying that, if you are not part of the “chosen few” (the bourgeoisie) and are born into the low working class, then you have almost no choice but to serve and produce for those above you. They will treat you almost as a slave and you will have no control over your life. In
openly stating that wealth equals power in the novel Shelley is criticizing society in the real world. Shelley’s Frankenstein was written in a time recently after two major revolutions, and clearly the historical events that unfolded were reflected by the text in many ways. Frankenstein is a text filled with criticism of society, culture and economy. What the Bourgeoisie produces is inevitably the downfall of their own selves. This theme that the working class always has the power to destroy the Bourgeoisie is intertwined into the story of Frankenstein, and this proceeds to bring light to deeper problems of capitalistic society throughout the book.