Frankenstein and the Industrial Revolution
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was inspired by ghost stories and the controversy over industrialization in 19th century England.  This story of people creating new life through machines continues to engage filmmakers and other storytellers in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Monika E. Lewis

Dr. Cady

English 010

4 May 2007

“Powerful Engine”: Frankenstein and the Industrial Revolution

                “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life…. supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” (Shelley 24). This vision is how Mary Shelley first encountered the monster who would endure for centuries in her novel Frankenstein. The language Mary Shelley uses to recall this moment is of the dramatic changes in life in England during the Industrial Revolution and the combination of wonder and fear at the potential this had to change the world.

While the Industrial Revolution was intended to increase prosperity, some, like the anti-machine protesters of the early 19th century, saw it as a de-humanizing movement. In the novel, the monster is feared by the people he encounters because of his appearance and greater strength. When the monster tries to become a part of the community, in a parallel with the introduction of machines, Felix, like the Luddite protesters, fights back against his infiltration. Felix then moves away from his cottage with his family because he feels unsafe and doesn’t want to subject them to the monster’s influence. In the novel, mechanization is associated with the horrific aspects of the story, while the natural world represents the monster’s idyllic respite from his problems and the possibility of acceptance by the family he observes. This fear of mechanization reflects the ambivalence towards the use of machines in peoples’ lives in the 19th century, and is echoed in subsequent science fiction stories about artificial beings, as well as film adaptations of Frankenstein. This interpretation shows how the novel reflects on real-life events in England, with which Mary and Percy Shelley were directly associated. The natural world is valued over the mechanized world due to its more authentic associations and perceived increased worth.

England in the 18th and 19th centuries was a time of great progress and increased trade due to the development of machines. The first steam powered locomotive was invented by George Stephenson in 1814, building on James Watt’s development of a steam engine (Bland 46, 21). By the 1790’s, a diverse array of industries were powered by Watt’s engine, including mills for making textiles and processing lumber, as well as iron furnaces (Bland 21). However, this increased industry led to lower wages and substandard working conditions for factory laborers, due to decreased costs for production and more people required to staff the factories. Before the Industrial Revolution, England “was a country of farmers, merchants, and shepherds” (Bland 1). Skilled workers like stocking weavers charged high prices for their durable wares. Upon the introduction of “mechanized stocking frames” in 1803, stocking weavers were put out of business because they couldn’t afford to sell their wares at the same reduced price as the lower-quality, machine made items (Bland 56). These stockingers formed the Luddite organization in order to protest the introduction of these frames that were threatening their livelihood.

Along with the Industrial Revolution came conflicting attitudes towards the benefits of mechanization as well as a renewed interest in science for many people. Martin Tropp observes that during the Industrial Revolution, there “arose the belief that mechanical principles governed all phenomena, from the movement of the planets to the beating of a heart” (53). Mary Shelley’s husband Percy Shelley had a “fascination with the power of science to give life” because of his “belief in the omnipotence of man and the superfluousness of God” (Tropp 54). However, Mary Shelley’s “fear of the consequences of attempting to copy the ‘mechanism’ of nature set her apart from her contemporaries” (Tropp 54). Because of her belief in the superiority of God over humans, she doubted the ability of machines to replace human labor. This view can be seen in Frankenstein because the scientist who tries to usurp the role of the creator is punished. Because Victor Frankenstein is responsible for unleashing the monster on the world, he must pay with his death, as well as that of his wife Elizabeth and the monster.

In the early 19th century, workers’ unease with having their jobs replaced with machinery began an open revolt. In 1811, handicraftsmen in England “rioted for the destruction of the textile machinery that was displacing them” as part of the Luddite movement (“Luddite”). The workers who used hand looms valued their work, and “objected to the introduction of power looms” (“The Luddites”). They thought that the work produced by hand was of higher quality than machine-made items. The factory jobs paid less, and didn’t require the skills of an experienced worker. Additionally, the Napoleonic wars led to unemployment and a decrease in trade. The “framework-knitters in the lace industry” used a law granted in the time of Charles II which said that they were “empowered to break and destroy all frames and engines that fabricate articles in a fraudulent and deceitful manner” (Lane 200).

When Mary Shelley first wrote Frankenstein in 1817, the Luddite revolts of 1811-1813 were still in recent memory, especially for Percy Shelley, who was an anti-establishment activist. When fourteen Luddite men were executed for breaking machinery in January 1813, Percy Shelley “was so upset over the fate of these men that he immediately began a fund for their children, to which he forced all his friends to contribute” (Sale 183). Frankenstein, as a “prescient tale of techno-madness,” endures today due to its “vivid… message of the dangers of mechanization and the problems of scientific invention” (Sale 16-17). In Frankenstein, the monster recognizes his power over the scientist, calling Frankenstein his “slave” and commanding, “You are my creator, but I am your master; - obey!” (Shelley 146). Though Frankenstein was about to appease the monster by creating a female mate for him, the scientist realizes that “she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness (Shelley 144). The combination of great power and free will to do what the creature wanted with it makes Frankenstein destroy the female monster, before it becomes strong enough to kill more people than the original monster could potentially destroy.

The image of the destruction of machinery is similar to scenes from the film Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) in which the villagers chase the monster, intent on destroying him and eliminating the threat to their community. The creature is feared because he is stronger than the humans. He is also seen as not a real person, since he was “fabricated” from the use of machines. In the novel, Mr. De Lacey is prepared to accept him. Since he is blind, and doesn’t know what makes the monster an outcast, De Lacey is the only one who makes the monster feel welcome. This scene was important to film adaptations like The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935), and parodied in Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974). When the family returns, Felix tries to incapacitate the monster (Shelley 121). Though Felix is unable to hurt him, the creature leaves the cottage knowing that he will not be accepted by the humans because he was artificially created.

Early film adaptations of Frankenstein reference images of the Industrial Revolution and the conflicts between the factory owners and workers. In the 1931 Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, the monster is apparently destroyed by an uprising against the threat he presents to the village. In Frankenstein, the monster is chased to a windmill by a torch-bearing mob of villagers calling for the monster’s destruction. They “set fire to the mill” in order to kill the monster (Tropp 96). Similarly, in the late 18th century, “a mob of angry hand-spinners” burned down “one of the first steam-powered mills in England” at Chorley, which was built by Richard Arkwright (Bland 17).

However, in both instances, this attack on artificial creation is not enough to keep back the progress of either the monster or the machinery. Just as Arkwright “began rebuilding before the ashes had cooled” and continued building factories, in The Bride of Frankenstein the monster rises from the ruins of the mill and proves to be even more unstoppable than before. While previously the monster had been willing to coexist with humans, after they try to kill him he retaliates by killing two villagers who venture into the wreckage “to be sure the Monster is dead” (Tropp 98). These villagers are the parents of a girl, Maria, who the monster drowned accidentally in Frankenstein. When the monster tries to make friends with Maria, she is throwing flowers in the lake and watching them float. The monster tries to imitate her by throwing her in the water, but since he is inexperienced in the world, he accidentally drowns her. Her parents are drowned purposely, showing that the monster has turned against the villagers.

This echoes the change in attitude for the monster in the novel after he is banished from the company of the De Laceys. The monster thought that he would “first win their favour, and afterwards their love” if he won the De Laceys over with his “gentle demeanour and conciliating words” (Shelley 105). When the monster is disappointed, he first destroys the garden and then murders Frankenstein’s brother William in order to prove he can fight back against his enemy. The monster also causes the death of Justine by implicating her in the crime. While the inventors of the machines used to begin the Industrial Revolution may have intended them to be beneficial, for some life was made more difficult by resulting in unemployment. Many small farmers lost their land to enclosures when wealthier landowners expanded their property. Though agricultural production rose by twenty-five percent, the small farmers were forced to move to the city and work in the factories (Bland 6).

In The Bride of Frankenstein, unlike in the novel, Frankenstein brings the female creature to life after Dr. Pretorius, another scientist obsessed with creating life, threatens to kill Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth if he doesn’t help him. However, the female creature rejects the original monster. This brings the monster to the same conclusion as in the novel: saying, “We belong dead,” he destroys the lab he was created in. The monster, the female creature, and her co-creator, the megalomaniacal Dr. Pretorius, are also exterminated (Tropp 104).

Unlike in the novel, the monster spares Elizabeth and Victor Frankenstein. In this film, the monster has gone from an extension of the machines that others want to destroy, to a man who takes control of the situation. Like in the novel, the monster gains an awareness of his impact on society. He decides to take himself out of it so that his creator can live a normal life. This presents a more optimistic future than in the novel, where Frankenstein dies in his quest to destroy the monster. The Luddites who died for their cause may not have been able to stop progress, but their efforts led to reforms that improved working conditions for laborers.

The monster escapes to nature when he is cast out by others, such as Frankenstein and the De Laceys. This theme continues to be reflected in recent science fiction stories. In the film A.I., an android named David created to be a son to a family is cast out into the woods where he finds other rejected robots. The couple’s biological son wakes up from a coma and resents the android taking his parents’ attention away. In this film, like Frankenstein, while the technology has been developed to create life, the implications and ethics of it have not yet been determined. Like Frankenstein’s creature, the robots try to make their own society away from the humans who evicted them from their society. David goes on a quest to find the Blue Fairy from the story of Pinocchio that his adopted mother read to him, hoping to become “a real boy” like the puppet in the fairy-tale (Clayton 95). The monster asks Frankenstein to make him a bride so he will have someone to accompany him when he leaves Europe for South America, but Frankenstein can’t go through with unleashing what he sees as another threat to the world. The creature ultimately returns to the earth when he retreats to the Arctic, so that he will not cause damage to the society. He respects human society, even though he is not welcomed into it, so much that he would rather remove himself from the community than cause damage to it.

The story of Frankenstein continues to resonate with audiences today as we rely increasingly on technology in our everyday lives. Technology provides many benefits for society, but we must also be careful that it doesn’t gain too much control over our own lives. Frankenstein brings to mind the industrialization of the 19th century that inspired it, as well as prospects of human cloning or sentient robots that are explored in modern science fiction, and may come to pass in the future.

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