By Brett Doren Art is not made in a vacuum. It is often sewn together by the the historical circumstance surrounding it. Frankenstein is no exception, as its "stitches" are readily apparent. The tissues which compose it, as well as the binding of these ideas, are inseparable from historical circumstance. Soon, you will come see the resemblance between the two men on the right goes beyond the gesture.
There is an enigmatic element to the novel. We, as readers know that it was first published in 1818. This may seem unimportant at first, but when the truly chaotic nature of global politics is considered, then this omission seems deliberate. All we know, is that it’s somewhere in the late 1700’s. This just so happens to provide us with a time frame which perfectly coincides with both the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon.
Why would Mary Shelley have left this ambiguity in the novel? To answer this in full it is important to remember the place of Frankenstein in the gothic Pantheon. In his article “Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution” Ronald Paulson discusses how the political turmoil of the French revolution spread not only across global ideologies and discourse, but seeped deeply into art across the board. According to Paulson it even greatly contributed, or is at the very least inextricable from the genre of Gothic fiction. This brings us back to the mystery of the ambiguous dates in Frankenstein, with a fairly clear answer especially in light of the idea that it is a gothic novel. The uncertainty and horrific aspects in gothic fiction could be read as a reflection of the anarchic, unpredictable, and dynamic progression of the French revolution. It is important to remember that the French revolution was no short affair. In fact the name implies a singular affair, but that doesn’t take into full account just how tumultuous the time was. Inspired by Enlightenment era ideals pertaining towards the nature of the relationship between a government and its citizens the French revolution, in its first most commonly referred to iteration, spanned from 1789 to 1799. In these ten years monarchs, such as Louis XVI were deposed, thousands of political prisoners were methodically executed via guillotine, the government was forced to restructure itself multiple times, Switzerland was invaded, and an empire was formed. It was bedlam akin to the havoc the monster wreaks in the novel, a comparison made abundantly clear in the grotesquely unpredictable evolution of the creature. Just as the monster was well read, so too were the minds at the heart of the French revolution and the slaughter therein. This creates an interesting parallel, strengthened only by the connections between the Shelleys and Napoleon Bonaparte. For a very brief rundown of the Revolution, just watch this . Or go watch Les Miserables, but y'know that's longer, even than this! For years on end there was no end to the chaos in sight, that is until...
Napoleon Bonaparte: a tremendously successful officer in the French military, and the first Emperor of the first and only French Empire, after leading a coup d’etat in 1799. Napoleon’s rise to power, though in many regards highly antithetical to it, was made possible by the prolonged conflict of the revolution. He served as the bookend to the reign of terror, and though he did not in any way install a fairer government for the people, he fulfilled an important part of the three word cry for revolution: Liberty, equality, and fraternity. The citizenry was not treated any more freely, or equal than before, but the sense of order the regime provided caused a significant surge in nationalistic ideation. In many ways Napoleon simply harnessed the fervor of revolution and managed to transmute it into an imperial force, in a sense corrupting the original revolution borne of enlightenment ideals and philosophies.
The French Empire continued to expand across most of Europe predominantly unhindered, that is until he felt the need to lead a force of troops into Russia in 1807. It failed miserably. Thousands of French troops, many of whom were assembled unwillingly from French occupied lands such as Switzerland, froze or starved to death. This eventually lead to growing discord, and his eventual usurpation by a parliamentary government. For more information on Napoleon Bonaparte watch this EXCELLENT documentary of two young men who go on a journey to unearth unknown history.
You’re probably wondering what any of that has to do with either Frankenstein or the Shelley’s.
In Cian Duffy’s article “The Child of a Fierce Hour: Shelley and Napoleon Bonaparte” A series of letters, written by Percy Shelley, is examined. In these letters, mainly correspondences between Percy and his contemporaries, Napoleon Bonaparte is discussed heavily. These letters furthermore coincide with the immediate aftermath of the fall of the French Empire. The letters are numerous, and as such one can safely say that Napoleon heavily fascinated Shelley. Considering that Percy was integral to the creation and publication of Frankenstein, as evidenced by manuscripts of the novel edited by him, then this connection cannot be underestimated.
By this logic, Frankenstein’s monster shifts once more in its possible allegorical identity. The monster is Napoleon Bonaparte. The myth of the conception of the novel enforces this idea. The story goes that Mary, Percy, and Dr. John Polidori, while on vacation together in Switzerland challenged each other to write a horror story. Obviously, Mary wrote Frankenstein, Polidori The Vampyre, and it is unclear what Percy wrote. With this in mind, we must take note that this all happened in Geneva, a place the Shelley’s frequented, as well as Victor Frankensteins fictional place of birth. The doomed coalition sent by Napoleon into Russia was predominantly composed of Swiss conscripts. Napoleon, viewed as the monster, rose to power thanks to the French Revolution of which Victor’s pursuit of the creation of life is symbolic. Just as the novel concludes with both Victor’s and the Monster’s death in the arctic, so too did the French Empire set its fate in the harsh Russian winters which crushed their invasion. The Empire fell in 1815 ( After Napoleon RETURNED from exile), and given that the novel was published in 1818 and written in the years immediately preceding it is undeniable the story is stitched from the corpses of history.
Works Cited Duffy, Cian. “"the Child of a Fierce Hour": Shelley and Napoleon Bonaparte”. Studies in Romanticism 43.3 (2004): 399–416. Paulson, Ronald. “Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution”. ELH 48.3 (1981): 532–554.