Jean-Jacque Rousseau influence on Mary shelleys Frankenstein

“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the like of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

Mary Shelley wrote the novel ‘Frankentein’ in 1818, During this time there was a revolution taking place often referred to as the age of reason, or ‘the enlightenment’. Throughout this time the public began to revolt against the powers of the time, reinvistioning how they looked at the world through different sciences and technologies, and taking vast amounts of power away from blindsight belief, and religion. People began to use logic and the sciences of the time to investigate and give reason to different phenomena. This upheaval of society was spurred on by various public figures and philosophers of the time, these include John Locke, Voltaire and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. These philosophers had a profound effect on the literature of the time, their theories can be found in many novels of the time. This combined with the many new and intriguing scientific ideas of the time aloud the imaginative and horrific novel ‘Frankenstein’ to be written.
Throughout this text I will be discussing how Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s, being one of the more prolific figures of the time, philosophy’s and theory’s influenced how Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein, I will be particularly focused on the antagonist, Frankensteins ‘monster’, as throughout the novel it becomes evident that the monster reflects many of Rousseau’s theories.

Rousseau’s philosophy was largely focused on human nature and our inherent good. Rousseau once stated that “humans are not quite blank slates, but come into the world with two key instincts: self-preservations, and compassion.” There fore they ‘naturally’ have the ability to be good and would be if civilisation was not corrupting. There are three key concepts of Rousseau’s that are highly impactful on Frankenstein, the first being, man is most content in the state of nature. Second, that without outside influence humans are good. Third, goodness is as much part of the educator as it is the person being educated, meaning that a beings actions and nature is dictated to an extent by the environment that they grew up in and learnt in.

“Man is most content in the state of nature”
Rousseau stated “natural man is blessed with an enviable total freedom because he is not a slave to the artificial needs that civilised man has created for himself such as companionship” In Frankenstein this can be seen as Frankensteins monster leaves the loft he was created in and begins to explore the countryside. At this point the monster is still young and learning about the world around him, He is in solace and has not yet been tainted by “the artificial needs that civilised man has created” He does not yet know of his horrific appearance and does not know of evil. The monsters has complete freedom, there is nothing holding him back.
It is not until the monster has been around for a longer period of time, having been rejected by so many and had more development mentally that he is more able to interpert and understand the complexities of human emotion. He has been locked down by our artificial needs. He feels trapped and misfortuned by his lack of companionship, He knows he’s been rejected and he wants someone to understand his misery. “Everything is related…the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person is given, in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible. I sickened as I read….Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust?”
The monster has been tainted by man through rejection and their intense detest toward him, causing him to be miserable, they turn against him – planting a seed of evil – and ultimately cause the monster to turn against man.

“Without outside influence humans are inherently good”
This concept ties in closely with the first in the sense that they both revolve around the idea of purity and solace. We have no way of knowing the monsters intent when he is first created in Dr Frankensteins lab, as a result of this we must assume that his intent is good “innocent until proven guilty” however as the novel progresses the monster becomes malignant due to his exposure to society and the evil that man breeds in to him.
Rousseau states “Without language of the ability to reason, it simply never occurs to the savage to be evil”, Language that the monster deems to be “godlike science” that he “ardently desires to become acquainted with”. This language that he learns through the surveillance of man gives the monster the tools necessary¬†to understand and loath man. Without this ability it is likely that the monster would not feel such animosity toward men and may be considered “Good”.

“Goodness is as much part of the educator as it is the educatee”
The book ‘Emile”, Written by Rousseau in 1762 is an important text behind Frankenstein as it helped to form some of the fundamental ideas that Frankenstein follows. Its a novel in which a tutor educates a young orphan, guiding him through an ‘ideal’ education according to nature. Then as an adult he is considered an ideal citizen due to his close association with his tutor.
From this aspect, the role of the educator is just as important, if not more important than the role of the one being taught when it comes to a humans ‘goodness’ or ‘nature’. Therefore it is important to think about how Frankensteins monster learns and who he learns from, “to think about what’s been written on his slate”.The monster is transformed from being a “noble savage” to a malevolent creature due to what is beaten into him by human society; an outside influence. The monster has no one to look to for guidance, he is even discarded by his creator the moment his life began “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” There was no one to educate him and shape him to fit in with society. As a result the monster was largely isolated “what chiefly struck me was the gentle manners of these people, and I longed to join them, but dared not. I remembered too well the treatment I had suffered the night before from the barbarous villagers”. He felt as though he was in a world of his own and he could not reach out due to his isolation from society, being unable to fit in.
At the same time, The tutors of Victor are misguided scientists who are partly responsible for his skewed view, belittling him when he asks questions “really spent your time in studying such nonsense?”. It is not only important to have a well guided education, it has to be the right kind of education. In Rousseau’s words, it must be “one that is tempered with benevolence, humility, and self-scrutiny.”

Again, Rousseau’s philosophy’s were instrumental to the age of enlightenment and they show very well in Frankenstein. The monster in Frankensteins showcases so many of Rousseau’s concepts so perfectly, from his beginning as an unknowing innocent soul to his end as a vengeful creature fulled “from the crown to the toe top-full. of direst cruelty”

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Hey Devlin,

    Good start. You are on the right track. I like that you are using quotes from Rousseau’s work to help you get the theory across to your readers.

    Keep working on getting your ideas down (this is the time to focus on WHAT you want to say).

    During the last four periods of writing, I suggest you use that time to focus on the crafting of your work (the HOW you want to say what you have written).

    Mrs. P


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