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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

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Luddite influence in
Mary Shelley's

Early nineteenth-century England experienced a great deal of domestic turmoil. The Napoleonic wars were consuming Britain's economic output, and the increased burden of the war lead to domestic civil unrest. It is in this climate that the Luddite movement flourished, and it was this movement that provided Mary Shelley with the plot of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. That is, the popular understanding of the Luddite movement - mediated by the press - was that the Luddites were rebelling against the displacement of hosiery and lace workers by larger, more sophisticated looms. While historically inaccurate, the myth of the Luddite did provide the "modern" setting for the Prometheus myth in Frankenstein: Frankenstein's monster is to be understood as an allegory of then-modern technology and science gone feral.(1) And it is this monster, neglected, unsupervised and unadvised, to which "men are sacrificed."

I. The Luddite movement in 19th-century England.

To this day, the Luddite movement has been popularly, though mistakenly, characterized as being an anti-technology movement, or at least and anti-technological change movement.(2) Though the movement's purported ideology was certainly not novel (nor limited to this locale), the Luddite movement's most rigorously defined period of activity dates between 1811 through 1816 (Thomis 13); and was most active in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and the Midlands (Thomis 11). The term 'Luddite' gained currency from the fictitious signing of the name 'Ned Ludd' by disgruntled hosiery and lace workers in harassing letters to their employers (Thomis 11). Yet it was not letter writing that caused such public notoriety for the Luddites, but the destruction of frames used to create stockings en masse (Thomis 11).

Just what, exactly, motivated these workers to break their employer's machines has been the subject of a great deal of debate and conjecture. At the time there were many, and often wildly extravagant, theories ranging from economic depression due to war with France and America to French conspiracy plots against the Crown (Thomis 42, 45). Malcolm Thomis, however, argues his book, The Luddites, that the movement gestated during a period of regional economic depression, acute food shortages with accompanying riots, soaring prices, and repressive anti-labor practices. The movement's birth was realized, he argues, after unhappy labor, bereft of any recourse, began to strike-out at employers who outright violated their charters by over-hiring apprentices, etc., or otherwise flouted long standing regimes within the industry. Yet according to Thomis' theory, technological change was seldom ever the central issue:

        And if generalisations (sic) are being sought about Luddism they must take into
        account the fact that in only one area was machine-breaking an attempt to pre-
        vent industrial change by technological advance, that in the Midlands the Ludd-
        ites had no prospect of industrial change through technological advance, and
        that in Lancashire[,] Luddism was of only marginal and doubtful relevance to the issue. (Thomis 66)

Yet if the Luddites really were largely a precipitate of poor industry-labor relations and a response to a worsening economic reality for the labor-class, then why are they a symbol of anti-technological sentiment? The answer, Thomis argues, is largely due to the role of the press in its portrayal of the phenomenon; and the anxious reception that portrayal found in some well attended citizens. Machines were not so much broken because they represented a threat to the worker's livelihood, but simply because they were the most direct and vulnerable place to inflict damage on the employer (Thomis 49). After all, this was an industry well accustomed to technological change and innovation (Thomis 49, 50).

II. Radical, political Zeitgeist and its influence on Mary Shelley.

Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on August 30, 1797 (Sunstein 12, 18). Her mother and namesake, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a controversial Romantic feminist (Sunstein 3). Her father, to whom she had a deep affection, was William Godwin, an author and popular, though eventually highly controversial, philosopher (Sunstein 3). According to a contemporary biographer of Mary Shelley, Emily Sunstein, Shelley's whole education, including her socialization, was liberal; to the point of being labeled 'radical' and 'revolutionary'. Shelley, due to the popularity and early success of her father, kept company with some of the most important literary figures of her day, including Percy Bysshe Shelley (her eventual lover and husband), William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron amongst others (Sunstein 3, 40). The last, Lord Byron, was an intimate friend of both Percy and Mary Shelley (Sunstein, Bennett), and it is this person who furnishes the link between the Luddite movement and Mary Shelley. To demonstrate this, it is necessary to turn back to Thomis with the following quote:

        [the creator of the myth that the Luddites were fighting against technology] was
        probably the Lord-Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, the Duke of Newcastle, who
        first put in circulation the story of new machinery which was creating redun-
        dancy amongst the stockingers[,] as it could be operated by women. Unfor-
        tunately the House of Lords committee of Secrecy gave the view their seal of
        approval in their report of July 1812, and Lord Byron too, in his moving and
        much-quoted speech, talked of men 'sacrificed to improvements in mechanism'.
        (Thomis 50) emphasis added

It is this last bit, from Lord Byron, that is the crux of Frankenstein, and essential to understanding its main thematic content.

III. Frankenstein's monster as an allegory of technology run amok.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines 'technology' as the "scientific study of mechanical arts and applied sciences." Using this definition as a guide, it is useful to turn to Chapter IV of Frankenstein where Frankenstein speaks of his desire to advance the state of technology. He says, "[considering] the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics, I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success" (47). Yet what was the success that he so strived for? Keeping Byron in mind, what was the improvement in what machine? Frankenstein answers that with his desire to "banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death" (31). He envisions a "new species [that] would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me" (47). In the end Frankenstein creates a "superhuman," and improvement on the original, as it were. Frankestein's monster was a "being possessing faculties it would be vain to cope with" (157), with stature that "seemed to exceed that of man" (100) and moved with "superhuman speed" (100). The monster notes to Frankenstein himself, that he has been made "more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine; my joints more supple" (101). This is consistent with the notion of the monster as an "improvement in mechanism."

        There is a point, towards the end of Chapter X, where the monster speaks the following to Frankenstein:
        Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou are bound by
        ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us ... Do your duty towards me, and I
        will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my condi-
        tions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death,
        until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends. (100)

The notion, in essence, is that there exists an "indissoluble duty" between the creator and what is created. That is, there a responsibility of a creator, or in this case inventor, to ensure that the creation is properly assimilated into society. Neglect of this responsibility, it seems, results in harm to people who are innocent (at least of the creation), and must bear the consequences of its introduction. Frankenstein does neglect his responsibility. He runs away from his creation at the get-go, in Chapter V, and never stops until it is too late. As the result of Frankenstein's abdication of his "duty," the monster makes good on his promise and does indeed "glut the maw of death" by killing Clerval, Elizabeth, et. al.; all innocents. In fact, it is the death of Justine that affords Frankenstein the opportunity to soliloquize on the effects of his action. He notes that Justine is the second innocent killed, and that the crime committed was his own. He is the one responsible for this bit of technology run amok. A fact Frankenstein never owns up to. Taken from

Important Information on FRANKENSTEIN

The Power of Knowledge and Frankenstein

By: Yisel Valdes


            Victor is utterly depressed because he now realizes the outcome of his own work, the outcome of his own knowledge. His ambition to create led him to create a monster, and this monster has killed his brother William. “Yet, as I drew nearer home, grief and fear again overcame me. The picture appeared a vast and dim scene of evil, and I foresaw obscurely that I was destined to become the most wretched of human beings…In all the misery I imagined and dreaded I did not conceived the hundredth part of anguish I was destined to endure” (Shelley 49). He understood the magnitude of his wrong and he knew it was to late to amend it. Upon Justine’s trial, “ I could not sustain the horror of my situation…the tortures of the accused did not equal mine…I passed a night of unmingled wretchedness…words cannot convey an idea of the heart-sickening despair that I endured” (Shelley 57). Thanks to him and his creation there was another victim and worse for him, it was form his own family. He was devastated because he was certain how perilous this monster could be and how many people he could drag to death’s threshold. “I shunned the face of man; all sound of joy or complacency was torture to me; solitude was my only consolation-deep, dark, deathlike solitude” (Shelley 61). Justine died on the scaffold for his sake. He knew he was the real murder. Feeling like a murdered, knowing his creation had turn out to be his devastation, loosing two family members, and acknowledging the innocence of his family depressed Victor immensely.

            Similarly, Nature was Victor’s peacefulness. “After rowing into the middle of the lake, I felt the boat to pursue it own course, and gave away to my own miserable reflections” (Shelley 62). He felt Nature was his judge and could take action at any moment. But Nature was also a soother working in his mind because it consoled him. “The very winds whispered in soothing accents” (Shelley 65). Nature “elevated me from all littleness of feeling’ and although they did not remove my grief, they subdued and tranquillized it. Victor found in Nature an unequal comforter, “advisor,” and it could adjust his emotions like nobody else.


Victor Frankenstein


Positive Traits


  1. Shares his agony with Robert Walton in the hopes of preventing the same mistakes he made.

“You seek for knowledge and wisdom , as I once did, and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wished many not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.” (Shelley 13).


Negative Traits


  1. Knows he is doing evil, yet his personal desire outweighs his conscience.

“I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination” (Shelley 33).

  1. His experience set him apart from the society of man.

“And the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time (Shelley 33).


The  Creature


Positive Traits


  1. At first recognizes he is a subordinate to his creator.

“ I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king…” (Shelley 69)

  1. At the beginning, he intended to be benevolent and loved humanity.

“But my chief delights were the sight of the flowers, the birds, and all the gay apparel of summer…the more I saw of the cottagers, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by the amiable creatures” (Shelley 94)


Negative Traits


  1. Envies that which he cannot be-human.

“But I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protections, the bitter gall of envy rose within me” (Shelley 94).

  1. Comes to resent and seeks revenge against his creator.

“I may die, but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery” (Shelley 123).


Comparing the Characters


  • Tries to be God-like by infusing life into death
  • Acquires knowledge not meant for man
  • Shares his agony with another to prevent the same mistake he made
  • Rebels against the accepted norms of society to “benefit mankind”
  • Could prevent/end his torment by sharing his knowledge, but chooses not to (creation of a mate for the creature)
  • Slow to learn
  • Becomes emaciated, aged, has shiny bright-eye


What They Have in Common

  • Alone
  • Torn by internal conflict from misapplied knowledge and sense of Isolation
  • Know they are doing evil, yet personal desire outweighs his conscience
  • Wanders from land to land
  • Acts without thinking of consequences
  • Experiences set them apart from society of man
  • Seeks absolution

The Creature

        First of his kind

        Because of his appearance looses protection

And nurture of his creator.

        Envies that which he cannot be-human

        Comes to resent and seeks revenge against his creator

        Outside appearance belies inner personality


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