The New Yorker has written a fantastic piece on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

The following commentator writes:

Torn by revolution, gasping at the quick pace of technological change, divided by debates over racial equality, early 19th Century Europe produces a crop of batshit-crazy writers, and Mary Shelley. She writes a book that treats on themes of parenthood, which is completely misunderstood for two centuries.

I assume that the 'revolution' is the Industrial Revolution - because there isn't a political revolution at that time I can pin down.

My question is: Is there evidence to suggest that Frankenstein was influenced by revolution, the pace of technological change and debates over racial equality?

  • 3
    "there isn't a political revolution at that time I can pin down" - early 19th century Europe was strongly affected by the French Revolution, which took place at the very end of the 18th century, around 20 years before Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 13, 2018 at 12:10

1 Answer 1


Yes, there is evidence to suggest that Frankenstein was influenced by revolution, the pace of technological change and debates over racial equality. (It's also a book about parenthood.)

As has been helpfully pointed out - the revolution in context of the book is the French Revolution:

If “Frankenstein” is a referendum on the French Revolution, as some critics have read it, Victor Frankenstein’s politics align nicely with those of Edmund Burke, who described violent revolution as “a species of political monster, which has always ended by devouring those who have produced it.” The creature’s own politics, though, align not with Burke’s but with those of two of Burke’s keenest adversaries, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Victor Frankenstein has made use of other men’s bodies, like a lord over the peasantry or a king over his subjects, in just the way that Godwin denounced when he described feudalism as a “ferocious monster.” (“How dare you sport thus with life?” the creature asks his maker.) The creature, born innocent, has been treated so terribly that he has become a villain, in just the way that Wollstonecraft predicted. “People are rendered ferocious by misery,” she wrote, “and misanthropy is ever the offspring of discontent.” (“Make me happy,” the creature begs Frankenstein, to no avail.)

We can see that this is about the pace (or rather the horrors and regret) of technological change:

“Frankenstein,” the story of a creature who has no name, has for two hundred years been made to mean just about anything. Most lately, it has been taken as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley technologists, an interpretation that derives less from the 1818 novel than from later stage and film versions, especially the 1931 film, and that took its modern form in the aftermath of Hiroshima. In that spirit, M.I.T. Press has just published an edition of the original text “annotated for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds,” and prepared by the leaders of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, at Arizona State University, with funding from the National Science Foundation; they offer the book as a catechism for designers of robots and inventors of artificial intelligences. “Remorse extinguished every hope,” Victor says, in Volume II, Chapter 1, by which time the creature has begun murdering everyone Victor loves. “I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.” The M.I.T. edition appends, here, a footnote: “The remorse Victor expresses is reminiscent of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s sentiments when he witnessed the unspeakable power of the atomic bomb. . . . Scientists’ responsibility must be engaged before their creations are unleashed.”

We can see the book is about racial equality:

Among the many moral and political ambiguities of Shelley’s novel is the question of whether Victor Frankenstein is to be blamed for creating the monster—usurping the power of God, and of women—or for failing to love, care for, and educate him. The Frankenstein-is-Oppenheimer model considers only the former, which makes for a weak reading of the novel. Much of “Frankenstein” participates in the debate over abolition, as several critics have astutely observed, and the revolution on which the novel most plainly turns is not the one in France but the one in Haiti. For abolitionists in England, the Haitian revolution, along with continued slave rebellions in Jamaica and other West Indian sugar islands, raised deeper and harder questions about liberty and equality than the revolution in France had, since they involved an inquiry into the idea of racial difference. Godwin and Wollstonecraft had been abolitionists, as were both Percy and Mary Shelley, who, for instance, refused to eat sugar because of how it was produced. Although Britain and the United States enacted laws abolishing the importation of slaves in 1807, the debate over slavery in Britain’s territories continued through the decision in favor of emancipation, in 1833. Both Shelleys closely followed this debate, and in the years before and during the composition of “Frankenstein” they together read several books about Africa and the West Indies. Percy Shelley was among those abolitionists who urged not immediate but gradual emancipation, fearing that the enslaved, so long and so violently oppressed, and denied education, would, if unconditionally freed, seek a vengeance of blood. He asked, “Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent?”


Because the creature reads as a slave, “Frankenstein” holds a unique place in American culture, as the literary scholar Elizabeth Young argued, a few years ago, in “Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor.” “What is the use of living, when in fact I am dead,” the black abolitionist David Walker asked from Boston in 1829, in his “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,” anticipating Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” by a century and a half. “Slavery is everywhere the pet monster of the American people,” Frederick Douglass declared in New York, on the eve of the American Civil War. Nat Turner was called a monster; so was John Brown. By the eighteen-fifties, Frankenstein’s monster regularly appeared in American political cartoons as a nearly naked black man, signifying slavery itself, seeking his vengeance upon the nation that created him.

We can see the book is about parenthood:

Pregnant again only weeks later, she was likely still nursing her second baby when she started writing “Frankenstein,” and pregnant with her third by the time she finished. She didn’t put her name on her book—she published “Frankenstein” anonymously, in 1818, not least out of a concern that she might lose custody of her children—and she didn’t give her monster a name, either. “This anonymous androdaemon,” one reviewer called it. For the first theatrical production of “Frankenstein,” staged in London in 1823 (by which time the author had given birth to four children, buried three, and lost another unnamed baby to a miscarriage so severe that she nearly died of bleeding that stopped only when her husband had her sit on ice), the monster was listed on the playbill as “––––––.”

  • 1
    This answer has a lot of blockquotes. I think it might be improved by more paraphrasing, expressing the conclusions of that New Yorker article in your own words (and perhaps linking/quoting from the original sources that that article uses).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 14, 2018 at 12:39

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