Frankenstein: The Individual and Society
The creature's ambiguous humanity has long puzzled readers of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In this essay I will focus on how Frankenstein can be used to explore two philosophical topics, social contract theory, and gender roles, in light of ideas from Shelley's two philosophical parents, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft.
What Does it Mean to be Human? Individual and Society
One historically important tradition in social and political philosophy is called "Social Contract Theory." It gives a way of thinking about what it means to be human, raising fundamental questions such as: what is human nature, in itself, apart from society? Are people fundamentally equal, and if so, why, in what ways? What justifies governmental authority? In what sense are people free and independent if their lives are ruled by laws and governmental authorities?
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and John Locke (1632-1704), were English philosophers who approached these questions by hypothesizing a "state of nature." Try to imagine what a person would be like if he or she lived outside of any governed society. Hobbes thought that people would be isolated, desperately afraid of harm from others. Life would be, in Hobbes' memorable phrase, "poore, solitary, nasty, brutish and short." Locke wasn't quite so pessimistic. He thought that in the state of nature, people would be fairly sociable, and would establish private property and trade. Both Hobbes and Locke thought that insecurity in the state of nature would lead people to join together and give to a governmental authority the right to make laws and punish offenders. Hence, for them, government is based on a "social contract," by which free, equal, and independent individuals move from the state of nature to an organized society.
Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin (1756-1836), was a well-known political anarchist. In Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), Godwin argued that government is fundamentally unjust, and functions primarily to uphold economic inequality between rich and poor. Godwin was highly critical of social contract theory; the conversation between Victor and the creature regarding a mate exemplifies several of Godwin's criticisms (pp. 97-100). We could read this passage as a "social contract" between Victor and the creature: if Victor makes a mate, the creature promises never to return. Godwin asked why parties to the social contract should trust each other to keep their promises; Victor agrees to the bargain, but didn't trust the creature to keep his promise, predicting he would return in revenge. Their "bargain" sounds more like blackmail than a contractual arrangement. Godwin also worried about future generations who were not parties to the original agreement, and had never promised to abide by a government's laws. Victor was concerned about this; realizing that even if the creature kept his end of the...