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.
Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1991.
Thomis, Malcolm I. The Luddites. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon
1. Though after considering recent developments in twentieth-century science and technology, i.e. genetic engineering, bionics, etc., the story seems timelessly prescient.
2.As a note of contemporary history, the Unabomber is referred to as a 'neo-Luddite' because of his targeting bombing of computer industry executives and researchers.