Rousseau's Philosophy in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the titular character states that "If [man's] impulses were confined to hunger, thirst and desire, [he] might nearly be free" (Shelley, 97). With this assertion, Victor imparts his belief that man is most content in the state of nature; a state where only his most primal needs must be fulfilled in order to be satisfied. Man in his natural state is the central topic in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophic essay A Discourse on Inequality, an academic work that had tremendous influence on Shelley. Shelley uses three of Rousseau's major beliefs as fundamental elements of Frankenstein; man is most content in the state of nature, society is what corrupts him and once corrupted, he can never return to his natural
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Once he masters the art of communication, he is exposed to the history of civilized man and literature. Through interpretation of those media he learns to hate and resent Victor (Shelley, 128, 131), to identify with Satan (Shelley, 129) and most regrettably why a man would murder his fellow (Shelley, 119). The event that seals the monster's conversion from benign to malignant occurs when he finally physically enters the familial society he has been observing. The De Laceys' reaction of horror, consternation and violence upon witnessing him (Shelley, 135), fills his mind with thoughts of "rage and revenge" (Shelley, 136); "injury and death" (Shelley, 138). From that point in his life onward, he "glut[s] himself with the shrieks and misery" (Shelley, 136) of those whom Frankenstein - his "accursed creator" (Shelley, 130) - holds dear. The monster wishes to "shake off all thought and feeling" (Shelley, 120) but knowledge clings to "[his] mind (
) like a lichen on the rock" (Shelley, 120). The knowledge that society cultivates in man is permanent; once gained it can never be dispossessed.
Victor's futile retreat into nature corresponds with Rousseau's conclusion that man can never return to his natural state. The philosopher is clear that although his Discourse is dedicated to the