Was The Classic Frankenstein A Warning Against Freeing Slaves?
Since the original publication of Frankenstein in 1818, the creation of the monster, often named Frankenstein in film, has been a warning both against playing God and the human tendency to create without thinking. In fact, everything from genetically-modified foods, to nuclear bombs, to the American Government’s pre-9/11 foreign policy has been compared to the creation of the monster in Frankenstein. In other words, anytime someone tries to “play God” or act before thinking, someone else will yell, “They’re creating a Frankenstein!” However, aside from this 200-year-old, all-encompassing “creating a monster” metaphor, did Frankenstein’s author, Mary Shelley, have any other specific idea or initiative to compare with the creation of the monster? This essay argues that she did. Mary Shelley was in fact comparing the creation of the monster to the idea of the immediate emancipation of British slaves. This essay will attempt to prove this claim by sharing Mary Shelley’s opinions on slavery and emancipation, by comparing the characteristics of the monster to that of a typical 19th-century African slave, and by showing that Mary Shelley did not contest the public’s comparison between the creation of the monster and the idea of the immediate emancipation of British Slaves.
Mary Shelley formed many of her opinions on slavery based on the views of her parents. Her father, William Godwin, was directly involved in movements to end slavery. Between 1780 and 1790, Godwin wrote about the slavery debates in the New Annual Register, which was an annual publication of major events in history, politics, and literature. In 1791, Godwin supported William Wilberforce in his attempt to abolish the slave trade in Britain (Malchow, 98). Like her father, Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was against slavery. Wollstonecraft was a writer who often linked the oppression of women and slaves. In her novel A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she writes “Is one-half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalise them.. Only to sweeten the cup of men” (Crawford, par. 7). Mary Shelley agreed with her parents on the humanity and mistreatment of slaves, and even avoided white sugar because it was a byproduct of slavery (Martyris, par. 7). However, Mary Shelley, and her husband Percy Shelley, still believed that the immediate emancipation of slaves would have grave consequences. They were for the 1807 Slave Trade Act which outlawed the trading of slaves, but thought that the already enslaved, who had for all of their lives been suppressed with violence and denied education, would, if freed, seek to avenge themselves on their masters. Percy argued, “can he who the day before was trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent?” (Mulvey-Roberts, 203)
The monster had the strength of a working man but the mind of a child; he had yellow coloured skin, a tall stature, great agility, and a few other physical and mental attributes that are more commonly linked with Africans than Europeans (Lepore, par. 25). Additionally, like an African slave, the monster saw himself as an outcast, was treated poorly based on his appearance, and was furious at those responsible for his condition. Within the text, Victor Frankenstein referred to the monster’s escape and the ensuing chase as that of a refugee slave pursued by his master. Midway through the text there is a power shift, then, it is the monster who calls Frankenstein a slave (Geoghegan, par.4). This power shift is emblematic of Mary Shelley’s fear that immediate emancipation will cause slaves to revolt and wreak havoc. Furthermore, in the text, regardless of the atrocities committed by the monster, there is ample reason to sympathize with the monster’s plight and justify the monster’s actions. Elizabeth Young, author of the novel Black Frankenstein, argues that Mary Shelley’s success in creating this sympathy and understanding for the monster helped society humanize slaves, explain, if not justify, their violence, condemn the slave owners, and expose the instability of white power (Young, 276).
In 1823, five years after the book was published, Frankenstein became a theatrical production. Within this production, the actor playing the monster painted his face blue. It was thought at the time that this blue paint made the monster look more African than dead (Lepore, par. 25). In 1824, the Foreign Secretary and leader of the House of Commons, George Canning, saw this play and then argued that:
In dealing with the negro, Sir, we must remember that we are dealing with a being possessing the form and strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child… To turn him loose in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passions, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance. (Lepore, par. 25)
Mary Shelley never contested the blue-faced actor or the comparison of the monster from Frankenstein to a freed adult slave (Geoghegan, par.4). As a result, it reinforces both that Shelley intended for the public to compare the monster to an African slave and that she believed in the politics of gradual emancipation.
In conclusion, it seems clear that the metaphor comparing the creation of the monster in Frankenstein to the immediate emancipation of slaves was expertly crafted by Mary Shelley. This was proven by showing Mary Shelley’s sympathy for slaves but fear of the idea of immediate emancipation, by finding strong comparisons between the characteristics of the monster and stereotypes of 19th-century slaves, and by noting Mary Shelley’s allowance for the public’s comparison between the creation of the monster and the idea of immediate emancipations. There is no doubt that the creation of the monster is an excellent warning against playing God and acting without thinking, but there is also no ignoring that there was an additional, time-specific Black-Frankenstein metaphor. Furthermore, I believe it is important to note how misplaced this 19th-century fear was.
Crawford, Elizabeth. “Women: From Abolition to the Vote.” BBC News. BBC, 20 June 2011.
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https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-12711091. Accessed 10 Dec 2018.
Lepore, Jill. “The Strange And Twisted Life Of “Frankenstein””. The New Yorker, 2018,
Malchow, H. L. “Frankenstein’s Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain”.
Past & Present, №139 (May, 1993): 90–130. Oxford University Press.
Martyris, Nina. “How Percy Shelley Stirred His Politics Into His Teacup”. NPR.Org, 2015,
Mulvey-Roberts, Dangerous Bodies: Historicising the Gothic Corporeal. Manchester Univ
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