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The nineteenth century was a time of fantastic development and change, both scientifically and psychologically, which would have placed a dramatic effect on the writing of Mary Shelley and Oscar Wilde. The new science suggested that we do not know the universe, that what we know suggests a struggle, and that human beings take part in that struggle because their minds are clouded by unconscious motivations.
In a period when the distinctions between the disciplines were less rigid, especially in science art and philosophy; science was considered to hold the key to social progress.
Incredible discoveries were occurring; in 1802 Galvani showed that running a current through a frog produces a twitch-endanger life, and in 1803, Aldani attached a battery to the corpse of a criminal which led to it moving and one of its eyes moving. These breakthroughs would have inspired Shelley enormously.
Shelley was brought up by wealthy, middle-class parents and had a respectable, almost idyllic childhood. Her father, William Godwin was both a philosopher and a novelist. He had a passion for science and Mary’s childhood was dominated by her love to roam around her father’s extensive library.
Shelley wanted to ‘speak of the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror,’ and so created a gothic novel. Mary Shelley was influenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), a poet and critic, who deemed it important to address scientific issues in his work.
Shelley’s biggest inspiration was her husband, Percy Shelley, who had an intensive excitement for nature, the supernatural and science, all themes that vividly run through Frankenstein. He was interested in live matter emerging from dead matter.
Critic Mario Praz expresses that ‘All Mrs Shelley did was to provide a passive reflection of some of the wild fantasies which, as it were, hung in the air about her. ‘ Oscar Wilde, the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, was mainly influenced by the psychological development in the nineteenth century. Until the 1880’s, psychology was widely regarded as a branch of philosophy, before it developed as an independent scientific discipline. Psychology borders on various other fields including neuroscience and artificial intelligence; factors of which Mary Shelley also bases her writing upon.
The progress of psychology, and most prominently Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis would have been a huge influence on Wilde’s writing. Oscar Wilde’s tutor, Reverend JP Mahaffy, was a huge inspiration to him, along with his parents who were noted authors. The imprisonment of Wilde had a huge affect on his writing and could possibly have led him to develop the sinister character of Dorian Gray. Victor Frankenstein could be described as too impatient, ambitious and self-centred to accept the slow pace of science and evolution, which could explain his despair before the creation of the monster.
By using chemicals to put together his creature, he short-circuits the natural cycle required for the creation of new life, and the result of his experiment is, in effect, an evolutionary step backwards. The Modern Prometheus, as Frankenstein is sometimes referred, originates from the Latin Prometheus, who makes an unnatural man from clay and water to directly repel against the laws of nature. The figure of Prometheus was the subject of a poem published by Lord Byron in 1816 who explored and harnessed the secrets of nature.
Shelley immensely uses the theme of Prometheus throughout Frankenstein, and Victor’s creation of the monster is almost identical to that. These two aspects of the Prometheus story, creation and transgression, complicate the image of the scientist represented by Victor Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein could be compared with Dr Faustus, a man who desires to know the secrets of the universe, and sells his soul to Satan. He becomes power-hungry but does not know how to handle the power. The Faust legend raises the question of eternal damnation due to the unpardonable sin of despair.
Victor relinquishes his family for the pursuit of secret knowledge, and, working in isolation, creates a creature that he abandons. This can also be compared to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Wilde was very familiar with the Faust legend through popular culture and so incorporated its themes into his writing. Lord Henry can be associated with the devil, or at least the devil’s advocate, and Dorian Gray the innocent, unwitting, insecure boy who has his flaws manipulated by Lord Henry. He persuades nai? ve Dorian, to exchange his soul for eternal youth which in turn leads him to become greedy and out of control.
Mary Shelley was reading the book Emile previous to writing Frankenstein. The novel argues that mans nature is harmless, but is made evil by society’s perception. The monster, although visually distorted and horrendous, was not born a bad person. A parent’s, or creator’s job is to support and care for their creation, which Victor failed to do. Inspiration for this storyline may have originated from Mary’s home life. Both Percy’s and her father simultaneously disowned them for falling in love with one another, similar to Victor and the monster, on their departure she began to write Frankenstein.
The theme of the ‘monster in man’ is very apparent in both Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Shelley’s novel, the monster is used as a symbol for our own inner ugliness. Although it appears to be the cause of fear and prejudice, it could stand for a hideous and violent reaction to something unknown and different. This is similarly obvious in Wilde’s Dorian Gray, as Dorian is an envied, beautiful man, but on discovery that he will one day lose his assets and look ‘different’, his personality significantly alters and he transforms into a monster.
Another theme that is present in both novels is that of discovery. Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein and the monster all begin by expressing their desires to discover. The monster has humble aims to discover motives, but the others have lofty ambitions and are prepared to sacrifice human relationships to fulfil them. Dorian Gray’s only motive is to sustain his youth, but by doing this embarks on an incredible journey which enables him to discover himself, and release the monstrous characteristics he possess inside him.