Jamie Long-Bilbrey

Application of Hegelian Theory to Frankenstein

Hegel was a contemporary of Mary Shelley. Part of the interesting links between Hegel and Shelley are their views of cultrue through their 'art', Hegel's being his philosophy and writings, Shelley through her stories. Hegel viewed art as the progression of history and humanity; art, could be defined as anything demonstrating the relevant creativity of the human spirit. Hegel and spirit are key to understanding Hegelian theory behind Frankenstein. Miles H. Hodges describes spirit and Hegel: "What such observation reveals to the disciplined mind is "structure." This structure is the witness or testimony to the deeper or more transcendent existence of ideal reality. This larger or more transcendent reality is called "God" by some. Hegel preferred to call it "Spirit"" ('The Realm of the World Spirit'). Paul Redding in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy furthers the Hegelian view of spirit:

Hegel's discussion of spirit starts from what he calls “Sittlichkeit” (translated as “ethical order” or “ethical substance”), “Sittlichkeit” being a nominalisation from the adjectival (or adverbial) form “sittlich,” “customary,” from the stem “Sitte” -- “custom” or “convention.” Thus Hegel might be seen as adopting the viewpoint that since social life is ordered by customs we can approach the lives of those living in it in terms of the patterns of those customs or conventions themselves -- the conventional practices, as it were, constituting specific forms of life. It is not surprising then that his account of spirit here starts with a discussion of religious and civic law. Undoubtedly it is Hegel's tendency to nominalise such abstract concepts as “customary” in his attempt to capture the concrete nature of such as patterns of conventional life, together with the tendency to then personify them (as in talking about “spirit” becoming “self-conscious”) that lends plausibility to the traditionalist understanding of Hegel. But for non-traditionalists it is not obvious that Hegel is in any way committed to any metaphysical supra-individual conscious beings with such usages. To take an example, in the second section of the chapter “Spirit” Hegel discusses “culture” as the “world of self-alienated spirit.” The idea seems to be that humans in society not only interact, but that they collectively create relatively enduring cultural products (stories, dramas, and so forth) within which they can recognise their own patterns of life reflected. We might find intelligible the idea that such products “hold up a mirror to society” within which “the society can regard itself,” without thinking we are thereby committed to some supra-individual social “mind” achieving self-consciousness. Furthermore, such cultural products themselves provide conditions allowing individuals to adopt particular cognitive attitudes. Thus, for example, the capacity to adopt the type of objective viewpoint demanded by Kantian morality (discussed in the final section of Spirit) -- the capacity to see things, as it were, from a “universal” point of view -- is bound up with the attitude implicitly adopted in engaging with spirit's “alienations.” (Redding 3.1 )

Even when it came to feminism, Hegel was far and away beyond the vast majority of his male contemporaries; in this respect, there was a great amount of common ground between he and Shelley. Shelley's concerns regarding culture and therefore, spirit, were brought out in significant measures in Frankenstein: images of science invading the progression of nature (therefore women's function in nature being replaced by male ingenuity), science replacing the validity of intuition (a female attribute), and technology replacing spirit. It is the focus on the latter especially which most applies to Hegel. The monster of Frankenstein is a man-made creation of man, minus the spirit, and the spirit is the key to the beauty of life.

In Chapters Three through Five of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, there is a significant correlation between spirit and the overall message of the story. Mary Shelley distinctly creates a monster for her story, one mirroring humanity, minus the essence of spirit. Spirit in Frankenstein exists on several levels: 1) the acquisition of knowledge (more specifically 'antiquated' knowledge); 2) the replacement of established knowledge for new 'near perfect' knowledge; and 3) and, the most important one, the suppliment of knowledge for spirit itself. Chapter Three most readily demonstrates this with the character of M. Waldman:

"The ancient teachers of this science," said he, "promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixer of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows." (Chapter 3)

The young Dr. Frankenstein thinks in response to this:

Such were the professor's words - rather let me say such the words of fate - enounced to destroy me. As he went on I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being; chord after chord was soounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought. one conception, one purpose. So much has been done exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein - more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. (Chapter 3)

There are several ironies in realtion between these two passages and Hegelian thought. Hegel believed in the interpretation of spirit, but it only being possible when nature was excluded from the formula. In other words, M. Waldman's and thus, Frankenstein's, desperate drive for unfolding "to the world the deepest mysteries of creation" is a ridiculous fantasy. Of course, this was Mary Shelley's point, that and the emphasis on male creation minus the other very necessary half of the creationary process for life: the female. To synthesize then, not only is the issue of cheated creation addressed, but also, in later chapters with the creation of the monster, but the result of cheated creation. It lacks spirit.

See Background on Hegel

Return to previous page