The noble savage in Frankenstein
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The time in which Mary Shelley was writing was one of great change both scientifically and religiously, with the movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism there was much interest in scientific subjects and other explanations of human origins than from what is described in the bible. Shelly would have been very influenced by her husband Percy Shelley, who preferred the Greek myth of Prometheus to explain our origins. As well as interest in the science and especially electricity the Romantics were also interested in nature and its endless possibilities, and the concept of the sublime. Everything during the Romantic Movement was very much to do with emotions and sensations, which is why the character of the monster would have been so much more poignant to the people reading Frankenstein. It makes him easier to relate to and to sympathise with as he is connected to nature and uses his sensations of pain and hunger to learn.
This is also linked to the idea of the noble savage and the monster as the embodiment of the idea. As the monster is at one with nature and has no immoral thoughts, he is even a vegetarian. The monster is only affected by the other vices of men once he starts to learn of the culture and no longer rely on his senses to teach him. The industrial revolution would have had a major impact on the writings of the romantics as it gave a new view towards nature and the in particular the native people of new countries such as Australia and America. They were seen as Enlightened because they had no use for money or machines and they were seen without the obvious sins of the western people such as greed and jealousy. They were however seen as savages as they had not moved on and developed as a society from the beginning of the human race, they still behaved like animals, and went out hunting with spears and bows and arrows. Yet they were seen as noble people because of the attitudes they had towards the world.
The image of the noble savage is one that was very topical in the 18th and 19th centuries and appeared in many books, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein being one of the most famous and prominent. The idea of the noble savage is an idealised concept of uncivilised man, who symbolises the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilisation. The glorification of the noble savage is a dominant theme in the Romantic writings of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the works of Rousseau. With the Romantics being highly influenced by such concepts as the organic and the living, which was perceived by these writers to be better than the mechanical, and by extension, the wilderness is better than the city. This idea of nature as the sublime emerged through the industrialisation of the country and the rapid movement from the country to the city, people lost touch with the awe inspiring affects of nature when they were no longer surrounded by it.
As a concept of the Romantic writings the noble savage embodies their feelings toward the corruption of man and the truth of nature and the monster is the one that externalises these concepts. It is not until he learns what unhappy is that he beings to feel lonely and lost, before that he was perfectly happy to live off of berries and drink from the lakes. He learns via his senses and direct observation until he lives in the hut and learns the concepts of origins and loneliness. Which he learns from Volley’s Ruins of empires, Plutocrat’s Lives and Milton’s Paradise lost.
The idea of the savage was very important in the 1600’s when the phrase “noble savage” was first penned. It was a way of establishing the native people of the Americas and other places that had recently been discovered such as Oceania as morally superior beings to counter balance the perceived inferiority. Which people used to kill them or exploit them, sometimes resulting in genocide, especially with the native Americans. This was acceptable As they were savages and subordinate to the learned and clothed people of Europe who had developed things such as commerce, where as the “savages” had no need for such things. Therefore out of the ever increasing eradication of the savages came the idea of the “noble savage”, one who morally higher than the men of Europe. Although the phrase was first used in the 1600’s it was still very influential to the writers, explorers and philosophers of the 18th century and even into the 19th century when Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818.
It was influential as the exploration and discovery of new countries was still being done, e.g. the search for the North Pole and the cook’s discovery of Australia with the first settlement only in 1788. And in Australia were the aborigines and the native Americans were still going strong. The discoveries of these new places and people are the basis for the contemplation of the “noble savage” that is being explored in Frankenstein. Just because the creature may appear to be inferior to other people who are scared of him when the see him it is does not necessarily give them the right to harm him. What they don’t understand they are scared of.
The concept of the “noble savage” was a highly romanticised image. Attributes of the “noble savage” often included: Living in harmony with Nature Absence of crime Innocence Inability to lie Physical health Moral courage This is why the monster was so very controversial because the creature does not exude these concepts after he has been treated badly: “treat and man bad and he will become evil”. This also ties in though with the theory by Thomas Aquinas of original sin it implies that we are enslaved by our emotions, unable to face the truth, and unable to control our behaviour, which as we see in the monster he is unable to do. This is why the ideas of the monster are in contrast to that of the “noble savage”. He may be at one with nature yet he is controlled by his emotions. He longs to be close to the DeLacys yet when he can’t he takes out his revenge on Frankenstein.
Something the noble savage would never do as they have the inability to lie and absence of crime. Maybe it was the affect of learning from Christians and understanding the morality needed to be a good person, via the DeLacys. Many writer of the time were discovering life without the existence of God and wrote on the subject of religion profusely. Shelley may not be one of the radicals who were against the church yet they and their ideas must have influenced her. They basically believed that Christianity teaches that man is basically evil, which is received from Eve who ate the forbidden apple and therefore condemned man to live with sin for eternity. Left to him, man does not become good; he just lives out his own evil nature.
A man cannot be changed apart from God’s grace working in his heart; each of us must be changed inwardly before we can live differently outwardly. Which is why the idea of the “noble savage” was also very poplar at the time as “the noble savage” concept holds that as long as people are uncontaminated by (Christian) civilisation, they are free to live in primeval bliss. The noble savage supposedly enjoyed perfect harmony with nature, had plenty to eat and drink, and was free from materialistic cares and other problems of modern Western civilisation until the Europeans visited them. According to the noble savage idea, man’s problem isn’t sin, its contact with Christian civilisation.
The use of the “noble savage” in Frankenstein can have many reasons; I feel however that it was used in two fold firstly to show the corruptibility of all men and secondly the effect of science on society. Using the Lockean theory that one should not simply take whatever one wanted, one had also to take the common good into consideration Shelley provides an example of the effects on society if the creator of something does not take into consideration the common good of society. Frankenstein does not think of the common good for the creature when he abandons it and neither does he consider the effects it may have on society when he is building it. He believes that he can better man by his invention.
This is something that Shelley was deeply concerned with, the effect of science on society. Using the form of the “noble savage” in this way shows the effect the sciences and the inventions of other men has had on the natives of the countries. The gun is designed to kill and that is exactly what it was doing to the natives. Our sciences were wiping them out and it was all in the name of advancement in commerce. The other point of the creature is as the “noble savage” is to show the corruptibly of man, as the form of the “noble savage” the creator must therefore be good in all forms, respecting nature and being strong of moral character. As at the beginning of his life he had made the choice to be vegetarian ad lived off of berries and such like. It is not until he learns from the DeLacys about human nature does he show it.