Humankind and Nature in Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein

Compared to the passage from the Enlightenment writing Robinson Crusoe, the passage from the Romantic work Frankenstein focuses more on humanity’s incomplete and immoral control over nature. Robinson Crusoe is able to control nature, such as when he is able to make the cave he is in more spacious for himself, while also constructing furniture for his leisure. Crusoe remarks that “by making the most rational judgements of things, every man may be, in time, master of every mechanic art,” which demonstrates how the novel focuses more on how humans can control nature than nature’s control over humankind (Defoe). In Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein has much of the similar initial view as Crusoe, but polarized to an extreme; he arrogantly states that “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world” (Shelley 692). Though Frankenstein is able to create his creature, seeing the creature disgusts him and shows how the laws of nature cannot be overridden by human desires.

Similar to how both novels focus on humankind’s relationship with nature, Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe also are juxtaposed on the subject of slavery. Crusoe talks about trading for slaves as a commodity to be compared with beads, hatchets, and other material goods without questioning the morality of slavery (Defoe). In Frankenstein’s creature’s journey to understanding how he was created, the creature also views himself as a subject of whomever his creator is, but as the creature finds the doctor’s lab notes on his creation, he realizes that he is viewed as “odious and loathsome” (Shelley 693). While Frankenstein does not directly address slavery, it suggests that the creature is like a slave who is viewed as inhuman to his master, Frankenstein. It is evident that the creature feels like an atrocious creature below Frankenstein when he wants to ask “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust” to his creator (Shelley 693). The novel contrasts with the novel Robinson Crusoe’s apathy towards slavery’s effects.

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Order in Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe

Although Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein contain many obvious differences, the similarities, at least in theme, are almost more striking. One of the more overt differences is the narration. There is a much greater level of intensity to the narration of Frankenstein, while the narration of Robinson Crusoe is much more humdrum, indicating a man who has accepted his condition and is fairly content to make the best of things. The key similarity seems to be the common theme of attempting to create order in a chaotic world.

Crusoe refers to his cave as having, “a confused heap of good,” so he immediately sets to and expands his space. Crusoe, in fact, becomes so good at creating ‘order’ that he feels that, “[he] wanted nothing, but [he] could have made it.” While Crusoe’s attempts to create order are fairly minor (and, thus, successful), the attempts of Frankenstein and his monster to create order are on a much grander scale, and are much less successful. The monster simply desires to be an accepted member of the human race: for ‘order’ to exist in his world, he would be “allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature,” but because the monster desires to fundamentally change society, the form of order he desires can never be successful. The type of order Frankenstein desires is even more intense than that of his monster, as Frankenstein basically wants to be God. He wants a “new species [to] bless [him] as its creator and source,” and although he does manage to create life, he is so horrified by what he creates that, “his eyes swim with the remembrance.” So he, too, fails to create what he perceives as order. If the two passages are taken separately they seem to indicate two different things. In Robinson Crusoe, it is clear that creating order, and a person being in control of his environment and his life, are things that are extremely plausible, while Frankenstein indicates that no one can create the order they desire. However, when the themes of the two works are combined, it seems to suggest that to a certain extent man can be in control of his life, but at the end of the day, there are certain things that humans will never fully control. Although we can attempt to create simple order in our world, we can never change the fundamental nature of society of overcome the certainty of death.

Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe

In both the excerpt from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, the main characters are describing their completion of tasks that involve nature. While Crusoe attempts to master nature by disrupting its original state in order to maximize his personal comfort, Frankenstein is more interested in working together with the natural life cycle instead of overcoming it. In the excerpt, Frankenstein states that, “…if [he] could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, [he] might… renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (692). This illustrates a desire for harmony with nature as opposed to a desire to completely dominate it– Frankenstein does not want to selfishly play God; he wants to deepen his understanding of the natural process of life. Crusoe, on the other hand, describes the industrious process of dominating nature: “…it was a loose sandy rock, which yielded easily to the labour I bestowed upon it”. There is little intellectual turmoil in this piece. Crusoe’s process of setting up housing on the island is systematic and unemotional, despite the trying situation in which he finds himself.

In addition to the way in which the characters interact with nature, the emotions they describe are completely different. Crusoe is incredibly calculating: “…by stating and squaring everything by reason, and by making the most rational judgment of things, every man may be, in time, master of every mechanic art”. He does not address the way he feels about being shipwrecked and isolated from society. On the other hand, both Frankenstein in the first section and his monster in the second section express deep emotional distress surrounding isolation. Frankenstein is so compelled to complete his work that he holes himself up in his laboratory, fretting over his work and his lack of connection to the outside world. In addition, his monster illustrates extreme anguish because he is “solitary and detested” (693). The two completely different ways in which these characters respond to their isolation reflect the respective characteristics of the literary movements of their times. Defoe’s extreme focus on reason and invention juxtaposes Shelley’s emphasis on emotion and inspiration.

Comparing and Contrasting Shelley’s Frankenstein and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

The passages from Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe both present similar overarching themes, such as humanity, but differ in their perspective of this idea. Each novel also addresses the awareness of one’s humanity, with Frankenstein’s creature having studied his “accursed origin”, while Crusoe states how “making the most rational judgment of things” results in fulfillment of one’s goals.  Both pieces mirror ideals from the Enlightenment period, one of which includes mastery of nature.  Shelley’s Frankenstein comments on how if he is successful, then he can “renew life where death” (692) has taken over.  Similarly, Defoe’s Crusoe commits himself to construct “such necessary things as I found most wanted” from what natural resources he has available to him.  Additionally, both men appear to be inventors, but through different means; Crusoe builds because he must in order to survive, but Frankenstein does so out of a pure desire to create a “new species” which had previously never existed.

Contrasting elements between the two works include differing perspectives on the value of life.  Crusoe “smiled to [him]self” upon seeing money which he had no use for, but still found that he could appreciate it because life only has the meaning one gives to it.  Whereas Frankenstein’s creature believes that his life is devoid of any significance as he has no relationship with his “cursed creator” or any other sort of companion.  Also, even though Frankenstein’s creature and Crusoe are alone in the world, their attitudes differ a great deal.  The monster believes his “solitary and detested” existence is reason for self-pity because he can not connect with another single soul.  Crusoe, however, revels in his isolation and does not see it as an excuse to abandon the “few comforts [he has] in the world.”  Our humanity and sense of self are warped by our perspective.

Shelley vs Defoe

The passages from Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe share similarities and differences. Both depict solitary figures striving to make a life in a world new and unfamiliar to them. Similar in construction, both passage describe day to day activities. In Robinson Crusoe, the description of day to day activities is formal: “I have already observed how I brought all my goods into this pale, and into the cave which I had made behind me.” Victor Frankenstein describes some of his daily tasks with “I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.” Both passages portray solitary figures. Victor Frankenstein is alone in his quest to create human life; his monster is alone as the only member of his race on earth, a cursed and wretched figure. Robinson Crusoe is stranded on an island, alone in his own tropical universe. Because they are alone, the figures portrayed in the passages turn to reflection as a means of self-expression.

Conquering the Unknown, Crusoe vs. Frankenstein

     The ways in which the characters approach the unknown is where their differences lie. Robinson Crusoe is bothered by the “confused heap of goods”. To make himself comfortable he digs deeper into the earth, giving himself room to store his goods. He feels at ease once he has more room and has built his “necessary things”. The language of this passage reflects the systematic approach he took, “And here I must needs observe, that as reason is the substance and order of the mathematics, so by stating and squaring everything by reason, and by making the most rational judgment of things, every man may be, in time, master of every mechanic art.” The diction consists of words that are specific, yet simple. Being deserted on an island puts one out of their element. Robinson Crusoe made himself comfortable in this unknown environment through observation, reason, mathematics and rational judgment, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment movement.

     Dr. Frankenstein was attracted to the unknown, “No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane… Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.” (692) Both Crusoe and Frankenstein sought this “light” but they did so with different methods and attitudes. Crusoe was satisfied with his manual labor and reason that helped him to conquer the confusion. Frankenstein is pushed to “pursue nature” by an “almost frantic impulse” (692-693) Frankenstein’s work consists of hours of study and thinking rather than manual labor. He attempts to bring life to the lifeless and “pursue(d) nature to her hiding places”. The language reflects a less systematic approach, “My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward”. This language is more decorative than that of the Crusoe passage. It reflects the Romantic’s desire for beauty and art rather than plain reason. The language and Frankenstein’s pursuit for life reflects the Romantics focus on imagination, emotion and beauty to expand their minds. Both the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement are intellectual movements, because of their search for truth. These movements remain distinct based upon their methods and goals.

 

Isolation and the Fight Against Nature: The Enlightenment vs. The Romantic Period in Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein

Both of the passages depict narrators who are isolated from society and struggle against nature as a result of this isolation. In the case of Robinson Crusoe, the isolation is not sought after but rather forced upon him. As a rational product of the Enlightenment, his immediate recourse in his lonely state is to try to carve something resembling civilization out of the landscape. Not only does he work to make his cave into a safe refuge from beasts, he also “made… a door,” and determined that a chair and table were “such necessary things as I found I most wanted.” Helpless to save himself from isolation or escape nature, Crusoe imposes the presence of man and civilization as well as he can.

In the case of Frankenstein, the isolation is unnatural because it is self-imposed. Frankenstein is clearly aware that this isolation is bad for his health; he states that his “person had become emancipated with confinement.” However, he still chose to work in the “solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments.” As in the case of Crusoe, the isolation from civilization, accomplished even though he lives in a city, allows him to pursue “nature to her hiding places” and impose the presence of human ingenuity and science where it was never meant to be imposed.

Herein lies the crucial difference between both passages interpretation of the relationship between man and civilization. Crusoe is upheld as a calm, rational man whose imposition of civilization on nature during his isolation is crucial for his survival. However, in keeping with the Romantic love of nature and distrust of the meddling of man and science, Frankenstein’s actions have dire consequences. He creates a monster who can have no peace either among man or nature, a monster who calls himself “wretched, helpless , and alone.” The monster lives in a hovel, not only isolated from men and civilization, but also disconnected from nature, God, and even Satan, who at least had “his companions, fellow-devils,” whereas the monster is only “solitary and detested.” For the Romantics, no good can come of man’s struggle to dominate and subdue nature. All of his efforts are destined to backfire and turn monstrous.