In the elective Texts in Time students are required to undertake a comparative study of texts and context. One pair of texts involves the Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the film Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott. The two texts explore common themes despite a varied treatment that results from the authors’ different contexts.
Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
By examining Shelley’s historical context we can see many of the key concerns of her time reflected in Frankenstein.
Written during a time of great change and upheaval in Europe, it functions as a social commentary on the realities of the author’s context.
- Post-Enlightenment – Involved questioning of religion and the state. Promotion of science, knowledge and reason in the pursuit of inevitable progress, over superstition and religious dogma.
- Rise of Romanticism – Rejection of science and rationalism, embraced a return to the sublimity of untamed nature and emotional/aesthetic/personal experiences. Mary eloped with Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
- Midst of the Industrial Revolution – A period of technological advancement where the manual labour based economy was replaced by one where the machine increased production > workers were devalued. Shift from rural to urban – growing numbers left the countryside to find work in city factories leading to growth of slums and poverty.
Karl Marx later suggested (1844) that this resulted in the alienation of man from the means of production and thus from his alienation from his essential human nature.
- Post French revolution / War of American Independence – The traditional monarchy was overthrown and replaced with the values of democracy and equality. New industrial middle class; bourgeoisie, threatened once secure aristocracy and strict social hierarchy. Shelley’s father was William Godwin, the foremost English writer on the French revolution.
- Feminism – Shelley’s mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the feminist work Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her parents encouraged her in intellectual/literary pursuits- unusual for a woman at the time.
Frankenstein: Key Concepts
Humans will and should be punished for interfering with the natural order or trying to “play God”. Humanity cannot be replicated or improved by scientific knowledge without disastrous consequences.
|Example:||Frankenstein represents humanity’s hubris and folly personified when he is horrified by his attempt to recreate human life and punished for it by a life of misery (the creature kills his loved ones: William, Clerval, Elizabeth) and his own death due to exhaustion.“His limbs were nearly frozen and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition”.|
|Shelley uses an intertextual reference in the novel’s title to characterise Frankenstein as “the modern Prometheus”. In Greek mythology Prometheus was the champion of mankind who stole fire from the gods and was punished for it with eternal agony (an eagle eating out his liver daily suggested nature was having its revenge for the disruption in the natural order).|
By drawing on this fable, Shelley takes on its moral to suggest when humans try to emulate the gods or disrupt the natural order, as Frankenstein does when he tried to create human life, they will be punished.
Shelley gives the moral of her own story credence by drawing an allegorical legend, authoritative because of its longevity.
|Example:||Frankenstein: “I ardently desired the acquisition of knowledge”.|
|Shelley uses the technique of dramatic irony to highlight Frankenstein’s error in the acquisition of knowledge, as the reader is already aware from the start of the novel the failure of Frankenstein’s quest: “I have lost everything and cannot begin life anew”. She suggests that knowledge is dangerous and man cannot be trusted with too much power.|
In line with the ideals of Romanticism, Shelley glorifies/idealises the natural environment and suggests its restorative power to humanity.
|Example:||Frankenstein: “a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks … fills me with delight”, “the spirit that inhabits and guards this place has a soul more in harmony with man” and “it was a divine spring, and the season contributed greatly to my convalescence”.|
|Shelley uses personification to imbue nature with the human characteristics of “a soul”, “the spirit” and the ability to engage in consciousness-driven actions such as “play”.|
This allows her to glorify nature as an all-powerful and eternal force with restorative powers. The religious connotations of the word “divine” suggest that nature is a powerful and God-like.
Shelley critiques Enlightenment ideals of scientific rationalism and progress at all costs, instead suggest the value of tradition/nature.
|Example:||Ernest (Frankenstein’s brother) is “full of activity and spirit”, “ looks upon study as an odious fetter; his time is spent in the open air”. Frankenstein: “often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation”. “It was a most beautiful season…but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature”|
|Shelley characterises Ernest as representative of Romanticism and Frankenstein as representative of the Enlightenment. Shelley juxtaposes the two to highlight how their contrasting relationship with nature results in contrasting levels of personal well-being. Ernest is described in terms with positive connotations such as “spirit”, while Frankenstein is described in pejorative terms such as “loathing”. The juxtaposition allows Shelley to critique the Enlightenment and promote Romantic ideals.|
Shelley rejects the Enlightenment understanding of an objective truth that can be determined through logical reasoning. Instead she embraces the subjective, experiential understanding of “truth” popular in Romanticism.
|Example:||“Frankenstein discovered that I made notes concerning his history; he … corrected and augmented them … ‘Since you have preserved my narration,’ said he, ‘I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity”.|
|Shelley employs an epistolary novel to present multiple narratives with multiple viewpoints on the same events. The reader’s awareness that they are getting the 2nd or 3rd hand version of events allows Shelley to suggest that meaning is confused and there is no one single interpretation of events. Her rejection of the traditional narrative device of the omniscient narrator in favour of first person confessional documents, allows her to explore the emotional motivations of different characters. These multiple layers and retellings bring the Enlightenment’s objective understanding of “truth” into question. Shelley highlights that there is no one correct truth, but that truth is understood only through the subjective, personal and experiential.|
Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott
Blade Runner: Context
Scott grew up in the grim depressing industrial landscape of north-east England before moving to America. The 1980s were a time when many Americans feared there country was in a great decline.
- Reaganism – Ronald Reagan was President (Republican party). He employed a new conservatism, attacking liberalism for the context’s economic and social problems (crime, drugs, sexual immorality). Saw the restoration of traditional morals and family structures
as a solution. Belief that the free market would solve all problems – increased defense spending to spur economic activity. Anti-immigration despite the reality of an increasingly multicultural society.
- Wall Street Power – Unfettered capitalism, “greed is good”, trickle-down economics, progress at all costs will be for the “greater good”, big business/large corporations had great power
- Asian economies – These were becoming increasingly powerful in the world economy – cheap mass made products were flooding world market.
- Rising power of multi-national corporations while power of individual nations declined.
- Technological Advancement – Start of the computer age.
- Medical Advancement – Genetic modification, doctors “playing god”
- The Blade Runner context is the science-fiction dystopic future of Los Angeles 2019. Scott’s heightens aspects of his context (mentioned above) to suggest that the context in Blade Runner is our future.
Blade Runner: Key Concepts
Exploration of what makes us human and whether humanity can be replicated.
|Example:||The replicants represent an attempt to recreate humanity. Roy: “we’re not computers Sebastian, we’re physical”|
|By giving the replicants unique and distinctive identities and showing them demonstrate human emotions such as desire, love and hatred, Scott encourages us to emphathise with them as “human” victims.|
|Example:||Pris: “I think Sebastien, therefore I am”|
|Scott blurs the boundaries between humanity and artificial humanity by characterising the replicants as “more human” than Deckard. Juxtaposing the replicants and Deckard highlights their hunger for life; “I want more life fucker, in contrast to his detached apathy. Pris’ intertextual reference to philosopher Descartes, “I think, therefore I am” allows Scott to suggest that she is a free-thinking, rational being, as human as anyone else.|
In this dystopia, society is in demise. The future is depressing.
|Example:||Bryant: “If you’re not cops you’re little people … no choice pal”.|
Recurring search lights and shadowed bars across the characters faces.
|The repeated visual lighting technique is symbolic of a society under constant surveillance, the culmination of Freud’s super-panopticon. The lighting technique of shadowed bars across the characters faces suggests their free will has demised and they are imprisoned by the rules of their society.|
|Example:||Dark mise-en-scene with low-key lighting. Extensive use of smoke and fans. Jazz music. Rachel as the femme fatale. Deckard as the morally ambiguous “anti-hero”. Slow-pace of the film.|
|Scott consciously takes on these intertextual references to film noir to mirror that genre’s portrayal of society as a dark, dismal place full of self-serving individuals. The hero/villain dichotomy is also blurred with Roy’s sarcastic mocking of Deckard: “aren’t you the good man”.|
When nature and the natural environment recede the consequences are dire and depressing.
|Example:||“I’ve never seen a turtle before”.|
“Of course it’s [the snake] not real”
The artificial owl “must be expensive”.
|The repetition of animals within the context being artificial and expensive highlights that nothing natural remains and the natural has been taken over by commerce. Scott uses the animals to symbolically represent the entirety of the natural landscape, suggesting it has entirely receded.|
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Frankenstein and Bladerunner Comparative EssayGet Your
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English Assessment Task Comparative Study – Texts in Time Term 2 Week 8 By Jesse Rand Whilst Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are products of their own context, and reflect the values of their time, they are by no means confined by this. Rather, the themes and concerns of these texts raise issues which have more universal significance.
Although written in different times, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Bladerunner by Ridley Scott both address similar concerns about the threat to the natural world due to unchecked technological advancement towards the natural world as man exerts power to alter the natural rhythms of life, exploring human nature and humanity, and the usurping of God in attempting to create new life. Shelley and Scott projected into the future what they saw to be trends in their own times that threatened the balance between humanity and the natural world.
Their imagined worlds echo a warning, concerning unchecked technological advancement and ring of an inevitability if man’s power to alter the nature of the world is not controlled. The role of nature and the natural in these worlds is depicted in many similar ways with the fundamental values of the composers overlapping. The texts suggest that those in favour of technological advancement would ultimately come to regret their actions. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published in 1818) develops concepts sparked by Romantic thinking and from a rejection of Enlightenment thinking.
Romantics such as Shelley valued the place of nature in the world and the imperative need to preserve it. Not only did Shelley value the physicality of nature, but she also valued the personal qualities of compassion, emotion, and acceptance pertaining to human nature. Shelley explores the effect of actions that reject humanity, and challenges her audience to question what defines us as human or what takes away from humanity. With the somewhat frightening discovery of alvanism on the forefront of science at the time, there is an emphasis on the dangers of continued scientific development and its possible dehumanising effects. Shelley tells a gothic/horror cautionary didactic tale, warning Enlightenment philosophers in particular. Similarly, context significantly influenced the values that Scott presents in Bladerunner – Director’s Cut. The emerging theory of global warming, as well as the natural disaster of an oil spill at the time were the predominant factors leading to his concerns regarding technological advancement, and the consequences for nature – both human and environmental.
Although many of the values displayed in Frankenstein are similar to those in Bladerunner, Scott encapsulates a new response to them – more relevant to his contemporary personal context. The industrialised society of the 1980s saw an urgency to preserve nature. It is constantly dark in the film and Scott challenges us to think of how ‘enlightened’ we actually are. Both composers explore the effects of pushing past natural limitations and moral values surrounding the notion that, “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Nature has been all but extinguished in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Los Angeles in 2019. Chiaroscuro lighting and high angle shots show a global underclass composed of a melange of cultures. Asian ‘mega-economies’, globalisation and the environment found in the 80’s is a contextually mirrored by the constant darkness and the landscape that is permanently damaged by industry. Shelley, through the murders of William, Justine, Clerval, Elizabeth and Victor’s father, portrays how scientific advancements would affect nature and its supporters.
This can be reinforced by Shelley’s placement of these characters, in his hometown of Geneva where they are surrounded in nature and beautiful landscapes. The fact that the monster came to Victor’s hometown and caused harm, suggests that unchecked scientific experiments destroy nature. The concept consistently resurfaces throughout Shelley and Scott’s works, that devaluing nature, devalues humanity. Frankenstein and Blade Runner explore elements of the human nature in a way that attempts to identify characteristics that would be considered uniquely and universally human.
These characteristics that should enable us to identify the differences between the metaphysical and the natural are blurred within the two texts, reflecting the composers’ fears of the loss of humanity. Shelley and Scott strongly advocate the notion that there are inherent dangers to the human nature in an environment in which the advance of science and technology goes unchecked. Shelley’s novel serves as a clear warning against lack of restraint and sense of responsibility which men display in their temptations in search of knowledge, curiosity and glory.
This may be reflected by her own personal context in which her husband Percy Shelley was often absent due to his work. In terms of Frankenstein, it is the monster that is portrayed as the one possessing the characteristics of being human instead of his creator, Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein denies his humanity in order to pursue his unscrupulous ambitions in creating life, destroying the distinction between man and ‘God’. “Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? ” In Blade Runner, the Replicants are described as “more human than human. This attempted model of a ‘perfect man’ who is superior in every way to existing humans dramatically and disastrously backfires on society when the Replicants seek retribution in their quest for humanity. “I want more life…,” Roy Batty implores Tyrell during their meeting. The Replicants, although not emotional beings, are becoming advanced enough to question their own purpose of life. This starkly juxtaposes the ‘real’ humans around Batty who lack any moral conviction or sympathy for the Replicants’ situation. Blade Runner expresses the nature of what true humanity is and how it exists within an artificial world.
The opening montage of flames and smoke rising from the towers of industry, a monolithic ziggurat structure in the background, and an eye, is central to the film. This mis-en-scene supported by dark electronic/artificial music depicts this era of sacrificing humanity for industry. Both texts contain a very intelligent creator who seems unaware of the forces that they are dealing with. They are both fascinated with human life and wish to create it themselves. Victor Frankenstein states, “One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal imbued with life.
Whence, I often asked myself did the principle of life proceed? “(pg. 51) Both creators share a fascination with where life proceeds from. Is it merely intellect? Or, as in the case of Bladerunner, are emotions the defining element of human life? Both creators are expressly interested in creating a life form equal to humans, and Tyrell even wishes to create a life form superior to man using the exploitation of the genetic technology of the time. The overarching idea of usurping the role of God is common in both Frankenstein and Bladerunner. Both authors are affected by their different values, creating differing perspectives.
Both Frankenstein and Tyrell “became capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,” however in doing so they transcend the boundaries of nature and their overreaching ambition is punished. There are also parallels between the Monster and Batty as both are the creation of unchecked scientific endeavours, raising the same philosophical, moral, and ethical concerns. Frankenstein is described by Shelley as ‘The Modern Prometheus’: an allusion to the ancient Greek Titan who stole fire from Zeus to create humans, in overstepping these boundaries he was eternally punished.
Like Prometheus, Frankenstein represents one who has challenged the natural order, he is driven by “a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature,” and must be punished for this transgression on forbidden boundaries. Frankenstein’s obsessive personality is synonymous with the excess of the Industrial Revolution and the period of Enlightenment which saw the forces of science supersede that of religion and superstition. Shelley’s Romantic context, with the value it placed on religion and the sublime, limited the ways in which Frankenstein could usurp God.
Whilst he created the Monster, he does not possess ‘god-like’ qualities and he expresses regret for aspiring to become “greater than his nature will allow. ” Contrasting Frankenstein, Tyrell feels no guilt for the creation of the replicants they are merely “experiments”. This reflects Scott’s post-modern influence and the little value it placed on religion. Scott shows no reverence for a God and the Post-modern context suggests that every human has a god-like affinity within. This power, as displayed in Blade Runner, can be a highly destructive force.
Tyrell’s opulence and god-like power is symbolised through the Mayan Style pyramid. Moreover, his reference to “the prodigal son” further serves to draw links between himself and God. However, whilst Tyrell had god-like power, he was myopic and weak – displaying Scott’s overall negativity towards overreaching ambition and usurping God. In both Frankenstein and Blade Runner, unchecked ambition are punished. Both Frankenstein and Tyrell are killed as punishment for transgressing the natural boundaries, displaying the overall negative results of usurping God’s role as Creator.
However, the separate contexts mean that differing perspectives on the topic of religion are apparent: Shelley as a Romantic reveres the notion of a single, sublime God; whereas Scott with a postmodern influence treats the subject of religion with more ambiguity. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner are clearly products of their own time. Yet the themes contained within these texts hold a more universal significance. Although written over 150 years apart both texts address many similar issues which displays their timeless and universal nature.
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The major concerns raised include the threat to the natural world due to commercialism and irresponsible use of advancing technology, exploring the essence of life and humanity, and the usurping and mocking of God as Creator by attempting to simulate life. Shelley and Scott incorporated their own concerns of what the future could hold regarding the balance between the natural world and humanity. Their works can be heeded as a warning toward the consequences of unchecked and immoral developments in the fields of science. #
Author: Dave Villacorta
Frankenstein and Bladerunner Comparative Essay
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