The Industrial Revolution during the Victorian Age was perhaps one of the most interesting periods in England. The fact that man could invent machines to replace manual work was received with enthusiasm and dismay. Spinning and weaving machines such as the spinning jenny marked the beginning of an era where machines would make human labour obsolete (NAEL, 1).
The coming of the steam engine in the late eighteenth century accelerated man’s belief in the capacity to create entire industries and manufacture goods using technology. Technological inventions also proved that man was capable of utilizing resources in a manner never seen before.
While there were those that were mesmerized by the changes, very many were against the direction that human economy was taking. First, there was the logical concern about workers losing their jobs thus causing endless poverty and thus activists for these workers came out against these machines.
The other class of persons is that which believed that ideologically, the path of technology was uncertain. There was a feeling that man’s creations would eventually lead him to destruction. Nothing captures this view than the book Frankenstein written by Mary Shelley in 1818 (Baldick, 3).
The book was written at a period when the Industrial Revolution had just picked up steam. The steam engine had just been around for a decade or so and new machines were replacing hundreds of people. Scientists and engineers were engrossed in designing inventions that would make work easier and altogether render human labour obsolete. At the time, Mary Shelley was just 19 years old and at that age, she could already witness the agony of the workers being laid off as well as the speculation about where this revolution was taking England.
The book is in narrative form and the main character is Victor Frankenstein, a man consumed by an inventive idea. He believes that he can make a creation that would much be like man and he sets about doing so. Eventually he is successful but when the creature gains life, Frankenstein has to deal with issues of controlling it.
Eventually, the creature which is referred to as the monster kills those close to him and he is devastated. He dedicates his life to destroying the monster in a fight to the death. In the end, he prevails but is devastated at the consequences of his obsession to create (Baldick, 156).
The book was clearly written by Mary Shelley being part of the “Enlightment” school of thought as an attack against the uncertainties of industrialism. The monster tells Frankenstein that it acknowledges that he is its creator but he must obey (Chapter 20). This statement is perhaps the most telling on the author’s thoughts on the ramifications of industrialism. Mary Shelley in writing the book was expressing fears that were already in the public domain (Baldick, 14).
There was fear from the religious quarters that once man began these mesmerizing creations, he might forget that he is merely mortal and purport to be God himself. The people holding this belief seemed to be convinced that once this happened, man would be punished and reminded of his mortality (Baldick, 23).
This is well captured in Chapter 22 when Victor Frankenstein regrets creating the monster and states that the monster had ‘blinded’ him as to its real intentions and when he thought that his life was at stake, the monster took that of his dear Elizabeth. The comparison here is that while industrialism and technological innovation may seem to be taking man in a particular direction, there was is a hidden consequence with far sinister results.
Indeed industrialism did come with various negative effects such as the migration of poor workers into towns to live in squalor as they hoped to get jobs in the newly created factories. Due to the low wages being paid since man had to compete with machine, life was miserable for the poor and workers worked in deplorable conditions.
In a way Mary Shelley’s prediction that man would regret the Industrial Revolution came true when the economic depression in the early 1840’s hit England hard. Families went hungry and many workers were laid off causing untold suffering. Various writers such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote on the plight of workers at this time of misery (NAEL, 1).
Judging from the contribution that the Industrial Revolution played in ushering in modern day economies, it can be said that eventually, the revolution did turn out as a force for good.
Technology today has made great changes to man’s lifestyle most of them positive. Frankenstein’s remarks on Chapter 4 that his creation would ‘bring light to a mysterious world’ came to pass has indeed Industrialism did bring a light in a world that would have been dark. However, this came at a cost. The debate today is reflected in the objections from many quarters against stem cell research and invention of intuitive robots.
Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow. Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Print
Norton Anthology of English Literature (NAEL). Industrialism, Progress or Decline: An Overview. 2011. (25th March, 2011) Retrieved from http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/victorian/topic_1/welcome.HTM
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or ‘The Modern Prometheus. London: Pocket Books, 1818. Print