Myth of the 'Noble Savage' Illustrated in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther

Myth of the 'Noble Savage' Illustrated in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther

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Political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is often attributed to the discussion of the “noble savage,” and the existence of natural man. Throughout numerous works of literature, the theme of the “noble savage” is prevalent and enduring, providing indirect authors’ commentary through the actions and development of various characters. Two such novels are Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. In both novels, Shelly and Goethe demonstrate strong Romantic ideals, while developing various characters using Rousseau’s myth.

Shelly’s Frankenstein follows a young doctor, Victor Frankenstein, who sets out to engineer a working humanlike being. Throughout the novel, Shelly uses characterization of both Victor, as well as the monster he creates, to demonstrate the novel’s roots of Rousseau’s myth. In the case of Victor Frankenstein, Shelly describes an innocent Swiss boy, living with his parents, who becomes interested in scientific exploration by reading various journals of past scientists. Despite his interest in science, Victor is told that “every instant that you [he] has wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost,” by M. Krempe, a university professor at Ingolstadt, where Victor goes to college. As a result, Shelly acknowledges Victor’s turning point away from innocence, when he begins his studies of modern science at Ingolstadt. Using his knowledge of anatomy, learned at Ingolstadt, Victor secretly begins to work on a humanoid creature. Following months of labor, Victor’s creation is complete, and shows signs of life. However, the creature’s monster-like appearance frightens Victor, causing him to eventually vacate his house, leaving the Monster alone. Victor’s abandonme...


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...tic, young man to a jealous, suicidal lover are a prime example of Rousseau’s myth. His misinterpretation of Lotte’s behavior, and poor relationship with the aristocracy, brings about his demise. Had Werther’s sublime, natural being not been tainted by these unpleasant experiences, he may have not underwent these alterations, and may have lived.

Through the sophisticated use of characterization throughout their respective novels, Shelly and Goethe create characters that are prime examples of Rousseau’s myth of the noble savage. The changes to each character’s personality and tendencies through both novels are the products of the characters’ environments. By incorporating the Romantic ideals of nature and traditionalism within their books, both authors effectively comment on human society’s structure and evolution, while outwardly demonstrating Rousseau’s myth.

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