The Monster in Frankenstein with Regard to Rousseau’s Concept of the “Noble Savage”

Seminar Paper 2011 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Rousseau’s Concept of a “Noble Savage”
2.1 Opposite Theory: Thomas Hobbes

3. Frankenstein’s Monster as a “Noble Savage”
3.1 Arguments For Frankenstein’s Monster as a “Noble Savage”
3.2 The Monster’s Transition From a “Noble Savage” Into a Murderer
3.3 Reference to Paradise Lost by John Milton

4. Conclusion

5. List of Sources

1. Introduction

This term paper deals, as can be derived from reading the title, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage“ and the use of this concept by Mary Shelley as a main theme – or rather the main theme – in her famous novel Frankenstein. In the first chapter of this paper, I will focus on the noble savage myth and explain what exactly is meant by the term. I will also explain Rousseau’s theories of a state of nature as found in his work A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Further, I will shortly confront Rousseau’s theories with a quite opposite world view, namely that offered by Thomas Hobbes in his works Leviathan and De Cive.

In the following chapter, I will then focus on Frankenstein and on how Mary Shelley used the concept of the “noble savage” in her most popular work.

The main question I want to answer in this term paper is the following: Is Frankenstein’s Monster really a perfect example for a “noble savage” as pictured by Jean-Jacques Rousseau? To answer this question, I will focus mainly on the novel itself, and quote several pieces of text to corroborate whichever answer I find.

2. Rousseau’s Concept of a “Noble Savage”

Before really starting this chapter with an explanation of what Rousseau’s concept of a “noble savage” actually is, an often found but erroneous belief should be corrected: Rousseau did not coin the term “noble savage”, neither in his native French, where it would be “bon sauvage”, nor, indeed, in English. The first mention of the English term was made by John Dryden in 1672, in his heroic play The Conquest of Granada:

“I am as free as nature first made man,

Ere the base laws of servitude began,

When wild in woods the noble savage ran”[1]

The concept of a “good savage”, however, was already known and popular before that, namely already in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Rousseau, despite often being identified with the term “noble savage”, actually never even used the term in any of his works at all. In his work Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (French: Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes), first published in 1754, Rousseau offers the most widespread concept of a “noble savage”. The term he uses, however, is “homme sauvage” or “savage man” in English. The main statement of Rousseau’s work is that in the state of nature people don’t know evil, being neither good nor bad, but peaceful by nature. He also criticizes Thomas Hobbes, on whose philosophy I will focus shortly in the next chapter:

“Hobbes did not reflect that the same cause, which prevents a savage from making use of his reason, as our jurists hold, prevents him also from abusing his faculties, as Hobbes himself allows: so that it may be justly said that savages are not bad merely because they do not know what it is to be good: for it is neither the development of the understanding nor the restraint of law that hinders them from doing ill; but the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice: tanto plus in illis proficit vitiorum ignoratio, quam in his cognitio virtutis.”[2]

As the title of Rousseau’s work suggests, he blames it on inequality between people that mankind has lost their peaceful nature. This inequality was created by the development of society and the accompanying development of interdependence between people:

“Without my expatiating thus uselessly on these details, every one must see that as the bonds of servitude are formed merely by the mutual dependence of men on one another and the reciprocal needs that unite them, it is impossible to make any man a slave, unless he be first reduced to a situation in which he cannot do without the help of others: and, since such a situation does not exist in a state of nature, every one is there his own master, and the law of the strongest is of no effect..”[3]

According to Rousseau, only society shapes the natural passions of men in a way that they lose their natural peacefulness:

“It is therefore incontestable that love, as well as all other passions, must have acquired in society that glowing impetuosity, which makes it so often fatal to mankind.”[4]

2.1 Opposite Theory: Thomas Hobbes

After giving an explanation of Rousseau’s view of mankind, I want to give a short insight into a quite different view, namely that of Thomas Hobbes, which he offers in his famous work Leviathan, which was first published in 1651. In his Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau refers to Hobbes and his theory several times, criticizing and attempting to refute it. According to Hobbes, in the natural state men wage war “every man against every man”[5]. Life of men in this state is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”[6]. While Rousseau, as explained in the previous chapter, sees society as the cause of inequality and injustice which turns mankind away from natural peacefulness, Hobbes believed that society, in form of a Commonwealth, is needed to keep men’s natural passions in check and so lead to peace and a more contended life[7].

3. Frankenstein’s Monster as a “Noble Savage”

Frankenstein’s monster is often mentioned as a perfect example for Rousseau’s concept of a “noble savage”. Evidently, Mary Shelley read Rousseau in the years before starting her novel, something that explains the obvious influence of Rousseau’s philosophy on her writing and so on the development of the monster in Frankenstein[8]. In this chapter, I will discuss this influence and try to answer the question if Frankenstein’s monster can really be seen as a perfect example of a noble savage.


[1] Dryden, John. 61704 [11672]. The conquest of Granada by the Spaniards. Acted at the Theatre-Royal. In two parts. Written by John Dryden, Servant to His Majesty. The sixth edition. London. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. ECCO Consortium Germany. 30 July 2011,
<http://find.galegroup.com/ecco/infomark.do?&contentSet=ECCOArticles&type=multipage&tabID=T001&prodId=ECCO&docId=CW1, p.6. (hereafter cited as Rousseau. Discourse on Inequality)

[2] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1761. Discourse on Inequality. Munseys.com, 30 July 2011, <http://www.munseys.com/diskone/ineq.pdf>, p.19. (hereafter cited as Rousseau. Discourse on Inequality)

[3] Rousseau. Discourse on Inequality. p.23.

[4] Rousseau. Discourse on Inequality. p.21.

[5] Hobbes, Thomas. 21886 [11651]. Leviathan, or, The matter, form, and power of a commonwealth, ecclesiastical and civil : with an introduction by Henry Morley. London. The Making of Modern Law. Gale. 2011. Gale, Cengage Learning. 30 July 2011 <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/MOML?af=RN&ae=F104423174&srchtp=a&ste=14>. p.64. (hereafter cited as Hobbes. Leviathan)

[6] Hobbes. Leviathan. p.64.

[7] Hobbes. Leviathan. p.79-80.

[8] Marshall, David. 1988. The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.182. (hereafter cited as Marshall The Surprising Effects of Sympathy)


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
525 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
RWTH Aachen University – Institut für Anglistik
monster frankenstein regard rousseau’s concept noble savage” Mary Shelley Leviathan Hobbes Paradise Lost Milton



Title: The Monster in Frankenstein with Regard to Rousseau’s Concept of the “Noble Savage”