Johns Hopkins University Press
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Criminal responsibility in England underwent an important shift between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before this period, jurists focused less on whether a person meant to commit an act and more on whether the individual committed it. English law thus made little distinction between children and adults. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, criminal responsibility became linked to new ideas about human understanding. Jurists such as Matthew Hale and William Blackstone maintained that individuals could not be guilty of crimes unless they fully understood and intended the consequences of their actions. In this essay, I argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) endorses the new conception of criminal intent and helps to justify the raising of the age of criminal capacity. Victor Frankenstein places responsibility for the murder of his brother, friend, and wife squarely on the shoulders of the being he creates and promptly abandons. But while the novel acknowledges the horror of the creature’s violence, it refuses to condemn him. Shelley repeatedly emphasizes the creature’s lack of understanding and intent. In its portrait of parents’ role in and responsibility for the making of criminals, as in its emphasis on the need for forgiveness and rehabilitation of young offenders, the novel extends the critiques of the era’s penal reformers while anticipating innovations in juvenile justice that would emerge at the end of the nineteenth century.
Ganz, Melissa J., ""A Kind of Insanity in My Spirits": Frankenstein, Childhood, and Criminal Intent" (2022). English Faculty Research and Publications. 592.
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