"Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff).jpg

"Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" is an 1818 novel by Mary Shelley. 'Frankenstein' is one of the most famous gothic novels in the English language. The story is based on a ghost tale told by Shelley when on holiday at Lake Geneva with her future husband Percy Shelley and poet Lord Byron.  

Although 'Frankenstein' can be rightly described as a gothic novel, it also belongs to the 'Romantic' genre, and has been argued to be one of the earliest examples of science fiction. The work is not only a political commentary, arguing against the dangers of challenging the natural order (as Shelley felt the French Revolution had done), but also was based on the work of early scientists. Shelley was writing at a time when electricity was first becoming understood by scientists. Early experiments involved using electricity to seemingly bring back life to dead animals. It appeared as if science would soon be able to create life.

For Shelley, Dr. Frankenstein represents a contemporary scientist, as well as the dangers of messing with Nature, or trying to take on the role of God. The book is meant to warn as much as to entertain.    

Historical Context

Mary Shelley

In Summer 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) travelled with her future husband for a holiday in Switzerland. Mary Shelley was the daughter of writer and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Godwin, an intellectual. When heavy rain forced them inside for much of their holiday, Mary, Percy Shelley and the famous poet Lord Byron decided to tell one another ghost stories. They were inspired by both the imposing Alpine scenery and the stories they had heard in their travels throughout central Europe. The tale Mary told later became ‘Frankenstein’, and a tale known throughout the world.

The French Revolution of 1789 had begun a process that had involved the killing of the French king, Louis XVI. Many British figures felt that this was an attempt by the French people to upset the natural order of society, and that too much change too quickly would be dangerous. In addition, the Enlightenment was a time in which new thoughts were constantly emerging. It seemed as if science and religion were competing to explain the same processes. Shelley was worried that scientific experiments would make man think that he could play the role of God. The book has the subtitle of the ‘modern Prometheus’; Prometheus is a character from Greek mythology who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock, and had an eagle peck out his liver every day. Prometheus symbolises the danger of man’s desire for knowledge.

‘Frankenstein’ is also part of the ‘Romantic’ movement. This movement was a reaction against the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions. The Romantic writers felt that only Nature could provide true happiness, and that the desire for machinery and science would lead to unhappiness and danger. It is notable throughout ‘Frankenstein’ that the dramatic power of Nature plays as important a role as the characters themselves.

Back to top

Plot Summary

Frankenstein in the laboratory

‘Frankenstein’ is an epistolary novel – meaning that it is told through a series of letters. Robert Walton is the captain of an exploration ship, attempting to make it to the North Pole. In a correspondence with his sister, he tells the tale of a man he found weakened, and travelling by dogsled on the ice: Victor Frankenstein. Walton takes Frankenstein on board the ship and Frankenstein recounts the tale of how he came to be in such a location.

Victor Frankenstein grew up in Geneva, where he had a happy an intellectual life, before travelling to the University of Ingolstadt to study Natural Philosophy and Chemistry. While he was at University he became obsessed with discovering the secret to life, and eventually came to believe that he had found it. He builds a body out of parts of corpses, and manages to bring it to life. The hideousness of the ‘monster’ shocks Frankenstein, and when he wakes to find the monster watching over him, he flees out into the street, and eventually to Geneva.

Victor receives a letter from his father telling him that William, his youngest brother has been murdered. As Victor hurries home, he sees the monster, and comes to believe that the monster is responsible. When he gets to Geneva, he finds that Justine, an adopted girl is being blamed for the murder, and is eventually executed for the crime. Victor becomes more and more depressed, realising that although he has managed to create life, this has caused two deaths. When travelling through the mountains, the monster finds Victor, and begs him to make a companion for him. Victor is initially unwilling, although the monster is highly persuasive, and so Victor agrees.

Victor travels to Scotland, and the Orkney Islands, with his friend Henry Clerval, to work on making a companion monster. Midway through building the second monster, however, Victor sees the monster’s grinning face at the window, and becomes horrified by the prospect of building another. He dramatically destroys his half-finished monster, and rows out to the middle of a lake to dispose of his work. The monster vows revenge on Victor for this.

Frankenstein grave

When Victor returns to land, he is arrested for the death of Henry Clerval. Victor realises that the monster murdered his friend, and falls into a fever. When he recovers, he is acquitted of the crime, and returns to Geneva to marry his fiancé Elizabeth. On the night of the wedding, Victor is worried that the monster will return, and so sends Elizabeth away to be safe. Hearing her screams, he realises that the monster has killed her. Victor then returns to live with his father, who dies shortly after, as a result of shock from all the murders.

Victor then vows to finding and destroying the monster, and begins to track him throughout Europe. Eventually, the monster and Victor travel ever further northwards, until they end up in Europe’s frozen ice sheets. There Victor pursues the monster on a dogsled, although remains unable to catch him. Ill and depressed, Victor collapses, and it is here that he is rescued by Walton. Victor dies shortly after telling his story.

Shortly after Victor dies, Walton finds the monster crying over his corpse. The monster explains to Walton of his loneliness, and says that now Victor is dead, he will never have a companion. The monster seems relieved that his struggle is over, and heads off onto the ice to die.

Back to top

Key Themes and Motifs

The Danger of Knowledge

Frankenstein poster

Victor Frankenstein’s life is ultimately destroyed by his desire to push the boundaries of knowledge, and mess with things that are not for humans to be understood. The parallels between Frankenstein and Prometheus are clear, in that both are punished for their desire to learn. In addition, the role of light emphasises both the Enlightenment (and the desire to learn about, or ‘shed light on’ new areas). Prometheus is punished for stealing light from the Gods, and this is ultimately what happens to Frankenstein. The danger of knowledge is echoed in the journey of Robert Walton, and the fact that he finds himself trapped in the ice when exploring the North Pole. The Monster’s own desire for knowledge is ultimately dangerous, as it exposes him to a world that is afraid of him. The more the Monster learns, the more he is aware of his own loneliness, and the less happy he is.

The Power of Nature

Mary Shelley was a Romantic, and therefore the power and beauty of Nature is a theme that runs throughout the tale. Aside from the fact that Frankenstein is being punished through his desire to challenge Nature, there is also a sense throughout the story that Nature itself is a character within the story. The emotions of the characters are strongly linked with the seasons, with Winter and coldness representing despair, both for the Monster and Victor. In addition, the final chase for both takes place over ever-worsening weather, as both characters become more desperate and the weather becomes colder and more dangerous. The contrast between Victor’s home in Geneva, amongst the beauty of the Alps, and his place of death, in the bleak Arctic show his disintegration. The fact that the key action takes place in the North Pole, a featureless expanse of ice shows that Nature has abandoned Victor (and to a lesser extent Walton) through his exploration, or that he has been banished from the ‘natural’ world.

Light and Darkness

Throughout the novel, light symbolises Science, and darkness symbolises Nature. Victor sees his role as a scientist to shine light into the darkest areas of Nature. Light represents both the fire that Prometheus stole, as well as the Enlightenment – the scientific and philosophical movement of the late eighteenth century. Whenever the Monster commits evil acts, he does so at night, when there is less chance of being exposed. In addition, the Monster spends a great deal of time hiding in the caves around Frankenstein, symbolising his own ignorance. Walton describes the North Pole as being a place of ‘eternal light’. However, unlike other writers, who may see light as a good thing, the absence of darkness in the North Pole makes it appear to be unearthly and potentially dangerous. The presence of the eternal light is not a source of comfort, but a warning, showing that Shelley clearly feels that light (and scientific endeavour) is often dangerous. Shelley is therefore emphasising the need for balance between light and dark, rather than the dominance of one of the other. Imbalance is dangerous.

Justice

Much of the action of the text is driven by the Monster’s desire to gain justice from Victor. Victor’s decision to abandon the Monster began a chain of events that led to the two becoming antagonists. The Monster feels that it would be just if Victor were to build a companion for him, since Victor clearly does not want to interact with his creation. However, Victor refuses to do so, and destroys his half-finished companion, because he does not think it would be just to create another creature so hideous. Shelley states that the Monster is only one of many victims of injustice throughout the world. The book is a social commentary, talking about the need for individuals to show responsibility towards one another. In addition, Shelley comments that injustice and anger causes more injustice. Victor’s abandonment of the monster causes numerous deaths throughout the book, showing the necessity of responsibility, and the danger of messing with natural justice.

Experiment

Isolation

The monster refers to himself as ‘Adam’ in the novel, showing that he believes himself to be fundamentally alone (as there is no ‘Eve’ for him). This drives him to commit ever more desperate acts. There is a neat parallel between the monster and Victor, particularly after the monster begins killing Victor’s friends and family – most notably in the case of Elizabeth. Both Victor and the monster end up not only socially alone, but physically and geographically, when they are in the desolate environment of the North Pole. Shelley deliberately uses dramatic and impressive geography (the Arctic Circle, the Swiss Alps) to emphasise the isolation of the characters, as well as the insignificance of man in the face of Nature.

Victor isolates himself not only through his terrible actions, but also through the secrecy of his experiments. Even Clerval does not know what he is doing when they travel to the Orkney Islands. Victor rejects society and social responsibility by keeping his actions to himself, and this exacerbates any problems he may have.

Ignorance and learning

The monster is only truly unhappy with his situation when he learns about other people. It is then that he appreciates how hideous he is, and desires for Victor to create a companion for him. Shelley drew on the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who felt that society was a corruption influence, and that in a natural state, man was a ‘noble savage’ – far happier than in a modern society. The monster therefore is only conscious of his own unhappiness when set against the lives of others. Only when he sees people with families and friends is he aware of his loneliness.

Victor also experiences the idea that learning is not necessarily a good thing. His desire to push the boundaries of human knowledge causes the death of everyone he loves. Victor tries many times to ‘escape’ the monster, as a way of trying to return to the ‘ignorance’ he had before its creation. However, he cannot avoid the monster, thus showing that blissful ignorance can’t be recreated when it has been destroyed.

Back to top

Literary Techniques

Foreshadowing

‘Frankenstein’ begins with a series of questions. The reader begins by wondering what Victor is doing in the Arctic Circle. In a sense, therefore, we know the end of the story before the beginning. This engages the reader further, and makes Victor’s decline even more tragic. Every decision that Victor makes seems to be worse given that we know it ends badly. In particular, his decision to send Elizabeth away to ‘safety’ on their wedding night is tragic because we know that Victor survives, and therefore the monster must have been targeting Elizabeth. Shelley therefore allows us to appreciate Victor’s foolishness by beginning with the disastrous climax of his actions.

Frankenstein book cover

Perspective

Shelley uses different perspectives to change our view of characters. We learn about the monster initially only through Victor’s statements to Walton. We therefore think of it as a terrible being, driven by rage and anger. It is only later in the novel that we see the monster’s perspective, and therefore become more sympathetic to it. When Victor decides to build the wife for the monster, we think of him as being selfish, although when he destroys his second creation (at great personal risk) he seems to be a more noble character. These perspective changes make the characters richer and engages the reader to a greater extent.

Religious imagery

The religious imagery is deliberate throughout ‘Frankenstein’. The monster refers to himself as ‘Adam’, which emphasises the fact that Victor was ‘playing God’. The monster is also compared to Satan (who is a fallen angel and who leads Adam and Eve astray in the Garden of Eden). The monster also reads ‘Paradise Lost’ a poem by John Milton that talks about Adam and Eve’s departure from Eden. This emphasises the tragic ‘fall of man’ that is represented by Victor’s decision to challenge God (by eating from the tree of knowledge). The mention of Prometheus in the book’s title also highlights the man vs. God(s) aspect of the novel, although from a Greek rather than Christian perspective.

Duality

The novel is full of dualities, and much of the action is based upon pairs of ideas. The most obvious duality is between the monster and Victor. Both are ‘unnatural’ – Victor messes with nature, and the monster is a non-natural creation. Both see a companion die, which drives them to desperation. In addition, the fact that the monster and Victor are such complex characters emphasises this duality – it’s difficult to know who is good and who is evil, showing that all people have both good and evil inside them. The pairing of light and dark, and the juxtaposition of both is also a core duality. The core message, therefore, is that order comes from balance, rather than from one half dominating another.

Back to top

Key Quotes

“Learn from me . . . how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” (Frankenstein to Walton, Chapter Four.)

This quote highlights the core message of the book, namely that man should not attempt to push the boundaries of knowledge too far. Victor is essentially saying that ‘ignorance is bliss’, and that the man who thinks that his town is the entire world (i.e. who doesn’t attempt to challenge his boundaries) will be happier than he who gets ideas above himself. It is also important that Victor is saying this to Walton, who is himself a victim of his own ambition – trapped in the ice in the Arctic Circle because of his desire to push the boundaries of knowledge, and to challenge Nature.

Romantic imagery

“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” (Frankenstein to Walton, Chapter Three)

This quote highlights the extent of Victor’s ambition. He shows that he wants to address some of the key questions of existence. The last word of the quote is ‘creation’, which not only symbolises his desire to make life, but also sets his target as being religious in nature. Creation is fundamentally ‘unknowable’ for the human brain, and so for Victor to attempt to gain access to this answer shows his dramatic ambition. It is also important that this quote comes from the ‘soul’ of Frankenstein, highlighting the religious nature of his quest, and his inevitable collision course with God.

"the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart." (Frankenstein, Chapter Five)

This quote describes Victor’s realisation when he has created the monster. The optimism he showed in attempting to challenge creation instantly vanishes, to be replaced by fear and revulsion. As well as using contrasting language, Shelley chooses Romantic imagery (‘filled my heart’) to describe Victor’s horror at creating the monster. Victor also demonstrates an ‘epiphany’ (a sudden realisation) when he creates the monster. The sudden and dramatic nature of the revelation is a feature of biblical stories, where God reveals a truth to a figure in an instantaneous and powerful way. Although Shelley is not saying that God made Victor change his mind, she deliberately plays on biblical language, emphasising just how much Victor has upset the natural order.

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay. To mould me Man, did I solicit thee. From darkness to promote me?” (Quote by John Milton “Paradise Lost” from the title page of ‘Frankenstein’.)

This quote is from John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, a seventeenth century epic poem that plays an important role in ‘Frankenstein’. In this quote, which is on the title page of ‘Frankenstein’, Milton explores why God created man. This takes the form of a series of questions from man to God, attempting to understand why God ‘promoted’ man from darkness. This parallels the questions the monster asks of Victor, particularly since Victor immediately regrets the decision to create the monster. Again, this draws into question whether the monster represents Adam (an innocent creation of God, who ‘fell ‘ from Eden after eating from the tree of knowledge), or Satan (an angel who became ‘evil’ after coming to hate man).

Back to top

Key Characters

Victor Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein is the protagonist of the story, who is shown to be on a tragic collision course with Nature. Victor tells us that even as a child he was curious, and wanted to discover the secrets of the world. It is when he travels to university in Ingolstadt that he desires to discover the secret of life. However, Victor constantly absolves himself of blame, saying that his father never told him of the danger of knowledge, and that his professors made learning too tempting. Victor ironically, therefore casts himself as being a victim, when in reality, he is the one who changes situations, not the one who passively obeys.

Frankenstein comic

Victor ultimately commits two terrible acts, the first being that he creates the monster, and the second that of abandoning his creation. Both of these are seen as crimes against Nature. Although Victor is seen as a man who gets ideas well beyond his station, it is impossible not to feel a little sympathetic for him. Victor therefore shows us that anybody has the ability to challenge the natural order. He is not any more ‘evil’ than anyone else. This is the lesson that Victor provides.

The Monster

Shelley manages a remarkable act in ‘Frankenstein’ in that the monster is both horrifying, but also a sympathetic character. This emphasises the richness of the characters, that we can be made to feel empathy for a character who commits numerous murders, and is made out of parts of dead bodies (and represents ‘the Other’ in the narrative). The monster gives Shelley an opportunity to talk about the process of ‘civilisation’. The unhappiness that the monster feels links with the idea of man as being happiest when he is at his most ‘natural’. It is only when the monster becomes ‘civilised’ that he realises how isolated and ugly he is.

Despite the difficulty the monster has with civilisation, he becomes very well-read, and can draw on a number of important texts. His obsession with ‘Paradise Lost’ shows that he understands the complex relationship between man and God. Unlike most people, the monster can speak directly with his creator. Shelley uses this as a way to address the meaning of life. The monster’s pain makes him hate his creator even more, concluding that it would be better if he had never been born. However, it is only after the death of Victor that the monster feels free to die.

Henry Clerval

Henry Clerval serves as a foil to Victor, and helps to ensure that he retains some humanity. Clerval is not only of equivalent intelligence to Victor, but is also far less willing to challenge the natural order of things. Henry is shown to be interested in morality, and how to be ‘good’ rather than having a burning passion to discover new things. Victor describes him as being ‘humane’, which implies that there is something ‘inhumane’ about Victor. There is a sense throughout the novel that if Victor told Henry what he was up to, he would be able to help, or at least stop him. The tragedy comes when he doesn’t, and Henry ends up being killed by the monster. The death of Clerval represents the last bits of Victor’s humanity, and he instead becomes desperate to find and kill the monster. When Henry dies, he goes from being a handsome and vibrant man (essentially the archetype of ‘goodness’) to being a bloated corpse. Victor (and the monster) have therefore managed to corrupt even the purest person in the novel. Clerval’s death is one of the many punishments that Victor must endure for his actions.

Back to top

Key Scene

Frankenstein frontispiece

The key scene in the trajectory of the novel is the action of Chapter 20. Here, Victor has promised the monster that he will build him a companion, and retreats to the isolated Orkney Islands to work on a wife for the monster. The monster promises that he will leave with his wife for the jungles of South America, and that he won’t kill anymore if Victor agrees. The monster’s power of persuasion convinces Victor. However, when Victor is building a wife for the monster, he looks at the window and sees the monster grinning. This repulses Victor, and he realises that if he makes a wife, there is no guarantee they will travel to South America, and they may even be able to breed. He violently destroys his half-finished monster. The monster threatens him, and disappears. As he packs up to leave the island, he rows out to sea to dispose of the body parts. After falling asleep, and being unable to return to shore, he is blown into a port, where the locals angrily accuse him of a murder. Although we don’t find out in this chapter, the person who has been murdered is Henry Clerval.

This chapter is crucial in ensuring that the story will not have a happy ending. Victor starts the chapter as a ‘slave’ to the monster, compelled to build him a wife in order to atone for his sins. However, the dramatic nature with which he refuses to complete his actions highlight the depths he has fallen to. Victor has to ‘destroy’ a monster he has created out of corpses, a physically repulsive act. In addition, this act is caused by a revelation he experiences when seeing the monster. This mirrors the sudden revulsion he feels when he first creates the monster.

The Chapter draws on two other texts. Firstly, there is ‘Paradise Lost’, which is mentioned throughout the novel, particularly when discussing the complex relationship between the monster and Victor. Clearly Victor is positioned as ‘God’, the creator, but it is unclear whether the monster is Adam, the creation, or Satan, God’s nemesis. In addition, when Victor rows out to dispose of the body parts, and the wind stops, there is a clear allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a poem about a doomed sea journey, caused when the captain of the boat shoots an albatross. For this crime, he is punished by the wind stopping, and the boat remaining static. One by one the other sailors die, and the Mariner must live with his crime. He wears the dead albatross round his neck to symbolise his burden. He eventually is compelled to walk the Earth, telling his story. The parallels between Victor Frankenstein and the Ancient Mariner are clear. Frankenstein’s punishment for his unnatural act is to see the death f everyone he loved. Importantly, when he comes back to shore, he finds out about the death of Henry Clerval.

Back to top

Additional Material

Click on the image above, or here to read an analysis of John Milton's 'Paradise Lost', which was a key inspiration in the writing of 'Frankenstein'. For more information on the key texts referenced in the book click the following links:

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The Story of Prometheus from Greek mythology.

The Story of Adam and Eve from Christian tradition.

The video above provides a good introduction to the Romantic movement in English literature, and how it interlinked with a number of political and social movements. This video will give you a great historical context when you write about 'Frankenstein', understanding the importance of the French and Industrial Revolutions, as well as the debate between Enlightenment 'Reason' and the 'Naturalism' of the Romantics.

The video above is a humorous (but accurate) summary and analysis of 'Frankenstein', and the key ingredients. It's particularly good to get a sense of how 'Paradise Lost', Adam and Eve and the danger of knowledge all play into the relationship between Victor and his monster. And as Sparky Sweets PhD rightly asks - who is to blame for the presence of evil: the monster, or the creator?



Back to top



Image Credits:
Image 1: by Dr. Macro via Wikimedia Commons, Image 2: by Richard Rothwell via Wikimedia Commons, Image 3: by Cornhill Publishing Company via Wikimedia Commons, Image 4: by Steve Cornelius via Flickr, Image 5: by Universal via Wikimedia Commons, Image 6: by Joseph Wright via Wikimedia Commons, Image 7: by Will via Flickr, Image 8: by Caspar David Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons, Image 9: by Chordboard via Wikimedia Commons, Image 10: by Theodore Von Holst via Wikimedia Commons,