Mary Shelley was the daughter of a philosopher and a radical feminist. Being an atheist with a Catholic background she was also an anarchist who who believed we could live peacefully without laws. It seems Shelley’s life was engulfed in and surrounded by misery. Shelley’s mother died shortly after her birth in she was an illegitimate child. Her husband’s ex wife drowned herself and he died later during his marriage with Shelley by drowning. Unfortunately she also lost her daughter before she even had the chance to name her, she had dreams of bringing the child back to life.
As for the creation of Frankenstein, Lord Byron challenged Shelley to write a ghost story in the wet summer of 1876. After being inspired by a discussion from her husband and Byron about the nature of horror, life and galvanism (alongside a dream she had resembling the awakening of the creature) Frankenstein was born.
‘Supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the creator of the world.’ Shelley was also inspired by the recent scientific discoveries of the time such as the galvanisation process.
Female writers were given little respect so Mary Shelley did not put her name to Frankenstein for 13 years. In the 18th and 19th centuries some writers were lingering on the topic of bringing the dead back to life. Scientific discoveries were being made such as that of how the circulation of blood flows and the nervous system.
Frankenstein was also written during a period when Christianity was widely believed and accepted before Darwinian theories had been established. This made it all the more shocking that even in literary fiction someone was trying to take on the role of God.
In the midst of the industrial revolution the development of new technology threatened the livelihoods of many labourers. This was a period of change and uncertainty.
There were many shared characteristics of the ‘Romantic movement’ such as:
- Value placed on feelings and emotion
- Value placed on the individual
- Connecting nature to the individual and the use of pathetic fallacy
- The rebellion against traditional literary and political institutions.
- A plot involving a quest for transcendence or escape from the melancholy through greater knowledge or another spectacular means
- A sense of innovation and spontaneity
- Fresh possibilities and new beginnings.
The Novel’s title:
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also known as The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus is a mythic titan who stole the power of fire from Zeus and gave it to the humans, leaving him to be punished eternally by Zeus. Much like one could argue that Frankenstein has stolen the power of life from God for man and is being punished in kind.
The English explorer Walton is writing letters to his sister making Frankenstein an epistolary novel as it is told through a series of letters. He talks at length about his current environment and how it has the potential to offer ‘wonder.’ But there is a clear juxtaposition in some of his phrases like ‘frost and desolation’ and ‘beauty and delight’. He is aware that he is in a frozen wasteland but he finds it ‘surpassing in wonders and in beauty.’ Much like Frankenstein who later goes to the frozen Alps to soothe his mind using their isolation. RECURRING THEME OF ISOLATION.
- There is an emphasis on bleakness and danger in the environment
- Walton relishes the challenge, anticipating glory and terror
- Walton seeks glory, a trait that not only shows vanity, but is also clearly seen in Frankenstein
- Walton is lonely and desires the ‘company of a man who could sympathise with me’ further emphasising the similarity between himself and Frankenstein.
- Frankenstein is also a loner, there is a motif of isolation throughout the novel
- ‘Such evil foreboding’, there was already suspicion that it would all go wrong.
- The chance to explore and break new ground draws a parallel to romanticism
- Walton is ignoring warnings that ‘the pole is the seat of frost and desolation’, this shows a Gothic convention of how he is being drawn into this dark fate.
- More Gothic conventions in Walton are how he is both passionate and arrogant at the same time; ‘you cannot contest the inestimable benefit I shall confer.’
- Walton also wishes to accomplish ‘some great purpose’ fitting well into the theme of romanticism and reaching transcendence.
- ‘There is something supernatural in my soul which I do not understand,’ there is something supernatural inside him spurring him on.
- ‘Serpent to sting you…’ This supernatural force drawing Walton towards the dangers of the North pole is like the devil tempting Adam and Eve into eating the apple of Eden.
- Beufort going into poverty and his eventual death.
- Caroline being ‘saved’ (what would a feminist say about this?) by Victor’s father
- Caroline showed empathy and would visit and help out at the poor cottages
- They arrive at a cottage and see baby Elizabeth, they return years later to adopt her. (Worth noting that she is the daughter of a nobleman)
- ‘Victor I have a surprise for you’… After this quote it is established that Victor sees Elizabeth as his possession.
- The first paragraph of Chapter 2 outlines and emphasizes the differences between Elizabeth and Victor:
‘While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes’
- The Frankenstein family have placed themselves in seclusion, living far away from civilisation
- Descriptive language on Elizabeth suggests Romanticism:
‘She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets.’
‘By such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.’
‘Destiny was too potent’
- The death of Victor’s mother occurs
- It becomes clear that Victor is shallow, he judges and treats his lecturers based on their physical appearance
- The chapter keeps referring to his future ‘misfortune’
- There is an abundance of words that play on one’s fear for instance; ‘evil’, ‘deformed’ and ‘omen’
- Frankenstein holds the characteristics of a tragic hero, he is from a good family and is incredibly intelligent and passionate about his work.
- According to Gothic conventions Elizabeth is likely to become a damsel but she never quite fits into that role, although she does mostly fit in with Gothic conventions of females.
- Frankenstein is becoming completely engrossed in his studies at university to the point where two years pass and he hasn’t returned to Geneva (emphasis on his passion)
- Victor decides to study physiology and the question of how life comes to be.
- He seemingly again blames fate:
‘I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm’
- Victor shows no fear of the supernatural as he experiments with body parts, in the historical context of the novel this shows ignorance which he will suffer greatly for. This could also be an instrument to invoke fear in the readers.
- There is another Prometheus link:
‘I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter’
‘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’ (Marxist reference)
- And another link to the supernatural:
‘like a hurricane’
- There is also once again a sign of Frankenstein attempting to take on the role of God:
‘A new species would bless me as its creator… many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me‘
- The presence of Gothic settings:
‘dissecting room and the slaughter house‘
- The end of Chapter 4 reflects anxiety, common in the ‘school of TERROR’ side of Gothicism
- Frankenstein shirks responsibility on two separate occasions:
‘How could you suppose that my first thought would not fly towards those dear dear friends whom I love?’
- Justine vastly contrasts with the creature, but it is as though through their relationships with Victor, she and the creature are long lost siblings. But she suffers by the hands of the creature, as though by a jealous sibling.
- Victor collects body parts and isolates himself in his ‘workshop of filthy creation,’ despite knowing that what he is doing is wrong, he cannot stop
- Frankenstein rapidly changes from seeing himself as a God-like figure to a timid, fearful man who curses himself for the abomination he created
- When his mother dies, Justine falls ill with grief and all of her siblings die. She begins to wonder if God is punishing her for being happy, perhaps there is a contextual link here
- Victor cannot stand the thought of his philosophical or scientific studies any more, showing how much the event has haunted his psyche
- He stresses that he has not gone insane even though his claims of the rising dead sound it. This is a Gothic motif, the supernatural happens to the INDIVIDUAL, isolating them in their fear
- To Shelley’s audience not influenced by modern cinema or media, the description of the creature would have been truly revolting
- Archetypal Gothic hero trait, isolating himself from his family and friends.
- Take notice of the candle being blown out moments before the creature awakens. Symbolism of the light in the world fading
- Victor receives a letter from his father telling of the death of William
- Elizabeth believes she is to blame for William’s death, for letting him hold a ‘miniature’ of Victor’s mother, a valuable object
- Victor observes a storm:
‘It advanced, the heavens were clouded, and I son felt the rain coming, slowly in large drops, but its VIOLENCE quickly increased.’ – pathetic fallacy and foreboding.
- Victor sees the creature stalking him and becomes convinced that ‘he’ killed William
- Believing everyone will think him insane, Victor decides to remain silent about the creature
- Justine is wrongfully accused
- ‘Every human being is guiltless of this murder.’ – a sense of INJUSTICE
- ‘I suffered living torture’ -incredibly self-involved
- As the trial goes on and evidence is presented against her, Justine starts to panic and becomes unusually anxious
- Having presented her defence she calls for others to make testaments of her character. While most are too afraid or angry to do so, Elizabeth stands. She speaks in favour of Justine but the court is not convinced.
- ‘The tortures of the accused did not equal mine’
- Justine is condemned by confessing. ‘I almost became the monster he said I was,’- self fulfilling prophecy. Links to the creature
- ‘How sweet is the affection of others to such a wretch as I am.’ juxtaposing Victor, the true wretch.
- The last paragraph is Victor seemingly taking the blame;
‘William and Justine, the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts.’
- Victor reflects on how Justine was executed and yet he lives. He is convinced more is to come;
‘much much more was yet behind’
- ‘Solitude was my only consolation – deep, dark, deathlike solitude’ – Use of alliteration emphasises the depth of his loneliness and depression
- He spends hours on the lake in isolation considering suicide
- He fantasises about revenge and his hatred for the creature
- men appear to me as monsters
- ‘Dear Victor, banish these dark passions.’
- Frankenstein goes travelling alone in the snowy mountains reminiscent of Walton’s isolation at sea in the Arctic conditions.
- There is a lot of presence of pathetic fallacy in the Gothic setting
- ‘Wandering spirits…’
- ‘Victor sees the monster speeding towards him and prepares to engage ‘in mortal combat’
- ‘How dare you sport thus with life’ – Link contextually to Shelley’s Atheist beliefs and her hard life
- ‘I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thee drivest from joy for no misdeed’
- Victor is engulfed in guilt;
‘I wandered like an evil spirit, for I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible’
- He feels haunted by the creature;
‘There is always scope for fear as long as anything I loved remained behind. No one, not even Elizabeth can alleviate this depression, I was encompassed by a cloud which no beneficial influence could penetrate’
- The creature knows that he is universally hated and feared and even Frankenstein, his creator, wishes for his death. Yet he didn’t ask for his life in the first place
- An association has been established between love and pain, Frankenstein now fears to lose those he loves. Love is not good or redeeming, it has become a weakness and threat
- Note the heavy use of pathetic fallacy
- The reader is made sympathetic to the creature. He is that way because of his circumstances and because of his creator. ‘Misery made me a fiend.’ If his own creator cannot accept him then who will? Although in a very different way from them, like Justine and William, he is a victim.
- ‘The light became more and more oppressive’ – The creature thrives in the dark
- There is an emphasis on the moon, like a different take on the stories of werewolves.
- It’s worth noting that the creature is an incredibly fast learner.
- ‘Pandemonium appeared to..’ – reference to hell and the supernatural.
- The creature reminds us of a child in the way that he hates the taste of wine, it humanises him and makes it easier for the reader to empathise with him.
- Reinforcing the themes of injustice and oppression, the creature is driven out of a town and into a little dirt hovel.
‘Happy to have found a shelter’ – remains somewhat complacent.
‘I am solitary and abhorred’
- ‘I remembered Adam’s supplication to his creator but where was mine?’
- The creature refers to the inhabitants of the cottage as his ‘protectors’ when the reality is he’s helping and partially protecting them.’
- The rejection he suffers at the hands of the dwellers becomes the last straw leading to:
‘I, like the archfiend, bore a hell within me.’ – Again compares himself to Satan
- The creature becomes the monster as he burns down the cottage:
‘Enveloped by the flames which clung to it and licked it with their forked and destroying tongues’ – You could argue that the cottage represents the childlike spirit and innocence of the creature getting corrupted and tainted by the supernatural (‘forked tongue,’ ‘serpent’)
- ‘I too can create desolation,’ the creature has learned his violent tendencies from mankind itself
- He slowly becomes conscious of his own loneliness – and his innocence gradually erodes as he learns from man the importance of being accepted.
- The monster’s language turns incredibly dark, violent and visual as he slowly becomes corrupt.
- The violence of the monster’s rage is paralleled by the elements, yet another case of pathetic fallacy.
Chapters 17- 22:
- When the monster has finished relaying his tale Frankenstein downright refuses to create a mate for the monster
- The monster speaks of how he could never have a relationship with man:
‘The human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union.’
- ‘If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me… for that one creatures sake I would make peace with the whole kind’ – There is an emphasis on just how bad the monster’s circumstances are. The reader is practically asked if he’s really being unreasonable.
- As soon as Frankenstein begins to see the monster’s reason he uses appearance as a reason to force himself away from such reason:
‘but when I looked upon him… my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred.’ – Victor’s real flaw is how shallow he is
- Frankenstein eventually agrees to create a female for the monster, that is if he would agree to quit the world forever
- As the thought of the work is to daunting for Victor he spends his time sitting between an increasing joy and the deepest of depression
- The unfulfilled promise holds Frankenstein in a mental state that leaves him unable to experience any joy in life. Upon being asked if he would like to marry Elizabeth right away he says:
‘The idea was that of horror and dismay’ – Claustrophobic in his misery
- Frankenstein is being mentally tortured;
‘My eyes were fixed and unobserving’
- There is a distinct contrast between Frankenstein and Clerval during their journey to England. Clerval’s enthusiasm for all that he sees juxtaposes Victor’s constant gloom and despair.
- As Frankenstein reads Clerval’s poetry his words seem to apply to the innocence of the creature as well as Henry:
‘Where does he now exist? Is this gentle and lovely being lost forever?’
- ‘Busy uninteresting joyous faces’
‘Company was irksome to me’ – further evidence of Victor’s mind stuck in the melancholy (Gothic motif)
‘hardly more than a rock, whose sides were continually beaten upon by the waves. The soil was barren, scarcely affording pasture for a few miserable cows.’ – This is a reflection of Victor’s mental state, he is undergoing a barrage of torment and is only just getting by.
- Despite his agreement with the monster, he fears what may become the intentions of his new project, what if she rejects the monster?
- When the monster comes into view Frankenstein makes his decision and tears up all of his work causing the monster to howl in rage and disappear into the night.
- ‘I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you.’ – foreboding sense that the one person who brings Victor peace may be taken away.
- This sense of fear and foreboding is heightened soon after.
‘I shall be with you on your wedding night.’
- ‘You are my creator but I am your master; obey!’
- Frankenstein clears out the remains of his work and goes out to sea to bury it but ends up drifting to Ireland. Where he washes up on shore he is instantly taken as a suspect of a recent murder which he soon discovers was the murder of Clerval.
- The importance of the nature vs. nurture debate in Frankenstein. It is presented by and reflected in the character of the creature. He begins life as an innocent curious childlike being, but his circumstances twist and corrupt him.
- There are constant references to the vast sky and the raw power of the elements, Frankenstein is dwarfed by these- his actions have put him in competition with ‘the heavens’
- There is a constant sense of impending doom as Frankenstein prepares to venture to England.
- I had unchained an enemy whose joy it was to shed their blood and revel in their groans.’ – finally taking some blame.
- Victor is aware that marrying Elizabeth will lure the monster to him and bring about a quickened death for himself, saving his loved ones.
- He soon finds that he made a huge mistake in doing so;
‘I hastened that of a far dearer victim’
- As the wedding takes place Frankenstein experiences;
‘the last moments of my life during which I enjoyed the feeling of happiness’
- The monster murders Elizabeth when he’s out of the room, Frankenstein sees the monster, shoots at him and misses. From that moment on he decides he cannot rest until the monster is dead.
- However, the destruction does not end there. Victor’s father has ‘sunk under the tidings that I bore’ and dies shortly afterwards.
- Frankenstein is possessed ‘by a maddening rage when I thought of him, and desired and ardently prayed that I might have him within my grasp to wreak a great and signal revenge on his cursed head.’ – It is clear that there is a presence of passion and obsession back in Victor’s soul
- Frankenstein almost becomes the monster in the sense that;
‘revenge kept me alive; I dared not die and leave my adversary in being’
- The pursuit has led to Walton’s vessel.
- Walton hears a noise in Victor’s room after his death and finds the monster standing over his body, showing regret for his actions.
- Continuing sense of doom, even Elizabeth has a ‘presentiment of evil’ the night before the wedding
- Note the change in weather after the wedding
- Extremely visual and disturbing description of Elizabeth’s body, creating fear.
- Frankenstein has now become the victim of the monster, this is shown as the monster torments him:
‘My reign is not over yet’
- The harsh landscape in which the story’s conclusion takes place.
- Walton calls Frankenstein ‘noble and godlike in ruin,’ this may be an attempt to balance out the negative view we may have made in our minds of Frankenstein throughout the novel
- In his final reflection Frankenstein claims that his duty to his fellow man was far more important, ‘because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery’, this shows that he may still believe his creation is incapable of emotions
- There is an important parallel between Frankenstein and Walton, Walton is also drawing others into danger because of his own obsession
- It’s worth looking at the irony of how Victor has words with the sailors about not going through with a mutiny because of their master’s obsession, when it was the fact that he refused to stop that made him suffer so.
The Narrative structure:
This has been compared to a Russian, because it is fundamentally a story being told inside a story being told inside a story.
There are many different settings such as:
- The wastes of the Arctic
- The Orkneys
The audience would have been mostly unfamiliar with these locations giving Shelley free reign to write them how she wished. This gave her the opportunity to use the elements to make them particularly frightening. Also unfamiliarity can be quite frightening to many because it’s hard to navigate through the unknown.
The central premise of the plot of Frankenstein is bringing the dead back to life. This would have been particularly terrifying to Shelley’s 19th Century audience, especially with the large presence of Christianity still among the public. The 19th Century was a time of progress in science and knowledge although the majority of the public still held on to traditional beliefs. Using a combination of the myth of Prometheus and the concept of Galvanisation Shelley was able to create an overwhelming presence of the supernatural.
On many occasions Frankenstein heavily conforms to Gothic protagonist conventions:
- He is talented in science and blindly passionate about it
- We can assume that he is attractive as he gets the girl of his dreams with ease and tends to solely judge most based on their appearance
- Victor also happens to be incredibly egocentric and solitary, he will only tend to focus on his own pain
- He cannot escape his past events
As a modern reader it is sometimes incredibly hard to see him as the victim as this is something that he had brought upon himself, but 19th Century audiences tended to enjoy the extreme emotional levels which would have probably heightened their sense of entertainment.
Elizabeth and Justine:
Both of these characters of victims of the monster (and Frankenstein), each so incredibly caring and compassionate, yet they were the ones to die. They are not necessarily stereotypical damsels in distress but they most certainly hold Gothic characteristics.
However, a key difference between them is how Justine accepts and faces her death bravely and somehow still tries to comfort those around her. Elizabeth never get such a chance. On the other hand she is a woman who speaks her mind, she confronts Victor offering to relieve him from any obligation of marrying her because she believes it’s causing him distress. This just reflects how selfless each of these women are.
They are each idealised images of women; beautiful, sensitive and working only for the good of others.
He did not ask to be created and yet he suffers hatred constantly, there is absolutely no possible escape from his isolation. Yet you may argue how could we possibly feel sympathy for something that’s artificial, that’s made of a collection of dead body parts and goes against all laws of creation.
After his ‘birth’ he is innocent and child-like in nature. All he wishes for are friends, from what we gather he only becomes evil due to the way he is treated by others. Mankind attacks him, if he is not man then why should he not fight back?
You may say that he is a ‘noble savage’. He has been corrupted by the influence of society.