Frankenstein by Mary Shelley | Themes

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley | Themes

Frankenstein Themes

Flush with the hard won knowledge about the secrets of life, a young man locks himself in his apartment to engage in a gruesome but fascinating task, i.e. creating life. He aspires to usurp the roles of both God and woman to create a new species that would acknowledge him as its Creator. The obsession blinds him to everything, but ultimately isolates him from all. When he is successful in his efforts, he is tom by remorse, shame and guilt as he sees the monster he has created spiralling out of control.

His ambitions may be heroic, but the horrific images of Victor Frankenstein‘s “secret toil” suggest that his work is also sordid. While he seems to regret the search for the secret of life we think that it is not the effort but the monster he has created; it is ugly and vengeful. The child that Victor has produced is unnatural and it can have only have unnatural consequences.

While Victor describes the monster as “the demon” or “the fiend”, the monster surprises us by speaking with eloquence and dignity, his language gradually assumes a biblical solemnity. Instead of being like Adam in the Garden of Eden, the monster claims to be more like a fallen angel, unreasonably and forcefully driven from heaven. “Only misery made me a fiend”, it tells Victor. “Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous”. He demands a female companion for himself. He is so persuasive that Victor agrees, although the sight of the filthy mass that moves and talks fills him with hatred and loathing

Victor hires an isolated hut and starts working on the creation of a female monster. The enthusiasm he had shown in creating life in the beginning now fills him with revulsion and horror. He is convinced that he is giving birth to a race of devils on this earth, which might eventually threaten the very existence of man. So he abandons his work, tears apart the inanimate frame and destroys his chemical instruments. In giving life to the hideous creature, Victor may be a Promethean rebel against God, a heroic quester after knowledge after refusing to accept the limitations placed on man. But he may alternatively be driven only by an egotistical desire for personal glory. Victor desires to acquire the knowledge hidden from the eyes of the common man. He talks of ridding the world of disease, thereby making man immortal. Yet he does not achieve the glory he intended. He is remembered more for his failure than his genius, for his failure lies not in the creation of the monster but in the intention by which he created it. It was not ambition that killed him, but his distortion of it.

Birth and Creation

The dominant theme thus in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that of birth and creation. In giving life to his creature, Victor Frankenstein usurps the role of God. Fired by enthusiasm during his first experiments, he imagines how “A new species would bless me as its creator and source… No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs”. In her 1831 Introduction, Mary Shelley suggests that this is his main crime: his presumption in displacing God as creator. When the story was adapted for the stage in 1823, it was, in fact, given the title Presumption, or The Fate of Frankenstein.

Nevertheless, the world Mary Shelley creates is entirely secular: the Christian myth serves only to provide analogies. Perhaps we need to consider whether there is in fact, any suggestion within the text that Victor should not have attempted the act of creation. Perhaps the crime upon which Mary Shelley focuses is not what Victor does, but what he fails to do nurture his creation, Victor’s ambition and achievement may be heroic chaos only ensues because he is not capable of bearing responsibility for what he produces. Victor’s description of his “secret toil” does suggest that he is engaged in something shameful or unlawful.

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Frankenstein also seeks to usurp the power of woman, and in this he may be revealing his rebellion against the normal family unit, and, the responsibilities in belonging to such a unit. He may also be revealing a fear of the natural processes of birth possibly echoing Mary Shelley’s own ambivalence about child birth. First pregnant at sixteen, and almost constantly pregnant during the next five years, she lost most of her children soon after they were born Victor’s workshop of filthy creation” may have womb-like connotations. Further as Ellen Moers implies in “Female Gothic”, the creation of the newly-created monster may suggest the appearance of the newborn baby.


The sufferings of both Victor and the monster are caused by their alienation from others. The monster’s isolation is imposed upon him by others: the creator who abandons him and the people who slung him. He longs for companionship and affection; his unhappiness and subsequent violence result from his awareness that he will never experience the love he sees around him, “I am malicious because I am miserable”, he tells Victor and asks for a female companion to make him happy again. Victor, however, is horrified by the nearly completed female form and the thought of the monster’s family life: he tears the female to pieces. When the monster murders Elizabeth, he is doing only what Victor has already done to him.

Victor repeatedly insists that his isolation is also imposed because of the monster’ crimes: he must be an outcast. Nevertheless, he actually chooses to isolate himself from family and friends in order to carry out his scientific experiments. We need to consider further the nature of what he rejects in order to better understand this self-imposed isolation.

The Family and the Domestic Affections

Percy Shelley’s preface claims that the chief concern of the novel is “the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection and the excellence of universal virtue”, and domesticity is often idealized. It is the domestic affections for which the creature longs and that Victor repeatedly holds up the ideal to which he should have aspired. The home is represented as a paradise or temple, the woman as the presiding angel.

Nevertheless, as Kate Ellis has most convincingly argued in Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family, it is quite possible to read the novel as questioning the value of domestic affections and as an attack on, rather than a celebration of the institute of the family. Strictly enforced artificial role distinctions, Mary Shelley demonstrates, result in the creation of a passive, dependent woman who ultimately becomes the monster who must be rejected, and like the creature no longer the slave but the master Victor certainly needs to escape the suffocating silken cord of the home in order to fulfill his desires, there is no room for ambition or individualism in the domestic world. The treatment of the creature by the De Lacey household points to another defect in the domestic world: it insularity. Ideal though this family may be it functions only by excluding anything that appears as a threat to its security. The creature devotes himself to the destruction of weal domesticity once it realizes he is doomed to be excluded from it, and in this he may be acting as Victor’s double.

The Double

The popular tendency to refer to the creature as Frankenstein is appropriate considering Mary Shelley’s use of the motif of the double frequent motif in much Gothic fiction. When Victor refers to the creature as “my own spirit let loose from the grave…forced to destroy all that was dear to me”, he provides the clearest expression of the notion that he and the monster may be doubles, with the monster acting out Victor’s own aggressions. In creating the monster, the civilized beings let loose the violent, monstrous self contained within, full of primitive emotions, and this monster can be seen as acting out the repressed desires of the civilized being. Doubling even further, however, Walton can be seen as another Frankenstein, For example, and it has even been argued that Elizabeth and the creature can be seen as one.

The Fear of Sexuality

In creating the monster and usurping the role of women, Victor is also rejecting normal human sexuality. His terrible nightmare after the creation of the monster seems to support the idea that Victor is repelled by normal sexuality. When he attempts to kiss Elizabeth, she turns into a corpse, the corpse of Victor’s mother, perhaps indicating also that Victor is frightened by incestuous desires. His response to his father’s suggestion that his marriage may be read as a highly telling revelation of his feelings about sexuality:

“Alas! to me the idea of an immediate union with my Elizabeth was one of horror and dismay”.

He explains that this is because the threat of the monster still hangs over him, but other readings are certainly possible. The same may be said of his words to Elizabeth on their wedding night:

“Oh ! Peace, peace, my love”, he tells her, this night, and all will be safe: but the night is dreadful, very dreadful”.

We might wonder hoe possibly Victor manages to interpret the monster’s threat: “I shall be with you on your wedding night”. Since it is uttered soon after Victor destroys the female companion to the reader it seems quite clear that the threat is to Elizabeth, and yet Victor interprets it as a threat against him, and he leaves Elizabeth on the pretext of saving her from the sight of the combat he expects, alone in the bedroom to he murdered by the monster.

Here the notion of the double aids again in interpretation. It is possible to see the Monster as an externalization of Victor’s sexual impulses the ugliness of the monster suggesting his horror of normal sexuality. The monster assures Victor that he will be with him on his wedding night, the time Victor can no longer avoid confronting his own sexuality. He leaves Elizabeth alone, but does that part of himself he rejects, this sexuality, not disappear. Instead, it turns destructive; he unleashes upon her this ugly violent thing the embodiment of his own twisted sexual impulses.

The Critique of Society

While the family in the institution most thoroughly examined and analysed throughout Frankenstein there is more general challenge to, and criticism of the established social order and its institutions. In the story of the De Lacey’s, in the treatment of the creature, and in the trial of Justine, human injustice is repeatedly emphasized. As Elizabeth observes after the execution of Justine, “Men appear to me as monster’s thirsting for each other’s blood”. She may immediately retract her words, saying, “Yet I am certainly unjust”, but the idea that society itself is monstrous is one of the key themes of the novel

Social institutions such as the law and the Church are repeatedly shown to be corrupt, Mary Shelley frequently uses the monster as her mouth piece in her critique of oppression and inequality. From his own experiences and those of the De Lacey family, the monster learns so much about social injustice, and provides some pointed economic critiques. He sees how “high and unsullied descent united with riches are the possessions esteemed above all, and that without at least one of these, a man would he considered a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profit of the chosen few.”

The Monstrous and the Human

As a rational and eloquent being, Victor’s creation blurs distinctions between the human and the non-human. To call him, in what has become the accepted manner, the “monster” is problematic. We need to recognize that in doing so we may be in part assuming the perspective of Victor Frankenstein and all the other characters who reject him in horror simply on the basis of his frightening appearance. As Chris Baldick notes in The Politics of Monstrosity’, while monster in modem usage means “something frighteningly unnatural or of huge dimensions”, in earlier usages a monster is “something or someone to be shown. (C. Latin, montare: French, montrer, English demonstrate).”

Monsters provide a visible warning of the results of vice or folly. Mary Shelley’s novel, however, problematises the very notions of monstrosity and humanity. If the creature’s appearance is a visible warning, it is a warning of Victor’s folly, not his own. And although the creature’s exterior may be horrific, he is at least initially, certainly not frighteningly unnatural, rather. he is far more natural and humane than the “father” who rejects him, the villagers who stone him, the ungrateful father who shoots him. It is only when he is exposed to, and suffers from the viciousness of human society that he himself begins to demonstrate the violent behaviour to act as the monster his appearance suggests him to be. Can we say that real monsters are created by suffering and oppression? Then again from what he has seen of his treatment at the hands of ordinary humans up until this point we might also say that this new “monstrous” behaviour is quite generally characteristic of the “human”, and not just displayed by the oppressed. It is significant that this is the decision of society’s leaders to execute Justine that causes Elizabeth to declare how, in their violence and cruelty, people appear to be “monsters thirsting for each other’s blood. What, Mary Shelley forces us to ask, is a monster? We can hardly make a clear distinction between the two.

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