How might one argue that Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is a flawed work of art?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Although Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has today achieved the status of a modern classic, its reception has not always been positive. Even in its own day the book was often criticized; by the standards of creative writing in the early twenty-first century the book can be – and has been – criticized in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • In Chapter 10 of the book, Victor Frankenstein is hiking in the Alps when he says that he paused and

exclaimed, "Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life."

By current literary standards, such an exclamation sounds improbable, implausible, and pretentious.

  • When the creature approaches Victor, Victor exclaims as follows:

Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust!

Some readers might consider such phrasing excessively melodramatic and overwrought. The reference to the creature as an “insect” seems especially incongruous, since Victor has just emphasized the creature’s enormous size. The idea that Victor could trample such a huge and powerful creature “to dust” seems boastful at best, laughable at worst.

  • Nothing can ever quite prepare a modern reader for the fact that the first words out of the creature’s mouth are these:

“I expected this reception. . . . All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!”

The fact that the creature speaks in the tone, vocabulary, and manner of an educated nineteenth-century gentleman seems, at first, preposterous, although Shelley later tries to explain this unlikely talent. The creature’s vocabulary is enormous and, in fact, he sounds very much like Mary Shelley and her circle.

  • The creature not only speaks like a graduate of a fine English college but even shows a flair for poetic phrasing, as when he threatens, “I will glut the maw of death. . . .” If he had simply said, “I will kill,” he might be more credible.
  • The creature is not only highly articulate and not only sounds as if he is very well-read, but he also speaks in the kind of heightened manner (full of “thees” and “thous”) that was sometimes associated with eloquence in the early nineteenth century:

Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me.

Few people actually spoke or wrote this way during Shelley’s time, and so such phrasing can often sound pretentious to modern readers.

  • The creature is not only articulate, educated, eloquent, and poetic; he is also extremely thoughtful and philosophical and could easily hold his own as a member of a university debating society:

“Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.”

Shelley, of course, was not writing for modern readers. She was writing for her contemporaries. Many early readers, however, also objected to the book; some of them even found it laughable, although others praised it.



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