Because many young readers come to Frankenstein with preconceived ideas of the content, derived from a plethora of television and film renditions, the complexity and ambivalence of the actual text may present a challenge. The epistolary structure of the novel is important, as readers never hear the monster’s tale directly. It is always filtered through Frankenstein’s narration, Walton’s writings, or both.
Resonating through the novel is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), a poem that Mary Shelley knew well and quotes in the text. Like the Mariner, Frankenstein is compelled to tell his tale to one who might profit from it. Unlike the Mariner, however, there is no evidence that Frankenstein has gained clear insight into himself and repented. When he, near death from cold and exhaustion, first accosts Walton, he verifies that their direction is north before accepting help. Later, he eloquently pleads with Walton’s men to remain steadfast in their exploration no matter what the danger or the cost. He tells Walton that he finds nothing blameable in his past conduct. Dying, he urges Walton to seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition. His final words throw this self-awareness into doubt, however, for he admits that while his own hopes were blasted, someone else might succeed.
In Coleridge’s tale, the listener goes away a sadder and a wiser man. Walton, who has listened to both Frankenstein and the monster, does likewise, his idealism tempered by an acknowledgement of human frailty and balanced with a more wholesome realization of the need for close human ties. He turns the ship south, putting commitment to the needs of his men ahead of his desire for renown and glory. Frankenstein and the monster remain ambivalent characters. There is much to applaud and appreciate in Frankenstein’s driving ambition and much to pity in his gradual abandonment of all human affection and his obsession first with the pursuit of knowledge and then of revenge. In the monster, there is much with which to sympathize and much to condemn. One reason that Shelley’s book has remained popular is that it captures modern humanity’s paradoxical fascination with gaining control of nature through scientific discoveries and fear of what those discoveries can unleash.
The novel can be interpreted in several ways. Because the original edition bears a quotation from Paradise Lost and because the monster derives all of his theology from that work, it is easy to see in Frankenstein an analogy for God’s creation of human beings and their exile to a world of pain and loss after the Fall, which might be taken as God’s rejection. In addition, what psychologist Sigmund Freud would later define as the id often takes the shape of a double. It is possible to see the monster as Frankenstein’s double and to find deeply repressed reasons for why Frankenstein would wish the death of the people whom the monster murders. One can also see Frankenstein as a symbol of reason and the monster as the emotion that he must suppress in order to achieve his ambitions; such feelings can be suppressed only temporarily, with disastrous consequences. Henry Clerval is in many ways a foil for Frankenstein and Walton. Like them, he is idealistic. Unlike them, he puts filial duty above ambition. While he achieves his goals, he does not do so at the expense of relationships, which always remain his major priority.