Frankenstein began as a short story written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley while she was on summer vacation in Switzerland with her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and with poet Lord Byron and physician-writer John William Polidori. The novel was first published anonymously in 1818 and was then followed by a revised version in 1831, crediting Mary Shelley as the author and including an autobiographical introduction that reflects on her life and on the novel’s authorship.
The novel’s themes center on the social and cultural aspects of society during Shelley’s lifetime, including the movement away from the intellectually confining Enlightenment. The characters in the novel reflect the struggle against societal control. The monster, in particular, is an outcast from society, and the reader is able to empathize with his subsequent rage at being ostracized. Nature and science, opposing forces during this time period, are important themes shaping the novel.
Early nineteenth century society’s views of human standards were associated with the natural sciences. Some literary critics suggest that nature and physiology, specifically anatomy and reproduction, are linked in literature. Irregularities in the human standard were therefore viewed as unacceptable by society, and through an innate reaction, these differences were rejected. Even though Frankenstein’s monster develops language skills, emotion, and consciousness, he appears as a grotesque being and is spurned by society because he does not fit any ideal.
Shelley employs many stylistic techniques in Frankenstein. She uses explorer Robert Walton’s epistolary communication with his sister as part of an outer frame structure that segues into a flashback of Victor Frankenstein’s experiences leading up to and after the creation of the monster. First-person narrative is used in Walton’s voice, while the core chapters offer Victor’s personal narration. In addition, Shelley uses dialogue to provide the thoughts of other characters, such as the monster. Also evident are characteristics of gothic horror, including a foreboding setting, violent and mysterious events, and a decaying society.
Many themes in Frankenstein represent not only the social and political theories of Shelley’s time but also those that followed. For example, Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex can be seen in Victor’s attempts to replace his deceased mother by “birthing” a being who represents her. Elaborating on this theory, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan adds a pre-Oedipal stage, in which young children learn language through nonverbal communication. This stage is evident in Victor’s attempt to learn the language of the sciences, and in the creature’s attempt to seek knowledge about society and language. Victor and the creature are “doubles” (or mirrors) of each other because they are both struck with the inability to successfully communicate with society. This theme demonstrates the balance of the conscious and unconscious aspects of human behavior.
Another theme, the search by the novel’s male protagonists for a teacher who will provide them political and social guidance, represents Lockean theory, which claims that education determines a person’s level of value in society. For example, during a conversation with Victor, Walton denounces his lack of formal education, demonstrating his lack of a friend (or formal teacher) to lead him to enlightenment. Additionally, Victor acknowledges his father’s lack of leadership in guiding his interest in the natural sciences.
Prior to the 1970’s, most criticism about Frankenstein focused on Shelley’s life and the story behind the novel’s authorship and creation. As the novel received increased critical attention, evaluations started to focus on its storyline and characters as a reflection of the author. This change in focus was, in part, due to the emergence of feminist theory in the 1970’s and 1980’s, a theory that began to establish the academic value and significance of female writers. Critics have evaluated the work’s lack of dominant female characters, but also have examined its attention to the idea of the Romantic artist.
Frankenstein has been further critiqued through the lens of gender. In the novel, the feminine is not central; rather, the novel features characters who have both masculine and feminine qualities. Furthermore, relationships between women figure in the novel, namely the relationship between Justine and Elizabeth. When Justine faces execution, the two establish a bond that begins during a brief conversation about their shared experiences. Female relationships were tenuous in Shelley’s own life, too, particularly because of the premature death of her mother and her questionable relationship with her half-sister, Jane (later known as Claire), who was rumored to have had a child with Shelley’s husband.
Frankenstein revolutionized the genres of gothic literature, science fiction, and horror stories, and elevated the status of the Romantic artist. Written by Shelley when she was only nineteen years old, the novel offers artistic flare, originality, and a maturity beyond Shelley’s age. In the last decades of the twentieth century, this work reached a new status in critical evaluation. It remains an undisputed fictional masterpiece.