The plot revolves around Victor Frankenstein, who is dissatisfied with the limits of traditional knowledge and buries himself in scientific studies to discover hidden secrets of life and death. He succeeds brilliantly, ultimately becoming, like God, able to create life, but he pays a great price for his ambition, separating himself from nature, his family, and his fiancee.
Even the moment of his greatest success proves to be ominous. When his new creation comes to life, Victor is unwilling to face up to his responsibilities. He turns his back, spurning the being who should be his child or brother. As a result, the creature begins a life of alienation that turns him into a monster.
Ironically, the monster is articulate and sympathetic as he tells his own sad story. Although he is born in a state of innocence, constant mistreatment by everyone with whom he comes in contact makes him extremely bitter and causes him to strike back in a murderous rage at his creator, who turned him loose in a loveless world. The monster’s revenge comes when he robs Victor of his loved ones.
From this point on, the monster and Victor are bound together, not as the brothers they should have been but as deadly enemies. The quest to create life is completely perverted as Victor chases the monster across the barren, icy wilderness of the North Pole, where both of them perish.
The novel is thus an effective critique of man’s penchant for irresponsible creativity, his willingness to make scientific and technological experiments that may seriously threaten rather than serve his most important need for love, friendship, and tranquillity. But Victor and the monster are not so much villains as they are typically ambiguous Romantic heroes: Victor fails miserably, but his quest is inspiring; and the monster, though a murderer, is also a victim, and an eloquent and sympathetic rebel against forces that violate his basic rights.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Offers a wide variety of critical essays on the novel.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. An important early study that emphasizes Shelley’s response, as a woman writer, to John Milton.
Grylls, R. Glynn. Mary Shelley: A Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1938. Includes extensive discussion of events surrounding the writing of Frankenstein.
Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Discusses Frankenstein as a central feminine text in its century.
Levine, George, and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Collection of essays focusing more on the endurance of the story of Frankenstein rather than the novel, most notably “The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein: A Survey,” by Albert J. LaValley.
Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988. Combines critical analysis of the novel with biographical material from Shelley’s life.
Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Analyzes Shelley’s works in the context of the pressures experienced by women writers in the nineteenth century.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by Johann Smith. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. This edition contains five essays exemplifying different approaches to the novel and a good bibliography.