The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus is framed as a series of letters written by polar explorer Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville, who is home in England. He relates to her his adventures, including a story told to him by a young man, Victor Frankenstein, whom his ship has rescued from the polar ice.
As a young university student at Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, Frankenstein is determined to find the secret of life. He studies constantly, ignoring his family back in Geneva, Switzerland. He steals body parts from charnel houses and medical laboratories, then uses the power of electricity to create a living being. He immediately knows he has erred: His creature is ghastly. It leaves Frankensteins quarters, but not his life.
Frankenstein next sees the creature back in Geneva, where he has returned following the death of his young brother William. Although a servant girl, Justine, is accused of causing Williams death, Frankenstein sees the creature lurking near the place of the murder and knows he is the killer. Frankensteins anguish is intensified when innocent Justine is executed for the murder. In his agony, Frankenstein leaves home to wander in the mountains. The creature confronts him and tells him his own story.
After leaving Ingolstadt, the creature wandered throughout the countryside. He discovered quickly that he was frightening and repugnant to humans and took to traveling at night and hiding during the day....
(The entire section is 535 words.)
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The structure of Frankenstein is epistolary, a popular novel framework in the nineteenth century that might be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. The story consists of letters from Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. At first, they contain incidents of his own Arctic exploration and reveal him as a man obsessed with a “love for the marvellous” that lures him from mundane pursuits that would anchor him to humanity. When he encounters Victor Frankenstein, the epistolary framework dissolves, and Victor tells his tale in the first person.
Growing up in a wealthy Geneva household, Victor passes a happy childhood in the company of Elizabeth Lavenza and Henry Clerval. At seventeen, he enters the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, where he is determined to discover the origin of life. He succeeds in animating a piecework human body, but he is horrified and flees from the creature that he has fashioned. Two years later, after he receives news that his brother William has been murdered, Victor sees the monster and intuitively knows him to be the murderer. Victor remains silent even though Justine Moritz is convicted of the crime and executed. Later, he meets the monster on Mt. Montanvert and listens to his story.
Having found shelter in a hovel attached to a cottage inhabited by the DeLacey family, the monster learned to speak. When the DeLaceys took in Safie, an Arab woman whom they had known in wealthier and happier days in...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Arctic Circle. Frankenstein is told at a great distance, both physically and psychologically. The epistolary novel opens with letters from Robert Walton to his sister in England. Walton is on an exploring expedition to the far north, and his letters are dated from locations farther and farther north, starting with St. Petersburg, Russia, then Archangel, then unspecified locations, as Walton passes into unexplored territory. When his ship is surrounded by fog and ice floes, his crew sees Victor Frankenstein crossing the ice with a dog sled. They rescue him; Frankenstein tells his story. Before he does so, however, Frankenstein indicates that the desire to find the North Pole is as dangerous as his inquiry into unknown scientific regions, asking Walton, “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness?” When Frankenstein’s story is complete, he dies. His monstrous creation, after finally forgiving him, flees across the polar sea and out of human knowledge.
*Geneva. City in western Switzerland that is home to Victor Frankenstein, who describes it lovingly, speaking of its “majestic and wondrous scenes” and the “sublime shapes of the mountains.” The countryside is described more fully than the city, but enough details are given to indicate that Shelley knew Geneva well. While Shelley was staying near Lake Geneva with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, and other friends,...
(The entire section is 895 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Frankenstein is, in many ways, a tale of mixed identities. Thus it seems somehow fitting that tradition has always linked the name of Frankenstein with a monstrous being rather than with the mad scientist who created him. Yet in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, the original version of this popular story, Frankenstein is that scientist, and only on a symbolic level does the reader confuse him with his horrible creation. This is not the only pair of linked identities in the novel. The monster, as he is called here, serves as a kind of alter ego to each of the novel’s main characters—and even, finally, to its author. Shelley seems to sympathize more fully with the monster than with any other character.
Shelley structures the story like a Russian nesting doll: It is really a story within a story within a story. Robert Walton opens the tale, writing letters home to his sister as he embarks on a fantastic voyage of Arctic exploration. He hungers for a friend, a like-minded companion. Then, in his fourth letter, he describes how he has found a man out wandering on the ice, weak from exposure and malnourishment, and taken him into his ship. He sees in him the potential friend for whom he has longed. The man is Victor Frankenstein, and Walton lets him speak.
Victor recounts the story of his life, starting with his privileged childhood in Geneva, Switzerland. From an early age, he was obsessed with creating life. All science was, to...
(The entire section is 790 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The revival of scholarly interest in Frankenstein has directly paralleled the emergence and development of feminist literary scholarship. On the one hand, Shelley’s novel has perhaps been an obvious subject of study for those who investigate the separate tradition of literature by women. On the other hand, Frankenstein anticipated and provided many of the concerns that feminist scholars would have. It expresses the rage and pain felt by those who are left out, who are not allowed a full place in their own culture.
Mary Shelley tells the reader that she felt some pressure to be a writer: Both her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were celebrated writers, and it was expected that she would continue the tradition. Yet her introduction is full of apologies for her work, and one sees everywhere the marks of difficulties she had being taken seriously. Not the least of these is the preface that was written by Percy Shelley in her voice, in which he acknowledges that the “humble novelist” needs to explain why she might aspire to the heights of great poetry. Frankenstein represents, symbolically, both some of the pressures on a woman writer and her critique of the culture that has created her but sees her as its “monster.”
The female characters in Shelley’s novel do not offer any kind of model response to the failures enacted by the males. Only in the novel’s symbolic vocabulary, in its acts of...
(The entire section is 359 words.)
Shelley uses an important literary technique — the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Walton tells the whole story of Frankenstein and his monster as related to him by Frankenstein, with the addition of his own meeting with the monster after Frankenstein's death within the context of his Arctic exploration. Within Frankenstein's account is the monster's own tale of what he did after fleeing from Frankenstein: How he watched the De Laceys and came to understand human speech, emotion, and history. Each of the stories presents comparisons and contrasts to the others. For example, Walton's exploration of the Arctic is a scientific discovery similar to Frankenstein's creation of the monster, but Walton's expedition fails when his men force him to turn back, whereas Frankenstein does succeed in creating the monster, although the results are questionable.
In addition to having the stories play off one another, Shelley uses the characters to play off one another. Walton, for instance, feels much sympathy for Frankenstein but resembles the monster. He, too, longs for companionship — he has "no friend ... no one to participate [in] my joy ... to sustain me in dejection." When Frankenstein dies, Walton loses both his dreams of friendship and his dream of discovery.
In a tale of a murderous and revengeful monster, there are, of course, scenes of violence and terror: three murders, an execution, and a cottage burned by arson, as well as three more...
(The entire section is 363 words.)
The French Revolution and the Rise of Industrialism
Most of the early Romantic waters strongly advocated the French Revolution, which began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, a prison where the French royalty kept political prisoners. The revolution signaled a throwing off of old traditions and customs of the wealthy classes, as the balance of economic power shifted toward the middle class with the rise of industrialism. As textile factories and iron mills increased production with advanced machinery and technology, the working classes grew restive and increasingly alarmed by jobs that seemed insecure because a worker could be replaced by machines. Most of England's literary thinkers welcomed revolution because it represented an opportunity to establish a harmonious social structure. Shelley's father William Godwin, in fact, strongly influenced Romantic writers when he wrote Inquiry Concerning Political Justice because he envisioned a society in which property would be equally distributed. Shelley's mother Mary Wollstonecraft, also an ardent supporter of the revolution, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke's attack on the revolution. She followed two years later with A Vindication of the Rights of Women, supporting equality between the sexes.
(The entire section is 654 words.)
The setting of the novel ranges all over Europe, emphasizing places with which Shelley herself was familiar: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, and even the Arctic. The tale begins and ends in the Arctic with the explorer Robert Walton seeking a northwest passage. On his journey he first meets Victor Frankenstein and then the monster himself. The arctic atmosphere itself is a fitting symbol for the scientific enterprise on which Frankenstein has embarked and Walton is embarking. The landscape is barren and white: it is human beings who turn the landscape and scientific creation into colorful creation or black horror.
As Dr. Frankenstein lies dying, he recounts his history to Walton. When he speaks of his home in Geneva by a blue lake and snowy mountains, his description is filled with warmth, light, and love. At age seventeen Frankenstein became a student at the University of Ingolstadt, in upper Bavaria, where he later creates his monster.
. . . dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me...
Frankenstein recoils from his creation, and the monster flees. The rest of the novel follows the theme of pursuit and thus ranges over Europe. Frankenstein has a nervous breakdown and returns to the peacefulness of home. To cure his despair, he wanders on one occasion to the valley of Chamounix. Here, he meets the monster again. Shelley's descriptive powers heighten...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Approaches to discussing Frankenstein are numerous. It can be looked at by itself as a work of literary art. Note the imagery and how it is used to enhance mood while also serving to symbolize the emotions of the characters. Are the characters well developed, or does the novel emphasize plot to the detriment of characterization? The novel can be looked at in its historical context. How does it represent Romanticism? Is it a critique of the science of its day? The universal qualities of the novel also invited comment. Is its indictment of scientific arrogance valid? Does it capture anything important about humanity's quest for knowledge? Do the characters represent anything universal about the human condition. Another interesting approach to the novel would be to see how its story has evolved in the adaptations of others. What about the Frankenstein story has captivated several generations of readers? Why do audiences still respond to the old story? How do the adaptations reflect the interests of their audiences? What is it about the novel that inspires adaptations and sequels?
1. Why is the novel subtitled The Modern Prometheus?
2. Why does Frankenstein create such a large, ugly monster rather than a normal-sized, good-looking man?
3. Why does Frankenstein not make a mate for the monster?
4. Why, initially, does Frankenstein hate his creature?
5. What is the purpose of the De Lacey interlude?...
(The entire section is 495 words.)
Volume 1: Letters 1-4 Questions and Answers
1. What does Robert Walton hope to accomplish on his voyage?
2. How did Walton prepare himself for the expedition?
3. What did Walton read for the first 14 years of his life?
4. How old is Robert Walton?
5. Why did the ship’s master decide not to get married?
6. How far is the ship from land when Walton sees the gigantic figure in the dogsled?
7. How does Walton describe his expedition when his new passenger asks about the ship’s destination?
8. How does Walton feel about the man he rescues?
9. Why is the man Walton rescues traveling alone on the ice?
10. How does Walton feel about hearing his new friend’s story?
1. Walton wants to visit, and walk upon, a part of the world that has never been seen before.
2. Walton prepared by going without food and sleep. He also endured cold temperatures. He worked on whaling ships during the day, and then studied all night.
3. As a child and as a young man, Walton read his uncle Thomas’s books of voyages.
4. Walton is 28 years old.
5. The fiancée of the ship’s master loved another man. He let her go because he wanted her to be happy.
6. Walton believes he is hundreds of miles from land when he sees the dogsled.
7. Walton tells the man he is on a “voyage of...
(The entire section is 274 words.)
Volume 1: Chapters 1 and 2 Questions and Answers
1. How did Victor’s father spend his “younger days”?
2. While Victor was intrigued by science as a child, what were Elizabeth’s chief interests?
3. What did Henry Clerval write when he was nine years old?
4. Where does Victor first come across the works of Agrippa?
5. What does Victor witness during the thunderstorm?
6. Why doesn’t Henry Clerval attend the university with Victor?
7. What subject does Professor M. Krempe teach?
8. How does M. Waldman react when he hears the names of Agrippa and Paracelsus?
9. Before he leaves for the university, what does Victor hope to accomplish with his scientific studies?
10. According to Professor Waldman, what have the “modern masters” learned about blood and air?
1. He was “perpetually occupied by the affairs of his country.”
2. Elizabeth was concerned with the “aerial creations of the poets.” Victor explains that while he sought to discover the secrets of the world, Elizabeth thought of the world as a “vacancy, which she sought to people with imaginations of her own.”
3. Henry wrote a fairy tale that delighted all his friends.
4. Victor comes across the works of Agrippa at an inn near the baths of Thonon.
5. Victor witnesses a bolt of lightning that strikes and...
(The entire section is 267 words.)
Volume 1: Chapters 3, 4, and 5 Questions and Answers
1. After he begins his study of natural philosophy, how does Victor feel about M. Waldman?
2. How tall does Victor plan to make his creature?
3. How does Victor describe himself after his months of study?
4. In what month does Victor finally complete his experiment?
5. What color is the creature’s hair and lips?
6. After he brings the creature to life, who does Victor dream about meeting in Ingolstadt?
7. What does the creature do when he visits Victor in his bedroom?
8. As he wanders the streets of Ingolstadt, what poem does Victor quote?
9. After he recovers from his illness, how does Victor react when he finally sees his laboratory instruments again?
10. When Henry invents tales to amuse Victor, what kind of writers does he imitate?
1. Victor says he regards Waldman as “a true friend.”
2. He plans to construct a figure that is eight feet tall.
3. Victor says he is pale and emaciated after months of study.
4. He brings the creature to life “on a dreary night of November.”
5. Black. Victor describes the creature as having flowing hair of “lustrous black” and “straight black lips.”
6. Victor dreams about meeting Elizabeth in Ingolstadt.
7. The creature grins and holds out his hand to Victor....
(The entire section is 253 words.)
Volume 1: Chapters 6 and 7 Questions and Answers
1. Who is Ernest Frankenstein?
2. Why did William hide from Ernest in Plainpalais?
3. Why did Elizabeth feel responsible for William’s murder?
4. How long has Victor been away from home, studying at Ingolstadt?
5. When Victor sees the creature in the Alps, why doesn’t he pursue it?
6. How has Elizabeth changed in the six years since Victor has seen her?
7. How does Justine look and behave during her trial?
8. How did Justine react when she was shown William’s body?
9. Whom does Victor consider to be the “true murderer” of William?
10. How does Elizabeth feel after she visits Justine in prison?
1. Ernest is Victor’s and William’s brother. He returned alone after he and William went off to play.
2. William and Ernest were playing hide-and-go-seek.
3. Elizabeth had given William the locket. She assumed the murderer killed William to get the locket, however, she believes Justine is innocent.
4. Victor has been away for six years.
5. The creature would be impossible to catch. Victor has seen it bound up Mount Saleve with tremendous speed and agility.
6. Elizabeth has grown up and become an “uncommonly lovely” woman.
7. Victor describes Justine as being calm and tranquil during the trial, and...
(The entire section is 256 words.)
Volume 2: Chapters 1 and 2 Questions and Answers
1. Where does the Frankenstein family move to after Justine is executed?
2. How does Victor spend his time at Belrive?
3. When does Victor like to sail his boat?
4. Besides sailing, what else does Victor consider doing at the lake?
5. How do Victor and his family travel to Chamonix?
6. What is Victor looking at when the creature appears?
7. What does Victor call the creature when he first sees him?
8. What happens when Victor tries to attack the creature?
9. Why does Victor agree to listen to the creature’s story?
10. What is the creature’s mood when he enters the hut with Victor?
1. The family moves into their house in Belrive.
2. Victor sails his sailboat aimlessly, letting the wind blow him in any direction.
3. He usually sails at night, after his family has gone to sleep.
4. Victor thinks about committing suicide by drowning himself in the lake.
5. They travel first by carriage and later, as they enter the mountains, by mule.
6. Victor is looking at Mont Blanc and Montanvert, two mountains in the Alps.
7. Victor calls him “Devil!” and a “vile insect.”
8. When Victor springs at the creature, the creature easily eludes him.
9. Victor is not only curious, but he is also...
(The entire section is 230 words.)
Volume 2: Chapters 3, 4, and 5 Questions and Answers
1. What is the first food the creature eats when he goes into the forest?
2. What does the creature call the moon?
3. What weapons do the villagers use to attack the creature?
4. What does Agatha, the young girl, do after she finishes playing her musical instrument?
5. Why is the creature perplexed at first by the unhappiness of the peasant family?
6. Who is the saddest member of the peasant family?
7. Do Felix, Agatha, and their father realize it is the creature who is helping them?
8. How does Felix change when Safie arrives?
9. What pet name does Felix call his fiancée?
10. What book does Felix use to instruct Safie?
1. The creature eats berries he finds growing on a tree.
2. The creature calls the moon the “orb of night.”
3. They use stones and “other kinds of missile weapons.”
4. Agatha holds her brother and sobs.
5. The family appears to have everything they need—food, shelter, clothing—and the creature doesn’t understand that they are actually living in poverty.
6. The creature believes Felix must have suffered more than the others because he appears to be the saddest person in the cottage.
7. They think it is a magical “good spirit” that is helping them.
8. Felix is...
(The entire section is 283 words.)
Volume 2: Chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9 Questions and Answers
1. What French city did the De Laceys live in?
2. At the conclusion of his trial, what sentence does Safie’s father receive?
3. Why didn’t Safie’s father want her to marry Felix?
4. What does Safie take with her when she leaves Turkey?
5. What are the creature’s “chief delights” when he is living in the shed?
6. How does old De Lacey describe the hearts of men to the creature?
7. What does the De Lacey family do after their encounter with the creature?
8. What does the creature do to the De Laceys’ cottage?
9. What happens when the creature sees the young girl fall into the stream?
10. Why does the creature think William will not be frightened by his appearance?
1. The De Laceys lived in Paris.
2. Safie’s father is condemned to death.
3. He loathed the idea that she would ever marry a Christian.
4. Safie takes her jewels and a small sum of money.
5. The creature enjoys nature, especially in the summer, delighting in “the sight of the flowers, the birds, and all the gay apparel.”
6. He says the hearts of men, when unprejudiced by self-interest, are “full of brotherly love and charity.”
7. They move out of the cottage and the creature never sees them again.
8. The creature...
(The entire section is 268 words.)
Volume 3: Chapters 1 and 2 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Victor want to go to England?
2. Why does Alphonse want Victor to marry Elizabeth?
3. How long does Victor plan to be away from Geneva?
4. What does Victor take with him on his trip?
5. What poem does Victor quote from as he describes the beautiful scenery on his trip?
6. In London, why does Clerval remind Victor of his “former self”?
7. Why does Victor agree to go to Scotland?
8. How does Victor feel when he and Henry visit Hampden’s tomb?
9. While he is traveling in Scotland, what does Victor fear the creature might do?
10. To what islands does Victor travel in Scotland?
1. He wants to go to England to create a companion for the creature; Victor must continue his studies and learn about the new scientific discoveries that were made in England.
2. Alphonse realizes that his son is depressed; he hopes the marriage will make him happy.
3. Victor plans to be away for two years.
4. At the last minute, Victor remembers to pack his chemical instruments.
5. Victor quotes from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”
6. Victor says Clerval is “inquisitive, and anxious to gain experience and instruction.” He reminds Victor of himself when he was young and enthusiastic.
7. Although he “abhorred...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
Volume 3: Chapters 3 and 4 Questions and Answers
1. Where does the creature go after Frankenstein destroys the female creature?
2. What do the fishermen deliver to Victor while he is sitting on the beach?
3. Does Victor ever reconsider his actions after he destroys the female creature?
4. Is Victor afraid when he is adrift at sea?
5. What language does Victor use to address the Irish people?
6. How does Victor describe Mr. Kirwin?
7. What did the fishermen do when they found Clerval’s body?
8. While he is delirious, what does Victor say that implicates him in the murder of Clerval?
9. What does the prison nurse tell Victor about his father?
10. Does Victor care that he is in prison?
1. The creature runs out of Frankenstein’s hut and rows out to sea.
2. The fishermen deliver a letter from Clerval suggesting that they travel to France together.
3. After he destroys the creature, Victor doubts himself, wondering if he did the right thing. But he says, “I banished from my mind every thought that could lead to a different conclusion.”
4. Even though he is miserable, Victor is grateful to be alive when the sea becomes calm and he sees land in the distance.
5. Victor speaks to them in English.
6. Mr. Kirwin is an “old, benevolent man, with calm and mild manners.”...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
Volume 3: Chapters 5 and 6 Questions and Answers
1. After he is released from prison, does Victor tell his father about the creature?
2. Why do Victor and Alphonse go to Paris?
3. Besides thinking that Victor may have found someone else, why does Elizabeth believe that Victor may not really want to marry her?
4. Does Elizabeth love Victor?
5. How does Victor behave in the days leading up to his wedding?
6. What does Victor think the monster plans to do on Victor’s wedding night?
7. Where do Victor and Elizabeth intend to live after their wedding?
8. How does Victor get back to Geneva from Evian?
9. How does the magistrate react when Victor tells him his story?
10. What is Victor’s response to the magistrate?
1. Even though Alphonse wonders why his son keeps blaming himself for the murders, Victor never tells him about the creature.
2. Alphonse has to attend to some business there.
3. When Elizabeth saw Victor in Geneva, she assumed he was depressed because of his obligation to marry her.
4. She loves him, but she worries that he is not really interested in marrying her.
5. Victor pretends to be happy. He fools his father, but not Elizabeth.
6. Victor thinks the monster will try to kill him.
7. Victor and Elizabeth plan to live in a house that was...
(The entire section is 270 words.)
Volume 3: Chapter 7 Questions and Answers
1. As Victor pursues the creature, what is the one thing that gives him pleasure?
2. What clues does the creature leave for Victor?
3. What does the creature steal from the villagers by the sea?
4. Why is Victor stranded on the ice?
5. How does Victor move his ice raft towards Walton’s ship?
6. How is the creature’s soul described by Victor ?
7. In his youth, what did Victor think he was destined to achieve?
8. Is Margaret Saville married?
9. When Walton’s crew wants to return home, what does Victor advise them?
10. Although Frankenstein wanted to destroy the monster, in his speech over Victor’s body, what does the creature say would have been a more satisfying revenge?
1. Victor finds pleasure only when he sleeps at night and dreams of Elizabeth and Henry, alive and healthy.
2. The creature leaves messages carved on rocks and trees.
3. The creature takes their store of winter food and a dogsled team.
4. Victor followed the creature onto the ice and could see him in the distance. But when he is within a mile of him, the creature disappears and the ice breaks apart, leaving Victor stranded.
5. Victor breaks his sled apart and uses the wood to row towards the ship.
6. He says his soul is “as hellish as his form,...
(The entire section is 304 words.)
Instead of beginning with Victor's point of view, Shelley introduces us to Walton first. Using a frame device, in which the tale is told to us by someone who reads it or hears it from someone else, Shelley invites readers to believe Victor's story through an objective person. Shelley also uses an important literary device known as the epistolary form—where letters tell the story—using letters between Walton and his sister to frame both Victor's and the creature's narrative. Before the novel's first chapter, Walton writes to his sister about the "wretched man" he meets, building suspense about the "demon" Victor mentions at the beginning of his narrative. Once Victor begins telling his story, we slowly learn about his childhood and the eventful moments leading up to his studies at the University. Then, the creature interrupts Victor, and we get to hear all the significant moments leading up to his request for a partner. Since the theme of listening is so central to this novel, Shelley makes sure, by incorporating three different narratives, that readers get to hear all sides of the story. Walton's letters introduce and conclude the novel, reinforcing the theme of nurturing.
The majority of the novel takes place in the Swiss Alps and concludes in the Arctic, although Victor and Clerval travel to other places, such as London, England, the Rhine River which flows from Switzerland north to the...
(The entire section is 986 words.)
Frankenstein is a product of its time — the early nineteenth century — a world of social, political, scientific, and economic upheaval. On the one hand, the novel emphasizes the importance of the intellect in seeking out the secrets of the universe (rationalism). Yet it also validates the emotions and the importance of individual needs (romanticism).
Aside from its historical interest, why does Frankenstein continue to be so popular, and what does it say to us today? For one thing, at the heart of the novel is a question about science and its relationship to humanity. Does science always act for the good of man, or does it have a dark side? Does man have the right or the power and intellect to act as a creator or God? Mary Shelley's answer seems to be that science and progress are ethically neutral with the capacity to work for either good or evil. Science thus presents humans with the enormous challenge to handle its power responsibly and humanely.
(The entire section is 165 words.)
Shelley uses an important literary technique—the story-within-a-storywithin- a-story. Walton tells the whole story of Frankenstein and his monster as related to him by Frankenstein, with the addition of his own meeting with the monster after Frankenstein's death within the context of his arctic exploration. Within Frankenstein's account is the monster's own tale of what he did after fleeing from Frankenstein: how he watched the De Laceys and came to understand human speech, emotion, and history. Each of the stories presents comparisons and contrasts to the others. For example, Walton's exploration of the Arctic is a scientific discovery similar to Frankenstein's creation of the monster, but Walton's expedition fails when his men force him to turn back, whereas Frankenstein does succeed in creating the monster, although the results are questionable.
In addition to having the stories play off one another, Shelley uses the characters to play off one another. Walton, for instance, feels much sympathy for Frankenstein but resembles the monster. He, too, longs for companionship— he has "no friend . . . no one to participate [in] my joy . . . to sustain me in dejection." When Frankenstein dies, Walton loses both his dreams of friendship and his dream of discovery.
Another literary technique which Shelley uses to give greater depth to her story is literary allusion. Frankenstein is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," an allusion to the Greek...
(The entire section is 392 words.)
In a tale of a murderous and revengeful monster, there are, of course, scenes of violence and terror; three murders, an execution and a cottage burned by arson, as well as three more deaths. Like classical Greek dramatists, Shelley to some extent mitigates the horror of these scenes by having the violence take place "offstage." That is, she never directly presents the monster strangling his victims. In each case she describes how the body is found and the sorrow the family members, friends, and community feel at the death. She emphasizes the grief rather than the grisly details of the murder or the horrible condition of the body. In no sense does she linger over gory details. The monster's victims are all innocent. If the monster had killed only his creator for cruelly abandoning him, the reader's judgment of the monster might be less harsh. The impact of the violence is further diminished because Frankenstein is reporting to Walton each murder long after the deed was done.
(The entire section is 167 words.)
Compare and Contrast
- Early 1800s: After the French Revolution ended, England turned its attention to domestic and economic concerns—particularly to problems resulting from a rapidly growing industrial nation.
Today: Domestic and economic concerns about employment and education also stem from rapid change, as the business world moves from emphasizing industrial production to a service and information economy.
- Early 1800s: Scientific advancements, especially Erasmus Darwin's studies in biological evolution, caused individuals to question God's authority and inquire into matters regarding the generation of human life.
Today: Animal scientists in Scotland successfully tweak the DNA from an adult sheep to clone another individual sheep. The U.S. government bans federal funding of experiments with cloning using human DNA.
- Early 1800s: Romantic writers experience a literary Renaissance as critical theory affirms the achievements of the great poets of the age. Writers enjoy literary freedom, experimenting with a bold new language and new genres like Gothicism.
Today: Appreciation of the arts seems to be on the decrease, as most individuals spend their time with television...
(The entire section is 288 words.)
Topics for Discussion
1. Why is the novel subtitled The Modern Prometheus?
2. Why does Frankenstein create such a large, ugly monster rather than a normal- sized, good-looking man?
3. Why does Frankenstein not make a mate for the monster?
4. Why, initially, does Frankenstein hate his creature?
5. What is the purpose of the De Lacey interlude? How does it relate to the novel as a whole?
6. What conclusion does the monster reach about mankind after hearing Volney's "Ruins of Empires" and reading Goethe, Plutarch, and Milton?
7. Why do we now refer to the monster as Frankenstein while in the novel he is unnamed?
8. Why does the monster kill Elizabeth?
9. In what ways is Frankenstein the "brother" of Walton's "heart"?
10. According to George Levine, "one of the novel's themes is the danger of knowledge." How is knowledge dangerous in Frankenstein?
11. Why does the monster keep leaving clues for Frankenstein to follow him?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. How does the popular conception of Frankenstein differ from the monster Shelley describes in Frankenstein? Why has this change come about? Why is Shelley's version still worth reading?
2. Describe the structure of the novel. How does the structure add to the novel's effectiveness?
3. The monster describes himself as being like both Adam and Satan. Compare and contrast these figures. Do we finally think of the monster as a degraded, noble creature or as a diabolical fiend?
4. In Chapter 5, Frankenstein quotes some lines from Coleridge's poem "The Rime of Ancient Mariner." Compare Frankenstein to the mariner.
5. Explain how the characters work as foils to and images of each other (Frankenstein-the-monster, Walton-Clerval-Elizabeth).
6. What is nature like in Frankenstein? Is it a force for good or evil?
7. Frankenstein's dying words to Walton are, "Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in my hopes, yet another may succeed." Why does Shelley close her novel with these lines? How does she feel about scientific discovery?
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Topics for Further Study
- Compare and contrast Robert Walton's and Victor Frankenstein's personalities. You might draw parallels between their quest to conquer the unknown, their emotional ties to other individuals, or their loneliness.
- Research some of the prominent issues in your society that Shelley addresses in her novel, such as genetic engineering, or the effects of abandonment on children whose fathers have disappeared from their lives. Make a comparison between the novel and your discoveries and discuss observations about how your society is coping with or addressing these sensitive issues.
- Analyze the theme of justice in the novel. What does Justine's trial have to do with Victor's treatment of his creature or the creature's treatment of Victor's family and friends? How does the theme of revenge relate to issues of justice?
- Research some of the characteristics of the Romantic movement, such as isolation, an emphasis on nature, or the notion that humans are inherently good, and argue how and why Shelley's novel is an embodiment of the English Romantic movement. Or, argue why her novel is not an embodiment of the English Romantic movement.
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There have been so many plays, movies, and recordings of Frankenstein that it would be difficult to list all of the productions. Therefore, the list below represents the most popular, most controversial, and most influential recordings and dramatizations:
- Recordings: Frankenstein phonodisc dramatization with sound effects and music, directed by Christopher Casson, Spoken Arts, 1970; Frankenstein, taken from a broadcast of the CBS program. Suspense, starring Herbert Marshall, American Forces Radio and Television Service, 1976; Frankenstein read by James Mason, Caedmon Records, 1977; Weird Circle, containing Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart; and Shelley's Frankenstein, recorded from original radio broadcasts, Golden Age, 1978.
- Films: Frankenstein starred Colin Clive and Boris Karloff; it was released by Universal in 1931. The Bride of Frankenstein, the sequel to the 1931 film, starred Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester; it was released in 1935 by Universal. Son of Frankenstein, also a sequel to the above mentioned productions, starred Basil Rathbone, Karloff, and Bela Lugosi and was released in 1939 by Universal. All three are available from MCA/Universal Home Video.
- The Curse of Frankenstein, a 1957 horror film produced by Warner Brothers, included Peter Cushing and Christopher...
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What Do I Read Next?
- Dracula by Bram Stoker was published in 1897 and horrified audiences with its tale of a bloodsucking vampire who appears at nightfall to pursue vulnerable women.
- Written by Mary Shelley in 1826, The Last Man is a work of science fiction that chronicles the extermination of the human race by plague.
- A work by Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) is the story of a man bound to and haunted by another man through his knowledge of a secret crime.
- Prometheus Unbound, by Percy Shelley, is a dramatized philosophical essay about the origin of evil and the moral responsibility of individuals to restore order in their world. It was published in 1820.
- Lois McMaster Bujold's Hugo-winning science-fiction novel Mirror Dance (1994) explores issues surrounding clones and an individual's responsibility to his clone.
- In Genetic Engineering: Dreams and Nightmares (1996), authors V. E. A. Russo, David Cove, and Enzo Russo present a discussion of the ethical issues surrounding modern scientific...
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For Further Reference
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Views: Mary Shelley. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. This volume collects some of the best modern critical essays on Mary Shelley's fiction.
Harris, Jane. The Woman Who Created Frankenstein: A Portrait of Mary Shelley. New York: Harper and Row, 1979. This biography of Mary Shelley, especially written for young readers, also contains a plot summary of Frankenstein and film information.
Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. London: Metheun, 1988. Mellor, a noted feminist critic, argues that Shelley identified with the motherless creature and that the character of Dr. Frankenstein was a parody of her husband.
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987. This is a reworking of Spark's 1951 biography of Shelley, Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Shelley. It is divided into two parts, biographical and critical information.
St. Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family. New York: Norton, 1989. St. Clair explains the interplay of radical political beliefs, divergent moral standards, and literary achievement of four of the most influential thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Sunstein, Emily. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. Seen against the backdrop of her parents and husband, whose careers and reputations so...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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:...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Forry, Steven Earl. Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Nichie, Elizabeth. Mary Shelley: Author of Frankenstein. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, introduction by Diane Johnson. Bantam Books, 1991.
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987.
Summers, Montague. The Gothic Quest. Russell & Russell, 1964.
Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1989.
Ty, Eleanor. "Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley." In Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 3: Writers of the Romantic Period, 1789-1832. Gale, 1991,...
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Another literary technique which Shelley uses to give greater depth to her story is literary allusion. Frankenstein is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," an allusion to the Greek god Prometheus who championed humankind and brought fire to it. Prometheus' kindness toward humanity, however, has a backlash: Humans are alienated from heaven. Frankenstein is a modern Prometheus in that, striving against human limitations to bring light to people, he creates a humanlike creature but alienates himself from his creation once he sees it can never fit into humanity.
Another important literary allusion in Frankenstein is to John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). The book is introduced by three lines from Paradise Lost, and Paradise Lost is one of the three books which the monster reads and on which he founds his beliefs about the cosmos. He sees himself as both Adam and Satan — alone like Adam before Eve, yet bitter like Satan viewing the bliss of God. From these and other uses of literary allusion, Shelley makes her story much more than a horror story of a mad doctor and his monster: It is a creation story of profound frustration, alienation, and responsibility, with resonances of ancient Greek and Christian thought.
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Adaptations of Frankenstein may well number in the hundreds. The most significant motion picture adaptation is director James Whale's Frankenstein of 1931. A short motion picture (seventy-one minutes), it was probably meant to be a second feature. But Boris Karloff gives a remarkable performance as the monster, conveying a combination of menace and innocence which to this day captures the imaginations of viewers. His monster is much different from the one in Shelley's novel; without dialogue, Karloff must use gesture and facial expression to convey meaning and emotion. The basic events of the novel have been radically condensed and simplified, so that the motion picture is not an authentic rendering of the novel. The monster rampages through the countryside, eventually pursued by the now classic and clichéd horde of torch-carrying villagers. Karloff is well supported by Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, and John Boles.
James Whale also directed Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which again stars Karloff as the monster. This too is a short motion picture, only seventy-five minutes, but it is highly regarded by critics as the quintessential horror film. Colin Clive, as Henry Frankenstein, is compelled by Dr. Praetorius (Ernest Thesiger) to create a female monster. Bride of Frankenstein includes some of the most memorable scenes in cinema, such as the female monster's reaction to seeing her intended mate for the first time. Actors Valerie...
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