Any interpretation of Shelley’s novel must come to terms with the central relationship between Victor and his creature. When one reads the monster’s story in his own words, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for him. As a result, Victor must share some of the blame for the monster’s violent acts. How much? How much other blame is to be uncovered in this novel that is so full of pain and death? Why, too, in this novel written by a woman are the female characters flat and uniformly blameless? The question Shelley’s contemporaries asked was, as she put it, “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” Taken together, these questions seem to ask: What is this young woman writer saying about the masculine culture of her day?
Interpretations of the novel have seen considerable cultural criticism implicit in it. It has been read as a critique of modern science, for example. In this interpretation, Victor represents the tendency of science to divorce itself from ethics. As a scientist, Victor does not consider the consequences of his research, and he does not take responsibility for them when they are tragic. What is more, this lapse in Victor’s judgment arises in part from his absence from home, both literally and figuratively: In order to do his work, he must cut himself off from other human beings. Other interpretations of Victor have emerged. It has been argued that he represents the Byronic hero, the Faustian quality of the male Romantic poet. Shelley quotes often in the novel from the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poems help to express Victor’s (and Walton’s) sense of isolation and the haunted, feverish energy that dooms them.
Other interpretations of Victor and his monster have focused on the scenario of bringing life into the world. Readers note that Mary Shelley had given birth to a baby who died the year before she began Frankenstein, that she gave birth to a son six months before she began the novel, and that another child was born only three months after she finished it. Thus there were concrete reasons that her mind might have been full of thoughts about childbearing and parents’ responsibilities. Still, readers have differed in the connections they have drawn between Victor’s monstrous creation and Shelley’s own childbirths. Some have seen parallels and insisted that for Shelley childbirth must have seemed in some ways a hideous process. Others have instead drawn a contrast between “natural” birth, the domain of the woman, and the “unnatural” creation that Victor undertakes and for which he is aptly punished. Still others have instead drawn connections between the creation of the monster and the writing of a book—a metaphor Shelley herself implies in her introduction.
Another fruitful parallel that can be drawn between the novel and Shelley’s life has to do with her apparent sympathy for the monster. Just as the monster gathered his education by eavesdropping in silence, as a kind of outlaw student, so Shelley describes herself as having listened silently to the many conversations about science and poetry taking place among Percy Shelley, her husband, the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and their male friends. As a woman writer in the company of men, she may well have felt herself to be monstrous—not visibly, perhaps, but deeply. In this interpretation, the monster represents all that the woman writer must repress. The creature’s murders enact violent urges, then, that symbolically vent private rage. This may help explain both the flatness of the female characters and the powerful sympathy readers feel for the monster.
It may also explain the potent afterlife of the monster, as he has survived in version after version of the story in popular culture. Until the revival of scholarly interest in the novel during the 1970’s, Frankenstein was probably more strongly associated with the horror film than with Shelley’s book. That seems appropriate for a work that, in its own day, was written in a little-respected popular genre: the gothic novel. Many elements of the gothic novel are present: hauntings and graveyards, murders and picturesque Continental settings, innocent young women who are victims. Yet Shelley did not simply write a formula gothic. The scientist and his creature, and the complex narrative structure with all of its interconnections, are strictly her own. In this novel, she at once comments on the gothic and raises it a notch in complexity.