Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often described by modern scholars as the first example of a science fiction novel. More importantly, however, from a literary analysis perspective, it is one of the key texts of early gothic and cements many of the traits and techniques which would later come to typify the genre. In the late nineteenth century, gothic reemerged as a dominant literary genre among the fin de siècle writers, and most of the repeated motifs, concerns, and approaches in these stories can be traced back to Shelley. Thus, in Frankenstein there is a concern with duality and doppelgangers which is then utilized by Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case ofDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). It also makes use of an epistolary style which recurs in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and a frame narrative—a story within a story—which forces the reader to question the reliability of each narrator in turn, as later utilized by Henry James in The Turn of the Screw. Shelley’s Frankenstein also sets into motion questions about the ethics of science, and the potential abuse of science, which resurface in H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, among others. It has repeatedly been suggested that gothic literature identifies the social concerns of society at a point in time and then reflects those concerns through metaphor. It is interesting, then, to compare Shelley’s Frankenstein to stories written sixty years later and track the progress of social anxiety about such elements as the rise of science and the duality of man, while many of Shelley’s techniques still provide the vehicles through which these concerns are interrogated.
The framing devices Shelley uses in Frankenstein are particularly intricate and therefore particularly illuminating. The creature itself sits at the very core of the novel, with two layers of expression—that of his creator, Victor Frankenstein, and that of the supposedly detached observer, Walton—enclosing it. Arguably, Walton, the sailor, is intended to represent a mouthpiece character, one with whom the reader might identify. The fact that his narration is composed of letters, dated to give a sense of verisimilitude, may lead us to believe that he is reliable; he lends legitimacy to Victor Frankenstein’s story, which he introduces, supposedly to his sister. However, it is at the same time very clear that Walton is not an objective observer of Victor Frankenstein. On the contrary, there is a deep sense of something missing in Walton, a craving for a “friend,” which causes him to see Frankenstein as a kindred spirit, someone who might finally understand him. The two men can readily be compared and contrasted: both are ambitious, believing themselves to be worthy of a “niche in the temple” occupied by such greats as Shakespeare and Homer. Both are seeking to push the boundaries of their fields beyond what has previously been achieved. But by placing Walton’s narrative around that of Frankenstein, Shelley also invites us to observe the differences between them. Where Frankenstein, having achieved what he set out to do, ultimately destroys himself, Walton is able to pull himself back from the brink.
Still more interesting is Shelley’s decision to allow the creature his own voice, enveloped within the section of the story narrated by Victor Frankenstein. The creature’s erudite and soulful expression gives the lie to Frankenstein’s own descriptions of him and forces the reader to question how far Frankenstein can be trusted. Can this creature really be the gruesome, monstrous, and “evil” being Frankenstein believes him to be? Assuming that he truly has committed...
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the violent acts that Frankenstein claims—and Walton’s concluding section of narrative lends veracity to this—can he truly be blamed for his behavior? How far should we be willing to accept Frankenstein’s apology, and which, after all, is truly the monster? It is particularly notable that the narrative technique invites us not only to identify a duality between Frankenstein and his creation, painting them as funhouse mirrors of each other, it also clearly draws out a similarity between the creature and Walton, the reader’s avatar. Inasmuch as Walton is emotionally isolated, lonely, and desperate for a friend, the creature, too, expresses the idea that all living beings have the right to a companion and that to deny him this right is an inhuman act on Frankenstein’s part. If the everyman, Walton, and the grotesque abomination, Frankenstein’s creature, share the same core desire, how monstrous can the creature truly be?
The style of Frankenstein owes much to the Romanticism in which Mary Shelley was steeped at the time of writing. As part of her drive to present the creature as possessing human qualities, she strongly emphasizes his interest in, and capacity to derive beauty from, nature, a core Romantic concern. Shelley’s parents had both been strong proponents of Romanticism, and it is therefore not surprising to see these traits resurface in her work; what is notable, however, is that the text of Frankenstein which has been accepted into literary canon was laboriously edited and rewritten by Shelley’s husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The daughter of protofeminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley is often the subject of feminist criticism, not least because the issues with which her creature struggles—being misunderstood, being viewed as worthless because of perceived physical defects, being viewed as an imbecile despite possessing enormous intelligence—were all things with which women struggled, in the time of Shelley and subsequently. It is ironic, therefore, to note that Shelley was not trusted by her husband to tell her own story—her writing is filtered through a masculine lens. The 1818 text, without Percy’s alterations, is more political, sharper and less softened by lavish description than the 1831 edition with which we are all familiar; the monstrous aspects of its visage are allowed to present themselves to the world unchallenged.