Frankenstein Analysis
by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Frankenstein Analysis

  • Frankenstein is often described as the first science fiction novel. Heavily influenced by Romanticism, it in turn became a highly influential text of the early gothic.
  • The framing device of Walton’s letters lends Walton’s narration a sense of realism, but Walton is not the objective observer he first appears. By enclosing Victor’s story within Walton’s, Shelley invites readers to compare the two men.
  • The creature’s story calls Victor’s claims into question, portraying the creature not as an inherently heartless fiend but as an intelligent, emotional being. His narrative raises the question of which character, Victor or the creature, is truly monstrous.

Download Frankenstein Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Analysis

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 of Dr. 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...

(The entire section is 10,341 words.)