Teaching Approaches

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Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein as Character Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein. While both men are ambitious, Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with his goals. Ultimately, his ambition leads to disaster for himself and his loved ones. Conversely, Robert Walton decides to give up his quest to the North Pole in order to preserve both his life and the lives of his crew. 

  • For discussion: Follow Walton’s and Frankenstein’s predominant character traits as they develop throughout the novel, especially in relation to the context of the plot. How does each character respond to danger and discouragement? How does each change? 
  • For discussion: At the end of the novel, what do Walton’s and Frankenstein’s actions suggest about ambition and exploration? Do you think there is an intended moral? Explain your thinking. 

Scientific Exploration as a Theme: The majority of the novel’s conflicts are driven by Victor Frankenstein’s obsessive search for the origins of life. His curiosity and self-directed scientific studies spiral out of control, leading to isolation, deteriorating health, and destruction. 

  • For discussion: What evidence can you find of the novel’s repeated warnings that scientific knowledge can be dangerous and destructive? What does this evidence suggest about educational discipline versus limitless exploration and experimentation? 
  • For discussion: Why would a work of Romantic literature offer criticisms of science? In what ways are the values of the Romanticism and the scientific Enlightenment at odds? 

The Creature and Victor Frankenstein as Character Foils: Throughout the novel, Victor Frankenstein is frequently depicted as dark, mysterious, and passionate—classic traits of a Byronic hero. Though Henry Clerval is most often considered to be his foil, the creature contrasts with Frankenstein’s character in ways that emphasize his arrogance and selfishness. While the creature is in search for belongingness and love, Frankenstein abandons his friends and family, shunning the basic human need for love in favor of self-serving intellectual pursuits. Discuss with students the possibility that the creature is not villainous but in fact a foil who ultimately exposes Frankenstein as the true antagonist. 

  • For discussion: Though the creature becomes a murderer to retaliate against Frankenstein for abandoning him, Frankenstein repeatedly endangers the lives of his friends and family in order to accomplish his goals. Who do you sympathize with the most? Why? Who do you think is right? Use examples from the text, especially those that reveal Frankenstein’s or the monster’s character traits, to explain your answer. 
  • For discussion: The creature is widely considered to be the novel’s antagonist. However, many of his actions and feelings highlight his blamelessness, especially compared to Frankenstein’s selfish carelessness. Do you think the creature is actually an antagonist? If not, who do you think is the novel’s antagonist and who the hero? Give examples from the text to explain your answers. 

The Creature as a Satanic Figure: The novel repeatedly draws a comparison between the creature and Satan from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The creature even prefers Paradise Lost to all of the other texts he reads during his time with the De Laceys. He later tells Frankenstein that Satan is “the fitter emblem of my condition” than Adam. However, despite the creature’s criminality, he is often depicted as a tragic and blameless victim of Frankenstein’s irresponsible ambition. 

  • For discussion: Follow the creature’s predominant character traits throughout the course of the novel. What motivates his hatred of humanity? Why does he murder William and Elizabeth? 
  • For discussion: Is the creature’s desire for revenge evil? Why or why not? What evidence can you find to support your opinions? 

The Responsibility of Creation as a Theme: The responsibility of creation is an important theme throughout the novel. The novel raises the question of who should be permitted to create. Victor Frankenstein commits a blasphemous act against God and nature when he bestows “animation upon lifeless matter.” As a result, he is later deprived of the ability to naturally create offspring with his wife, who is murdered by the creature. 

  • For discussion: While assembling the body of the creature’s future female companion, Frankenstein describes his scientific lab as a “workshop of filthy creation.” However, at the beginning of the novel, he describes his experiments as being admirable and almost divine. Why does Frankenstein’s attitude about creation change so much? How does his opinion of himself change? 
  • For discussion: The creature is angry with Frankenstein for abandoning him after giving him life. What does the creature think Frankenstein should have done instead? What is the novel’s argument about the responsibilities of creators? Do you agree? Why or why not? 

Gender Role Imbalance: Frankenstein is full of ambitious, adventurous men: Robert Walton is on a quest to the North Pole, Victor Frankenstein searches for the secret of life, and Henry Clerval aspires to be a “gallant and adventurous benefactor of our species.” Even the creature explores the world and educates himself. In contrast, every female character remains exclusively in the domestic sphere and primarily functions as a channel of action for men. They are passive, submissive, and dependent. Events and actions happen to them, usually to teach men some sort of lesson. 

  • For discussion: Margaret Saville is perhaps the most passive female character in the novel; we know of her existence only through Robert Walton’s letter. We do not even know if she receives or responds to the letters. What does Margaret’s passivity suggest about women’s roles during Mary Shelley’s time? What would change about the novel if Margaret’s character were more fully revealed, either directly or through responses to Walton’s letters? 
  • For discussion: Because of Frankenstein’s structure, there is no objective narrative voice; Shelley’s women are described and narrated by male characters. How might this affect their portrayal, both in their social roles and as individuals? Why might Shelley have chosen to filter the narratives of female characters through the perspective of male characters? Had Shelley’s women been given direct access to the narrative, what might have changed? 
  • For discussion: Overall, Mary Shelley depicts the roles of women as highly restricted. Why do you think she, as a woman herself, intentionally represents women as the submissive gender in Frankenstein? Do you think Shelley believed women were inferior or, to the contrary, might her novel subtly argue in favor of feminism? Explain your reasoning. 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • How do symbols of light and fire function in the novel? What themes do they support? 
  • Why is Frankenstein so interested in science instead of other areas of study? What does his interest in science reveals about his character traits? 
  • What character traits do Frankenstein and the creature share? What does this reveal about their relationship? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Structure: Frankenstein alternates between epistolary prose and regular narrative prose as it moves between the different levels of the story. As a result, the novel can be difficult for students to follow. 

  • What to do: Explain to students that a frame story is a story that contains other stories. Have students keep a rough outline of major events in each of the stories that unfold. Before delving into each lesson, have students share and discuss the plot points they identified in each story line. Consider asking them to explain how storylines intersect with each other. 
  • What to do: Explain to students that epistolary form involves telling a story through a series of documents, usually letters. Then, compare and contrast how the point of view might change between epistolary form and normal novelistic narration. Does the epistolary form impact the reliability of the narrator? Why or why not? Why does Shelley have Walton tell his story through letters to his sister instead of through direct narration, like Frankenstein? 

19th-Century Prose Style: While Shelley’s language is reasonably accessible for modern readers, students may find Frankenstein to be more verbose than they are accustomed to. The novel is full of dense paragraphs, long-winded sentences, and eloquent, arcane diction. 

  • What to do: As the class progresses through the novel, have students keep a journal of unfamiliar vocabulary words. Instruct them to look up and write out definitions for these words, and then make a class-generated vocabulary list for future quizzes and lessons. 
  • What to do: Outsource difficult vocabulary items to the students. Have them create and share vocabulary that they found difficult, and have them try to provide definitions for each other’s lists. 

Violent Death: There are multiple deaths and murders throughout the course of the novel, and this may be upsetting and confusing for students. 

  • What to do: Give students an advance warning that there will be violent scenes throughout the novel. Then discuss explanations as to why Shelley may have included them in the novel. 
  • What to do: Have students trace each new act of violence back to the novel’s overarching themes. Why is it important that the creature retaliates against Victor by killing his brother? What do Justine’s and Elizabeth’s murders suggest about the novel’s subtle arguments about gender roles? What is the creature’s attitude toward death? Frankenstein’s? 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Frankenstein

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel. 

Henry Clerval and Victor Frankenstein as Character Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Henry Clerval and Victor Frankenstein. While Frankenstein is an intellectually-driven scientist who wants to crack open the secrets of life, Clerval is interested in cultivating himself as a moral agent. Despite Clerval’s best efforts to help Frankenstein in his time of need, his help is not enough. 

  • For discussion: Follow Clerval’s and Frankenstein’s predominant character traits throughout the novel, especially in relation to the context of the plot. What are their goals? How does each character feel about education and ambition? 
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast the cause of death for both Clerval and Frankenstein. What does each character’s fate suggest about the importance of compassion, affection, and relationships versus individual ambition? Do you think Clerval is a better person than Frankenstein? Why or why not? 

Replacing Women in Reproduction: During Shelley’s time, women had few available professional opportunities, and their predominant cultural function was producing children. In bestowing life on the creature, Victor Frankenstein creates the possibility of a society in which women are not needed for reproduction at all—if men can use science to create life, women are no longer required for the survival of the human species. As a class, discuss the novel’s doubts about using science to manipulate natural processes as fundamental as creating life. 

  • For discussion: None of the novel’s women have children. Using science and technology, Frankenstein usurps women’s roles as creators when he gives life to the creature. What are the implications of a man taking over the biological function of women? Why is the childlessness of Frankenstein’s women important to the plot and themes of the novel? 
  • For discussion: Other than to warn against using science and technology to manipulate natural processes like reproduction, what does Frankenstein’s literal creation of another being—and the horrific consequences that follow—suggest about the dangers of creating a society that privileges men and excludes women? 

Victor Frankenstein as Satan from Paradise Lost: Though the creature is repeatedly associated with Satan from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, it is Victor Frankenstein who commits Satan’s blasphemous crime of usurping God’s role as creator. Furthermore, like Milton’s Satan, Frankenstein’s actions are driven by pride and greed—his God-given talents go to his head and he becomes arrogant and disobedient. As a consequence, Frankenstein becomes a figurative fallen angel who is continuously punished for his wrongdoing. 

  • For discussion: Frankenstein’s blasphemous crime is performing God’s role as a creator, a sin that has immediate consequences. However, Frankenstein’s abandonment of his “Adam” (the creature) leads to even worse consequences. Do you think Frankenstein should have committed his blasphemous crime again in order to provide him with an “Eve” (a mate for the creature)? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: The creature refers to himself as more of a fallen angel than an Adam. However, other than punishing Frankenstein for abandoning him, he does not perform any of God’s roles. Do you think the creature is more a fallen angel or an Adam—or equally both? Why do you think so? Use specific examples from the text to explain your answers. 

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