The main themes in Frankenstein are exploration and ambition, religion and the ethics of creation, and beauty and the soul.
- Exploration and ambition: Walton and Frankenstein are both explorers in their ways, and both demonstrate the dangers of overreaching ambition. While Frankenstein is destroyed by his ambition, Walton is able to save himself.
- Religion and the ethics of creation: Victor’s creation and abandonment of the creature raises questions about the ethics of “playing God” and a creator’s duty to their creation.
- Beauty and the soul: Though outwardly hideous, the creature inwardly displays deep emotion and appreciation of nature and human relationships.
Exploration and Ambition
The first character Shelley introduces to her audience is not the titular Frankenstein, but Walton, the epistolary author of the frame narrative. What is significant, thematically, is that both Walton and Frankenstein are engaged upon journeys of exploration into the unknown, which, for both of them, have become all-consuming forces. When Walton’s crew pulls Frankenstein out of the freezing waters of the North Pole, Frankenstein is evidently at the end of his journey—and it has ended in disaster. Walton recognizes a kindred spirit in him, someone who, like himself, was inspired by the stories of discovery he read as a child and whose ambition compels him to carve out a “niche in the temple” of his own. Walton is exploring the world geographically; Frankenstein is exploring the world of science, but both are men driven by powerful ambition, seeking to, as Walton puts it, “accomplish some great purpose.” Walton identifies a certain fire or spirit inside Frankenstein, feeling at once that he is the “friend” he has been seeking (something which also has echoes in the hunt of the creature for a companion, later in the story).
Walton is so entranced by Frankenstein's hopes and ambitions, so thoroughly understanding of his quest and sure that he is “immeasurable” as a man, that he does not recognize that the doctor also represents a moral lesson he himself would do well to follow. Through the character of Walton, Shelley indicates that, certainly, there is something admirable, and understandable, in the desire to push the boundaries of science, to explore the unexplored, and even to make one's own name in so doing. But she also uses Walton as an illustration that, in all areas of study, overstretching oneself can result in “peril” and entrapment. At the end of the story, Walton writes to his sister that he is surrounded by walls of ice from which there can be no escape. Later, when he sees hope of retreat, he determines that he will return to England, surrendering his ambition rather than allowing himself to be destroyed. Frankenstein, by contrast, has achieved his ambition and still been destroyed by it.
Religion and the Ethics of Creation
The subtitle Shelley gives her novel—“the modern Prometheus”—alerts the reader to the fact that themes of ethics and religion will be of import in the story, which revolves, to a considerable extent, around the question of how far it is right or acceptable to “play God” just because one can. In mythology, Prometheus famously stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. If Frankenstein is a modern Prometheus, then he is not a god himself, but someone who feels it is permissible to intrude into, and interfere with, the interactions between God and humanity which would normally occur. Where God, or nature, may have decreed that what is dead is dead and that people should only be born in the natural way, Frankenstein has taken it upon himself to interrogate and challenge these paradigms.
Once he has succeeded in creating the desired offspring, however, Frankenstein finds himself faced with unanticipated problems. Where humanity was created in the image of God, Frankenstein, too, has sought to create a being of which he could be proud, but ultimately he finds his creation...
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