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.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1026
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).
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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 so repulsive that he abandons him and seeks the creature’s death. This raises another ethical question which is debated throughout the novel: how far is a creator required to be a father? Does Frankenstein, as the creature insists, have a responsibility to his creation? Should he ensure that the creature’s life is happy, that he is loved, that he has a companion with whom to spend his time? The creature pursues Frankenstein, insisting that the doctor has shirked his responsibilities—he has not behaved as a father. However, elsewhere in the novel there are examples of fathers, including Frankenstein’s own, who have not behaved in a particularly nurturing or loving manner toward their offspring. By failing to care for what he has created, because he feels it to be a grotesque and monstrous reflection of what humanity should be, is Frankenstein behaving monstrously—or simply like many human fathers? Is he behaving, even, simply like the God of Milton’s Paradise Lost, to which the novel alludes, who cast aside one of his own creations, Lucifer?
Beauty and the Soul
When Frankenstein rejects his creation, it is because he cannot bear to look at him. He is so terrified by the physically repulsive appearance of his creature—“a sight which [he] abhor[s]”— that he recoils, determining that nothing so physically unattractive could possibly be anything other than evil. However, Shelley makes a conscious choice in allowing the physically grotesque creature to speak for himself and to speak eloquently and expressively. Had Frankenstein been less preoccupied with the physical appearance of his offspring, he might have been better able to see that the creature was, in other ways, an accurate reflection of humanity, capable of learning and growing, feeling “anguish” and appreciation for beauty.
It is not only Frankenstein, of course, who recoils from the sight of the creature. It is a natural human response to desire what is beautiful and reject what is not, and the creature struggles even with the sight of his own face when he sees it reflected in a puddle. He knows that he is hindered by the fact that the first reaction he evokes is one of disgust. But he feels “pleasure” at the sight of nature, “wonder” at the beauty of the moon, and emotion at the sight of the villagers interacting with each other. Shelley relies heavily upon the language of Romanticism to indicate that the creature, through his interaction with nature, is exploring his own soul. Far from being a hideous automaton, the creature is capable of very deep feeling, and possibly deep inner beauty. This then forces the reader to question how far his subsequent violence is a result of his nature and how far it is the outcome of the utter lack of nurture shown to him by his creator, the shallow and fickle Frankenstein.