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Learn more about some of the key themes in the book to gain a deeper insight into the novel and its key ideas.
The full title of Mary Shelley’s novel is Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. The legend of Prometheus is a creation myth of ancient Greece. In some versions Prometheus fashions the first humans from clay and water, and in others he steals fire from heaven to give to mankind. It is clear, therefore, why Shelley used this subtitle, since the novel is itself a creation myth, in which Victor Frankenstein discovers how to create life from dead matter. Once he has created it and made the “creature”, he promptly rejects his creation and runs away. In modern language, the term “Frankenstein’s Monster” is used for anything which humanity creates but cannot then control- an obvious example is nuclear weaponry. Other examples might be the internet, or modern methods of surveillance. What distinguishes the original novel, however, from these contemporary phenomena, is that the creature is innocent; it intends no harm, until its desire for companionship and love is thwarted. Then indeed it becomes a “monster.”
The Christian creation story – the tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – involves the concept of Original Sin. Adam is tempted and falls; mankind thereafter is born in sin, and seeks redemption – which, depending on your beliefs, can only be achieved through Jesus Christ. Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, specifically rejects Original Sin- man is innocent until corrupted by society. These ideas can be seen in Frankenstein. The creature is fascinated by the kindness of the De Lacey family, and at the end of the novel he tells Walton that “it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed.” He says that “his soul glowed with love and humanity,” and it was the way he was treated that drove him to seek revenge on humanity which had become his enemy.
The novel is first published in 1818, during the Age of Romanticism – an eruption of ideas emerging from the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the American and French Revolutions. The novel is full of the possibilities and hopes of that age, as well as its disillusionment and betrayal.
Walton tells Frankenstein that: “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.” Victor is horrified, hearing someone on course to copy the terrible errors he feels himself to have committed. “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness?” he asks Walton, and then proceeds to tell his tale. The tale, therefore, is a warning about the folly and danger of human curiosity.
Frankenstein has hugely influenced subsequent culture and ideas, in ways that Mary Shelley might not have imagined, but for which she is responsible. That is why the title of the book has passed into nearly all languages.
We are never told how Victor discovers a means of “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,” but we do learn that Victor “dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave.” This in itself is a kind of warning, since means may determine ends, and his experiment causes Victor to reflect “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” We also hear from the creature itself, since unlike the alien in Ridley Scott’s film, Victor’s creation becomes articulate.
What the creature in fact accuses its creator of, is a rejection of responsibility. When they finally meet in Chapter 10, the monster reminds Victor: “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel.” Victor has to listen, though he tries not to. He says “now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart,” and then leaves. Victor tells us that when he made his creation, he selected beautiful features, but, since his materials were bits of dead bodies, it is hardly surprising that the end result is less than attractive!
The creature’s hideous appearance dominates its life – as well as a thousand filmic spin-offs and spoofs. It only dares to speak to the elder De Lacey because he is blind; once seen by the rest of the family, he is driven away throughout the novel. No matter how well-intentioned the creature may be, its hideous appearance is all that people see. The moral is clear.
In Milton’s poem Paradise Lost (a huge influence on Frankenstein), Satan rebels against God and is cast from heaven, begging the question - who is responsible for Creation? Many critics and readers have observed that the energy and dynamism of that poem stem from the fallen angel itself. In the same way, in Frankenstein it is the vitality of the “monster”, abandoned and forsaken by its creator, desperate to find who is responsible for its existence, which gives the novel its power.
Political and Social ideas
There are a number of occasions in the novel where Mary Shelley offers a critique of early 19th century society. These criticisms tend to come from the creature itself, which increases the sense of its role as victim, despite its crimes. It’s interesting how frail human justice is shown to be- when Justine is executed for a crime she did not commit, or when Safie’s Turkish father is sentenced to death for “his religion and wealth.”
There are prototypical feminist ideas in the novel. Safie, whose own mother is a “Christian Arab”, does not want to return to Turkey with her father; she prefers to stay in a country “where women were allowed to take a rank.” (Despite the fact that women in early 19th century Britain had almost no rights!) Safie does not want to be “immured within the walls of a harem, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements ill-suited to the temper of her soul.” Take out the word “harem” and this sentiment might equally be found in the novels of Jane Austen, a very different writer to Shelley.
Observing the De Lacey family, the creature learns that it is poverty, which he describes as an “evil”. In 1818 many would have accepted poverty for some as inevitable, even desirable. Through the convenient device of Felix’s “instructions” to Safie, the creature discovers “the strange system of human society...the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent, and noble blood.”
These comments remain even in later editions of the novel, when some critics have suggested Mary Shelley tried to tone down her views. The creature even weeps with Safie over “the discovery of the American hemisphere...and the fate of its original inhabitants. They make the novel “modern” in unexpected ways, retaining its power, for all the awkwardness of its plot and characterisation.