Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818, is often considered one of the earliest examples of the science fiction genre.

The novel’s importance

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818, is often considered one of the earliest examples of the science fiction genre. This classic tale follows the experiments of Victor Frankenstein, an ambitious scientist who successfully brings a dead body back to life, only to end up horrified by his own creation. The story is both thrilling and tragic, raising compelling questions about the limits and dangers of human endeavors.

Frankenstein has remained enormously popular over the last two centuries for a number of reasons. As mentioned, it is a classic of the science fiction genre and a foundational text for many subsequent works that explore the relationship between science and society. But it is also a compelling exploration of human nature in general, examining the ways in which we often act out of misguided ambition or selfishness, and how those actions can have disastrous consequences. As such, Frankenstein is a piercing and unforgettable tale that continues to fascinate readers and to prompt vital discussions.

Key themes

One of the most prominent themes in Frankenstein is the pursuit of knowledge and the power it can bring – for both good and bad. Victor Frankenstein’s ambitions and experiments in creating life from scratch highlight the dangers of knowledge when it is not tempered by ethical considerations. Ultimately, Victor’s need to understand and surpass the boundaries of nature, in order to achieve a kind of god-like status, has destructive consequences, not just for him, but for everyone around him, too.

Another key theme in the novel is the concept of isolation and the ways in which it manifests in both Victor’s and the Creature’s lives. Victor, obsessed by his scientific pursuits, is isolated from society, while the Creature is rejected and ostracized because of the way it looks. Throughout the novel, Shelley explores the ways in which these characters struggle as a result of their isolation, and how it further exacerbates their broader problems.

Historical context

At the time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the world was rapidly evolving. The Industrial Revolution began in England in the late 18th century, leading to new technological advancements and changes in society. Many of the novel’s themes – including the dangers of unchecked scientific progress and the consequences of man’s hubris – can be seen as responses to these rapid changes.

Shelley was also influenced by the Romantic movement that dominated literature in the early 19th century. Indeed, she was married to one of its most famous writers, Percy Bysse Shelley. As a philosophical movement, Romanticism was preoccupied with a return to nature, and an emphasis on emotion, in opposition to what its proponents saw as the cold rationality of the Enlightenment, which had dominated most of 18th-century thought.

Intellectual and cultural context

At the time that Shelley penned Frankenstein, the Romantic movement was in full swing. This intellectual and artistic movement emphasized emotion, imagination, and individuality – all elements clearly evident in Shelley’s novel. One of the main themes of Romanticism, the celebration of the genius of the individual, is epitomized by Victor Frankenstein, a gifted scientist who pushes the boundaries of what is possible.

Other works written around this time that similarly exemplify Romanticism include William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, which celebrate the beauty of nature and the rapturous emotions it evokes, and Lord Byron’s Manfred, which explores themes of guilt, isolation, and despair. Shelley wrote Frankenstein while staying with Byron in Switzerland, and many have suggested that the Creature may have been inspired by the famously dark, brooding, complex poet.

Plot

In Frankenstein, the protagonist, Victor, has an interest in the idea of creating life. He uses his knowledge of science to bring about his monstrous creation, using dead body parts. However, when he realizes the consequences of his actions, Victor is horrified by what he has done. As the story progresses, Shelley imbues the novel with the conflict between creator and creation, as Victor attempts to take responsibility for his actions, while the monster becomes increasingly destructive.

The novel also grapples with themes of isolation and loneliness, both through Victor’s obsessive scientific pursuits and the monster’s experience being ostracized from society. Frankenstein ultimately explores these nuanced relationships between creator and creation, the pursuit of knowledge, and the experience of being an outsider.

Narrative structure

One key aspect of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that makes it such a compelling read is the novel’s narrative structure. Shelley employs a frame story, with multiple narrators recounting the events from different perspectives. This allows the reader to form a more complete picture of the story, understanding how different characters are connected and what motivates them.

Another important element in Frankenstein is the use of the first-person point of view. Each of the main narrators recount their own experiences, giving the reader a sense of intimacy and immediacy with the characters. This helps bring the book to life and allows us to more fully engage with the story, feeling as though we are a part of it ourselves.

Key characters

One key character in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is, of course, the scientist Victor Frankenstein himself. As the creator of the monster, his motivations and character drive the story; for example, his passion for scientific discovery and his ambition to create life. Moreover, Victor’s guilt and remorse for his creation play a crucial role in developing the novel’s themes of responsibility and consequence.

Another significant character in the novel is the Creature itself. Shelley goes to great lengths to humanize this being, giving it a sympathetic backstory and even making it eloquent and persuasive in speech. Thus, the Creature provides a lens through which to consider themes of isolation, abandonment, and prejudice, as it struggles to find its place in the world.

Literary devices

One of the most notable literary devices employed by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein is the framing device of the story within a story. This technique allows for multiple perspectives and layers of meaning, forcing readers to consider the fact that what they are hearing is one person’s perspective It also allows readers to consider the broader implications of the story – namely, how the pursuit of knowledge and power can have disastrous consequences.

Shelley also uses Gothic imagery and themes to provide a haunting and suspenseful backdrop to the story. By using evocative descriptions of darkness, decay, and deformity, she creates an atmosphere of horror that heightens the reader’s sense of anticipation. These stylistic choices also work to amplify the character’s internal struggles, helping to convey the themes of isolation and madness at the heart of the novel.

Symbolism

One way in which Shelley uses metaphor and analogy in Frankenstein is through the characterization of the Creature itself. The Creature, constructed from various body parts, is seen as a symbol of the dangers and consequences of uncontrolled scientific experimentation. It represents the disastrous possibility of man’s overreaching and obsession, as well as the devastating aftermath of such pursuits.

Shelley also uses metaphor and analogy in order to reflect on the human condition more broadly. For example, the isolation and loneliness experienced by the Creature could be seen as an analogy for the alienation experienced by human beings in general. The novel’s exploration of the ways in which the Creature is shunned by society, despite his longing for companionship and understanding, also invites readers to reflect on themes such as prejudice, intolerance, and the importance of empathy. 

Critical readings

Many critical readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein have emerged since the novel’s publication in 1818. Some commentators focus on the novel as a critique of scientific experimentation and its potential for disastrous consequences, particularly in the realm of re-animating dead bodies. Others interpret Shelley’s work as a story about the necessity of parental love and responsibility; Victor Frankenstein, in this reading, is a failed father who abandons his creation and brings about its destruction as a result.

Still other readers focus on the philosophical implications of the novel. For example, they might view Frankenstein as engaging with questions about what constitutes life and what it means to be human. The Creature in the novel, according to this reading, symbolizes humanity’s capacity for both good and evil, as well as the potential for monstrosity that resides within us all.

Influence

There can be no doubt that Mary Shelley’s novel has had an enduring impact on literature, culture, and the public imagination. Frankenstein is now commonly cited as one of the first science fiction novels, and the themes it confronts – the potential for scientific experimentation to go wrong, the nature of monstrosity, and the ethical implications of animating the dead – have been revisited by countless writers and filmmakers since.

In broader terms, the novel has also shaped the way people conceptualize the Gothic genre. Even those who have not read the book are generally familiar with the image of Frankenstein’s monster: a grotesque, stitched-together being with a troubled soul. The novel’s preoccupation with the macabre, the supernatural, and the boundary between life and death has made it a touchstone for any work of art that seeks to evoke a similar sense of horror or suspense.

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