Frankenstein : Mary Shelley’s Novel of Ideas

I first learned about the origins of Frankenstein last October when I read the annotated Dracula, which provided a history of the vampire story.  When weather dampened their vacation in Geneva, Switzerland, the literary quadruplet, Mary and Percy Shelley, John Polidori and Lord Byron kept themselves entertained by telling scary tales and then challenged each other to concoct their own. While Polidori was inventing the vampire, Mary Shelley was crafting her own invention, Frankenstein.

If you ask most people what they think of when they hear “Frankenstein,” they’ll probably describe something like this:

Frankenstein according to Boris Karloff

Over the years, Frankenstein has morphed into a cultural myth, but that’s not Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In fact, he is not the monster at all, but a driven student of chemistry who is eager to uncover the source of life.  Eagerness turns into obsession when Victor Frankenstein transcends beyond mere study and attempts to create life.  Driven by his pursuit, he isolates himself at the expense of his health, his family, and his friends.  He envisions being honored as a god by a new race, but when his inventive desires are fulfilled, he is repulsed by his creation and abandons it.

Victor Frankenstein’s monster, physically hideous though he is, is molded into a kind, compassionate creature by the human affection that he witnesses from afar while homeless and wandering.  He performs generous deeds in order to aid the family he’s been observing, yet when he attempts to cross over into their realm, he is rejected at first sight.    The monster is cast off by his own creator and the loving family through whom he learned compassion based on his looks.  He is superficially judged solely on his appearance, without any attempt at investigating his character.  It is only after this rejection and the ensuing loneliness that the monster truly becomes scary.

“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.”

I was completely drawn in by Frankenstein.  It was so different from what I expected.  I anticipated a great, plot-driven thriller with twists and turns and suspense.  And it certainly delivered on that, but what I found was more than a sensation novel.  Frankensteinis a beautifully written work with complex social and philosophical themes.

Shelley grapples with some of the very same issues posed by the likes of Locke and Rosseau surrounding the effects of society on behavior.  Rosseau postulated that humans are naturally peaceable and that the abuse of society is what brings forth violence and wickedness.  Similarly, Locke suggested that we are a blank slate (tabula rasa) on which society writes, the nature of those “writings” – whether kind or cruel – contribute to an individual’s character.

Shelley’s writing satisfies on so many levels.  One can be captivated by a thrilling story and awed by eloquent prose while simultaneously engaging with ideas.  Through her characters, she provoked questions and explored thoughts without commenting on them directly, which allows the reader to contemplate the ethics of her novel and draw their own conclusions.


Frankenstein as a Romantic Novel

The writers of Romanticism dwelled in fantasy rather than perceivable reality.  The Romantic Movement (1783 – 1830) was a step away from and perhaps an antidote to the rationalism of the preceding Enlightenment and the mechanization of the ensuing Industrial Revolution.  Writers became more concerned with expressing the sublime rather than stating the discernible.

In Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry, he emphasizes the importance of the imagination, elevating the ordinary, making “familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”  For the Romantics creative expression was everything.  Mary Shelley explored what might be considered the height of creative expression, the creation of man.

Like the philosophical questions that she poses, Shelley grapples with the tenants of Romanticism without falling in line or conforming to them.  Her story reminds readers that even with the sublime and fantastical, things can go awry, it doesn’t all end in roses.  She reminds us that there is a measure of futility in striving after an unattainable ideal.  And creators are obliged to take responsibility for the result of their creations, for good or for evil.

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me Man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

-Paradise Lost (these lines appear on the title page of Frankenstein)


Nature was also important to the Romantics.  In Frankenstein, the natural world often coincides with individual moods and events.  When Victor reflects on his privileged youth, it is with the warmth and fondness of growing up in the beauty of the Swiss countryside, which likely resembled this:

That setting is contrasted with the bleakness of the Orkney Islands where he retreats to begin the dreaded task of creating a second monster, where his sentiments match his dreary and desolate surroundings.

“I thought of Switzerland; it was far different from this desolate and appalling landscape. Its hills are covered with vines, and its cottages are scattered thickly in the plains. Its fair lakes reflect a blue and gentle sky, and when troubled by the winds, their tumult is but as the play of a lively infant when compared to the roarings of the giant ocean.”

-Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 19

At the novel’s conclusion, the landscape is at its most barren as Victor pursues his monster into the Arctic desert, where clearly man does not belong.  Maybe this suggests that man has pushed too far and lingered too long outside of his element, which can only lead to catastrophe.


A Brief look at Mary Shelley:

Mary’s ability to craft an equally thrilling and thought provoking tale should come as no surprise considering that her life was padded with literary influence.  While growing up, she was surrounded by the likes of literary greats such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.  She descended from two great thinkers William Godwin, a philosopher who propelled ideas on political justice and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  She would go on to marry the Romantic poet, Percy Shelley.

In her father’s words she was;

“singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

Given the intellectual and literary forces at work in her life, I wonder if Mary was conscious of the complex issues she was raising in Frankenstein, or if they were so inherent in her being and her thinking that they were just a natural result of her creative process?

Unfortunately, with greatness came great tragedy.  Mary only knew her mother from the work that she left behind, as Wollstonecraft died just days after giving birth to her.   As for her own children, only one of four survived past childhood. She would also lose her husband Percy to a drowning accident in 1822. She died at age 54, possibly from a brain tumor, from which she suffered headaches and paralysis.  It’s amazing how a life could be marked simultaneously by such ingenuity and such heartache.

Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”

Frankenstein, Chapter 10


I am participating in the October 2011 Classics Circuit Tour.  Click the image to see other posts from the tour.