English & EAL

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Jamie Tak

October 26, 2020

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Frankenstein is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Contents

1. Summary

2. Historical Contexts and Setting

3. Themes

4. Feminist Interpretation

5. Sample Essay Topics

6. Essay Topic Breakdown

Summary

  • Frankenstein is a Gothic novel. The genre emerged in the eighteenth century, and was characterised by elements of mystery, horror and the supernatural. Such elements are manifested in the novel by Shelley’s use of isolated settings and dark undertones. Through her main plot of raising the dead to create a living creature, Shelley stays true to Gothic elements by allowing her characters to cross boundaries between mortal and supernatural worlds. 
  • The novel is told in the epistolary form - written in a series of letters. This effectively integrates the reader into the story by allowing them to feel as if they are receiving a personal account of the events of the novel, adding an element of immersion. 
  • Frankenstein is also a frame narrative, a form which examines the dark, internalised consciousness of each character that narrates the events of a story in each frame. Unlike in an omniscient narrative perspective, each storyteller is a character with concomitant shortcomings, limitations, prejudices, and motives.

Historical Contexts and Setting

  • Born in London, 1797, Mary Shelley was the only daughter of notable intellectual radicals. Her father, William, was a philosopher who condemned social institutions as corrupt and instead advocated for reason to guide people’s decisions. 
  • During the 18th century, the traditional and metaphysical understanding of the meaning of life were replaced by more secular ideologies. It was during this period that galvanism was born; Luigi Galvani’s experimentalism with electrical currents to stimulate muscle movement. Shelley took inspiration from this to form the crucial plot device of Frankenstein.
  • The context of Frankenstein was also the backdrop of the French Revolution. There has been critic speculation that Shelley’s creature is an emblem of the French Revolution itself – originally created in order to benefit mankind, but the abuse of which drives it to uncontrollable destruction. 
  • Thus, in Frankenstein, Shelley explores not only the scientific possibilities of human existence, but also the nature of man and self awareness of ambition. The novel is designed to make the reader wonder - is scientific exploration an exciting or terrifying thing? How much ambition is too much - and does having it offer more good or harm to humanity?

Themes

Pursuit of dangerous knowledge

Victor’s personal torment throughout the novel arises as a result of his attempt to surge beyond accepted human limits of science. Walton mirrors this pursuit by his attempt to surpass previous human explorations in his endeavour to reach the North Pole. Shelley evidently warns against such pursuits, as Victor’s creation causes the destruction of all those dear to him, and Walton finds himself critically trapped between sheets of ice, with only his deep loneliness to keep him company. A key difference between Victor and Walton’s fate, however, is that while Victor’s hatred of the creature drives himself into misery, he serves as a warning for the latter to pull back from his treacherous mission, proving just how dangerous the desire for knowledge can become.

Sublime Nature

The sublimity of the natural landscape is a typical Romantic symbol throughout the novel, as it acts as a source of emotional and spiritual renewal for both Frankenstein and his creature. Depressed and remorseful after the deaths of William and Justine, Victor retreats to Mont Blanc in the hopes that its grandness will uplift his spirits. Likewise, the creature’s ‘heart lightens’ as spring arrives, delivering him from the ‘hellish’ cold and abandonment of the winter. Such as this, nature acts as an instrument through which Shelley mirrors inherent similarity between Frankenstein and the creature. Nature is also constantly depicted as a force stronger than that of man, perceivable by its punishment of Frankenstein for attempting to violate maternal laws in his unnatural creation of the creature. As such, Shelley suggests that Frankenstein’s hubristic attitude towards nature ultimately results in his damnation.

Beauty and Monstrosity (Societal Prejudice)

The creature is rejected almost solely due to its hideously ugly physical appearance, standing at ‘eight feet tall’ and described as ‘a thing even Dante could not have conceived’. Prejudice against outward appearances becomes apparent throughout the novel, as despite educating itself and developing a ‘sophisticated speech’, the creature continues to be judged solely on its appearance and is shunned and beaten due to its repulsiveness. Shelley condemns the extent of this prejudice through the character of William, who, despite the creature’s belief that he is far too young to have ‘imbibed a horror of deformity’, demonstrates intense loathing at the ‘ugly wretch’. In stark contrast to this, the reader can perceive a prevalent social privilege of beauty, as numerous characters are favoured solely for their outward appearances. Safie, similar to the creature in that she is also foreign and unlearned in English, is admired for her ‘countenance of angelic beauty’. While the ‘demoniacal corpse’ of the creature is perceived by society as ‘a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned’, Safie’s beauty marks her as a cherished individual who ‘infuses new life’ into souls.

Secrecy

Victor’s obsession with creating life is shrouded in secrecy, and his obsession with destroying his creation remains equally secretive until his revelation to Walton near the end of the story. However, while Victor chooses to remain reclusive due to his horror and guilt, the creature is forced to do so merely by his hideous appearance. Despite this, the theme of secrecy also links the creator and creature through the character of Walton; in confessing to Walton of his crimes before he dies, Victor is able to escape this stifling secrecy that ruined his life, just as the monster desperately takes advantage of Walton’s presence to force a human connection, hoping to find someone who will empathise with his miserable existence as ‘a monster’. 

Feminist Interpretation

  • Frankenstein has been perceived by many as a feminist novel, as Shelley’s weak representation of women acts as a critique to patriarchal ideals of females.
  • During the eighteenth century, a woman’s finest characteristics were described by Rousseau himself: ‘The first and most important qualification in a woman is good nature or sweetness of temper.’ 
  • Thus, in Frankenstein, women are almost always perceived through a male’s perception. The women in the novel are thus excluded from all spheres; not given voices in telling their stories, nor truly figuring in the male characters’ romantic lives. 
  • Female representation is purposefully excluded from the novel in order to accentuate this flaw in society. As such, the women that do appear are symbols of the ‘ideal women’ of the eighteenth century - they are presented as reflections of their male counterparts; as mothers, daughters, sisters, or wives, rather than strong individual entities. 
  • It is important to note that most of Shelley’s idealised women in Frankenstein all die in the end, and the character traits that had defined them as idealised women were the cause of their deaths. For example, Caroline Beaufort dies directly as a result of her acting as a dutiful caregiver, and looking after Elizabeth when she contracts scarlet fever. By emancipating her from her stereotypical role as a woman through death, Shelley suggests that her Enlightened society must depart from this systematic oppression of the female sex.

Author's Views and Values

Frankenstein depicts a variety of Shelley’s views and values. Some ways to word these in an essay would be: 

  • Shelley suggests through Frankenstein’s downfall that an individual cannot succeed in isolation.
  • Shelley visibly condemns the misuse of intellect and scientific discovery for one’s own personal gain.
  • In Frankenstein, Shelley depicts the creature’s mistreatment to oppose the societal judgement that beauty is reflective of character. 
  • Shelley offers a moral edict that superfluous pride leads to downfall.
  • Shelley denounces the naïve ideals of revolution ideology through the tragic and violent consequences of Frankenstein’s discovery 

Sample Essay Topics

Whenever you get a new essay topic, you can use LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, then check it out in How To Write A Killer Text Response.

Here are a few practice essay questions:

  1. ‘In Frankenstein, the creature is shown to be more humane than its human creator.’ To what extent do you agree?
  2. ‘Frankenstein often falls physically ill after traumatic events.’ Discuss the role of sickness in the novel.
  3. 'Although Frankenstein is written by a woman, it contains no strong female characters.’ Discuss.
  4. ‘Life, although it may only be awn accumulation of anguish, is dear to me and I will defend it.’ How does Shelley use paradox to show the complexity of the human condition?.
  5. ‘In Frankenstein, suffering results when imperfect men disturb nature’s perfection.’ To what extent do you agree

Essay Topic Breakdown

Essay Topic 1: 'Although Frankenstein is written by a woman, it contains no strong female characters.’ Discuss.

You could approach this topic in a character-based manner, and focus on three female characters: 

Paragraph One: 
  • Focus on how Shelley depicts women as merely weaker, sacrificial reflections of their male counterparts.
  • Margaret Saville, Walton’s ‘dear sister’, is only present in the novel through his narrative portrayal of her. She is described as the ‘angel [of] the house’, and while her brother is exploring to ‘accomplish some great purpose’, Margaret is at home, passively waiting for his letters.
  • Caroline Beaufort, Victor’s mother, is also only perceptible as the archetypal female, encompassing the roles of wife, mother, and daughter. After her father dies, leaving her as an ‘orphan and beggar’, Caroline is reduced to a damsel in distress in need of saving by Alphonse Frankenstein, who comes to her ‘like a protecting spirit’. 
Paragraph Two:
  • In this paragraph, you could focus on how females are valued primarily as objects of physical beauty, rather than individual human beings of autonomy.
  • Elizabeth is selected from the orphan peasant group merely due to her ‘very fair’ beauty. Thus, it is this ‘crown of distinction’ which affords Elizabeth her subsequent life of happiness in the Frankenstein household. However, beauty for women also induces objectification, as she is ‘given’ to Victor as a ‘pretty present’, and he views her as his ‘possession’ to ‘protect, love, and cherish’. 
  • Safie is also physically beautiful, with a ‘countenance of angelic beauty and expression’. It is this attractiveness of Safie which affords her marginalised power as a woman. Unlike the creature, who is rejected by the De Laceys because of his ‘hideous deformity’, the foreign Safie ‘[diffuses] happiness among’ the De Lacey household through her ‘exotic’ beauty.
Paragraph Three: 
  • Shelley’s deliberate exclusion of women from romantic and reproductive spheres in Frankenstein condemns the societal oppression of females.
  • Frankenstein encompasses an immense focus on male relationships. There exists an almost homosexual ‘brotherly affection’ between Walton and Frankenstein, as Frankenstein can be perceived as the figure fulfilling Walton’s ‘bitter… want of a friend’ and companion for life; something that would conventionally be found in a wife. 
  • Homosexual undertones are also evident in Frankenstein’s ‘closest friendship’ with Henry Clerval, who he treasures arguably more than Elizabeth. The murder of Frankenstein’s ‘dearest Henry’ exacts from him ‘agonies’ in the form of ‘strong convulsions’, as he subsequently falls physically ill for two months ‘on the point of death’. In contrast to this, the strangulation of Elizabeth is received by a brief period of mourning, implying that Frankenstein does not require as much time to grieve Elizabeth. 
  • Finally, the male creature and his assumption that a female creature ‘will be content with the same fate’ as himself further emphasises male dismissal of female autonomy. 

Essay Topic 2: ‘Life, although it may only be awn accumulation of anguish, is dear to me and I will defend it.’ How does Shelley use paradox to show the complexity of the human condition?’.

Paragraph One: 
  • As the creature’s education by books teaches him contradictory lessons on human nature, Shelley portrays the acquisition of knowledge as a paradoxical double-edged sword.
  • Through intertextual references to the books through which the creature ‘[studies] human nature’, Shelley presents the paradoxical characteristics of mankind. 
  • Although The creature is propelled to suicidal thoughts of ‘despondency and gloom’ by Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther, the book also reveals his empathy, as he becomes ‘a listener’ to the ‘lofty sentiments and feelings’ of humanity. 
  • Plutarch’s Lives instils in him the ‘greatest ardour for virtue… and  abhorrence for vice’; two traits, the creature realises, that simultaneously and paradoxically manifest in society.
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost allows the creature to compares his rejection by Frankenstein with that of Satan by God. This results in his own paradoxical turn in character - as he subsequently declares ‘ever-lasting war against his ‘accursed creator’, ’evil thenceforth [becomes his] good’. 
Paragraph Two: 
  • Shelley purposefully pairs the grotesque physicality of the creature with potent verbal power to showcase his complex humanity. 
  • The creature’s humanity despite his ‘physical deformity allows him to be perceived by the audience as human rather than a ‘wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition’. 
  • For De Lacey, the hideous appearance of the creature is eclipsed by his eloquence, which ‘persuades [him] that [he] is sincere’. Shelley portrays through his initial acceptance of the creature that he is a ‘daemon’ only in appearance, and thus criticises the ‘fatal prejudice that clouds [the majority of society’s] eyes’. 
  • This idea is furthered as Felix’s perception of the creature’s ‘miserable deformity’ results in a ‘violent attack’ upon him. However, the creature abstains from defending himself out of human goodness - despite his capability to tear ‘[Felix] limb from limb’, the creature instead showcases his sensitivity. 
  • Thus, the paradoxical antithesis of the creature is the way in which human actions, such as those of Felix, diminish his own humanity and mould him into the monstrous animal his appearance presents him as. 
Paragraph Three:
  • The symbolism of fire and ice in ‘Frankenstein’ serves as a moral reminder of the paradoxical essence of human ambition. 
  • The motif of fire symbolises the seductive quality of scientific aspiration, as Frankenstein’s ‘longing to penetrate the secrets of nature’ is described as literally ‘warming’ his young imagination. Despite being life-giving, fire is also evidently death-dealing, as fifteen-year-old Frankenstein perceives a vicious storm during which lightning causes the destruction of an oak tree into a ‘blasted stump’ issuing a ‘stream of fire’. As such, the powerfully antithetical nature of fire complicates his ambition, as he muses, ‘How strange… that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!’.
  • In contrast, the motif of ice represents the perils of superfluous ambition. The icy sea of Mont Blanc serves as the backdrop of Frankenstein’s dialogue with his ‘filthy creation’. The creature utilises his familiarity to the icy climate to overpower his ‘master’; there is a disturbing reversal in roles as the creature forces Frankenstein to follow him into the ‘everlasting ices of the north’, and wishes for him to suffer ‘the misery of cold and frost to which [he himself is] impassive’. 
  • The paradox of fire and ice in Frankenstein culminates in the creature’s dramatic announcement of death by fire, surrounded by ice. This acts as a bitter and ironic parody of both Walton's and Frankenstein's dream of the fire, underscoring its tragic fatality. This is emphasised by the creature’s final words, ‘I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames… my ashes will be swept into the sea by winds’.

For more advice on Frankenstein, read Kevin's blog post on How to Nail A Frankenstein Essay.

Resources

The Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response

How To Write A Killer Text Response Study Guide

How to embed quotes in your essay like a boss

How to turn your Text Response essays from average to A+

5 Tips for a mic drop worthy essay conclusion

The Importance of the Introduction

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