Observations on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus - Mary Wollstonecraft ShelleyFrankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus – Mary Shelley
Oxford University Press, 2009 (originally published 1818)

I bet you are all familiar with the plot of Frankenstein: Victor Frankenstein is passionate about science and believes he has found the way to bring live to lifeless matter. He creates what he later denotes as a monster. Horrified by the looks of his creation, he falls ill and tries to forget about the existence of ‘the monster’. But soon, he realises that the monster won’t be so easily forgot, as it sets out to avenge his creator for leaving him all alone in the world.

When I set out to participate in The Classics Circuit on Classic Gothic Literature, I knew I had set myself a challenge. I avoid “scary” books as a rule. However, I soon found out that Frankenstein is not so much scary as it is atmospheric. Shelley sets a tone and mood in it that makes you think and feel uncomfortable more than it makes you jump out of your chair. This may be why I enjoyed reading it so much.

I am afraid my thoughts on this book are little coherent, which is why the title of this post says “observations”.

  • Frankenstein is told through three narrators. The first is a man who is on an expedition by boat through the arctic? sea, where they come across Frankenstein chasing his monster. The narrator takes Frankenstein in to nurse him back to health and this is where his part as narrator starts. In the middle of Frankenstein’s story as told by himself, Frankenstein is approached by the monster who then continues to tell his side of the story. I thought this was an interesting way to build the narrative, it is rather like a Matryoshka doll; as a reader you travel from an outsider perspective to an insider perspective (first Frankenstein and then the monster) before you return to Frankenstein and later on the outsider perspective again. I wonder why Shelley chose to write Frankenstein like this? What exactly is the point of the first narrator? Is he supposed to make us feel more friendly towards Frankenstein? Or is it meant to give the story a more realistic feel? It still puzzles me, more so because you never really find out much about this first narrator, he seems more like a tool of storytelling than a person with his own story worth telling.
  • The three narrators also give this book the feel that I associate with Wuthering Heights: Who of the narrators is telling the truth and with whom are we supposed to sympathise? Particularly the dynamic between Frankenstein and his monster raises these question. While reading I often found myself annoyed with Frankenstein, couldn’t he stop pitying himself for a moment, act up, take his responsibility? And then the monster told his story and I almost pitied him, his side tugs at heartstrings that Frankenstein’s story never does. But why? Both are caught up in their own “misfortunes”, both bewail them. One, the monster, acts upon them in rage and jealousy, the other passively tries to ignore the consequences. Thus, both are not creatures we would identify as ‘good’ or ‘humane’, yet both deserve out pity in some ways. I am sure Mary Shelley meant the reader to go from Frankenstein’s repulsion towards understanding the monster’s side of the story, but then she makes you question it again, when she has Frankenstein say that the monster is manipulative and knows exactly how to influence humans. So was I taken in by the monster? I don’t know.
  • It was interesting to read Frankenstein in the context of the Romantic movement. Now, I know only what I was taught in introductory history courses, but it was easy to identify some key ideas of the time. First, there is the atmospheric and yes, what I can only call romantic, description of landscapes in Germany and Switzerland. As soon as they move through the Netherlands and into the UK, there is a lament about this ‘lost world’ of truly beautiful nature. On his travels through the UK (I do not remember exactly which places he visited) he remarks that the scenery is nice, but that it needs the mountains and other scenery of his own home land.
    On a side note: the story portrays Ireland as a rogue country where people know little kindness? Am I supposed to just accept that or can I take a few words to say that this seems a rather biased portrayal, very fitting to the times in a way?
  • Romanticism also when you read the book as a critique of a belief in an all-encompassing power of science. Clearly, in some ways, Frankenstein’s monster became a monster because Frankenstein made the power of creation human, but was not ready to face the responsibilities this brought with it.
  • There’s also a possible reading of a nature-versus-nurture debate, though I think these are not exactly the correct words to use. Was the monster ‘doomed’ to be evil from the outset, since he was created by another (flawed) human? Or is it Frankenstein’s lack of empathy for his ‘monster’? Does the monster become a ‘monster’ because he was denoted as such by Frankenstein? Thus, is there something like inherent evil, complete and blind evil, or is it a part of everyone and was it the lack of companionship that made the monster so? Reading the story I think Mary Shelley tried to show us the latter.
  • All of this leading to the question, of course, who the real monster is in this story. Is it ‘the monster’, who is ugly on the outside but according to his own story tried to find companionship and only later turned against humans (but nevertheless consciously did so), or is it Frankenstein who in his arrogance and pride thought he could show up all scientists and then shunned his responsibilities. I cannot decide. It is easy to say ‘the monster!’, it is easy to say ‘no, really, it is Frankenstein!’ But I wonder if it isn’t rather that both are monsters to a certain extent, because in many ways, both shirk their responsibility towards other living creatures and both fail to balance their emotions and agency with responsibility. Or at least, I think this may be what Mary Shelley was trying to say in part.

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This post is one of many stops for the Gothic Literature Classics Tour of the Classics Circuit. Check out the other stops through the link.

20 thoughts on “Observations on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

  1. mywordlyobsessions

    Excellent write up! Frankenstein is one of my favourites. It’s not scary at all even though people think so. It’s probably one of the most misunderstood novels out there.

    It’s got a lot of heavy questions around creation, sin and science. I loved it so much I actually went and read The Divine Comedy from which some of the ideas were based.

    So glad you enjoyed it.

    Reply
  2. Tracy

    I really enjoyed Frankenstein – and in answer to your question, I think that they are both monsters. It isn’t the Monster’s looks that make him a real monster, it’s that he chooses to behave like a monster. Frankenstein acts without thinking about the consequences of his actions, the monster is fully aware of what he is doing.

    I think the third narrator is to make the monster ‘real’ – he is the only independent witness in the book – otherwise the monster could easily be a figment of Frankenstein’s overwrought imagination, or even his alter ego – Hyde to his Jekyll.

    Reply
  3. bundleofbooks

    What a brilliant post! You have made some excellent points and asked some really good questions!

    I was also puzzled about the first narrator. I suppose it is true that he makes the story more realistic, so the reader understands that it is not all in Frankenstein’s mind. Also, the end of the book would not have been the same if not told from the first narrator’s perspective. We would not have had a proper ending.

    I know what you mean about not knowing who is telling the truth and who to sympathise with in the book. Mary Shelley makes you doubt what you were feeling only pages before! It shows how talented she is to be able to twist your mind this way and that and confuse your emotions! In the end though, I felt sorry for both the scientist and his monster, and also revolted with the way they went about things. If either of them had made slightly different decisions at one point or another, the story could have ended so differently!

    Reply
  4. cbjames

    I’m going to disagree with Tracy. The monster may ultimately choose to behave like a monster, but only after he is left with no other option. He tries to become part of society, the long section in Italy with the blind man and his family, but society rejects him because of how he appears. He really has no other option.

    The first narrator setting up the story was a very common device for early novels. They all have to establish their own authority somehow. Present a way for the reader to believe them as factual. You see the same thing over and over again even in later work like Wuthering Heights.

    Reply
  5. Aarti

    I read this one, too, and my review posts tomorrow. I think, like you, I really enjoyed the book, but not so much for the story as for the whole context around it and all the themes it addresses.

    Reply
  6. parrish

    Great post, I thoroughly enjoyed this,I read this book in my early teens & this brought it back to me, I think they are both monsters & as to there Was no other option, is that true, or the cry of one before commiting something considered despicable.

    Reply
  7. zibilee

    I have wanted to read this book for ages now, and reading all the reviews of it has just gotten me more excited about it. I just ordered a copy and hope to read it soon. It does indeed sound like it’s got some serious ambiance and atmosphere! Great reflections!

    Reply
  8. winstonsdad

    nice post Iris I ve not read this book ,I knpw I should have done ,I ve seen many films being a fan of hammer films in my teens .I always felt sorry for the monster in the films ,all the best stu

    Reply
  9. Becky (Page Turners)

    Brilliant review. I have printed it out to read later and think about. I especially loved your thoughts in the second post about whether the monster is being manipulative. I for one definitely felt as though Frankenstein was more of the monster in the story – but maybe I need to rethink

    Reply
  10. Jodie

    Very interesting questions. I so wanted to like this book (I love Mary Shelley and the whole romantic crew, except for Percy who was a cad) but it made me fall asleep so many times when I was studying it. Still, it’s a great one to dig into, because of all the symbolism, scientific questions and narrative changes. I seem to remember the criticism I’ve read also talks about nature vs nurture, or human scientific creation vs godly creation, as being at the heart of the story. I also remember a gender studies critical essay that looked at Shelley’s use of nature as a representation of the feminine and framed the book as a symbolic narrative that questions the dominance of the male science over female natural world. Interesting to see that view through the goggles of progress, considering that biology (which Frankenstien engages in when he creates his monster) is now seen as a soft science, associated more with female professionals. Rambling now, but still, interesting.

    Reply
  11. Joanna

    so many themes! I never knew it had so many messages etc. It’s a book that I’ve been meaning to read probably for the last 10 Halloweens or so. There’s always next year!

    Reply
  12. Violet

    Yes, many deep questions are posed in Frankenstein. I think the central argument is the Enlightenment vs Religion debate about man and God, and whether man should play God through science, borne out in the sub-title “Or the Modern Prometheus”. There’s the whole Romanticism vs Enlightenment thing going on too: Emotion vs Reason, and how that plays out between the creator and his creation.

    I haven’t read this since uni, but I should probably give it another outing. The symbolism is none too subtle, I seem to remember, but they did lay it on rather thick in those days. :)

    Reply
  13. Alex

    I also tried to read it in it’s Romantic context, but it reached a point where I could only think about what a coward Frankenstein was for just running away after creating the monster and his moaning throughout the whole book… Sorry, not very literary-discussion-like, but couldn’t help it :)

    Reply
  14. Becky @ One Literature Nut

    I love your thoughts on Frankenstein! I just finished teaching this novel to my AP Literature students and we had a LONG discussion on the dual nature to all of us as humans. In other words, qualities that we might consider well-meant or good can also turn out to be bad or can hurt people.

    I love your thoughts and have to say that this book is so great for all the themes you can discuss!

    Reply
  15. Che'

    We read this book for an English class I’m taking and i must admit that i surprised at the way the book and movie portrays completely different perspectives of Frankenstein. The book starts with Victor Frankenstein experimenting with the forces of nature. He creates a monster that is never met to be. Because of this, this creature is abandoned, secluded, cast away, neglected and thus becomes vengeful because of it. This monster tried so hard to be accepted and all he wanted was to be and feel loved. He was created and then cast out by the one person who was supposed to care and love him more than anyone else. If one does not feel accepted and is always viewed as a monster, I believe they will come to believe that of themselves. This creation had tried everything in its power to try to find a family or even a friend and when that didn’t happen, the only other thing he knew to do was lash out. He felt that if he couldn’t have anyone love him, that his creator wouldn’t be able to love anyone either. That he would have to feel the loneness and sorrow that he himself had felt. I believe that the monster did have a pure heart in the beginning and only wanted to feel accepted. But I also believe that the rage, although he was remorseful in the end, was just as powerful and consuming as his intent for love and acceptance in the beginning. I feel that if he had been accepted by his creator, he could have been productive and even viewed as a hero to some aspect. But instead of loving fully, the rage he had was satisfied fully.

    Reply
  16. Melissa

    I recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a college English class. I expected for it to be “scary” as well but was pleasantly surprised at how captivating it was. One of our assignments was to write a literary analysis on an aspect of the book and I chose the obligation’s that Victor had to his creation. There is much debate about who is the “real monster” and while that is extremely relevant it is important to discuss the fact that Victor felt not apparent obligation or responsibility to care for his creation. Could Victor have prevented his creation’s killing spree if he had just showed him some compassion? As Shelley tells the story she leads the reader to think that the monster is savage from the beginning. As you read on the reader learns of the hardships and emotional trauma that the monster feels. He merely seeks someone that will love him and treat him kindly. Victor may have prevented the death of his family and friends by offering his creation kindness and compassion.

    Reply
  17. lynnsbooks

    This is a fantastic write up and very thought provoking. Personally I always thought Frankenstein was the real monster and that maybe Shelley was trying to show us that beauty is only skin deep – or perhaps more fitting in my blogosphere – you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. Okay you can tell how much it’s going to cost and get a little preview but you have to dig a bit deeper to see how you really feel about it. I always felt sorry for the monster. He has no name and as soon as he’s created he’s abandoned. If you look at how he behaved towards the farmers where he sheltered in the barn and learnt so much, he wasn’t violent towards them and in fact cared for them. It’s all just romantic speculation but I think that if he’d been nurtured the outcome would have been very different – although of course not as readable/memorable and probably not a classic!
    Lynn :D

    Reply

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