Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
The novel Frankenstein represents an interesting aspect of the Romantic era. Romantic prose was a somewhat underestimated genre, since most of the romantics expressed themselves through poetry. But writers like Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley were just as genuine agents of the romantic ideals as any contemporary poet. Frankenstein was published in 1818 when Mary Shelley was only 21. An anecdote has it that it emerged as a result of a bet between Mary Shelley and her friends, who thought that the literature of the time was dull and unexciting.
The novel stands out as a good example of what we call the gothic tradition in Romantic literature. All the ingredients of the gothic tale are there – the castle, the stormy weather, a monster, violent death, gory effects and passionate love. And since it is such a visual and dramatic story, it has been filmed many times. It can be read at many levels; today most people will associate it with a classic horror story. However, considering its full title, “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, one understands that there is more to it than just a horror story and morbid entertainment. According to Greek mythology Prometheus was punished by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. Zeus had him chained to a mountain as a prey for vultures that would come and peck at his liver. His liver was renewed every day, so Prometheus was facing a never-ending punishment. On that background the story of Frankenstein can be read as an allegory, that is, a narrative with a symbolic meaning, where the characters are personifications of more abstract ideas as, in this case, human ambition and wayward self-righteousness.
After his beloved mother dies Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with the question of death as an irreversible state. He studies medicine and tries to create a body out of organs and body parts stolen from fresh corpses, and succeeds in bringing his creation to life by giving it electric impulses. Like he says in the book: “Man is a mere system of flesh and blood and acts only on chemical and electric impulses”. But the monster escapes from Frankenstein’s laboratory, and haunts him until his death. The moral is clear – like Prometheus, the one who meddles with God’s creation must be prepared to take the consequences. The story is genuinely rooted in the romantic tradition. However, many critics also claim that it also reflects the ideals of the Enlightenment, as Frankenstein strongly believes in his scientific approach and systematic experiments to create life.
The monster gradually reveals human traits, it learns to speak, it has feelings and it also needs to be loved. And since it is a lonely freak forced to hide from people, we feel sorry for it; so the tables are turned, Frankenstein becomes the monster and the real monster has our sympathy. It is a fascinating story about human ambition, man’s thirst for knowledge and his ultimate wish: to be in control of life and death. But as the monster says: “Knowledge increased my sorrow.”
The first of the links below will give you extracts from two chapters of the novel with some tasks. The second link raises some issues to discuss the theme of Frankenstein in a broader perspective. The third link is a set of tasks to the 1994 film version of Frankenstein.