Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818/23/31) is basically a requirement for any comprehensive exam list that claims to focus on the gothic. It was famously largely written at Lake Geneva in Switzerland during the rainy summer of 1816. After entertaining themselves with a German collection of ghost stories, Lord Byron challenged the group to “each write our own ghost story.” Shelley’s novel takes on an epistolary form and multiple voices.
The structure of Frankenstein:
I. Walton (letters to sister Margaret)
II. Victor Frankenstein (story as told to and recorded by Walton)
III. The monster (story as told to and related by Victor)
Frankenstein begins with Walton on an Arctic sea voyage “of discovery” wishing for an equal to be his friend. His ship rescues a nearly starved and frozen Victor Frankenstein. Victor shares his story with Walton- he had become obsessed with natural science and eventually discovered how to create life, but horribly, what he created was a disfigured and horrifying monster. The monster, upset with Victor’s abandonment, kills Victor’s younger brother William by strangulation and frames Justine Moritz, William’s nanny, for the murder. The monster tells his story to Victor. After viewing (and sympathizing) the De Lacey family, the monster discovers his own loneliness. The monster begs Victor to create a woman for him to live with in seclusion. At first, Victor agrees and begins to create a female creature, however, at the last moment, Victor changes his mind and, vowing to defend the human race, tears the female body to pieces. In retaliation, the monster kills Victor’s best friend, Henry Clerval, by strangulation, and promises Victor to “be with [him] on [his] wedding night.” Shortly after his return to Geneva with his father, Victor marries Elizabeth. On the night of their wedding, the monster kills Elizabeth by strangulation. Victor’s father also dies from grief upon the news of her murder. Victor seeks revenge and chases the monster into the Arctic. This is where he was rescued by Walton’s crew. After telling his story to Walton (and editing Walton’s copy of it), Victor dies. The monster arrives and seems to genuinely mourn his passing. Before Walton can enact his promise to Victor to kill the monster, the monster escapes to commit suicide on a funeral pyre.
There are three major themes/elements of Frankenstein that are particularly interesting to me.
- The Ecogothic– The arctic region surrounding Walton’s ship is incredibly gothic. It is endlessly white and poses an extreme threat to the human crew members and Victor.
Walton: “I am surrounded by mountains of ice, which admit of no escape, and threaten every moment to crush my vessel.” (175)
These ice mountains emit thunderous sounds as they shift and move.
Also, the monster, despite being man-made, always escapes from Victor (and later, Walton), by dissolving into nature: “…quickly lost him among the undulations of the sea of ice” (120); “He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance” (184); etc…
His body withstands extreme cold and other natural elements and he is able to subsist entirely on berries and acorns. The monster seems deeply tied to nature.
2. Dangerous Knowledge- Victor refuses to tell Walton how he created life because he doesn’t want Walton (or anyone else) to commit the same mistake. Additionally, Victor looses his humanity after committing the deed:
- “…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge…” (41)
- “I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit…” (42)
Also, the monster grows progressively more angry and melancholy the more he learns from De Lacey’s family: “…sorrow only increased with knowledge…” (97).
3. Class: The monster claims to become the master of his creator, which could be reflective of class revolts. Additionally, the few members of the lower classes which Victor encounters have all been dehumanized by their poverty:
…all the senses of the cottagers been benumbed by want and squalid poverty. (135)
Finally, Walton literally fears a mutiny will occur when his crew is faced with the dangerous of arctic travel (176). Throughout his narration, Walton expresses a feeling of severe loneliness due to his belief that the sailors and whalers are all beneath him. Without an equal aboard the ship, he is unable to form a friendship or sympathize with any other being.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by Sylvia Hunt. Universitas Press, 2016.