The number of issues and ideas which can arise out of reading Frankenstein is phenomenal. Mary Shelley deals with major and minor themes in a way which shows the interconnectedness of social issues and foregrounds the human. She gives us a complex text dealing with complex issues, and at the end of the novel we are left with incomplete, vague and sometimes ambiguous guidance on how to see them.
Personal and thought and working out of these issues is the only option left open. Below you will find some thought on a small selection of the issues Frankenstein confronts us with.
For a larger list of the topics for consideration in Frankenstein, follow the link.
Readings of Frankenstein
There are a large number of possible readings of Frankenstein. It is worth considering the extent to which the novel can be seen as:
- a discussion of 'good' and 'evil'
- an affirmation of Romanticism over Enlightenment ideas
- an advocation of knowledge in moderation/with care
- a discussion of the Nature/Nurture debate
- a criticism of social attitudes (showing the dangers of ostracising people on unreasonable, prejudiced grounds)
- a statement of the need to respect the Creator and Creation
- a criticism of (male) Prometheanism
- an affirmation of conservative (non-revolutionary) politics
- a warning of what happens when we teach our children that property, wealth and high status are important, but available only to a few
- a birth anxiety narrative
- a criticism of Percy Shelley as an absentee father
- a statement of the need for family and friendship
- a condemnation of man's rejection of 'normal' (socially sanctioned) sexuality
- an exploration of the idea of the noble savage
Death in Frankenstein
Death is a theme running throughout the story of Frankenstein, indeed most of the book's characters meet their ends in one way or another before the final page is turned. Those who do not are either intending to die soon (the Creature) or possibly could (Walton, who has been in the Arctic for months and whose crew is depleted and fed up with him).
It is then ironic that Frankenstein states early on in the novel "Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" As a consequence of his actions, most of his friends and fimily end up meeting violent deaths at the hands of the Creature.
"Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world... I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption." Frankenstein wishes to interfere with the natural process of death in a godlike way but this backfires on him. By the end of the book he feels that death is all he has left to look forward to. Shelley is perhaps making a point about the inevitability of death and the repercussions of interfering with nature, even its negative aspects.
The book suggests that a person can die peacefully and not fear death if they are a good person and have resolved all matters in their lives before they die. Examples of this are caroline Beaufort and justine, both of whose deaths are sacrifices.
In order to find a way to overcome death, Frankenstein pillages graveyards, showing a complete disrespect not only for the natural order of things, but for people who have already died.
Two characters in the book are condemned to death by the government; Safie's father and Justine. In neither of these cases is the death deserved - Shelley seems to be saying that no human being has the right to decide another's death, that the government's power is not that great, that it should be left to the forces of nature.
Each time one of Victor's family or friends are murdered, Frankenstein's state of mind seems to suffer and even his physical state deteriorates - this shows what a powerful effect death can have on others, and the irrepressible guilt that is caused by Frankenstein knowing that he caused these deaths.
The death of Henry Clerval also represents the metaphorical death of Frankenstein's romantic self. Victor loses the friend that let him appreciate goodness and nature; once Clerval is gone he only thinks of revenge - he is driven by darker purposes.
Victor becomes doubly responsible for Elizabeth's death: he built her murderer and he sent her (for her protection, tragically) into the precise moment of death.
By Laura Gray
Further thoughts on Death in Frankenstein
- Frankenstein is a novel plagued by death. Throughout the course of the novel, there are a number of deaths including the death of Beaufort, Justine's relatives, Justine, William, Caroline Beaufort, Elizabeth, Clerval, Frankenstein himself and ultimately the Creature.
- The first time death is discussed is in Chapter 1. Alphonse Frankenstein's friend, Beaufort, dies, and his daughter, Caroline, is distraught: "Her father died in her arms, leaving her an orphan and a beggar... she knelt by his coffin, weeping bitterly." This shows that the death of her father deeply affected Caroline Beaufort but it also emphasises the excess emotion displayed in a typical novel.
- The death of Victor Frankenstein's mother, Caroline Beaufort, is a significant event in Chapter 3. It can be argued that her innocent death is the first of many for many of the characters in the novel. Frankenstein is upset by this loss and says: "I need not describe the feelings of those whose dearest ties are rent by that most irreparable evil."
- Justine also died innocently. As Frankenstein continually emphasises, Justine was not guilty of the murder of William but she is forced to confess as there is not enough evidence in her defence. "And on the morrow, Justine died."
- A fear of death and decay drives Frankenstein to create his Creature. He believes that if he can discover the secret of life, then he can cheat death and defeat old age. With the death of his mother and a strong feeling that her death was unjust, Victor finds a way to achieve his goal: creat a new species, which would ignore illness and disease, which would be strong and beautiful. He even talks about getting rid of death entirely. With his experiments he finally manages to bestow life on a dead creature - he has God-like powers.
- Henry Clerval also falls victim to Frankenstein's creation. Throughout the novel, Clerval is praised for his virtues and benevolence: "Could aught ill entrench on the noble spirit of Clerval?" "So perfectly humane, so thoughtful in his generosity - so full of kindness and tenderness amidst his passion for adventurous exploit." Even after helping Frankenstein recover from his many fits, Clerval is killed by the Creature.
- The Creature also kills Frankenstein's new wife, Elizabeth. Victor describes her as "My love, my wife, so lately living, so dear, so worthy" but she still dies as a result of Frankenstein's selfishness.
- The novel seems to concentrate on dead bodies. Early on in the novel, emphasis is placed on his mother's body when Frankenstein hugs what he thinks is Elizabeth but it becomes his mother's rotten corpse in his arms: "I thought I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms... I saw the grave worms crawling in the folds of the flannel." There is also Frankenstein's obsession with the dead body parts out of which he intends to create a companion.
- In a later chapter, Frankenstein visits a cemetery: "I found myself at the entrance of the cemetery where William, Elizabeth and my father reposed." He has not wanted to blame himself for the deaths that have occurred but here he indirectly takes on some of the responsibility as he prepares to hunt down the Creature. He says "They were dead, and I lived; their murderer also lived, and to destroy him i must drag out my weary existence." To say Frankenstein feared death he is still prepared to kill the Creature, despite what has happened to his close family and friends. He even goes so far as to ask their spirits to help him: "I call on you, spirits of the dead to aid and conduct me in my work."
- Death is clearly foreshadowed by the setting and landscape. It appears that every time character is about to die a strom is brewing or it is night. For example, when Clerval's body is found: "It was a very dark night"; when Elizabeth dies Shelley sets a dark, typically Gothic scene:"The wind, which had fallen in the south, now rose with great violence in the west... Suddenly a heavy storm of rain descended."
- Mary Shelley also makes many references to death through heaven and hell, although there is greater mention of hell. Frankenstein often describes the Creature as the 'devil' or a 'demon' while William and Caroline are described as 'angel'.
Sexuality in Frankenstein
Frankenstein is a peculiarly sexless novel, when it is considered that the Gothic usually contains a sexual element, and also that the novel concerns the process of procreation, and also marriage. Some readers believe that one reason for these seeming oddities is that the character of Frankenstein is homosexual. Whilst this is never explicitly stated (this would have been unthinkable in 1816), there are events and episodes in the novel which can be interpreted as indicative of Frankenstein's homosexuality. Equally, they can be interpreted in less loaded ways - it is possible (and some believe likely) that any reading involving homosexuality (a concept which did not arise until the late 1800s) is one coloured by the viewpoint and concerns of a modern readership.
Evidence to suggest Frankenstein's homosexuality:
- Frankenstein unconsciously creates a male creature and seems to 'desire' his creation: "I had desired it with an ardour that far exceed moderation."
- Frankenstein's descriptions of his male friend Clerval on seeing him far outweigh anything he says of Elizabeth, his fiancee: on seeing Clerval he says "Nothing could equal my delight on seeing Clerval" and "I loved him with a mixture of affection and reverence that knew no bounds," whereas he says of Elizabeth that she has "... an expression full of sensibility and intellect."
- When Frankenstein reveals his feelings about his impending marriage with Elizabeth his horror and dismay seem excessive. It seems as though he is not just worried about the creature's impact. He says "Alas! to me the idea of an immediate union with my Elizabeth was one of horror and dismay/"
- Frankenstein's repetition of the word 'union' as a replacement for 'marriage' seems to suggest that he does not see it as a loving and sexual relationship. He describes Elizabeth as 'my Elizabeth' as though she is just becoming another of his possessions.
- The storm at the beginning of Victor's wedding night, in addition to heralding the arrival of the Creature, may be seen to physically embody Victor's horror of heterosexual relationships.
- On his wedding night, Frankenstein describes the coming night as "Dreadful, very dreadful."
- In creating a male monster, or, in fact, any monster at all, Frankenstein is rejecting human reproduction and, therefore, 'normal' sexuality by usurping the role of women. This may indicate that he sees no role for women within his life.
- Victor is hasty to leave Elizabeth on their wedding night, believing that the Creature is downstairs. He does not confront his sexuality by remaining with Elizabeth in the bedroom. He seems quick to misinterpret the Creature's threat.
Evidence to suggest Frankenstein is simply rejecting any sexuality:
- The Creature Victor creates is regarded by some as the embodiment of his sexuality. Perhaps the ugliness of the Creature is suggestive of his feeling of repulsion towards any sexuality.
- The Creature is sometimes also regarded as Frankenstein's 'double'. The Creature spends most of his time acting out Victor's repressed desires against 'normal' civilised society and sexuality. He says of the Creature "My own spirit let loose from the grave... forces to destroy all that was dear to me."
- Frankenstein is constantly isolating himself from everything; he believes this is necessary to fulfil his 'quest'. However, there are many suggestions within the text that he is running away from 'normal' human relationships and any kind of sexual love.
- Frankenstein's terrible nightmare seems to be a rejection of 'normal' sexuality. When he attempts to kiss Elizabeth she turns into the corpse of his mother. This may be a hint of the thing that frightens Frankenstein the most about his 'monstrous' sexuality - his incestuous desires.
- The description of the mountainous region to which Frankenstein travels may represent his isolation from the rest of humanity - including human relationships and affection.
- Earlier spiritualisation of women would explain Frankenstein's later rejection of mature sexuality.
By Rebekah Wallis
Further Thoughts on Frankenstein's Sexuality
Reasons for thinking Frankenstein is homosexual:
- Frankenstein's mking a male Creature: Frankenstein makes it clear that he is lonely and wants companionship; usually a man will choose a woman for lifetime companionship, but Frankenstein went against this, and even tried to make the Creature attractive ("I had selected his features as beautiful"), suggesting that Frankenstein is more attracted to men than to women.
- Frankenstein's reactions: throughout the text, whenever there is any hint of mishap in Frankenstein's life (for example when he discovers the Creature has lest his appartment in Ch 5), instead of trying to deal with the problem, Frankenstein faints or falls into a fever, both of which are more typical of Gothic women than men.
- Frankenstein's apparent need to put the Creature's needs before Elizabeth's: the intention of bringing Elizabeth into the family was to provide Franknstein with a wife when they grew up. Elizabeth readily complies with this, but Frankenstein delays the marriage as long as possible and usually for reasons concerning the Creature. For example, when the Creature requests a female companion, Fankenstein initaially refuses but later agrees after his father speaks to him concerning his feelings for Elizabeth. This proves three points:
- Frankenstein apparently values the Creature's feelings over Elizabeth's
- His initial reluctance to make a female creature contrasts directly with his eagerness to create a male creature.
- Frankenstein can easily leave behind and neglect Elizabeth, who is constantly described as 'beautiful' and 'lovely'.
- When Frankenstein creates the Creature, he has a dream in which he holds Elizabeth and kisses her, only to find that she has become his dead mother, wrapped in her shroud and crawling with grave-worms. In this dream Frankenstein is connected with Elizabeth in the kiss - the only sexual interaction he has with a woman. As the female figure of the dream ends in death, this could suggest that Frankenstein's love for women died with his mother. Also, when Frankenstein awakes, the first thing he sees is the Creature, possibly implying that he has awoken to new feelings.
- Frankenstein hardly makes any comment on his eventual marriage with Elizabeth, except that it happened - he does not seem at all happy to be married. Then, on his wedding night, he does nothing but sit and ait for he Creature to turn up.