Study Guide

Frankenstein Themes

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

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    Surprise: a book about creating life has a lot to say (or, at least ask) about life and consciousness. Like, "Are we really just born this way?" And, "How much can we blame our parents for, honestly?" And, "Does playing Mass Effect 29 really make us more violent?" Okay, the last one is a little bit of a stretch—but Frankenstein does wonder how our reading habits form our minds and attitudes. If Mary Shelley had been writing in the 21st century, she probably would have had Frankenstein pick up an Xbox controller. (And hopefully have suggested a little counseling.)

    nature-vs--nurture

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. In what ways is Victor like God? In what ways is he not? Are we supposed to admire Victor, or be alarmed—very alarmed—at his life's goal?
    2. Does Victor have a responsibility to the monster beyond giving it life? Does every creator have a responsibility to what he creates? What does that mean in the context of "creation" as opposed to, say, motherhood or fatherhood?
    3. Shelley seems to think that the monster is basically a blank slate. He's born without any sense of who he is and learns through his reading and interactions with people. Is she suggesting that we're all born good and then turned evil by society?
    4. The monster appears to be a blank slate, but Frankenstein seems to suggest that it was his "destiny" to turn out the way he did. Are these contradictory ideas?

    Chew on This

    Shelley suggests that all men, women, and monsters are born essentially the same, and we're made different by our experiences.

    Frankenstein suggests that our experiences are only part of our personalities; we're all born with essential parts of our consciousness formed.

  • Science

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    Pop quiz! You walk into your neighborhood Whole Foods to buy some corn flakes. The box is labeled, "Contains GMOs." Do you think:

    • A. "Sweet! GMOs can provide valuable extra nutrients and superior crop resistance, leading to longer and healthier lives for some of the world's most impoverished people. Plus, it makes my corn flakes cheaper!"
    • B. "Shocking! Humans have no right to meddle with nature, particularly since the long-term effects of genetic modification are entirely unstudied. Who knows that Frankenfood might do to our bodies or the environment?"
    • C. "Eh, I can't even deal with this. Maybe I'll get some bacon instead."

    If you were Mary Shelley, you'd probably choose "None of the above." Frankenstein isn't a knee-jerk anti-science screed—but it's also not a wide-eyed, "Gee, isn't science nifty" kind of thing. Instead, it's a warning about the abuse and misuse of science by ignorant or irresponsible individuals. Frankenstein's problem? No one ever bothered to teach him ethics or responsibility or good old common sense. Frankenstein might not be anti-science as much as pro-humanities.

    Questions About Science

    1. How is alchemy portrayed in Frankenstein? What does alchemy even mean in the context of this book? Is Frankenstein's monster the product of alchemy or of science?
    2. What's the difference, in this book anyway, between "alchemy" and "science"? Does Victor see them as the same thing? Is this the real problem here, that he's calling it "science" when it is clearly not? Or is what he does science after all?
    3. What is it about science that is terrifying enough to merit a cautionary tale about obsessively pushing the boundaries of that field? Doesn't it seem rather quaint to be afraid of nineteenth-century science? What about 21st century science? Has our discourse (language) changed when we talk about science, or is Frankenstein still relevant?

    Chew on This

    Victor considers his creation to be an act of science, but he thinks the rest of society would call it an act of evil. In fact, Frankenstein argues that there is no difference between the two.

    Frankenstein thinks science is neutral; it's the scientists we have to watch out for.

  • Appearances

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    Beauty may only be skin deep, but, as Shmoop's campus gym once advertised, no one can see your brain from twenty feet away. Sure, Frankenstein seems to criticize the idea that beauty indicates inner virtue. The monster may be ugly, but deep down he's just a lonely guy who wants somebody to love. At the same time, all the nicest people in the book (Elizabeth, Safie, Felix, and Agatha) are also beautiful—and the monster may start out good, but he sure doesn't waste time becoming a murderer. Are we supposed to agree that inner beauty is all that matters? Or would Shelley just call that simplistic thinking?

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Frankenstein is full of the beauty of the natural world. What does this have to do with the monster's ugliness? Is he ugly because he was created by man?
    2. The monster believes it is his ugliness that keeps him alienated from society. Is that true? Does he murder because he's ostracized? Or is he ostracized because he murders?
    3. Why do you think goodness is linked to outer beauty and evilness linked to ugliness? What does media today indicate about the relationship between beauty and goodness, or ugliness and evil?

    Chew on This

    In Frankenstein, there's no difference between inner and outer beauty: what's outside always ends up reflecting what's inside.

    Shelley suggests that appearances can indicate someone's inner self, but only because society inevitably reacts to beautiful people in a way that makes them able to be good—and to ugly people in a way that makes them turn out evil.

  • Revenge

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    Vengeance is sweet. Revenge is a dish best served cold. The best revenge is a life well lived. Revenge—well, you get the point: people have a lot of things to say about revenge. In fact, it's a human emotion as strong and passionate as any other, like, say, love. Or friendship. In Frankenstein, revenge has an emotional resonance way stronger than Victor's half-hearted protests that he really does love Elizabeth, honestly. (Think about it: on his wedding night, who does he spend most of his time thinking about? Uh-huh.) The monster may think he has no connection to the world, but revenge gives him a continued link to Victor. It may be distorted, but it's still a way of forming human bonds.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. In Frankenstein, what's the relationship between revenge and tragedy?
    2. Who starts the revenge cycle, the monster, or Victor? Does it matter who started it? Who finishes it?
    3. How does revenge give both the monster and Victor a purpose in life?
    4. Near his death, Victor asks Walton to continue the quest for revenge against the monster. Does Walton honor this request in any way? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although revenge forms a very destructive type of bond between the monster and Victor, it ultimately becomes their shared link to humanity and gives them a reason to live.

    Victor's desire to avenge William's death ultimately brings about the deaths of Henry, Elizabeth, and his father. Victor is therefore morally responsible for these tragic events.

  • Family

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    Victor, the monster, and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air have one thing in common: Parents just don't understand. If only Victor's dad had taken the time to explain why Agrippa wasn't worth reading instead of just muttering about the trash kids these days read, maybe the whole tragedy would have been averted. Or so he says. Frankenstein might seem to suggest that having a good family is the solution to all of society's problems (like murderous monsters), but we're not so sure. The one nice family we see ends up exiled in a cottage in the middle of the woods. It's not much of an advertisement for family togetherness.

    Mommy Issues

    Questions About Family

    1. What is the significance of the peasant family in relation to the rest of the story? Is it supposed to be a model for us to emulate? Or are there problems with their family, too?
    2. Why is it important that Walton is writing letters to his sister? Would the action have held different significance if he were writing to his wife or a friend? (Think about the other sister figures in this text, as well as the other wife or lover figures.)
    3. William's death foreshadows further tragedy in the book. But does it also have meaning in the sense that William is Victor's brother? Why is the brother the first to go?

    Chew on This

    Victor's mother's death is the impetus for his creating the monster. Because such an event was beyond his control, Victor is morally exonerated from responsibility for the tragedy that follows.

    Walton's need for a friend mirrors the need the monster has for a mate. Gender doesn't matter in Frankenstein's relationships: the point is closeness and intimacy, not sex.

  • Exploration

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    Walton doesn't exactly start his first letter by writing, "The North Pole … the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the S.S. Prometheus," but he might as well. Like Victor, Walton is definitely trying to boldly go where no man has gone before. Only, unlike Star Trek, their journeys don't end up in mutual tolerance and reflective captain's logs: Victor's ends in tragedy, and Walton's ends in defeat. Frankenstein might not be completely anti-science, but we're pretty sure Shelley would have agreed with the Prime Directive.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Some critics have suggested that exploration in Frankenstein is a metaphor for the scientific method. True, or not so true? How so?
    2. After Victor dies, Walton gives up on his exploration and returns to England. What's up with that?
    3. What is the distinction between exploration and obsession? Why might these two things have such different outcomes? According to Frankenstein, can a person be committed to an endeavor without being obsessed?

    Chew on This

    Walton's desire for geographic exploration has the same potential for catastrophic results as Victor's studies in alchemy and science. Shelley's warning, therefore, extends far further than to purely scientific fields.

    Shelley would have refused to get a smartphone and spent a lot of time muttering about how the Internet was ruining civilization.

  • Language and Communication

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    You may be able to remember your name in the desert, but the monster can't—because he doesn't have a name. Without a name—a label—there's really no way to make sense of him. Is he a hero? A villain? Does it matter what people call him, or what he calls himself? Even when he learns language, he doesn't get a chance to open his mouth before people run away screaming. So how do you communicate when no one can stand to look at you?

    You write.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How does the first-person narrative affect the way we understand what happens to Victor and with whom we sympathize?
    2. How does the monster's reading list help form his identity and concept of self?
    3. What function does Safie play in terms of the development of communication in this novel? (She's got to be here for something.)

    Chew on This

    Acquiring language not only gives the monster a sense of his own humanity, but it forces him to come to terms with his alienation from society as well. Like the monster, language can be good and bad.

    The monster's namelessness is the reason that he is alienated, more than his ugliness.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

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    Most of the characters in Frankenstein seem to lack compassion entirely. The monster alone shows compassion and kindness, attributes that are soon ruined by the world around him. Frankenstein further questions just how goodness is judged. We are left unable to judge which characters are good and which are evil. We are left unsure of whom to forgive, who deserves our compassion.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Why isn’t Victor compassionate towards the monster he has created? Come on – it’s just that the thing is ugly? There has to be more to the story here. Do you really think everything would have been hunky-dory if the monster looked like Ashton Kutcher?
    2. Is Victor responsible for being compassionate toward the monster?
    3. In Frankenstein, the only person who does a good deed (rescuing a girl from drowning) is shot in the shoulder. What can you infer about Shelley’s view of the world?

    Chew on This

    The monster is the true protagonist in the novel because he is the only character who feels compassion, and hence, he is the only character the reader can feel compassion for.

  • Sacrifice

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    You know who sacrifices himself to save humanity? Jesus. And, if you were an ancient Greek or Roman, Prometheus. Does that make Victor a god-like figure? Or does he just want to think of himself as a god-like hero? After all, Victor's self-sacrifice also includes the sacrifice of those he loves, so—work with us here—it seems more an act of inhumane, self-absorbed injustice than like love for humanity. In Frankenstein, Victor decides to be a hero in his own mind rather than preserving the lives of those he loves. Thanks, but we can do without that kind of sacrifice.

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. Is Victor sacrificing himself or his family when he chooses to destroy the monster? Does he realize that he's going to be sacrificing his family along with himself?
    2. When Victor destroys the monster's mate instead of finishing it, is he truly enacting a self-sacrifice, or is he using self-sacrifice as an excuse to exact revenge on the monster for killing William and making Victor feel so guilty?
    3. Is Victor a Christ figure? Is he a Prometheus figure? (Check out "What's Up With the Title?" for thoughts on that.) What are the differences between a Christ figure and a Prometheus figure?

    Chew on This

    Victor wants to destroy the monster more out of a desire for revenge than any noble ideas about self-sacrifice.

    Frankenstein criticizes the very idea of self-sacrifice as individualistic and selfish.

  • Lies and Deceit

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    Deception in the form of secrecy is one of Victor’s fatal flaws. His inability to share his secret about the monster brings the destruction of those he loves. Further, this loss of family and friends causes Victor to lose his attachment to the world. Secrecy ultimately brings about his inability to save himself.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Would Justine’s situation have had a different outcome if Victor had been willing to give up his secrecy? If so, is Victor morally at fault for her death?
    2. A first person narrative has a way of concealing as it tells, and telling as it hides. What, if anything, is hidden by this first person narrative? What is revealed?
    3. Why does Elizabeth consent to marry Victor even though he is keeping a secret from her? Does she die because of his secret, or would she be fated to die, anyway?
    4. When Victor tries to tell a magistrate about the monster, no one believes him. Hmmm…What might this imply? Can Victor really be held responsible for keeping his secret if no one would believe him anyway?

    Chew on This

    Victor’s duplicitous nature is the cause of his downfall.

  • Secrecy

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    If there's one moral to Frankenstein that we can agree on, maybe it's this: some things are meant to stay secret. Trying to make nature reveal herself is, well, kind of like peeping through the window of a sorority house: you might get some cheap thrills, but you're also setting yourself up for some serious trouble. On the other hand… if Victor had just told someone about the monster, maybe none of the tragedy (or a lot less of the tragedy) would have happened. So, what's the deal with secrecy? Just like with everything else in this book, we can't make up our minds.

    Questions About Secrecy

    1. Would Justine's situation have had a different outcome if Victor had been willing to give up his secrecy? If so, is Victor morally at fault for her death?
    2. A first-person narrative is tricky: it has a way of concealing as it tells, and telling as it hides. What does this first-person narrative hide? What does it reveal?
    3. Why does Elizabeth agree to marry Victor even though he is keeping a secret from her? Does she die because of his secret, or would she be fated to die anyway? Would you ever marry anyone who claimed to have a big secret?
    4. When Victor tries to tell a magistrate about the monster, no one believes him. Hmm…What might this imply? Can Victor really be held responsible for keeping his secret if no one would believe him anyway?

    Chew on This

    Victor's obsession with secrets causes his downfall.

    Victor was right to keep the monster a secret: nobody would have believed him, and he probably would have gotten himself locked up.

  • Fate and Free Will

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    We can't exactly see Victor singing "Born This Way" (but we like to imagine it). At the same time, that's basically his anthem: over and over, he tells us that he just couldn't help it. It was destiny. It was fate. He was meant to discover the secret of life. Great! So, Frankenstein definitely agrees that we're born to certain paths; we're controlled by our genes (or whatever they thought of as genes in the early nineteenth century), and we just can't help it.

    Not so fast. First, Mary's revisions to the 1831 edition made fate way more important than it was in the original 1818 edition (source). Second, there's the whole issue of the monster, who seems to make some pretty clear choices about his behavior. Sure, he blames his looks and his dad and, well, everyone he encounters. But does that mean he didn't have a choice?

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. So, truth: does Frankenstein believe in free will? Or does it believe in fate? And what kind of fate does it seem to believe in—God? Destiny? Karma? Cause-and-effect? Genes? Upbringing?
    2. Is the monster evil because of his family (or lack thereof), or is he evil because he's assembled from a collection of corpse parts?
    3. The early nineteenth century may not have known about DNA, but it placed a lot of emphasis on "breeding," like who your parents were (and their parents, and their parents). Is that just another word for "nurture" in the timeless "nature vs. nurture" debate, or is the emphasis on parentage more like our understanding of genetics?

    Chew on This

    In Frankenstein, people are masters of their own destinies. Victor only blames fate because he's looking for an excuse.

    No one in Frankenstein can be held responsible for his actions, because fate is stronger than free will.