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19th Century Novels
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Themes in Frankenstein


The narrative structure of the novel is multi-layered: starting with Walton, then moving to Frankenstein and the creature, and then reversing back. This forces the reader to reach their own conclusions, and also to experience depth of character within their relationships to one another.

Walton’s letters, written in epistolary form, allow Shelley to present the story as being told through a ‘friend’. In the first chapter, we find out Victor is alone:

“Solitude was my only consolation — deep, dark, death-like solitude”

The use of alliteration and repetition helps readers to appreciate how desperately he wanted a friend again (one reason for creating ‘life’).


When the creature is brought to life, he is similar to a new born baby: dependent, helpless and in want of basic needs. Victor has somewhat of a narcissistic nature; he aspires to become like a God. For example, he declares:

“A new species would bless me as its creator and source.”

Ironically, Victor fails to meet the creature’s needs, therefore the creature soon becomes marked by isolation and rejection. Shelley suggests this is a cause of the monster acting violently.

In chapter ten, , the monster commands Victor: “Do your duty towards me”, but Victor fails to nurture the creature. Readers are led to feel somewhat sympathetic towards the creature, as he was helpless in being created. In Shelley’s description, epithets such as “daemon”, “monster”, and “wretch” dehumanise Frankenstein’s creation. Even Victor cannot help but be moved – eventually – by the creature’s lonely woes. As a result, he agrees to create a female companion, which he later refuses to complete, mainly for fear the creatures could procreate.

In the novel’s conclusion, Shelly intentionally conveys that the most important part of ‘creation’ is the care given afterwards. She suggests that one cannot just create without responsibility.


Both Victor and Walton share an obsession with knowledge:

  • Victor produces the creature
  • Walton journeys to the North Pole

Perhaps Shelley signifies the danger in chasing knowledge, as Walton’s trip backfires when the ship becomes stuck, and Victor’s creature becomes hugely dangerous.

In the fourth of Walton’s letters, he records what Victor had said to him:

“You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you”

This is a biblical reference to temptation. Victor’s character starts to develop an awareness of his downfalls and discloses this to Walton. Shelley also shows that both characters face alienation through their pursuits of specific knowledge, as they end up alone.

Ironically, as the novel unfolds, the monster describes his own growing knowledge “like a lichen on the rock”. This simile describes lichen, which is the very first plant ‘life form’ on the surface of a rock (it looks a little like moss). The use of this simile is interesting because it reflects both the monster’s natural environment and his growth. Some might also interpret this as the monster feeling like the ‘rock’ – cold and hardened.

Science and Discovery

At a time when science and discovery were being challenged, Mary Shelley’s novel examines power, creation and responsibility. Victor’s character is working at a time when older methods of alchemy were confronted with newer scientific beliefs and methods. The protagonist of ‘Frankenstein’ has a powerful ambition to create ‘life’. In doing so, he creates ‘Frankenstein’s monster’.

Similarly, Walton wishes to: “satiate [his] ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited”. This mirrors the period’s growing interest in exploration, where those who could afford it began to travel.”

The novel also provoked the growing nature verses nurture debate. During that period, thinkers believed more strongly that a person’s upbringing (nurture) influenced their behaviour. The monster often poses rhetorical questions to his creator, such as:

“Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?” (chapter seven)

Shelley raises the question of whether a being, who is shunned and outcast by society, is solely responsible for their revenge and bitterness.

In this novel, the focus is very much on the ‘responsibility’ of the scientist, and to what extent this field can be pushed at the risk of humanity.


Every character (except De Lacey) assumes the monster must be bad, based on appearances. Repeatedly, the monster finds himself rejected and hurt, which serves to drive the rationale for his destructive behaviour in the novel. Because of this, Frankenstein’s creature retreats to distant places. These are typically cold and treacherous (typical of the gothic genre) symbolising the character’s despair.

As the monster becomes more articulate in his dialogue, he is able to use personal language to convey his emotions:

“I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me”.

Religion and Nature

The text is written with religious allusion and imagery. Not only was this a typical feature of gothic writing at the time, but it allowed Shelley to explore ideas of ‘humans’ verses nature. In some ways, her novel appears as an appreciation of the size and breadth of nature (perhaps inspired by her writing when on holiday in the Alps).

‘Nature’ or ‘maternal nature’ is regularly personified. Frankenstein declares, “I pursued nature to her hiding-places,” revealing his desire to create something beyond nature’s laws. However, this only ends in death.  

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