Central Themes in FrankensteinFrankenstein by Mary Shelley deals with the varieties of themes, giving the novel a possibility of diverse interpretations. The major themes found in this novel are, theme of birth and creation, theme of fear of sexuality, theme of parental responsibility and nurture, alienation, unjust society, the idea of the 'Overreacher' which are described below.
Theme of Birth and Creation
The major theme which seems to run all through the novel centers around the idea of birth and creation. Frankenstein primarily depicts the story of a man’s (a scientist’s) attempt to usurp the role of God in creating life as well as to eliminate the role of woman in creating life in the natural way (through sexual intercourse). We know that God created Adam and on his appeal, he created Eve and later told them to ‘go and multiply’. Victor an ambitious scientist eliminates both God and woman. In a way Mary Shelley parodises the Biblical myth of creation and suggests the Victor’s over confident in displacing God is his greatest crime. Victor’s ‘secret toils’ in a workshop of ‘filthy creation’ suggest that he is engaged in unnatural and unlawful sexuality whereby he eliminates the role of a woman, thereby he seems to be doing something which disrupts the normal family harmony and attendant responsibilities of a parent. Thus, there is an apparent critique of man’s attempt to violate the law of nature and also his efforts to eliminate woman from the creative act.
Fear of Sexuality
Many critics have observed that by usurping the role of woman and by indulging in secret toils’ in the workshop of filthy creation. Victor perverts the natural law; and what he succeeds in creating so horrifies him that he develops a fear of even normal sexuality. The nightmarish experience, he undergoes after the creation of the monster supports the idea that Victor is now repelled by the thought of natural sexuality. In his dream when he kisses Elizabeth, she turns into a corpse of his dead mother. This leads to the idea that Victor is frightened by the very thought of sexuality. This view is supported by his own reaction to his father’s suggestion that he should marry Elizabeth: “Alas! to me the idea of an immediate union with my Elizabeth was one of horror and dismay.” This reaction may also be due to the monster’s threat hanging over his mind. After Victor had destroyed the she-monster he was about to animate, the monster had threatened him with the words ‘I shall be with you on your wedding night’. This interpretation is supported by his behavior after the wedding ceremony when both Victor and Elizabeth go to the cottage at EVIAN to consummate their union. Victor’s mind is almost haywire as he looks at Elizabeth’s face. (It seems that she had noticed signs of worry on Victor’s face). There was considerable anxiety and fear vision on Victor.
In fact, he cannot get rid of the fear of the monster’s threat and he knows that he meant what he had said. He carries a fully loaded pistol under his bosom (not noticed by Elizabeth), for an imminent encounter with the monster. He checks all passages and approaches to their room.
In his topsy-turvy mind, Victor had misinterpreted the Monster’s words as a threat to him, whereas the threat was directed to Elizabeth. Since the words of threat are spoken after Victor destroys the female companion, it is clear that the monster would do quidpro quo that he would not let Victor enjoy the pleasure of marital union – the pleasure which had been denied to him. Thus, both the interpretations are possible. The ugliness of the monster and the likelihood of monstrous species which the monster and his female companion might have engendered, creates in Victor and abnormal fear of even natural sexuality. Critics have gone to take the view that the monster becomes an embodiment and an externalization of all of Victor’s repressed desires, the desires he rejects but cannot obliterate.
Theme of Parental responsibility and Nurture
Closely related to the theme of birth and creation is the theme e of parental neglect and their responsibilities to nurture their children. What is Victor’s crime? He has usurped the role of God and has created a Being in complete violation of natural laws. But as some critics feel that his more heinous crime is his abandoning his creation. Normally when children are born, they are looked after, their parents take full responsibility of rearing and nurturing them till they become fully familiar with the world they are brought into. But what Victor does? He animates a dead matter and creates a Being (though ugly in shape) and in complete horror abandons him in the world of which he has no idea and where he is totally alien. Having assembled the bones and other tissues from various charnels and graves and animates the frame. But when he observes the Being, he is so horrified that he at once rushes out of his workshop, taking not a bit of care to nurture him. Even when he stretches his arm and tries to say something, he rushes out of his bedroom and spends the whole night in the courtyard and as the gate opens he goes away. It is much later when the Being has had his self education through various encounters, feeding himself on roots, figs and nuts, and learns the use of language by constantly listening to Felix reading out to Safie and communicating with her, that he acquires full command on the language. It is during the Frankenstein family’s visit to the valley of Chamounix that Victor has an encounter with the monster as he goes alone to the summit of Montanvert. At first there is an exchange of harsh words, but the monster over-powers Victor with the eloquent use of the language and forces him to listen to him. Victor was still full furious, but the monster’s rhetoric’s compelled him to listen to his tale. And after having listened to the monster’s reasoned arguments, Victor realized his responsibility:
The monster then related all his tale from the time of his creation to the present; his tale was the tale of self-education, then his suffering at the hands of the people whom he had done no harm; how the injustices made him violent. The monster made him feel that only creating is not sufficient, but nurturing is important which he fails to do. And the result is the monster’s violent form.
The idea of the ‘Overreacher’
Ambition is natural to man; he aspires to do something big. Mary Shelley, however, equates Victor with mythical figures like Faustus and Prometheus; she feels that in his quest for knowledge, Victor crosses all bounds and usurps the role of God in creating life: there is also embedded her critique of ruling out the role of woman. Going back to the Bible Adam – Eve are said to be our grand ancestors. Victor, the inspired scientist wishes to do it all alone. At the university, he is enchanted by the lectures of Waldman, who pays the greatest tribute to the ancient philosophers… “They have performed miracles”. Waldman observed. “They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers, they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”
Waldman’s lectures on chemistry have profound influence on Victor: he too aspires to do something miraculous, but what happens is that his highly intoxicated mind pushes him into the forbidden territory. He performs and acts, but refuses to take the responsibility, and this proves his undoing.
It seems Mary Shelley is not rejecting man’s aspirations, what she feels is that all such ambitious undertakings must be accompanied by a full knowledge and a sense of one’s responsibility, for such acts can boomerang. Victor is one such over-reacher, the embodiment of man’s soaring spirit which seeks newer worlds, fresh sparks of light, but he disowns his act and refuses to take full responsibility for what he had done. He keeps his guilt to himself, witnesses and innocent being sent to the gallows; he does not open up his heart, even to his dearest friend Clerval, nor his father, nor to Elisabeth. Sharing one’s agony with others brings solace. When Elisabeth asks him the cause of his agitation on the honeymoon night his reply is evasive.
Robert Walton, on the other hand, submits to the wishes of his crew and decides to sail him. Walton, too, was equally ambitious, another Promethean figure who reaches the Arctic oceans facing all onslaughts and the fury of the weather, just to discover the shortest passage or the route to the other countries. But he does not reject the world, small world of his fellow-men, and agrees to sail home. Thus, there is a parallel as well as contrast between the two high-spirited men.
Theme of Alienation and Isolation
Yet another theme embedded in the novel is that of alienation and isolation. In his urge to discover the short routes to various countries (an ambitious project for the benefit of mankind), Walton disobeys his dying father’s injunction to his uncle not to allow him to take to sea-faring. But after getting a handsome fortune from his cousin, he launches himself on the expedition. He traverses through frozen lands, hires crew and a vessel and sails into the North Sea. His only link with the world is writing letters to his sister Mrs. Saville, England. Walton’s alienation is not, however, total; he has the company of his lieutenant and sailors; he can share jokes and laughter with them; share the odds and the accidents they face and jointly fight out – their togetherness may be small, but it is really human.
Victor’s alienation is self- imposed; he does not share his thoughts and ideas even with Clerval who nurses him back for over a month. He worked on his project in an apartment completely cut off from human habitation, and he completes his project in his workshop of ‘filthy creation’ which he then abandons for good. All his fear, horror and agony continue to gnaw his heart and mind and yet he cannot open up his heart to anyone. He is embroiled in a trap of his own creation. He witnesses the tragic execution of Justine, and once again chooses to be aloof and cut off – creates the she- monster, tears it off before he could animate it. From this point his isolation gets intense as it is accompanied by a threat, the first evidence of which is Clerval’s murder, and later that of his newly – wedded wife Elizabeth. He loses his father. He tries to explain his case to the magistrate who hardly believes his story and tells him to relax. But now he is totally bankrupt of life, feelings and emotions- the only thing that takes hold of him is the lava – his urge for revenge. For yet another time he chooses to isolate himself in the eternal pursuit of the monster, and ends up as a dead man on the vessel. Thus, his alienation or isolation is physical as well as moral or spiritual.
The monster’s isolation and alienation is caused first by his creator; then by the unjust treatment he gets from mankind. At no stage is he a welcome guest. He is treated as a monster and beaten up, even shot at. His hideous shape and appearance frighten all, even when he tries to befriend some. He seeks domestic bliss, but is rejected by the people. In fact, he is isolated from the moment he is created, and after getting full self-education and trying all means to get sympathy and love from society and the people, he becomes a rebel and then demonic.
Thus, it is his loneliness, his isolation and then miserable treatment he received from all those he tried to befriend that turned him into a true monster:
He demands a female, exactly like him, as deformed as he is, explains his isolation; he knows that he will not be accepted by the society:
“I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create. (Vol. II, Ch. VIII)”
Mary Shelley’s criticism or rampant injustices in society can be seen as we read the novel. The treatment meted out to the monster is one glaring example. He is all alone, seeks love and friendship, finds solace even when sees Felix-Safie making love. He helps them by bringing piles of dry wood which he places at their door at night. This very family gives a very rough treatment; earlier in the village boys stoned him and villagers drove him out. He saved a small girl from drowning, but instead of any reward he got a bullet, because he had deformities and ridiculous shape and ugly appearance.
Then Mary Shelley criticizes various institutions like the church and the courts of law and condemns the manner they administer justice. Justine is sent to the gallows on flimsy evidence. Earlier Safie’s father was condemned to death for no crime at all but that he was a Muslim. And when Felix appears and confesses his guilt or criminal act, he is imprisoned for about five-six months; the court confiscates all their property and exiles the family. They find a miserable cottage in Germany where they spend all their days in penury depending on the forest wood and a cow which gives them some milk.
If we read the proceedings of the trial of Justine, we shall find the most unjust role the priest-confessor plays. He comes to the cell and frightens the poor girl of ex-communication and the horrors of hell if she does not confess. Justine succumbs and confesses the crime which she had not committed. And the confession is held sufficient to send the girl to the gallows. Not a single voice is raised by those present in the courtroom, not a single member of the jury raises any objection. The decision to hang Justin is unanimous.
Indeed, his monstrousness is the direct result of the injustices inflicted on him by all those whose friendship he tried to seek or whomsoever he encountered. He deserves our sympathy when he cries – “I desired love and fellowship and I was spurned. Was there no injustice in this? … Am I to be thought the only criminal when all human kind sinned against me?” (Vol. III, Ch. VIII)
Mary Shelley is very clear on the view that monsters are not born, they are made.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of Frankenstein, as Victor attempts to surge beyond accepted human limits and access the secret of life. Likewise, Robert Walton attempts to surpass previous human explorations by endeavoring to reach the North Pole. This ruthless pursuit of knowledge, of the light (see “Light and Fire”), proves dangerous, as Victor’s act of creation eventually results in the destruction of everyone dear to him, and Walton finds himself perilously trapped between sheets of ice. Whereas Victor’s obsessive hatred of the monster drives him to his death, Walton ultimately pulls back from his treacherous mission, having learned from Victor’s example how destructive the thirst for knowledge can be.
The sublime natural world, embraced by Romanticism (late eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century) as a source of unrestrained emotional experience for the individual, initially offers characters the possibility of spiritual renewal. Mired in depression and remorse after the deaths of William and Justine, for which he feels responsible, Victor heads to the mountains to lift his spirits. Likewise, after a hellish winter of cold and abandonment, the monster feels his heart lighten as spring arrives. The influence of nature on mood is evident throughout the novel, but for Victor, the natural world’s power to console him wanes when he realizes that the monster will haunt him no matter where he goes. By the end, as Victor chases the monster obsessively, nature, in the form of the Arctic desert, functions simply as the symbolic backdrop for his primal struggle against the monster.
Obviously, this theme pervades the entire novel, as the monster lies at the center of the action. Eight feet tall and hideously ugly, the monster is rejected by society. However, his monstrosity results not only from his grotesque appearance but also from the unnatural manner of his creation, which involves the secretive animation of a mix of stolen body parts and strange chemicals. He is a product not of collaborative scientific effort but of dark, supernatural workings.
The monster is only the most literal of a number of monstrous entities in the novel, including the knowledge that Victor used to create the monster (see “Dangerous Knowledge”). One can argue that Victor himself is a kind of monster, as his ambition, secrecy, and selfishness alienate him from human society. Ordinary on the outside, he may be the true “monster” inside, as he is eventually consumed by an obsessive hatred of his creation. Finally, many critics have described the novel itself as monstrous, a stitched-together combination of different voices, texts, and tenses (see Texts).
Victor conceives of science as a mystery to be probed; its secrets, once discovered, must be jealously guarded. He considers M. Krempe, the natural philosopher he meets at Ingolstadt, a model scientist: “an uncouth man, but deeply imbued in the secrets of his science.” Victor’s entire obsession with creating life is shrouded in secrecy, and his obsession with destroying the monster remains equally secret until Walton hears his tale.
Whereas Victor continues in his secrecy out of shame and guilt, the monster is forced into seclusion by his grotesque appearance. Walton serves as the final confessor for both, and their tragic relationship becomes immortalized in Walton’s letters. In confessing all just before he dies, Victor escapes the stifling secrecy that has ruined his life; likewise, the monster takes advantage of Walton’s presence to forge a human connection, hoping desperately that at last someone will understand, and empathize with, his miserable existence.
More main ideas from Frankenstein