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Frankenstein: A Critical Analysis

Updated on September 16, 2012

Frankenstein "The Modern Prometheus"

Frankenstein was originally entitled The Modern Prometheus as a reference to the fabled discoverer of fire. Mary Shelley wrote her novel in the early 1800s, and she attacks many of the social trends that she saw within her own lifetime. As a radical feminist and a revolutionary, she grew up with philosophies that were by no means traditional or mainstream. Shelley’s father was a famous novelist as well, as well as an anarchist who wrote a number of political treatises that extolled the virtues of the working man against the capitalist machinery. Shelley herself adapted the equality and liberty present in her father’s ideology into gender rights, calling for the promotion of women from a subordinate role in society to one that was much more consequential.

Background

Frankenstein was written when Shelley eloped to France with her then-lover, and the novel was created with the influences of both literary classics as well as political trends of the time. The novel was loosely based on a legend from Germany of an alchemist named Johann Konrad Dippel who supposedly reanimated dead flesh into walking monstrosities, and it capitalized on the fears of the scientific establishment which was becoming more and more present in the everyday life of the people of Europe. Shelley wrote the novel as both a ghost story and as a warning, and it is telling that her second best novel, The Last Man, is also a post-apocalyptic novel set in a society that is on the decay.

Dr. Frankenstein

At first, Dr. Frankenstein truly has noble goals in his scientific enterprise. He is convinced that he is able to help mankind through his experimentation, and he intends to cure both diseases and death through his medical interactions. Dr. Frankenstein thinks that he is personally able to cure disease because he has a very high concept of his own ability and his own education, and he holds himself above the rest of the population through his self-image of being the only person who can become the savior of mankind. Eventually, his mental separation from society continues and he manifests it with both physical and mental changes that cause him to become mad.

Social Context

In industrial England, it seemed as if the country was on the cutting edge of medical research, but the conflation of science and industry clearly made many people uneasy. Shelley did not criticize all of science, as Dr. Frankenstein’s noble intentions initially result in an act of creation. However, Shelley does criticize the immoral application of science. Dr. Frankenstein only becomes a monster when he withdraws from the consequences of his actions, trying to separate himself from the destruction that is caused by the laboratory experiments that he created. Frankenstein’s monster is deserted by its professor because Dr. Frankenstein is both scared and ashamed of his own failure, but he is completely unable to see that failure for what it is.

The novel is actually somewhat ambiguous about how exactly Frankenstein’s monster fit into society. On one hand, Frankenstein’s monster is the product of an unnatural act of creation that has put the monster into a unique place in society, but on the other hand the monster itself exhibits human tendencies such as when it saves a child and when it collects firewood. The monster reads classical literature and becomes much more human than intended, but it is turned away by a society that is unable to deal with the way in which it was created. The monster was rejected by society, and it ended up hating both its creator and the rest of society. In this way, it is not the science and industrialization that is faulted, but again it is man’s hubris and inability to accept competition or the presence of alternatives to the status quo.

Film Adaptations

One of the most interesting aspects of Frankenstein and its later migration into film and live drama has been the way that directors have interpreted the over-arching mood of the story. From the 1960's classic "Frankenstein" to light-hearted comedies such as "Young Frankenstein" directors have almost universally stayed away from the gore found in most horror films. However, the entire story revolves around the idea of death, with Noel Carrol claiming, in the Philosophy of Horror "Being that the monster is created using body parts from numerous corpses; those who confront the monster are confronted by the abject notion of death due to their viewing numerous corpses put together into something that is somehow living. "

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