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Major Themes in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Updated on January 18, 2012

Frankenstein is often considered a horror story because of its film interpretations, yet the novel written by Mary Shelley is more tragic than horrific, and filled with philosophic, cultural, and religious themes. Many of these themes appear less as assertions or viewpoints by Shelley than as points that the reader is left to ponder even after closing the book.

Shelley's novel is considered one of the classics because of its universal themes, such as science, the pursuit of knowledge, religion, the dynamic between parent and child, evolution, education and child development.

It is important to note that, contrary to popular belief, Frankenstein was in fact the name of the scientist who created the creature or monster. The creature himself is not named in the novel.

Shelley subtitled "Frankenstein" as "The modern Prometheus."
Shelley subtitled "Frankenstein" as "The modern Prometheus."

Science and The Pursuit of Knowledge

The creation of Frankenstein's monster is presented as an unsurpassed feat of scientific discovery, yet one which brings only sorrow, terror, and devastation to his maker. In a sense, the creation of the monster is a punishment inflicted upon Frankenstein for his unbridled pursuit of knowledge. This reflects themes presented in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus , in which Faustus is condemned to hell for his overreaching ambition. These ambitions of Faustus and Frankenstein appear to be beyond the range of information available to mortal, even infringing upon knowledge meant to be held only by God. In the case of Frankenstein, he has usurped the power of the Divine by creating life without the union of male and female.

Shelley wrote Frankenstein during an age where scientific advances were exploding rapidly. The discovery of such concepts as electricity had the power to effectively shake the foundations of previously established constructs and truths about the natural world. What is interesting to note, however, is that these issues, considered very "modern" in Shelley's day, continue to resound within our present age. Our society currently wrestles with such issues as artificial intelligence, cloning, DNA, genetics, neuroscience, and stem cells, which ultimately leads to controversy regarding the roles, uses, and limitations of science.

Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein at only nineteen years of age.
Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein at only nineteen years of age.

Relationship Between the Scientist and His Creature

Shelley makes references both to Milton's Paradise Lost and the Garden of Eden in the novel. In one interpretation, Frankenstein can be considered the creator of the his creature, similar to a god. Like the creation of Adam, Frankenstein has endowed the creature with life, and even fashioned him in his own image, albeit in monstrously exaggerated form. Though the monster does not eat of any proverbial fruit, his sin consists of simply being, existing as an aberration of natural order and law. Thus the monster is cast from the home of his creator as a fallen being, and forced to wander the earth with the knowledge of himself as an imperfect being.

Another way of interpreting the relationship between the two is to consider Frankenstein the father figure of the monster. It is worth noting that there is a theme of impotence here, as Frankenstein has created the child without a woman, and also never manages to consummate his wedding night. Even the monster is incapable of relations with a woman, as there is no more of his kind.

Frankenstein, for lack of a better phrase, is simply a bad parent. He bestows life upon his "child," yet refuses in any way to care for his emotional needs. There are gender and class issues at work here, during the time that Shelley wrote the novel it likely would not have been expected of a father to provide for more than simply the physical needs of the child. Shelley's own father has been characterized as being emotionally distant, a prime reason for her later issues with attachment. It could be considered, given the social climate of the time, that Frankenstein might simply have just been in need of a mother!

Evolution, Education, and Child Development

When the monster is first created, he is limited to purely sensory phenomena. He is not unlike an animal without higher cognitive development, or a baby just after birth. At this stage, the creature lacks the vital self-awareness of mind or existence. Eventually he begins to make cause and effect inferences between his surroundings and his own bodily sensations. Still ruled by immediate physiological needs such as hunger, thirst, cold, the creature is wholly consumed with the satiation of these needs.

As the monster's tale progresses, there are parallels to the ways in which the learning and growth processes work in humans, through evolution and through the stages of childhood. Eventually the creature comes to ponder higher philosophical questions concerning the nature of identity, self, community and belonging, indicative of the questions asked by humans over the ages and into the present day.

A Classic Novel

Frankenstein is considered a classic novel, one which continues to be read and appreciated long after its initial publication. While storytelling and the iconic characters and scenes do have a contributing role in the book's status as a classic, much of its popularity is due to the fact that many of the themes presented in the novel resound into the present age. The book exists not as a static representation of a period in history, but as continued fodder for timeless questions of identity, humanity, knowledge, technology, and evolution.

© 2010 Anaya M. Baker

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    • profile image

      Moral Man 

      2 years ago

      Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is nearing two centuries. At the time the medicine was still poor and deaths would result more often from diseases. There werent any vaccines yet. The desire to protect, prolong, and preserve life is strong in this novel, so strong that Dr. Frankenstein assembles a living human from dead bodies and gives the creature superhuman strength and stamina. Unfortunately, hlthe creature turns out physically ugly and deformed, and is shunned by Dr. Frankenstein and almost everybody. One question is this: how or why did the creature become physically ugly? Did Dr. Frankenstein knowingly and intentionally make him this way? Was the creature made handsome and for some reason become ugly during the time it was assembled to the time it became alive? In other words, something happened that transformed the creature to become ugly which the novel doesnt explain and doesnt account for. Dr. Frankenstein seems surprised that the creature turned ugly and states that it was not his intention to create ugliness.

      The creature leads a miserable existence. It spies on a blind man and his family. The blind man is Delacey who is the only person who shows kindness to the creature. The creature confronts Dr. Frankenstein and requests that a mate or a female companion be made for him. If the Doctor refuses, the creature threatens mayhem. Dr. Frankenstein decides to abort the incomplete female creature. He will regret it. Doctor Frankenstein fears that if a female creature was made the two would mate and fill with the world with monsters. He should have thought of that before creating the male creature.

      If Doctor Frankenstein had the genius and intelligence to create human life, then 1) he should have the ability to make the two creatures infertile, and 2) he should have the ability to make the male creature handsome or normal. Why not give the creature a facelift? Theres no execuse to allow the creature to continue living in misery. The creature was miserable, and it made sure to make Doctor Frankenstein miserable.

      Countless movie versions and book versions and graphic novels of Frankenstein have been made. In one illustrated book version for children, the dying Doctor Frankenstein tells Walton that he should have taken good care of his creation and he should not have abandoned it just because it was physically ugly. The theme of being morally responsible to what you create and to what you give birth to is a strong message here. Doctor Frankenstein was irresponsible and stupid, and both he and his creation suffer for it. The creature didnt ask to be created and didnt ask to be born in such a cruel, heartless world.

      The theme of physical ugliness and the misery it causes is also prominent here. Almost everybody shunned the creature and mistreated him due to his physical ugliness. The creature was gentle at first, but became violent and evil when he realized he would never be accepted in society. A cruel, heartless, stupid society turned a good person into an evil one. The moral here is that if a person is treated badly then he may become bad.

      Frankenstein is important as literature and as a morality lesson.

    • profile image

      Manuchehr Shahdodov 

      3 years ago

      1 August 17 .. year to board the vessel withdrawn from Arkhangelsk polar expedition floe nails with dog sledding. Survivor traveler-European, Victor Frankenstein tells his life story to the captain. This story who found a way to "revive dead matter" student-scientist and his people to the path of revenge became the basis for the generation of intelligent novel that is recognized by many as the first work of science fiction.

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      I read Frankenstein many years ago when I was in my 'romantic' literature phase and trawling through PB Shelley et al. While I enjoyed it, I think it's hard to read the book now with so much emphasis having been put on the scary elements of the story by movie makers. I think Mary Shelley's ideas have, at least on the big screen, been lost and/or ignored, and a lot of people would be disappointed to read the book after seeing one of those movies, but I suppose that's Hollywood for you. Very interesting, voted up.

    • LisaKoski profile image

      Lisa 

      5 years ago from WA

      Frankenstein is one of my favorite novels of all time. I agree with you that its continued popularity has a lot to do with the questions it poses that are still just as relevant today as they were when it was written.

    • Anaya M. Baker profile imageAUTHOR

      Anaya M. Baker 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks for stopping by Guinigor! I love that timeless aspect of Frankenstein...

    • profile image

      Gulnigor Tilloeva 

      6 years ago

      Amazing and very interesting .It teaches moraliry,humanity,kindness ,generousity,curiousity and makes us think of our dids.

    • Jason R. Manning profile image

      Jason R. Manning 

      7 years ago from Sacramento, California

      Wow, first of your hubs I have read and I certainly am now a fan. You bring home the depth of these concepts by actually having read the many influential machinations of the time period. I would venture to say that in these earlier time periods, these writers had longer periods of reflection and therefore the fortitude to bring forth such vivid parallels. Great article, I cannot wait to come back and dive into more of your thoughts.

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