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Probably a "man-in-the-street" informal poll would rank Frankenstein and Dracula as the two most famous horror stories ever written--or filmed. Many undoubtedly are familiar with these classics only through Hollywood, and with the former this is a most unfortunate circumstance in that much violence has been done to an otherwise rich and perceptive narrative.

(One of the most famous scenes in the novel--what is
happening as Shelley writes? What has Hollywood
frequently done?)

In The Meaning of Star Trek (NY: Doubleday, 1999), Thomas Richards perceptively argues that Mary Shelly's novel begins science fiction in a serious mode. He notes that unlike many entries in the genre, Frankenstein probes the subtleties of character. Rather than the mindless horror that destroys because that is its nature, Shelley portrays a gentle and sensitive creature that in Rousseau's fashion, is remains so until the atrocities inflicted on it by insensitive humanity cause a change.


Maurice Hindle's Introduction to the Penguin classics' edition of Frankenstein is excellent in terms of thematic and biographical information it presents. Study it carefully.

An excellent source to study the novel's history from creative inception to Hollywood is:

Jameson, R. Frankenstein. Avenel, N.J.: Crescent Books, Inc., 1992.

The best web site is Literary Gothic with many articles on the novel and its author. Click here.

Click here for a great NIH link to the novel including literary and medical background photographs.

Frankenstein: A New Reality discusses facts of composition, themes, scientific allusions plus a link to a "mind chart" blending compositional and thematic elements.

An Extract of a Letter by Byron's Physician, Dr. John Polidori that outlines his account of the facts of composition of Frankenstein.

From the University of Pennsylvania, the Diary of Dr. John Polidori (1816) is on line--the excerpts pertain to the composition of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley and her novel:




    1. Shelley's Preface to Frankenstein
    2. Maurice Hindel's Introduction to the Penguin classics edition of the text.
    3. These web sites feature Gothic background and dream psychology: click here
    4. Go to my BRITISH LITERATURE COURSE HOME PAGE TO ROMANTIC PERIOD FOR ADDITIONAL LINKS: ( See especially: The Romantic Period and Dream Psychology: Click here.)



On many levels, Frankenstein addresses women's issues, especially those of education, sexuality, and childbirth. Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died in childbirth after giving birth to Mary. She had borne an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, with one Gilbert Imlay, an American living in Paris. When there relationship cooled, she attempted suicide, but later began living with William Godwin, Mary's father. Godwin, formerly a clergyman, had abandoned the faith and became a radical anarchist. (See below for links to Godwin.) Mary's Vindication, seen at time as radical and dangerous (She was called a "hyena in petticoats") has become a classic in feminist literature. Click here.

The following short excerpt is of interest:

"Consequently, the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was Rousseau's opinion respecting men; I extend it to women.


As with most romantics, Mary borrowed substantially from her literary and philosophical heritage in writing Frankenstein. You should be aware of at least the following influences:

  1. Mary was strongly influenced by the epistemological dualism of rationalism vs. empiricism. Her father William's philosophical rationalism suggested the neo-classical belief that a utopia might be realized if man used his reason to create one. This utopian protocol merged in the romantic period with the belief that man is naturally good at birth, but corrupted by a foul environment. Godwin's great reliance on reason to achieve a utopia, however, was modified by most romantics who saw passion as a necessary condition for perfection His Enquiry Concerning Political Justice nonetheless greatly influenced Romantics who noted, at least at the outset, the hope that the French revolution would bring promises of a better world, free of oppression. He noted:

    Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it. By concentrating the force of the community, it gives occasion to wild projects of calamity, to oppression, despotism, war and conquest. By perpetuating and aggravating the inequality of property, it fosters many injurious passions, and excites men to the practice of robbery and fraud.

    Godwin links:

    1-William Godwin: quotes on education (from BrainyQuote)

    2-Click here for excerpts from Godwin's writings.

2. The excerpts below from Descartes and Locke set the parameters for Frankenstein
epistemology: the question is to what degree knowledge is innate or shaped by the sense:

    DESCARTES (1596-1650): The four following would prove sufficient for me: The first was never to accept anything as true for which I did not clearly know to be such...avoid prejudice. The second to divided each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, as might be necessary for its adequate solution. The third to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and the knowledge of the more complex...and the last in every case to make enumerations so complete...that I may be assured that nothing was omitted. Seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us, and I supposed that all objects that had ever entered my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I THINK, HENCE I AM [Cogito, ergo sum] was so certain that no ground of doubt could be order to think, it is necessary to exist. I might take as a general rule the principle that all the things which we very clearly and distinctly conceive are true, only observing,\ however, that there is some difficulty in rightly determining the objects which we distinctly perceive...we rise to causes through their effects and avail ourselves of many experiments.

    LOCKE (1632-1706): Every man being conscious to himself that he thinks, and that which his mind is applied about while thinking, being ideas, it is past doubt that men have in their mind several ideas, such as those expressed by the words, "whiteness," "motion," "thinking"...How does he come by them? Let us suppose the mind to be as we say, white paper [blank slate, or tabula rasa], void of all characters, without any ideas. Whence has it all the materials, of reason and knowledge? From experience...our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey unto the mind several distinct perceptions of things according to these various ways wherein those objects do affect them...yellow, white, heat , cold...This great source of most of the ideas whatever it is the mind can be employed about in thinking, we have, depending wholly upon our senses, I call sensation. the principle of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got; which operations when the mind comes to reflect on and consider, do furnish the understanding with another set of reasoning, knowing, willing...I call this reflection, the notice which the mind takes of its own operations. The first capacity of the human intellect is that the mind is fit to receive the impressions made on it, either through the senses by outward objects, or by its own operations when it reflects on them. We can have no knowledge farther than we have ideas. We can have no knowledge farther than we can have perception of agreement or disagreement. We cannot examine and perceive all the relations they have to one another...Our knowledge comes short of the reality of things...I suppose it may of use to prevail with the busy mind of man to be more cautious in meddling with things exceeding its comprehension; to stop when it is at the utmost extent of its tether; and to sit down in a quiet ignorance of those things which upon examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our capacities; our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our conduct.

  1. Since the sub-title of the novel is THE MODERN PROMETHEUS, it would be useful to know why the romantics esteemed the myth. In general, Promethius of course stole fire from the gods and gave it to man and was punished for so doing. He became of course a hero to the romantics. PERCY SHELLEY wrote a play called PROMETHEUS UNBOUND. You can read his PREFACE which explains how he transformed the myth, and the play itself; CLICK HERE
  2. This excerpt sets the tone:

"I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind. The moral interest of the fable, which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary."

Lord Byron, present when Shelley 's reverie occasioned Frankenstein,
wrote a short poem entitled Prometheus:


The romantic of course were interested in the creation of life or Paradise Lost would not have sustained such an interest. They might have found, a precursor, Joseph Campbell's read of the GENESIS MYTH (The Power of Myth) interesting:

In GENESIS, the serpent is the seducer. Campbell notes, "That amounts to a refusal to affirm the biblical tradition, life is is corrupt, and the female as the epitome of sex is a corrupter. Why was the knowledge of good and evil forbidden...? Without that knowledge, we’d all be a bunch of babies still in Eden, without any participation in life...The Serpent is the primary god, actually, in the garden of Eden."

Note the following implications:

1. opposites exist in the garden: god and man,

2. the apple is the knowledge of opposites

3. good and evil

4. sexual opposites

5. reason and faith

6. GENESIS: relevant quotes / and commentary:

a. “You will not die” / they will eventually

b. “Your eyes will be opened” / to guilt and shame to progress

c. “Like God knowing good & evil” / but..what did God forbid?

7. Note how the following Biblical themes appear in the novel:

a. passionate restlessness (the horror of)
b. unreasoning energy
c. dissatisfied with what he has
d. prone to error
e.heroic energy in form and content
f. “strength is shown through conflict and endurance.”
g. “profoundest sympathy and imagination.”
h. knowledge not possessed by children
i. knowledge needed to make adult decisions,
j. SCIENTIFIC decisions?

8. Conclusion: Man takes this decision upon himself, he has the knowledge of God, but not the wisdom. What does Victor think?

9. Other BIBLICAL ALLUSIONS. How do you think Shelley might read THE BOOK OF JOB?
Recall there are two was to read the ending when Job confronts God (as does Adam in Paradise Lost). What are the endings, and which one do you think Shelley would endorse? Themes include:

10. Alexander Pope's ESSAY ON MAN offers a perspective for the novel as well...

Better for us, perhaps, it might appear,
Were there all harmony, all virtue here;
That never air or ocean felt the wind,
That never passion discompos'd the mind.
But all subsists by elemental strife;
And passions are the elements of life.
The gen'ral order, since the whole began,
Is kept in nature, and is kept in man.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world


Robert Schwartz's site is excellent with many links: click here

The Shelley's were of course interested in science and desire to reanimate life, probably because the age was, and personally due to the loss of a mother and Mary's own child.




Our approach to Shelley's novel will be to consider creative and philosophical issues that provide the substance Hollywood misses...

Jameson's introductory essay explores the circumstances of the novel's creation which are almost as well-known as the book. He suggests the following:

  • William Godwin
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • William Shelley
  • Mrs. Mary Jane Clairmont
  • Lord Byron
  • Clara Shelley
  • Thomas Jefferson Hogg
  • Claire (Jane) Clairmont
  • Dr. Polidori: CLICK HERE for Kyla Ward's excellent analysis of his contribution.
  • Harriet Shelley
  • "Monk" Lewis
  • What was Mary feeling at the time she wrote the novel
Lucy Mueller

Mary's Preface:

Mary's comments shed much light on what she was to write. We should note...


Why does the novel begin with a frame story? Note other works from Job to The Canterbury Tales to Heart of Darkness that use this device. What figure of speech is generally present, and what does its use contribute to the novel's many themes listed above. What role does Walton play? What does he want to do, and what is the irony?

How objective and reliable is Victor's flashback account of his childhood? Evaluate his emotional and imaginative stability. What cognitive issues seem to interest him the most: ""Chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose?" What is that purpose? Does he have any doubts about what he wants to do? What moment in his narrative does he look back with more objectivity than he had at the outset? Are there any classical themes?

When Victor creates the 'thing,' what is his reaction? Why? What principles of romantic aesthetics are operative?

The conversations between creature and creator of course are the substance of the novel. With the romantic emphasis on educational psychology--Wordsworth's "child" being "father," and of course Rousseau's "Emile" being naturally good-no innate perversity in the human heart, then the role of the environment is primary. What are the environmental circumstances that shape the creature's growth. What does it read, whom does it meet, and what are the results? "I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but...." What follows the 'but' is terribly important? "You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather form your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing?

As the creature recounts its earliest recollections, what details are important and why? Remember that the romantics sought to validate the ideas, the forms of Plato in the sense world, and to establish the connection between the two was the goal of their poetry. Wordsworth's "Intimations' Ode" offers one of the best examples.

The creature notices the natural world: "I was delighted when I first discovered that a pleasant sound, which often saluted my ears, I proceeded from the throats of little winged animals who had often intercepted the light from my eyes. I began also to observe with greater accuracy, the forms that surrounded me...sometimes I tried to imitate..." IMITATE is a crucial world, with rich pedagogical associations. The child is the product of the environment.

When does all of this begin to change? How is the creature received by humans, including children?

A direct allusion to Paradise Lost occurs when the creature sees its own reflection for the first time. Who in Milton's poem had a similar experience, and what was the result? What does the creature do? What existential / metaphysical question does it ask? Note that his line, "I tried to dispel them [his agonies] but sorrow only increased with knowledge." What character in a play by Byron says almost the same thing?

When the creature wants to know the most basic of questions, "What am I," he turns to Paradise Lost. When he compares his own situation to Adam's, what is his conclusion? Ironically to whom does he consider turining for support?

There is much of gothic terror in the passages when the creature curses its fate; compare the scenes with The Monk.

What are the circustances surrounding the killing of William? Do romantic writes in the gothic mode supply 'justifications' for acts of revenge that are plausible? Today we speak in terms of "diminished capacity." How 'diminished' is the creatures in the William episode?

If loneliness is the most terrible of emotions to endure, the creature demands that Victor (his God?) make him a mate--Genesis? Milton? How does Victor's response, and subsequent action reveal his suitability for his purpose?

What do you think of the creature's reaction to what Victor does? Is the creature simply reacting to what it has experienced?

As the novel ends, why is the commetary of Walton (objective observer?) so important? What are the creature's final reflections--how Byronic are they? Does the ending of the novel contain a Paradise Lost allusion?


As with other mimetic literature worth remembering including Oedipus, Hamlet and Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein explores several archetypes that define humanity:

For Victor, there are also questions, then and now:

As with all great writers, Mary Shelley was ahead of her time.