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Themes and Construction: Frankenstein
EXPLORING Novels. 2003. Updated: Nov. 3, 2017
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English author Mary Shelley (1797-1851) published the horror novel Frankenstein in 1818. The novel follows scientist Victor Frankenstein as he builds a creature that later gets revenge on him. Gothicism and Romanticism elements inspire the story about the perils of playing God. Nearly two centuries after its publication, the work remains ingrained in popular culture.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • How does Mary Shelley use setting to influence the novel?
  • What are some examples of how Gothicism and Romanticism elements inspired the novel?
  • What is the "doppelganger effect?"


Alienation and Loneliness

Shelley's emphasis on the Faust legend, or the quest to conquer the unknown at the cost of one's humanity, forms a central theme of the novel. The reader continually sees Victor favor his ambition above his friendships and family. Created by a German writer named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the Faust myth suggested that the superior individual could throw off the shackles of traditional conventions and alienate himself from society. English Romantic poets, who assumed the status of poet-prophets, believed that only in solitude could they produce great poetry. In Frankenstein, however, isolation only leads to despair. Readers get the distinct feeling that Victor's inquisitive nature causes his emotional and physical peril because he cannot balance his intellectual and social interactions. For instance, when he leaves home to attend the University of Ingolstadt, he immerses himself in his experiment and forgets about the family who lovingly supported him throughout his childhood. Victor actually does not see his family or correspond with them for six years, even when his father and Elizabeth try to keep in touch with him by letters. Shelley's lengthy description of Victor's model parents contrasts with his obsessive drive to create the creature.

Margaret's correspondence with Walton at the beginning of the novel also compares with Shelley's description of Victor's home life; both men were surrounded by caring, nurturing individuals who considered the welfare of their loved ones at all times. Not surprisingly, Walton's ambition to conquer the unknown moves him, like it does Victor, further away from civilization and closer to feelings of isolation and depression. The creature, too, begins reading novels such as Goethe's The Sorrows of Werter and John Milton's (1608-1674) Paradise Lost, claiming that an "increase of knowledge only [showed] what a wretched outcast I was." For the creature, an increase in knowledge only brings sorrow and discontent. Victor and Walton ultimately arrive at these two states because of their inquisitive natures.

Nature vs. Nurture

The theme of nurturing, or how environment contributes to a person's character, truly fills the novel. With every turn of the page, another nurturing example contrasts with Victor's lack of a parental role with his "child," the creature. Caroline nurtures Elizabeth back to health and loses her own life as a result. Clerval nurtures Victor through his illness when he is in desperate need of a caretaker after the creature is brought to life. The De Lacey's nurturing home becomes a model for the creature, as he begins to return their love in ways the family cannot even comprehend. For instance, the creature stopped stealing the De Lacey's food after realizing their poverty. In sympathy, he left firewood for the family to reduce Felix's chores. Each nurturing act contrasts strongly with Victor's gross neglect of the creature's needs. And by showing the affection between Caroline Frankenstein and her adopted daughters Elizabeth and Justine, Shelley suggests that a child need not have biological ties to a parent to deserve an abundance of love and attention.

Appearances and Reality

Victor's inquisitive probing causes him to delve beneath the appearances of "acceptable" science and create an animate being from inanimate materials. Nevertheless, he forgets to extend this inquiring sensibility toward his creature. The creature's physical appearance prompts Victor to flee from his creation; Victor never takes the time to search beneath the creature's ugliness to discover the very human qualities that the creature possesses. While Victor easily manipulates nature and natural laws to suit his own intellectual interests, he lacks an understanding of human nature, as proven throughout the novel.

In addition to the importance of the creature's appearance, Shelley emphasizes the magnificent landscape throughout the novel. This demonstrates her loyalty to the Romantic movement of her time, which often glorified nature. Although Victor often turns to nature to relieve his despondent thoughts, Clerval notices the intimate interaction between nature and humans in Switzerland. He says to Victor, "Look at that... group of labourers coming from among their vines; and that village half-hid in the recess of the mountain." Clerval looks beyond nature's surface appearance, drawing Victor's attention to the harmonious interaction between nature and a productive society. Victor praises his friend as having a "wild and enthusiastic imagination [which] was chastened by the sensibility of his heart," a sensibility Victor ironically lacks. In the isolated Arctic, when Walton's ship is trapped by mountains of ice, he respects nature's resistance to his exploration and eventually leaves the untamed region. Like Clerval, Walton experiences life by interacting harmoniously with nature and people, as he proves when he honors his crew members' request to return home.

Duty and Responsibility

Victor's inability to know his creature relates directly to his lack of responsibility for the creature's welfare or the creature's actions. The role of responsibility or duty takes many shapes throughout the story, but familial obligations represent one of the novel's central themes. Whether Caroline nurses Elizabeth or Felix blames himself for his family's impoverished condition, Victor's dismissal of his parental duties makes readers empathize with the creature. Victor only feels a sense of duty after the creature says the famous line, "How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind." The creature compares himself to Adam—thus comparing Victor to God—and claims that Victor owes him a certain amount of happiness. Even though the creature temporarily convinces Victor to grant him his rights, Victor never really learns the virtues of parental or ethical responsibility.

Justice vs. Injustice

By showing how Victor ignores his responsibilities while those around him do not, Shelley invites the reader to judge his character. Themes of justice and injustice play a large role in the novel, as the author develops issues of fairness and blame. Usually those characters who take responsibility for others and for their own actions are considered fair and just. For example, Elizabeth pleads Justine's case in court after Justine is accused of William's murder. Victor knows the creature committed the crime, yet he does not—or cannot—reveal the creature's wrongdoing.

However, the most important aspect of the trial is Justine's confession. Elizabeth claims, "I believed you guiltless... until I heard that you had yourself declared your guilt." When Justine explains that she confessed after being found guilty because that was the only way to receive absolution from the church, Elizabeth accepts her at her word and tells her, "I will proclaim, I will prove your innocence." Making confessions, listening to others, and offering verbal promises all signal the highest truths in this novel. Elizabeth accepts Justine's guilt only if Justine says she is guilty; never mind the facts or evidence, never mind intuition—words reveal true belief. Except for Victor, every character listens to others: Mr. Kirwin listens to Victor's story, the creature listens to the De Lacey family, Felix listens to Safie's father, Margaret listens to Walton, and Walton listens to Victor and to his crew. Listening helps all of these characters distinguish fair from unfair. Victor's refusal to listen impartially to his creature says much about his character. Shelley suggests that Victor not only played God when he created the creature; he also unfairly played the role of judge and accuser.

Mary Shelley was born on August 30, 1797, in London, England. Her parents were both writers. Her mother died a few months after her birth, and her father remarried when she was four years old. Shelley enjoyed reading and writing. In 1914, she began a relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married at the time. The two eventually married a few years later. Shelley began working on a ghost story in 1816. This draft became the basis for her novel, Frankenstein, which she anonymously published in 1818. Shelley later republished the novel with her name attached to it, and it brought her great acclaim. The death of three of her four children and later her husband greatly influenced Shelley. She continued to write, but none of her other works received the acclaim of Frankenstein. She died on February 1, 1851, in London.



Instead of beginning with Victor's point of view, Shelley introduces us to Walton first. Using a frame device, in which the tale is told to us by someone who reads it or hears it from someone else, Shelley invites readers to believe Victor's story through an objective person. Shelley also uses an important literary device known as the epistolary form—where letters tell the story—using letters between Walton and his sister to frame both Victor's and the creature's narrative. Before the novel's first chapter, Walton writes to his sister about the "wretched man" he meets, building suspense about the "demon" Victor mentions at the beginning of his narrative. Once Victor begins telling his story, we slowly learn about his childhood and the eventful moments leading up to his studies at the University. Then, the creature interrupts Victor, and we get to hear all the significant moments leading up to his request for a partner. Since the theme of listening is so central to this novel, Shelley makes sure that by incorporating three different narratives readers get to hear all sides of the story. Walton's letters introduce and conclude the novel, reinforcing the theme of nurturing.


The majority of the novel takes place in the Swiss Alps and concludes in the Arctic, although Victor and Clerval travel to other places, such as London, England, the Rhine River, which flows from Switzerland north to the Netherlands, and Scotland. All of these locations, except for the Arctic, were among the favorite landscapes for Romantic writers, and Shelley spends great care describing the sublime shapes of the majestic, snow-clad mountains. However, aside from the dark Arctic Ocean, Shelley's setting is unusual; most Gothic novels produce gloomy, haggard settings adorned with decaying mansions and ghostly, supernatural spirits. It is possible the author intended the beautiful Alps to serve as a contrast to the creature's unsightly physical appearance. In addition to the atypical Gothic setting, Shelley also sets her story in contemporary times, another diversion from Gothic novels that usually venture to the Middle Ages and other far away time periods. By using the period of her day, Shelley makes the creature and the story's events much more realistic and lifelike.


Spanning the years between 1785 and 1830, the Romantic period was marked by the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the beginnings of modern industrialism. Most of the early Romantic writers favored the revolution and the changes in lifestyle and sensibility that accompanied it. After shaking off old traditions and customs, writers experienced the newfound freedom of turning inward, rather than outward to the external world, to reflect on issues of the heart and the imagination. In addition, writers like English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) suddenly challenged his predecessors by writing about natural scenes and rustic, commonplace lifestyles. English poet Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834) explored elements of the supernatural in his poetry.

Shelley combined the ethical concerns of her parents with the Romantic sensibilities of Percy Bysshe Shelley's (1792-1822) poetic inclinations. Her father's concern for the underprivileged influenced her description of the poverty-stricken De Lacey family. Her appeals to the imagination, isolation, and nature represented typical scenes and themes explored in some of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetry. But Shelley's choice of a Gothic novel made her unique in her family and secured her authorial place in the Romantic period.


Horace Walpole (1717-1797) introduced the first Gothic novel in 1764 with The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Gothic novels were usually mysteries in which sinister and sometimes supernatural events occurred and were ultimately caused by some evil human action. The language was frequently overly dramatic and inflated. Following this movement was the Romantic movement's fascination with the macabre and the superstitious aspects of life, allowing them the freedom to explore the darkest depths of the human mind. Most critics agree that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein reflected her deepest psychological fears and insecurities, such as her inability to prevent her children's deaths, her distressed marriage to a man who showed no remorse for his daughters' deaths, and her feelings of inadequacy as a writer. The Gothic novel usually expresses, often in subtle and indirect ways, our repressed anxieties. The settings usually take place far away from reality or realistic portrayals of everyday life. Shelley's setting, of course, is the exception to most Gothic novels. The fact that the creature wanders the breathtaking Alps instead of a dark, craggy mansion in the middle of nowhere either compounds the reader's fear or makes the creature more human.


Many literary critics have noted the "doppelganger effect"—the idea that a living person has a ghostly double haunting him—between Victor and his creature. Presenting Victor and the creature as doubles allows Shelley to dramatize two aspects of a character, usually the "good" and "bad" selves. Victor's desire to ignore his creature parallels his desire to disregard the darkest part of his self. The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) characterizes this "dark" side as the Id, while Carl Jung (1875-1961), another famous psychologist, refers to our "dark" side as the Jungian shadow. Jung claims that we all have characteristics we don't like about ourselves, yet these unsavory attributes stay with us like a shadow tailgating its leader. The creature represents Victor's "evil" shadow, just as Victor represents the creature's. When presented this way, it makes sense that so many readers confuse the creature and Victor by assuming that the creature is named Frankenstein. Both of these characters "alternately pursue and flee from one another... [L]ike fragments of a mind in conflict with itself," as Eleanor Ty observes in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography. But taken together as one person, Victor and his creature combine to represent the full spectrum of what it means to be human—to be joyful, compassionate, empathetic, and hateful, and also love humanity, desire knowledge, honor justice, fear the unknown, dread abandonment, and fear mortality. No other character in the novel assumes this range of human complexity.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Themes and Construction: Frankenstein." EXPLORING Novels, Gale, 2003. Research in Context, Accessed 24 Mar. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2111500025