Themes Motifs Frankenstein

Motifs in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein #

 What it means to be human.

Frankenstein is a gothic horror novel that explores what makes us human.  What are the attributes of a human being and how do we become integrated into society.  Are we born with human nature or are we conditioned and constructed to value each other.  The old nature/nurture argument.  When his creation turns against him, who is at fault;  the creature or the society that rejects him?  We know from a study of social customs that many people who feel rejected by society often turn into mass killers.  Repeated negative experiences of social outcasts can lead to anti-social behaviour and the best way to socialise people is to include and value them as fellow human beings.  

Shelley has many serious moral messages.  We are humans who need fearless, caring love through good parenting, about the dangers of trying to play God through human engineering, what we today call artificial intelligence and about the potentially destructive results that can occur when a creation becomes more powerful than its creator.  

*One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil — Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.   *(Nietzsche Quoted by Jung to Freud, 1912)

Altruism in Frankenstein #

There are many examples of our shared humanity; people who are kind to each other throughout the novel including the Monster’s many initial acts of kindness; cutting wood for Felix’s family, saving a young girl from drowning  - all not appreciated.  Shelley is obviously contrasting mankind’s ability for civility and amity with its capacity for callous barbarity directed against the Monster.

*“…my chief concern in this respect has been limited to avoiding the enervating effects of the novels of the present day and to the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue.  *The Preface

  What chiefly struck me was the gentle manners of these people;  ……  I

remembered too well the treatment I had suffered the night before from

the barbarous villagers, (The Monster on Felix and his family – 156 )

 I learned, from the views of social life (of Felix’s family)  which it developed, to admire their virtues, and to deprecate the vices of mankind.  (173)

 *I read of men concerned in public affairs, governing or massacring their species. I felt the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, * (174)

Yet despite his attempts to do the right thing, the monster is rejected by all he meets.

There appears a  fierce indignation, of people flaunting their superior status, revealing her enduring detestation of social hierarchies.  In reaction to the Age of Reason, Romantics attempted to restore our human qualities of compassion and love.

Walton’s account of a kind man (The ship’s Master):

 This, briefly, is his story. Some years ago he loved a young Russian lady of moderate fortune; and having amassed a considerable sum in prize-money, the father of the girl consented to the match. He saw his mistress once before the destined ceremony; but she was bathed in tears, and, throwing herself at his feet, entreated him to spare her, confessing at the same time that she loved another, but that he was poor, and that her father would never consent to the union. My generous friend reassured the suppliant, and on being informed of the name of her lover, instantly abandoned his pursuit. He had already bought a farm with his money, on which he had designed to pass the remainder of his life; but he bestowed the whole on his rival, together with the remains of his prize-money to purchase stock, and then himself solicited the young woman’s father to consent to her marriage with her lover. But the old man decidedly refused, thinking himself bound in honour to my friend; who, when he found the father inexorable, quitted his country, nor returned until he heard that his former mistress was married according to her inclinations.

“What a noble fellow!” you will exclaim. He is so; but then he is wholly uneducated: he is as silent as a Turk, and a kind of ignorant carelessness attends him, which, while it renders his conduct the more astonishing, detracts from the interest and sympathy which otherwise he would command. #

It appears simple, natural mankind is preferable to educated sophisticated mankind.

Misery in Shelley’s Frankenstein: #

There are many examples of misery in the novel, most of them caused by political, social or economic injustice.  Mary Shelley was acutely aware of the loneliness and misery of life around her.  She had lost a mother shortly after childbirth and identified with many others who suffered.

How can I see so noble a creature destroyed by misery, without feeling the most poignant grief?  * Walton on Frankenstein* **

Loneliness and Isolation in Shelley’s Frankenstein: #

The novel raises the much broader implications of the human condition and the relationship between man and God. The relationship between Victor and the monster raises many questions as to the meaning of humanity and existence. If the monster is a modern Adam, then it becomes clear that man is alone in a universe with an indifferent God, that the world brings disaster even to the gentle and good. Men are not born evil, yet are made evil by the precondition of the world makes people evil. If the monster is the fallen angel of Paradise Lost, and if Victor is the self-sacrificing Christ, then the text asks a whole different collection of questions. In this scenario, evil stops being evil. The monster instead is someone with whom we sympathise and whom we understand. Further, creations have fee will, and that the scope of that free will exceed the bounds of the creator’s imagination. This makes the act of creation an inherently risky and even dangerous act, for the creator but also the entire human race. From here, we must question who is the real hero and who is the villain when we consider the monster in relation to Victor.

From Smoop

Robert Walton – Letter 2

 I desire the company of a man who could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend.   67

He finds one; Victor Frankenstein

I said in one of my letters, my dear Margaret, that I should find no friend on the wide ocean; yet I have found a man who, before his spirit had been broken by misery, I should have been happy to have possessed as the brother of my heart.  (letter 4 – pg. 76) 

The Monster’s rejection from society

Have I not suffered enough that you seek to increase my misery? Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.   (132)*** ***

*Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone? (146) *

“This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense, I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound, which shattered the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness which I had entertained but a few moments before gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth.  Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.  (186)

 I am content to reason with you. I am malicious because  I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? (190)


Felix’s family and its penury

It is here that the monster learns by example what domestic life entails and he is taught about the mutual support of families.  By surreptitious observation he becomes initiated  but not integrated with humanity and when he mistakenly assumes their cordiality and caring attitudes to each other will be extended to him, he is bitterly disillusioned and the rejection causes the misery that makes him nasty and turns him into an anti-social monster. 

Frankenstein’s ultimate suffering and misery

*How mutable are our feelings, and how strange is that clinging love we have of life even in the excess of misery!  **217     ****** ***

Why did I not die? More miserable than man ever was before, why did I not sink into forgetfulness and rest?   221 

Political and Social Justice - Shelley’s Frankenstein #

Mary’s father, William Goldwin, was an early advocate of more liberal ideas popularised by the ideals of the French Revolution (he, his wife Mary Wollstonecraft were called the ‘English Jacobins’).  His major contribution was towards a more rational society especially as applied to Political Justice.  It is not surprising that the young Mary would include varied instances of injustice in her first novel. 

There was a sense of justice in my father’s upright mind, which rendered it necessary that he should approve highly to love strongly. 

1)  Justine’s false arrest and execution for a crime she did not commit

all judges had rather that ten innocent should suffer, than that one guilty should escape.  (132) 

The saying has its origin from Genesis 18: 23 – 32:

Abraham drew near, and said, “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous within the city? Will you consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it? … What if ten are found there?” He [The Lord] said, “I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.”

Enlightened judges as early as the Salem witch trials, Sir John Fortescue and later Benjamin Franklin based  justice on this premise as well, however more authoritarian leaders such as Bismarck, Stalin and Pol Pot took the opposing view that “it is better that ten innocent men suffer than one guilty man escape;”

2)   Felix and his family’s plight caused by false allegations           

* “I also am unfortunate; I and my family have been condemned, although *innocent: judge, therefore, if I do not feel for your misfortunes”. Felix’s father (180)

3)      “The father of Safie had been the cause of their ruin. He was a

Turkish merchant, and had inhabited Paris for many years,

He was tried and condemned to death. The injustice of his sentence was very flagrant; all Paris was indignant; and it was judged that his religion and wealth, rather than the crime alleged against him, had been the cause of his condemnation.   (168)*  ** *Yet he later also betrays Felix. 

4)  Frankenstein’s false accusation in relation to Clerval’s death.   It is the magistrate, Mr Kerwin who restores our faith in justice in Britain – not in France or Switzerland. 

5)  The Unjust treatment of the Monster by society in general. (he continuously asks for justice)

*** *From you only could I hope for succour, although towards you I felt no sentiment but that of hatred. Unfeeling, heartless creator! you had endowed me with perceptions and passions, and then cast me abroad an object for the scorn and horror of mankind. But on you only had I any claim for pity and redress, and from you I determined to seek that justice which I vainly attempted to gain from any other being that wore the human form. 

“This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense, I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound, which shattered the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness which I had entertained but a few moments before gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth.Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.  (186)*** ***

Is this the plight of mankind, that God has abandoned us and that we are left to forge our own way in a cruel indifferent universe?  No wonder the world is wracked with so much misery and dissention.


Pride must inevitably have its fall.

While Mary was learned, she ridiculed vaunted, educated or intellectual pomposity. 

“What a noble fellow!” you will exclaim. He is so; but then he is wholly uneducated.

*Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. * (101)

To the Magistrate in Geneva

***  ***“Man,” I cried, “how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!  Cease; you know not what it is you say.”  224

Frankenstein’s hubris in attempting to emulate God’s creation of man is severely punished. At his worst he epitomises the eighteenth-century scientific rationalists’ optimism about, and trust in, knowledge as a pure good.

Reason vs Superstition in Shelley’s Frankenstein #

The novel raises the question of rational thought  (epistemology) versus the Romantic tendency towards the emotional, imaginative or intuitive processes.

As Europe moved away from a world dominated by superstition and religious faith to one of empirical scientific research and logical deductive reasoning, the Romantics helped to retain some of the personal and emotional compassion that makes us fully human.

Mary Shelley attempts to warn us about ‘overreaching’ in our attempts to emulate nature’s creative powers especially when it comes to the creation of ‘life’.

You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.

Walton illustrates:

Be assured that for my own sake, as well as yours, I will not rashly encounter danger. I will be cool, persevering, and prudent.   (71) 

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.

The book from which Felix instructed Safie was Volney’s Ruins of Empires.

Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm.

Nature and its worshippers 

It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world. (86) 

I recovered. I remember the first time I became capable of observing outward objects with any kind of pleasure, I perceived that the fallen leaves had disappeared, and that the young buds were shooting forth from the trees that shaded my window. It was a divine spring; and the season contributed greatly to my convalescence.  (110) 

*my health and spirits had long been restored, and they gained additional strength from the salubrious air I breathed, *

*Clerval called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children.  (117) *

When happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me

the most delightful sensations.  (117)


By creating this novel Shelley is providing a cautionary tale for us to value our natural sensual humanity and reject the scientific notion that rational thought will lead us to a more humane society.  On the contrary, our humanity may become diminished.