Frankenstein | Study Guide

Mary Shelley

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Frankenstein | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the symbol of fire in Frankenstein relate to the novel's title?

The novel's full title is Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus. Prometheus, a Greek god, created humans and gave them fire, and for the latter, he was punished by Zeus, the king of the gods. Prometheus's punishment was agonizing: He was chained to a rock and tortured by having an eagle eat his liver every day. The liver grew back at night, and so the torture continued throughout eternity, as Prometheus was immortal. Victor Frankenstein, like Prometheus, gave a gift to humanity. His gift was the ability to give life to an unliving body, the Monster, and like Prometheus, Victor was punished for his gift by being wracked by guilt, suffering mental and physical deterioration, feeling the pain of the loss of several family members, and ultimately dying. There the similarities end, as Victor's gift of life to the Monster brings only evil, not good. Prometheus's gift of fire, in contrast, helped humans rather than harmed them. Further, Prometheus's punishment came from Zeus, while Victor's came from his own guilt.

What function does Robert Walton's frame story serve in Frankenstein?

Robert Walton's story provides a frame for Victor Frankenstein's story, makes that story believable, increases its pathos, and contributes to theme development. Walton's frame story puts the main plot of the novel in context. Victor's search for a scientific breakthrough can be seen is part of a larger quest for knowledge. In addition, because he is a witness to Victor and the Monster, Walton can observe their condition and reveal their fate. Importantly, Walton provides readers with both Victor's story and proof of its validity, lending the novel plausibility. The proof comes from Walton and his crew seeing the Monster before they meet Victor and from Walton seeing and hearing the Monster when the latter enters the cabin after Victor's death. In giving the Monster, rather than Victor Frankenstein, the last words in the novel—which is possible because Walton quotes him while relating the end of the frame narrative—Mary Shelley adds to the novel's sense of tragedy. As the Monster, himself wracked by guilt, says, his agony and suffering was worse than Victor's. Readers likely feel pity for the Monster, moved to commit brutal acts of revenge because he was rejected by his maker. Victor's pained account of his own actions provokes pity for himself and for the innocent victims (William, Justine, Henry, Elizabeth, and Alphonse). Finally, the Walton frame story contributes to some themes of the novel. Walton, like Victor, has curiosity and scientific idealism. He hopes to make some important discovery in the Arctic that will contribute to humankind. He thus serves as a useful audience for Victor's cautions against arrogantly reaching too high for glory. In deciding to turn the ship around and avoid being trapped in the ice, complying with the crew's request, Walton agrees to curtail his curiosity for the greater good, something Victor had not done. Walton's story also contributes to the human companionship theme, as he is as desirous of companionship as the Monster and looks eagerly upon Victor as a potential friend. Last, his story also adds to the loss theme, as he loses that chance at friendship when Victor dies.

How does Robert Walton's attitude toward the North Pole in Frankenstein show the influence of the romantic movement?

The North Pole is a brutal, treacherous place, as Walton discovers when his ship is trapped in the ice, the force of which can crush a ship to bits, which he describes in his fourth letter. However, Walton is a romantic, feeling a deep connection to nature and seeing it as capable of elevating human souls and imaginations. Therefore, early in his voyage, before he experiences the region's brutality firsthand, he does not regard the Arctic region as hostile. Rather, he sees the region in his first letter as filled with "beauty and delight." He believes that at the North Pole, "snow and frost are vanished" and the ocean is calm. The land itself exceeds "in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe." Walton shows the romantic attitude toward nature, finding the sublime, or awe-inspiring power of nature, in an extreme environment.

In Frankenstein, why does Robert Walton want to go to the North Pole, a brutal, hostile environment?

Like Victor Frankenstein, Robert Walton is very ambitious and curious. He wants to be the first to travel to the North Pole so he can make exciting new discoveries about magnetism and navigating by the stars. He especially wants to find a passage near the Pole to other countries, hoping that by doing so he can reduce the time it takes to travel to the Americas or perhaps to Asia (he does not specify which places but only refers to "countries" that require many months of travel to reach). He hopes to explore lands others have never seen. As the first person to step foot on a part of the world never before visited and make these discoveries, Walton would become famous—and he very much wants to become famous.

How does Walton's view of light in Frankenstein embody romantic beliefs?

Walton's optimism about human potential to help people is typical of the romantics, who believed in the power of the imagination, individualism, and emotion to overcome adversity. The symbol of light in the novel represents hope, knowledge or learning, and discovery. Walton views his voyage of discovery with high hopes, optimistic about the great things than can be learned in the land of constant sunlight. He is especially interested in scientific knowledge; this interest is parallel to what motivates Victor Frankenstein. Walton wants to plumb the aspects of nature that have baffled scientists, such as "the wondrous power which attracts the needle" (magnetism), and to learn more about the stars. Of course, what Walton discovers is the tragic outcome of excessive ambition, quite the opposite of what he had expected. In an example of situational irony, in which what is expected to occur does not and what does take place is unexpected, Walton ends up learning far more about the mysteries of the human heart and soul on his journey than he does of these physical mysteries.

In Frankenstein, how are Robert Walton and the Monster similar?

Both Robert Walton and the Monster desire human companionship and, even more, true friendship. Walton writes to his sister in the beginning of Frankenstein that his life is empty because he has no one to help him celebrate his success and no one to console him in defeat, to "approve or amend my plans." Walton is delighted when he and Victor become friends, but their time together is very short-lived, as Victor dies soon after they meet and find that they do indeed have common interests. The Monster's entire life can be seen as a quest for companionship, friendship, and love. Rejected by his maker, his "father," the Monster tries over and over to be accepted by others, but to no avail. He and Walton are alike, as well, in the futility of their hopes to find that desired friend in Victor. Walton loses that opportunity when Victor dies; the Monster loses it because of Victor's horrified rejection of him and again by extension when Victor does not give him a companion monster.

In Frankenstein, how can Victor and the Monster be considered two halves of the same being?

Victor and the Monster are opposites in many ways and thus can be seen as two halves of the same being. Victor Frankenstein is scientific and relies on facts. As a youth, he reads the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus, who were alchemists. Later, he reads more reliable scientific books, especially those on chemistry. The Monster represents the other side of the brain, imaginative and interested in literature. He reads Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and The Sorrows of Werter, major classical texts or key books of the romantic movement. These books teach him about emotion, specifically "sorrow and gloom" from Werter. Victor is scientific and literal; the Monster is literary and imaginative. Victor sees the world in black and white. For example, he regards the Monster as thoroughly evil, not acknowledging that the Monster has been driven to maliciousness by his own (Victor's) rejection. Only when he sees the Monster years after that event does he feel "the duties of a creator towards his creation." The Monster, in contrast, is creative and flexible, using language to explain the evolution of his thoughts and feelings, to explain the consequences of his ill treatment, and to persuade Victor to build him a mate. Finally, Victor prefers being alone, while the Monster shuns isolation and craves companionship.

How is the Monster in Frankenstein heroic?

The Monster's initial impulse is to help humanity. This is evident, for example, in his desire to help the De Laceys and when he saves the drowning young girl. In the latter case, without a moment's hesitation, the Monster rushes from his hiding place and, "with extreme labor from the force of the current, saved her, and dragged her to shore." Heroes risk their lives to save others, which is what the Monster does in this situation. The girl is unconscious, but he saves her. For his effort, he is shot and badly wounded. There is situational irony—in which the opposite of what one expects takes place—in the fact that the "monster" or "fiend" has generous, humane impulses, attitudes that humans are unwilling to show him. Of course, the Monster's heroism is undercut by his relentless pursuit of revenge and the brutal murders he commits.

How is Victor Frankenstein both pathetic and pitiable?

First, Victor is isolated and lonely on purpose, not because he is shunned, as is the case with the Monster. Victor deliberately cuts himself off from regular human contact for long periods, such as the nearly two years that he spends in his laboratory working on creating and animating the Monster. He deprives himself of rest and health, only to hate that which he has created. Victor is also pathetic—evoking the reader's sympathy—in sacrificing so much and regretting the result so deeply. Second, Victor shuns his creation and wishes him dead. It is pitiable and pathetic when a parent rejects a child, which is what Victor does when he shuns the Monster. Of course, it is also repelling when parents do that. Victor's being tortured by guilt also excites the reader's pity. When he and Elizabeth are discussing Justine Moritz's death, Victor thinks to himself, "I, not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer." His remorse causes him "the extremest agony." Victor's guilt causes him great suffering, and readers may pity his wretchedness.

Why might people think that the title Frankenstein refers to the Monster, not its creator?

It seems logical that the famous Monster would have a name and that this name would be the title of the book, but Victor Frankenstein never names the Monster. Indeed, the fact that the Monster doesn't have a name might contribute to this confusion. Assuming that "Frankenstein" is the name of the Monster and not its creator has a certain symbolic truth, however, as Victor and the Monster can be interpreted as doubles of each other, two parts of the divided self. Such doubles, called doppelgängers in German, are especially common in horror tales, and Frankenstein is a gothic horror story. Doppelgängers are often evil or ominous, and Victor and the Monster certainly have evil effects on each other. It could also be argued that in never naming the Monster, Victor effectively gives it his own name—it is his creation, no one else's, and thus he owns it, in the sense of having responsibility for it.

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