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Frankenstein | Study Guide

Mary Shelley

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Frankenstein | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What does the behavior of the women in Frankenstein suggest about the time when the novel was written?

The female characters in Frankenstein, published in 1818, include Caroline Frankenstein, Elizabeth Lavenza, Justine Moritz, Agatha De Lacey, and Safie. All are passive and dependent on men. Caroline is submissive, first dependent on her father. When he dies, she is transferred to Alphonse as one would hand over a package. Elizabeth is docile and quiet. She agrees with her mother's long-expressed and dying wish to marry Victor and then waits for years for Victor to arrange the wedding. When it appears that he has no intention of setting the date, she timidly asks him, through a letter, if he loves someone else and, if so, frees him to marry that woman. Justine goes to her death for a crime she did not commit after making a false confession because of the pressure exerted on her by her confessor, a man. While she says that she hoped by confessing to save her soul, the fact is that she is giving in to a male authority figure. Both Agatha and Safie rely on Felix to handle difficulties. When they first see the Monster, Agatha faints, and Safie runs out of the cottage. These are hardly the responses of strong, independent women. The women's passivity and dependence on men suggests that this was the norm for women in the early 19th century, when Frankenstein was written. Women were generally not expected to be assertive and ambitious as men were, but rather to stay in the background as they tended to the children and household.

Based on Mary Shelley's life, what is strange about her portrayal of women in Frankenstein?

Mary Shelley lived an independent life, supporting herself and her sole surviving child after the early death of her husband. She was only 24 years old when her husband drowned. She made a career for herself as a writer in her own right, in addition to as an editor of her husband's poetry. In addition, Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a famous feminist, known for her passionate campaigning for women's rights and education. Wollstonecraft's efforts reached their culmination in her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. When she wrote the book, women were considered naturally inferior to men. Wollstonecraft, in contrast, contended that women seemed inferior to men because they had not been educated well. She suggested that women and men should be treated as equals in morality and be given an equal education, a radical idea at the time. She even argued that better education of women would contribute to an improved society. In light of these views, it is strange that the women in Frankenstein—Caroline Frankenstein, Elizabeth Lavenza, Justine Moritz, Agatha De Lacey, and Safie—are all passive. They tend to be acted on rather than act, though Safie is something of an exception since she takes the step of leaving her father to join Felix. Even in her case, though, she is initially offered by her father as a debt payment to Felix, and her happiness depends on joining with Felix rather than pursuing a career. Indeed, three of these characters die, two of them indirectly or directly due to men. Mary Shelley also shows Elizabeth being educated along with Victor, apparently upholding her mother's ideas, but Victor's progress eclipses hers.

Why is Frankenstein considered a gothic novel?

Gothic novels are distinguished by eerie settings; fearful, ominous moods; suspenseful plots; and grotesque characters such as ghosts, undead creatures, and monsters. Frankenstein has all these qualities. The settings of the novel include craggy mountains, at once majestic and terrible; the lonely, spare Orkney Islands; and the stark, brutal Arctic. The plot is punctuated by fierce, terrifying storms, such as the weather on the night Victor and Elizabeth marry. The Monster, of course, is hideous, as an effective gothic monster must be, assembled from bones salvaged from graves and crypts, mixed and matched to repugnant effect. Assembled, the Monster "became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived." This is an allusion to Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, which in part describes the narrator's journey through hell. Shelley also includes multiple references to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." One of these, a six-line quote from the poem, contains references to walking "in fear and dread" and "a frightful fiend," both of which serve to reinforce the terrifying mood characteristic of gothic novels. The line "Like one who, on a lonely road" invokes the theme of the need for human companionship, a theme also common in gothic novels.

How is Frankenstein a science fiction novel?

Some critics claim Frankenstein is the first example of science fiction, a type of writing that deals with futuristic science, technology, and the potential results of scientific experimentation. Science fiction differs from fantasy because it includes events that appear to be scientifically plausible. Victor's creation of the monster is the primary connection of the novel to science fiction because Victor uses science unknown in his time (and today as well), though allegedly based on existing knowledge to give a sense of plausibility, to create a monster out of dead body parts and bring it to life. While Shelley does not describe the exact process by which Victor achieves this miraculous result, such lack of explanation is not unusual in science fiction. Another aspect of the book that might be seen as giving it the quality of science fiction is the enhanced abilities of the scientifically made Monster. In a sense, the Monster exemplifies the scientific quest for improving humankind. The Monster teaches himself to speak and to read and soon develops great facility with language, speaking with great precision and eloquence. He shows deep emotions, too, as when he weeps over Victor's body in Robert Walton's cabin. The Monster also has great endurance, able to survive in the hostile climate of the North Pole. He has physical abilities beyond those of humans, as in his speed and strength, shown as he races across the ice floes of the Arctic. The Monster even appears to have the ability to anticipate Victor's every move; he tracks Victor around the globe and shows up at Victor's window on the isolated Orkney Islands just as Victor is ready to animate the Monster's mate. Clearly, creating a Monster like the one described in Frankenstein, much less one with these capabilities, is beyond the limits of known science. This makes Frankenstein an example of science fiction.

In what ways is Frankenstein typical of the romantic movement?

Writers of the romantic movement were concerned with emotion, imagination, compassion for people, individualism, nature, and rebellion against society. Romantic writers often described country people rather than city folk and distant places. Both Victor and the Monster are extremely emotional. Victor is imaginative in his ability to think of an impressive scientific breakthrough and shows the individualism of the scientist consumed—obsessed, some might say—by the pursuit of discovery. The Monster is by definition an individual, as he is the only member of his kind, but he is also an individual in his deeply thought and felt existence. Though Victor is not very compassionate, the Monster shows great compassion for common folk, such as the De Lacey family (fallen from the upper class into poverty), whom he helps by cutting wood and leaving it by their door as needed. Victor, Henry, and the Monster also feel a deep connection to nature, an aspect of the romantic movement. Both the Monster and Victor rebel against society, the Monster by killing members of Victor's family and Victor by refusing to be bound by the limits of conventional scientific thought. Romantic heroes often failed to fit into society, and the Monster can be considered a romantic hero because he is rejected from society, chased, shot, and beaten.

How are both Victor Frankenstein and the Monster like Satan?

Both Satan and Victor aspire to be God. The angel Lucifer attempts to overthrow God and rule in heaven. For his excessive pride and ambition, he is cast out of heaven into hell and becomes Satan. Similarly, Victor seeks to seize God's power by creating human life, a power held only by God. Creating the Monster and animating it are examples of Victor's excessive pride and intellectual arrogance. As Victor says in the first of the final letters that conclude the novel, "I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects." As Lucifer, Victor "trod heaven"; as Satan, he is "now burning" as a result of his actions. Further, both Satan and Victor are evil, as they create chaos and death. Satan rules in hell, where souls are doomed to eternal damnation. Victor develops the Monster, who leaves a path of murder in his wake, and refuses to confess what he has done in order the save Justine. The Monster is like Satan in taking evil actions, including several murders, not to mention his stealing. He is also like Satan in rebelling against his creator. As Satan challenged the authority of God, and thus fell from heaven, the Monster fights, stalks, issues orders to, and threatens his creator, hardly the actions of an obedient creation.

Which of the two central characters in Frankenstein is more monstrous, Victor or the Monster?

Both Victor and the Monster perform monstrous acts in Frankenstein. In determining which character is more monstrous, it is necessary to judge between the number of evil actions and the enormity of them. Victor commits three evil actions. First is taking the role of God and giving life to the Monster. His second evil is his rejection of the Monster. By disavowing responsibility for his creation, he demonstrates how pitifully short of God's power a human can be. His third is to withhold the truth about what he has done, which results in several deaths. The Monster is responsible directly for the deaths of William Frankenstein, Henry Clerval, and Elizabeth and indirectly for the deaths of Justine and Alphonse Frankenstein. He could also be considered indirectly responsible for the death of Victor. Of course, Victor can be seen as indirectly responsible for all of those deaths, especially after William's murder, when he should have realized that the Monster would not stop. Victor's initial act seems the most horrific, as it reflects an arrogance and willfulness that links him to Satan, who also tried to usurp divine power. The Monster can be seen as having been driven to his crimes by rejection. While that does not excuse him completely, the explanation does mitigate the evil somewhat. Victor's first crime and subsequent hiding of the truth make him more culpable of more fundamental evil because he should have known better and thus make him more monstrous.

How is Robert Walton a foil for Victor Frankenstein?

A foil is a minor character whose characteristics and actions contrast to those of a main character, serving to highlight some aspect of the main character's personality. In so doing, the foil helps the author convey the theme. In Frankenstein, Walton's ambition is contrasted with Victor's. In the beginning of the novel, Walton explains that he has spent six years preparing for his Arctic exploration. However, when his crew urges him to turn back because the trip is too treacherous, Walton finally agrees. He is more careful and reasonable than Victor. Victor, in contrast, never gives up his goals, including first creating the Monster and then pursuing him to the roof of the world in an ultimately vain attempt to destroy him. Second, both Walton and Victor are explorers who yearn to exceed human boundaries: Victor explores the boundary between life and death by creating life; Walton aims to be the first to discover a passage through the Arctic. Both are interested in magnetism. Victor does not know when to turn back, to stop experimenting, or to stop chasing the Monster and so destroys himself and others. Walton does know when to turn back and so saves himself and his crew.

What function does Henry Clerval fulfill in Frankenstein?

Henry moves the action of the plot along, nursing Victor after the latter breaks down following making the Monster; traveling with him; and through his murder, foreshadowing the novel's climax. Second, Henry serves as a foil to Victor, since he is a lesser character who serves to illuminate a main character's traits. Henry is a foil for Victor because Henry's personality and actions are the opposite of Victor's. For example, Henry is easygoing, extroverted, and loyal. Victor, in contrast, is high-strung and driven, introspective, and disloyal, as he rejects his "son," the Monster. Henry studies literary subjects; before joining Henry in this language study, Victor studies science, focusing on chemistry and natural philosophy. Victor could perhaps have benefited from the more humanist studies of Henry, tempering his curiosity and drive for scientific discovery with greater understanding of the human psyche and morality.

When does the climax of Frankenstein occur?

The climax of Frankenstein occurs in Chapter 22 (Volume 3, Chapter 6), when the Monster kills Elizabeth, strangling her to death on her wedding night. This is the climax of the novel because this is the point of highest interest; everything in the novel builds to this point. By killing Elizabeth, the Monster succeeds in destroying everyone in Victor's family unit—his brother, the family servant, his friend Henry, and his wife, which results in indirectly destroying his father. Now Victor truly knows how the Monster feels, doomed to social isolation and loneliness. It is especially fitting that the Monster kill Elizabeth, Victor's bride, because Victor brutally tore the promised female monster apart, depriving the Monster of his potential lifelong companion.

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