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Frankenstein | Study Guide

Mary Shelley

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Frankenstein | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Chapter 22 of Frankenstein, Victor tells his father that William, Justine, and Henry all died by his "hands." What is the symbolism of Victor's hands?

Victor feels that he is actually responsible for the death of his brother William, the family's servant Justine Moritz, and his best friend Henry Clerval because he created the Monster that committed the actual murders. By highlighting Victor's "hands," author Mary Shelley's word choice emphasizes that Victor's hands made the Monster and chose the hands that became part of the Monster (another instance of doubling). As a result, Victor's claim that his hands committed the murders certainly has symbolic truth. The imagery of hands is especially effective because William (as Henry and Elizabeth later) dies by strangulation—murder through direct application of hands, with no intermediary weapon, shown through "the black mark of fingers."

In Frankenstein, why does the Monster destroy Victor's friends and family rather than his belongings or Victor himself?

By destroying the people whom Victor loves, the Monster forces Victor to realize the importance of that which the Monster can never have and craves most of all: human companionship. In addition, he kills Elizabeth as an act of fitting revenge for Victor's destruction of his mate. Victor has few close relationships because he is solitary by nature. He goes long periods without answering his father's letters, and there is no indication that he communicates with his two younger brothers after going to university or that he shares grief over William's death with his brother Ernest. Even his contact with his fiancée, Elizabeth, is very limited. Outside of the family, Victor has only one close friend, Henry Clerval, but the murders of Victor's family and this friend makes Victor as isolated as the Monster is. At that point, Victor becomes like the Monster, cut off from society, single-mindedly bent on revenge.

How does Mary Shelley benefit as a storyteller by not describing the actual creation of the monster in Frankenstein?

Because Mary Shelley does not present details about the creation of the Monster, she can focus instead on the story that really matters, reinforce characterization, and avoid criticism. The first benefit of this choice is that it allows Shelley to focus her attention on the aftermath of the act. The "how" does not matter to her as much as the answers to the question, "What next?" She is intent on exploring the psychology and morality of the relationship of creator and rejected creation. By moving quickly past any questions of how that creation occurred, she gets to the heart of the matter. Second, she reinforces her characterization of Victor with this lack of detail. He is the one relating the act of creation. He tells Walton several times in his account that he now views the act as a mistake and says he wants no one to gain knowledge of how he did it. For him to relate the details to Walton would contradict this position and would put the credibility of his other statements into question. Finally, making up details to describe the actual creation of the monster would leave Mary Shelley open to criticism from scientists that she had gotten her facts wrong, misinterpreted key details, or created something illogical. None of these criticisms would be valid, of course, because Mary Shelley was writing fiction, not fact, but by leaving the details out she avoids critical focus on issues that are not really of central concern to her.

How could Victor Frankenstein be considered a failed scientist?

Victor Frankenstein succeeded in creating and animating the Monster, an astonishing feat. The Monster is hideous but highly intelligent, teaching himself how to speak and read. The Monster also has great endurance and speed far above normal. He is ugly, it is true, but surely future versions of the Monster could be made more attractive. Nonetheless, Victor Frankenstein would be considered a failure as a scientist since in his work on the Monster he contributed nothing major to science, no lasting achievement that other scientists can build on. More importantly, his act is presented as a usurpation of divine power. He failed as a scientist because he failed to recognize and adhere to the limits of human action or to accept the moral responsibility for his actions.

How does Mary Shelley present the powers and dangers of science in Frankenstein?

Victor's ability to create and animate the Monster shows that Mary Shelley believed science was extremely powerful. Science has the potential to be beneficial if used in the right hands, the right way. In addition, Victor's and Robert Walton's stories show that science can be helpful if used prudently but dangerous if not. Walton takes his crew as far as they can go but turns back when it becomes apparent that they may not survive in the ice floes and bitter cold. His pursuit of scientific discovery is at the last tempered by judgment and caution. Victor Frankenstein, in contrast, goes too far. The fact that the Monster runs amok, killing William, Henry, and Elizabeth, suggests that science is dangerous if not regulated. In the wrong hands, such as Victor's, science causes more harm than good.

In Frankenstein, what does Victor's destruction of the Monster's mate suggest about himself?

Victor's destruction of the female monster suggests he does not recognize the importance of human companionship, although it also shows his acceptance of limits to the pursuit of science. The Monster's request for a mate is perfectly reasonable: He simply wants someone to share a life with, someone with whom he can communicate and who can relieve his intense and painful isolation. He wants acceptance, which Victor and society as a whole refuse to provide him. In destroying the mate, Victor does not recognize or acknowledge the importance of friendship, love, or simple companionship. Victor has only one friend, Henry Clerval, but most of the time he is happier being alone than being with anyone else except perhaps Henry. Victor is in no hurry to marry Elizabeth; he agrees to do so largely to please his father (and he thinks the Monster will kill him after the marriage). Victor's inability to grasp that he owes the Monster companionship, that it is the least he can do for the creation he has rejected, shows his inability to see any value in social contact or communication. In destroying the mate, Victor also shows that he has accepted that some limits must be placed on the pursuit of science. While nothing could stop his unbridled ambition early in the novel, once he has created the Monster, he recognizes that he has gone too far. The possibility that the Monster and the female might mate and have unnatural, destructive offspring frightens him into his act of destruction. He sees that such an event would be going too far. He also tries to undo his original error by seeking to kill the Monster, though that seems more out of revenge than as a corrective action.

What role does Milton's Paradise Lost play in Frankenstein?

Mary Shelley frequently alludes to Paradise Lost to give Frankenstein much of its emotional power and depth. Further, this comparison increases the tragedy of her story and its larger-than-life stature. Along with the book's epigraph, one of the most important allusions to Paradise Lost occurs when the Monster tells Victor, "I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel." The Monster is the first of his kind, the only of his kind, like Adam when God created him. As a result, the Monster feels that Victor should celebrate him as a wondrous creation. Instead, Victor rejects the Monster as hideous and repulsive, and so the Monster becomes like Satan, the "fallen angel." The Monster becomes evil and murders people, acting out of pain and sorrow, because Victor has rejected him. By linking the story of Frankenstein and the Monster to Milton's retelling of the fall of mankind, Mary Shelley gives her story epic stature.

Why is the murder of Elizabeth rather than the creation of the Monster the climax of Frankenstein?

The climax of a plot is the point of greatest interest, the culmination of the action. While Victor's creation of the Monster is indeed an act of great importance and interest, it is the beginning of the story Mary Shelley wants to tell. She wants to explore the significance of that act. To do so, she must make an in-depth exploration of the implications of the act for both creator and created. Mary Shelley builds suspense and foreshadows the climax in Frankenstein through the murder of William, the execution of Justine, and then the murder of Henry. These deaths, and Victor's destruction of the Monster's mate, lead up to the worst murder of all, that of Victor's beloved, Elizabeth. The murder is even more dramatic because it occurs on Victor and Elizabeth's wedding night. The climax gains readers' interest because it provides a twist, as Victor had expected to be the one the Monster was hunting and intending to kill based on the Monster's threat, "I shall be with you on your wedding-night." The Monster shocks Victor by strangling Elizabeth rather than attempting to kill him. After Elizabeth's murder, Victor vows to spend the rest of his life finding and destroying the Monster. This leads to the novel's resolution, as Victor dies while hunting the Monster and the Monster appears aboard Robert Walton's ship to mourn his maker.

How does the point of view shift in Frankenstein, and what effect do these shifts have on the novel?

The shifts in point of view in Frankenstein allow Mary Shelley to differentiate her characters and probe their feelings as well as tell a gripping story. Frankenstein is first told from Robert Walton's point of view. The narration then shifts to Victor Frankenstein's point of view and then to the Monster's before returning to Victor's and finally to Walton's. A few other voices are also heard, in the letters written by Alphonse Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza. The layered shifts in point of view give readers a fuller picture of the characters, especially their motivations and feelings. These different narrators provide additional information, too, adding details that only specific characters would know because they were participants in the events. Since the romantics were deeply concerned with individualism and emotions, the practice of using various narrators also reinforces the novel's position within that literary movement. The inclusion of Walton's voice also provides proof of the veracity, or truth, of the fantastic story.

How do the letters in Frankenstein relate to the theme of human companionship?

The characters who write letters, such as Robert Walton, Alphonse Frankenstein, and Elizabeth Lavenza, do so to keep in touch with people they love. Their letters transmit information but also forge social bonds and relieve loneliness and isolation. For example, Walton writes his first letters to his sister Margaret to reassure her that he is doing well, to help him to ease his loneliness, and to comfort himself that someone truly cares for him. Alphonse's letters to his son Victor cheer Victor up greatly and even serve to lessen his repeated bouts of depression. Elizabeth's letters to Victor reflect her sense of isolation from him and worry about him. Elizabeth's and Alphonse's letters also provide information, such as background about Justine and the news of William's death. Finally, the letters move the plot along, as when Alphonse calls Victor home and Elizabeth asks if Victor "love[s] another."

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