Frankenstein | Study Guide

Mary Shelley

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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the themes in Mary Shelley's book Frankenstein (1818).

Frankenstein | Themes



Both Victor and Walton are driven by curiosity to explore new possibilities or new worlds. Even as a child, Victor saw the world "as a secret , which I desired to discover." Indeed, their curiosity carries them to obsession with these quests. In both cases obsession leads to danger. Victor's curiosity drives him to create a monster that generates many deaths. Walton's own curiosity drives his ship into the ice, where it can be crushed and destroyed, putting the entire crew in danger of death. However, he listens to the pleas of his men and agrees to withdraw. The Monster, too, is curious, initially hoping to learn more about humankind and then driven by intellectual curiosity to seek as much learning as he can glean from books. Victor's and the Monster's curiosity connects to the Adam and Satan symbol. Like Adam, both are curious for knowledge, and both suffer as a result.

All three are, to some extent, self-educated, exemplifying that curiosity. Victor has read authors who studied books on alchemy, a pseudoscience of the Middle Ages whose practitioners sought to convert common minerals into gold and silver to cure diseases and to extend human life. Walton explains in one of the early letters that he is self-taught, and the Monster's insatiable curiosity leads him to read books he finds. The novel suggests, however, that self-education has limits and dangers. Victor laments that his father did not direct his learning more, suggesting it might have led him away from his errors. Walton finds his self-education lacking and wants a friend in part to learn more. The Monster accepts what he reads as truth, even believing Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost to be historical fact. That the self-educated Mary Shelley creates these three characters who show the limits of self-education suggests her own ambivalence about the lack of formal schooling and recalls her mother's arguments that women should be educated in the same way as men.

Scientific Idealism

In the late 18th century, Galvani captivated Europe with his experiments on the effects of electricity on dissected animals. He proposed that the animals' bodies had "animal electricity," a position disputed by Alessandro Volta, who posited that the bodies were conducting electricity from one metal to another. Galvani's nephew, Giovanni Aldini, supported his uncle's position and carried out experiments applying electricity to the corpses of criminals. An eyewitness account described one result, conducted in London's Newgate Prison in 1803: "On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion."

Electricity was but one of the areas of scientific discovery in the late 1700s and early 1800s that seemed to promise great improvements in human life. In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley referred to galvanism (named for Galvani) in connection with reanimating life, though, in the novel itself, Victor's process is not described. His youthful interest in finding the source of the "principle of life" shows his idealistic belief that such profundities can be uncovered. His success in animating the Monster, however, highlights Shelley's view that scientific experimentation, carried too far, can produce tragedy.

Walton reflects the theme of scientific idealism as well. What could be more idealistic than the North Pole he imagines, as described in his first letter to his sister? He sees the area not as the "seat of frost and desolation" but as a "region of beauty and delight," where "snow and frost are banished." He also hopes to make a glorious discovery and thereby gain fame; scientific idealism is tied to ego. By the end of the novel, he has become chastened by Victor's account. Survival trumps scientific idealism, and he agrees to turn the ship around.


Victor is clearly disillusioned by his actions in making the Monster. What he thought would be a magnificent scientific breakthrough and a "new species [that] would bless [him] as its creator and source" becomes a hideous creature he variously calls "monster," "fiend," and "demon" and that murders, or at least indirectly causes the death of, nearly everyone Victor holds dear. The Monster is disillusioned as well. First, he is rejected by his creator. Then, watching the De Laceys, he becomes convinced of humans' fundamental virtue and moral superiority. But this belief in humanity's goodness and his hope for acceptance are crushed by the rejection he constantly receives.

When Elizabeth hears of Justine Moritz's confession, she is disillusioned, as she was firm in her belief in Justine's innocence. When she hears Justine's explanation that the confession is a false one, her faith in the woman is restored. She is the only character whose disillusionment is resolved.


With her own birth the cause of her mother's death, and with the writing of this novel carried out in the context of the death of her half-sister, Percy's first wife, and Mary and Percy's son, Mary Shelley had a keen sense of human loss and the suffering and grief it causes. That sense pervades the novel. Elizabeth loses her mother as a child, as Mary had, and also loses her adoptive mother, who dies of an illness Elizabeth survives (in a way, another parallel to Mary). The loss of Caroline Frankenstein also prompts the eventual marriage of Victor and Elizabeth (as Harriet Shelley's death opened the door for Mary's marriage to Percy.)

Many losses lead to others. For instance, William's death is followed by the innocent Justine's execution. The deaths of his wife, son, eldest son's best friend, and adopted daughter drive Alphonse Frankenstein to death; so much loss could not be borne. Victor experiences the losses of virtually his entire family—only Ernest survives—as well as his best friend. Walton loses the possibility of having Victor as a friend at the end of the novel, though his loss pales in comparison to those of others.

The Monster loses the attentions and affections of his creator, a father figure; he loses possible affection from the De Laceys; and he loses his chance at happiness with the destruction of the female monster. Loss is everywhere in Frankenstein. The guilt that wracks Victor and, eventually, the Monster results from their knowledge of their own role in causing that loss to others.

Connection to Nature

Several characters in Frankenstein—Victor, Henry, Walton, and the Monster—are emotional, imaginative, and deeply moved by nature, characteristics of the romantic movement. In Chapter 17, for example, Victor describes how Henry "was a being formed in the 'very poetry of nature.' ... The scenery of external nature, which others regard only with admiration, he loved with ardor." Shelley follows these lines, which quote romantic essayist and poet Leigh Hunt, with a quotation from Wordsworth's "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" (1798 ), a poem that embodies the romantic movement's sense of nature's power to affect the human soul. Shelley mentions Mont Blanc, the highest of the alpine mountains and an important symbol for romantics, as the focus of this connection to nature several times in the novel. She and Percy Shelley had taken a trip to Mont Blanc during their travels through Europe, and Percy wrote a poem presenting the peak as eternal and inspiring that was published in Mary's account of their journey. Coleridge had also written a poem praising the mountain.

Human Companionship

Walton yearns for a friend, writing to his sister, "But I have one want which I have never been able to satisfy," the lack of which he sees as "a most severe evil." He is without a friend. The Monster also yearns for human companionship, attempting to befriend the De Lacey family, William, and Victor. The Monster convinces Victor to build him a mate to relieve his anguished loneliness. When Victor changes his mind and destroys the female monster, the Monster retaliates by killing those Victor loves, Henry and Elizabeth, making him feel the pain of bone-deep loneliness. The Monster is motivated to act as he does largely out of loneliness; he commits his most horrible acts only after he is denied human companionship. The parallels between the Monster and Walton in their yearning for companionship suggest that man and monster are more similar than either would recognize

Walton does have a friend in his sister, though. She is someone he can confide in and even to whom he can relate the dark truths he has seen and heard. In this relationship he may be more fortunate than Victor, despite the scientist's closeness to his father, to Henry, and to Elizabeth during their lives. Walton is able to share the horrors he has experienced; Victor's anguish is caused in part by the fact that he harbors his actions of forming the Monster as a secret. Until meeting Walton—when he knows he is dying—Victor tells no one what he has done. Unable to unburden himself, Victor lacks companionship, too, even as he has family and friends.


Injustice is another theme of the novel. Victor's and other humans' rejection of the Monster is a clear example, but, over the course of the novel, the Monster shows he is not blameless—he is guilty of several murders and of successfully framing an innocent victim, Justine. His behavior might reflect the Godwinian view that social institutions are by nature unjust. The De Lacey family story reveals other examples of injustice, as the De Lacey father and sister are unjustly punished for the actions of Felix. The Monster's behavior also reflects the Godwinian view that injustice breeds crime, as Percy Shelley points out in his preface to the first edition and as the Monster himself says. In his last speech, delivered to Walton before he departs, he complains about having been spurned in his search for human companionship and adds, "Was there no injustice in this?"

Of course, individual humans can be unjust as well. Victor compounds his scientific hubris with the error of injustice. He rejects the Monster rather than accepting responsibility for him, and this aspect of the novel reflects William Godwin's social views. Safie's father acts unjustly toward Felix, and the De Laceys and the boyfriend of the drowning girl all treat the Monster unjustly.

Questions for Themes

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