I will be conducting my extended essay on the novel Frankenstein, By Mary Shelley. I chose the research question ‘How does Mary Shelley construct our response to Frankenstein?’, because earlier in the year I was given the task of reading Frankenstein and I found it incredibly interesting, the thing that was most appealing to me was that the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, also appeared to be, in a way, the antagonist in the novel. I thought that this idea was very unique and I hadn’t seen it in any other novels. It also seemed as if it would be very challenging for me, as Frankenstein is a very complex novel which is also why I have decided to take it on as my extended essay.
Initially we notice that the subtitle of the novel is ‘The Modern Prometheus’, this use of allusion by Shelley serves an important purpose as it gives us impression of the role Frankenstein might play by relating it to the story of Prometheus, a titan who stole from gods and gave to man. This subtitle is a reference to the novel’s themes of the over-reaching of modern man into dangerous areas of knowledge, areas deemed to be controlled by god. However, this subtitle is also ambiguous and can be perceived as either the gods’ reaction of anger towards Prometheus stealing fire and him being a villain, or mans response of contentment towards the gift of fire and their view of him as a hero.
Shelley frequently uses allusion throughout the novel. One example is when describing the monster coming to life, ‘it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.’ (Page 71) This allusion is a reference to Dante Alighieri’s poem Inferno, which describes Dante’s journey through the nine concentric circles of hell in which he envisions numerous horrors. It is used to emphasise the hideousness of Frankenstein’s creation and presents the monster as being the villain of the novel.
The narrative plot is also comprised of concentric circles with Robert in the outer most circle, Victor in the second circle and the monster in the innermost circle. These concentric circles are used by Shelley to create a framed narrative to produce a more intricate relationship between us and Frankenstein. This is because within each framed narrative, the reader is regularly reminded of the presence of other authors and audiences, and of perspective shifts, as Frankenstein breaks out of his narrative to address Robert Walton directly and as Walton signs off each of his letters to his sister. This framed narrative also causes us to perceive Frankenstein as a hero, because the story is being told through Walton. Shelley also begins to form a genuine friendship between Walton and Frankenstein which is done to alter Walton’s perception of the events that took place and cause him to have a more positive outlook on the actions that Frankenstein have taken, therefore causing us to empathise with Frankenstein and distinguish him as being the hero throughout the novel.
Shelley also uses Walton as a foil to give us our first interpretation of Frankenstein at the beginning of the novel. Walton’s monologue illuminates the fact that Frankenstein is emotionally unstable, but the reader also feels that there is some level of kindness and compassion in his behavior, and this sets Frankenstein up as the hero of the story who we are allowed to empathise with: ‘his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness; but there are moments when, if any one performs an act of kindness towards him, or does him the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equaled.’ (Page 18) Walton also serves as a foil to Frankenstein in that he is not brave and spirited enough to allow his passion to drive him to pursue knowledge of the unknown, which also emphasises the heroic aspects of Frankenstein’s character.
Soon after, Shelley delivers a quote from Frankenstein himself, ‘When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it. Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, … I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organisation.’ (Page 62) This quote is important because if informs us that besides being intelligent, that there are strong morals behind Frankenstein, and that even though he has the power and knowledge to create the monster, he questions whether or not it is the right thing to do, although he does end up creating the monster this would make it appear as though he had no villainous intentions.
Shelley also uses repetition in Frankenstein’s refusal to answer Walton’s question of how he brought the creature to life, which is significant to Frankenstein ‘s characterization and our view of him as a hero. Frankenstein repeatedly promises Walton that he will tell him later how he brought his creature to life, but never ends up revealing to Walton the secret behind it. The fact that he doesn’t reveal how to create the monster means that he has realized the mistake he may have made in abandoning the monster and is trying to amend it. Shelley also implies that Frankenstein is hunting down the monster to destroy all trace of it from scientific history, making him the protagonist and the hero of the novel.
Shelley presents Frankenstein as an innocent youth fascinated by the prospects of science in the beginning of the novel. It is declared that Frankenstein had a very warm upbringing, due to having very loving parents. He was bestowed “inexhaustible stores of affection from a very mine of love” (Page 31) from his parents. His infatuation for creating life may have began on the day that he witnessed a lightning bolt hit a tree, where he was, being intelligent from an early age, able to value and understand the power and supremacy of the forces of nature. The death of his mother could also have been another influence for him to try and create life, so that he could attempt to make people immortal, which once again highlights the fact that he had no wicked intentions when creating the monster and reinforce the implication that he aiming to kill the monster and wipe out all trace of it from scientific history.
Shelley also frequently uses pathetic fallacy by presenting Frankenstein as being comforted and eased by nature. Even in the most disheartening of moods, such as after the murder of William and the unwarranted killing of Justine, Frankenstein is able to find serenity in staring upon the dazzling glaciers of Montanvert, because it “filled him with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy” (Page 135). Additional instances of nature’s beneficial effects on Frankenstein’s mental well being are during his voyage on the Rhine River. While he experiences misery about being challenged to create another monster, he was satisfied with the magnificence of nature, “as he gazed on the cloudless blue sky, he seemed to drink in a tranquility to which he had long been a stranger” (Page 234). This clever use of nature allows from Shelley allows us to see Frankenstein in a more human and compassionate way, and allows us to empathise with Frankenstein, Shelley also uses nature to show that despite the negative events that are taking place around Frankenstein, he is still and virtuous man. The previous quote: “filled him with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy” (Page 135), also demonstrates Shelley’s use of imagery to cause our perception of Frankenstein being a hero to be strengthened, with him being an angel or being up in heaven to show that God is on Frankenstein’s side, causing us to further perceive Frankenstein as being a hero.
Shelley again uses nature and setting in the passage prior to Elizabeth’s death. After a beautiful and joyous day with Elizabeth, which involved “the most delightful scent of flowers” (Page 297) and “the beauty of the scene” (Page 295), Frankenstein and Elizabeth retire to the inn for rest. Once they return to the inn the setting suddenly changes from the bright shining place it once was to a night “obscured by darkness” (Page 296) and “obscured by the shapes of objects” (Page 296), these lines indicate that a terrible tragedy is about to take place and the repetition of the words ‘obscure’ indicate that Frankenstein is going to be unaware of the events that are about to take place, making him appear as a hero towards us, because if he is unaware of the catastrophe which is soon to occur. This is followed by “a heavy storm of rain” (Page 298) which is “descending” upon them. This is another signal that Frankenstein is the hero of the novel, because a storm symbolizes overwhelming struggle, distress, devastating loss and disaster, and this behavior and emotion would not be present in a villain. The word ‘descend’ also signifies that something terrible is about to take place that will cause Frankenstein to feel defeated. This ultimately reflects on how Frankenstein went from a bright, innocent young boy to an unforgiving, vengeful man, as after this tragedy he took it upon himself to slay his creation. We could also interpret it as Frankenstein rising up from defeat and showing hero-like qualities.
This idea is further explored as Frankenstein chases the monster across Europe at the end of the novel. Despite suffering from the cold and fatigue, Frankenstein mentions that his biggest agony is that he is “cursed by some devil” (Page 313) and that he carries an “eternal hell” (Page 313) with him, this is a reference to his hunt of the monster and is a very strong use of imagery. Frankenstein then states that “yet still a spirit of good followed and directed my steps” (Page 313) and that when he was in the most difficult of times, he would be suddenly be extricated from “seemingly insurmountable difficulties” (Page 313) this allows the reader to empathize with Frankenstein, we know that after all he has been through, his intentions are still good and he is not just a vindictive lunatic. The idea of him being “cursed by some devil” (Page 313) is then contrasted as when Frankenstein is “parched by thirst” (Page 314) and the “heavens cloudless” (Page 314), suddenly “a slight cloud would bedim the sky, shed the few drops that revived me, and then vanish” (Page 314), Shelley uses this divine intervention to make it appear as God is willing Frankenstein to slay his creation, and for god to be on his side, this causes the reader to perceive Frankenstein as a hero. The reader also interprets this as Frankenstein being a self-sacrificing hero, maybe even a Christ figure. The writer does this by making Frankenstein willing to surrender his life in order to save mankind from what he believes to be evil in the world.