Frankenstein- An Analysis

Following the class’ reading of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, we will now delve into the depths of the novel to uncover some of the ideas that Shelley presents to the reader. We are looking at the novel as a work of gothic fiction and an artefact that examines the very human emotion of fear.

You could say that the word ‘genre’ refers to a ‘literature family’. While no two works from a genre are the same, they share many similar traits. In order to have a foundational knowledge of gothic fiction, we will examine the following elements of Frankenstein: character, ideas (theme), setting, symbolism and language features. Our hope is that what we recognise in this study, we will find in other texts from the gothic fiction family throughout the year. Students will have time to work on the following questions to guide their analysis both in and outside of class. Their work will be posted on their individual blogs.

Character

Victor Frankenstein- A Gothic Protagonist

Describe three key moments for Victor Frankenstein in the text. Explain why these moments were crucial to the development of his character. Support each moment with a quotation from the text.

There are some key traits that commonly surface for the protagonist in gothic fiction.

  • A God Complex
  • A distressing event in their earlier life
  • A flaw in their moral compass
  • A moment of recognition or revelation

Explain what is meant by each of the statements above and identify how Victor Frankenstein displays these common traits. Use quotations from the text to support your answers.

The Creature- A Gothic Antagonist

The moment the Creature comes to life in the novel is easily missed. One moment, it is a collection of body parts and the next, with “a convulsive motion” it becomes the wretch with  “yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lus- trous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Frankenstein abandons his creation, horrified by it but we can draw a likeness to a child from the Creature’s early descriptions of life.

Explain how the creature learns about the world around him in the text. Support your answer with quotations from the text.

Describe the reaction that people often have to the Creature. How does this reaction seem unfair? Do the Creature’s intentions deserve the response he gets from people?

The Creature begins as, in his own words, “benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.”

Describe three moments for the Creature that shape him into the vengeful monster he becomes. Explain how these moments would cause an individual to lose hope in humanity and turn against them. Use quotations from the text to support your answer.

Minor Characters

With any text, the minor characters always play more of a role than we first realise when we are reading. They allow us to understand our central figures and their actions more and also can enhance the storyline. Frankenstein has a ‘frame’ structure, which means it is a story within a story. The use of the minor characters, in particular, Robert Walton, enhances this and gives us more of an insight into Victor Frankenstein.

For the characters below, describe who they are in the text. Support this description with a quotation.

For each character, identify the purpose and effect that they have in relation to the readers understanding of the major characters and ideas in the story.

Robert Walton

Henry Clerval

Elizabeth Frankenstein

The Central Idea

An idea is the underlying theme of the text. It is what the text is trying to communicate to the reader about something that is often universally understood.

Frankenstein has long been seen as a novel that warns humankind of their own natures. The idea that we, as a species, are our own worst enemy is not a new one. Mary Shelley states in her introduction that her goal was to write something that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror…”.

Explain what is meant by “human nature” and discuss what tendencies Mary Shelley presents humankind as possessing. What does she see as ‘typically human’?

Bonus discussion point: Do you believe that human nature has changed much since the Age of Enlightenment? To get you thinking, have a read of the following extract:

Most critics consider the Gothic genre a reaction to the “Age of Reason,” a movement in 18th-century British and European art and politics that stressed the power of the human mind above all. Empowered by an unchecked faith in humanity, people set out to reshape society: The American and French Revolutions erupted, and the Industrial Revolution forced people into long grueling days in factories. The Gothic novelists aimed to represent the dark side that accompanied this age of apparent human progress. At a time when writers and thinkers had begun to believe in the “infinite perfectability of man,” Gothic novelists portrayed human beings as woefully imperfect and at the mercy of far more powerful forces, such as nature and death.

Fear is an ingrained emotion in nearly all creatures on the planet. In animals, the ability to feel fear often dictates if that being will live of die, fight or fly. When you scale it back, Frankenstein is an exploration of what fear can motivate us to do.

Psychology Today discusses how fear can be a motivator in one of its articles.

There are many instances where our characters allow us to see the effects of fear. Through the crafted lens of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein we can recognise the innate fears of human kind.

  • The fear of not ‘being’ someone or something
  • The fear of being rejected and alone
  • The fear of the uncontrollable

For the three bullet points above, discuss how these types of fear are presented in Frankenstein. You can use characters, events or a combination of both to explain how Shelley teaches us about these fears. In addition, you should address the impacts that these fears had on the characters in the text- what did it motivate them to do and what were the consequences of the action they took?

Setting

Frankenstein emerged from a period of time known as ‘The Enlightenment’ or ‘The Age of Reason’. It was a time when science was beginning to explain the world and explore the boundaries of humanity. Until this point, the Church has decreed the beliefs of the population and now, people were questioning this.

Posted by Renee Plunkett

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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