Novels that have the same literary significance as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are bound to have an abundance of themes and to cover a broad intellectual territory. In addition, every critical reading can locate some additional themes that repeatedly occur in the text, but the author had no intention of incorporating them.
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Of course, Frankenstein, as a text that is often reread and reanalyzed by critics, has been found to hold an abundance of themes. In this essay, I discuss some of the themes that have been identified by the critics whose works have been collected in Norton’s critical edition devoted to this novel from the literary canon.
In the novel, Mary Shelley tackles rather profound and challenging subjects such as the problem of egoism. The conflict between egoism and altruism and the status of the two forces in human nature is still rather puzzling. However, Shelley seems to take a rather strong stance in favor of the idea that egoism is the primal force that humans cannot control. Hence, all the dangerous human creations are in reality products of egoistic drives.
Poovey (346) writes, “More in keeping with the 18th century moralists than with either William Goldwin or Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley characterizes innate desire not as neutral or benevolent but as quintessentially egoistical”. In other words, Shelley seems to think that humans are driven by egoistic forces, which is why Victor does not consider the potential moral and other consequences of his actions. Victor is moved only by his egoistic impulse to create something unique.
Next, Shelley deals with the theme of imagination providing a truly powerful understanding of its nature and its moral character. Namely, Shelly clearly thinks that imagination is an all-consuming and extremely powerful force; however, unlike her contemporaries and fellow romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge, she is doubtful about the moral character of imagination (Poovey 349). Moreover, Shelley seems convinced that imagination is, in fact, inherently amoral and one might even argue immoral (Poovey 349).
Given the fact that in their creative capacity, humans are always driven by egoistic forces, imagination in the romantic sense, as an ultimate expression of human creative powers, has to be fundamentally contradictory to morality. Morality is the concern with the other while imagination is the concern with the self. The two are rarely compatible.
Another important theme in Shelley’s novel is the status of the female in the modern world. The impression that emerges from Shelley’s account of Frankenstein’s creation is that he has a drive towards eliminating the female sex from the natural world. Mellor (355) argues that the underlying force in Victor’s project is to undermine the function of females in the modern world. Victor tries to achieve that in a number of ways.
He does so, primarily, by creating new life without a woman involved in the process, thereby already undermining the essential role of women in reproductive processes. Furthermore, what he does next is to create a male immortal creature which is to provide the inception of a future artificial and immortal form of life.
However, Frankenstein refuses to create a female that would be the companion of his monster. Therefore, Mellor (355) argues that Frankenstein’s implicit desire is to free the world from females by making them completely redundant.
The novel Frankenstein also deals with the topic of categorization of human traits into female and male. The division is, fundamentally, between rational and irrational characteristics and, of course, in the male-centered world, this binary is virtually identical to the female and male binary in such a way that the female is always associated with irrational, while the rational belongs to men. Indeed, Victor’s scientific work, which is the epitome of the rational process, has to be completely separated from his love for Elizabeth (Mellor 356).
Love and other emotions belong to the domestic sphere, which is the sphere of female activity, and hence all the emotions are, in a sense, female. In connection to the previously discussed topic of the status of the female in the modern world, one can conclude that the world in which the public sphere of rationality and science becomes dominant naturally tends to the female redundant.
Mary Shelley ‘s novel is also an attempt at resolving one contradiction inherent in the Romantic thought, which is the one that holds humans both naturally good and inherently doomed to destroy nature in their attempts to improve it. Lipking (425) argues that Mary Shelley’s novel is the perfect embodiment of the Romantic contradictions. According to him, the Romantic thought was filled with unresolved, fundamental contradictions, which is why those who aim to give an account of the Romanic doctrine face immense problems.
Specifically, Lipking (425) believes that Rousseau’s philosophy that holds men to be naturally good, but collections of people, namely societies or cultures, to be forces of decay. In the same way, Lipking (425) notices how Shelley’s Victor is moved by the desire to improve upon nature only to create a monster that is clearly a threat to its delicate balance.
An important theme in Frankenstein is the problem of influence of the adults and mentors on the young. In the way in which she approaches this subject, Shelley shares a lot in common with a great romantic figure Rousseau (Lipking 428). The novel shows how adults often miss opportunities to instruct the young about the right ideas and instead inadvertently push them in the wrong direction.
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Lipking (428) writes that Victor’s belief that his father could have shown him the right direction by carefully explaining the intellectual merit behind one of the books that he was reading embodies this view. Victor’s father’s decision to denigrate the book by calling it “rubbish” provoked a kind of rebellion in Victor’s mind thereby pushing him in a completely mistaken direction.
Certainly one of the most fundamental themes in Frankenstein is the dilemma between materialist and mystical interpretations of life. Butler (408) argues that Shelley’s novel is a large-scale attempt at acting out the debate that was at the center of intellectual life of the early 19th century. This debate was about the correct way to interpret life, and the opposing positions were those that can be called materialist and mystical.
The materialist view would hold that human life can be explained on the basis of material or physical forces that could be studies by science of the day. On the other hand, some thinkers believed that human life is a phenomenon radically distinct from electricity, gravity and other forces known to man (Butler 409). Shelley then writes an entire novel to explore the materialist view and see the implications of that position (Butler 409).
Mary Shelley’s contribution to the scientific debates of the day does not stop there as she tackles the popular topic of wild children that was the subject of virtually every scientific and intellectual debate of the time. These debates were spurred by the discovery of a wild boy who was later named Victor in the woods of France. Of course, the fact that the boy’s name was the same as the name of the main character of the novel is hardly a coincidence.
The boy found in the forests near Paris could not speak, and a young doctor who took care of him could not teach him to speak despite serious efforts (Butler 410). Mary Shelley’s monster does speak and learns to do so in a completely mysterious manner so Shelley might be suggesting that the ability to speak might be, at least to a certain extent, inborn.
There are reasons to think that there is a theme of male superiority pervading the novel. London (394) argues that Frankenstein is a novel that upholds the image of the male as somehow gender neutral as the creature’s gender identity is rarely mentioned, and there is no allusion to his genitals in the description of the monster. However, the reference to the female takes place only in relation to uncontrollable drives and irrational reproduction.
London (395) reminds us that Victor refuses to create a female counterpart of his monster in order to prevent a race of “devils” from populating the Earth. Therefore, these basic facts seem to undermine most feminist interpretations of the novel as undermining the gender norms or even the tendencies to view the monster as female (London 396).
In contrast to the male body as gender-neutral and innocent, there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the female body is presented as the locus of the primitive drives. London (397) argues that critics who have identified the female with the irrational in Shelley’s work are essentially correct. However, she points out that it is specifically the female body that holds the forbidden and sinful forces that seek to corrupt morally upright male characters.
For that reason, the text of Frankenstein should be considered a manifestation of the dominant ideologies of the early Victorian era that sought to equate the female with immoral and primitive forces of human nature while sanctifying the male (London 397). As is known, the Victorian era was characterized by the great emphasis on covering the female body as virtually all its parts were held as having sexual connotations.
In conclusion, there is an abundance of themes that Mary Shelley tackles in her famous novel Frankenstein. This paper has cited only some of the topics that were identified by the critics contributing to Norton’s critical edition devoted to this work. The novel deals with some deep philosophical dilemmas like the nature of life, the character of the human nature, the nature of imagination and the famous debate on the wild children.
In all of these areas, Shelley produces very interesting and profound responses that certainly spurred a lot of debate in the intellectual circles of the day and continue to do so in the contemporary period as well. Furthermore, there is a lot of material to talk about themes of gender relations in the modern world as they appear in the book.
It is not certain whether Shelley was trying to criticize and undermine the status of the male and the female in the Victorian era, but the novel embodies a lot of bias towards patriarchal notions related to gender. Consequently, masculinity is related to rationality, science and moral purity, while the feminine seems to host primitive and irrational drives.
Butler, Marylin. “Frankenstein and Radical Science.” Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 404-16. Print.
Lipking, Lawrence. “Frankenstein, The True Story, or Rousseau Judges Jean Jacques.” Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 416-34. Print.
London, Bette. “Frankenstein and the Spectacle of Masculinity.” Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 391-404. Print.
Mellor, Anne. “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein.” Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 355-68. Print.
Poovey, Mary. “”My Hideous Progeny” The Lady and the Monster.” Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 344-55. Print.