Notes for Frankenstein

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 20, 2008
Previous Version: June 18, 2000

Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, 1817


It is unfortunate what the films using the name Frankenstein have done to prejudice readers against this novel. Frankenstein is a remarkable book for its insights into human nature and human needs, especially as they are felt and amplified in the form of a gigantic creature from outside humanity, yet made up--quite literally--of the shards of humanity. The novel touches several powerful themes: love and hate (together with their transformative powers), beauty and ugliness (together with their prejudicial effects), innocence and guilt (whether real or imagined), compassion and hard-heartedness.

As a product of the Romantic era, the book clearly focuses more on feelings and sensibilities than on thought or reason. Yet there is an underlying sense that many of the disasters in the book can be laid to reason forgotten (or gone mad), feelings overindulged, and a loss of balance between head and heart.

The tonal qualities of the novel are worth attending to because, in addition to the dominant tone of darkness or gloom, there are moments of light and beauty, joy and enchantment, and love and pleasure quite irrepressibly glowing into various passages of the book.

A foil is a character who illuminates some of the qualities of another character by providing a contrast with those qualities. Frankenstein provides several foils to help us understand and contextualize some of the other characters. A study of Victor's foils would be profitable: Robert Walton, Alphonse Frankenstein, the monster, and Elizabeth Lavenza all foil him in some way. Even God is a foil for Victor, since by comparing the Creator of mankind with the creator of the monster, we can discover some interesting contrasts.


The complex narrative system of the book provides some interesting structures for analysis. Captain Robert Walton writes to his sister Margaret Saville about his adventures, which the reader looks in upon in a typical epistolary novel manner. Then Victor recounts his story to Walton, who takes notes and sends them to his sister. Then the monster tells Victor about his or its adventures, which Victor recounts to Walton. Finally, the monster quotes the DeLaceys.

There are thus at least five audiences with four levels of mediation in the narratee structure:
Narrator 1st Audience 2nd Audience 3rd Audience 4th Audience 5th Audience
Walton Saville Reader      
Frankenstein Walton Saville Reader    
Monster Frankenstein Walton Saville Reader  
De Laceys Monster Frankenstein Walton Saville Reader

Tracing the time structure of the narration would also be interesting. The novel begins, in classical epic form, in medias res, in the middle of things, and then launches into a series of flashbacks (which quite conveniently provide non-omniscient narrators with the ability to foreshadow coming events).

Some Themes

1. Friendship, the hurt of loneliness versus the happiness of companionship; the power of love--to heal, redeem, sustain, and the power of hatred and rejection--to damage and corrupt a soul.

2. Knowledge and its uses. The ethics of using knowledge. Is there forbidden knowledge? Is "knowledge at any price" a good--or an evil--goal?

3. The duty of a creator to the creature; the duty of love for one's creation. For example, a parent's duty to love, protect, and nurture children.

4. The harmfulness of judging by external appearances; how people are shaped by the perceptions of others and by the treatment of others (compare Victor,  the monster, Felix De Lacey).

5. The influence of education; the importance of models.

6. Guilt, and guilt and innocence.

7. Hubris--the overweening pride of Greek tragedy--or at least the reckless pursuit of self aggrandizement. Walton has it, Victor has it.

8. Drawing several of these lines together, the question of nature versus nurture. Is the monster born bad? How does his life experience change him? What does the statement, "Children must be taught to hate" mean in the context of the novel? What are the sociological implications of the monster's life, or of Victor's?


The Preface. Mary Shelly says that even though the novel describes what is "impossible as a physical fact," it still allows "for the delineating of human passions." She continues, "I have thus endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate upon their combinations." Here we have a brief theoretical basis for the science fiction novel. However bizarre the physical representation of its elements (robots and aliens in far away galaxies in the distant future or past, for example), there is a connection to human nature that brings us into the work (the characters, the conflicts) and allows us to find meaning, understanding, sympathy, and concern that relates in some way to our own lives.

Letter 1. Captain Robert Walton serves as a foil for Victor Frankenstein, since both are adventurers, overreachers to some extent, and somewhat blindly dedicated to confer "inestimable benefit" on "all mankind, to the last generation" by their discoveries. They feel the drive of curiosity and the urge to push back the frontiers of knowledge, to be the first man to do or see something. Walton's comment, "Inspirited by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more fervent and vivid" could have been spoken by Victor. Comparing these two is useful, especially near the beginning and the end of the novel. More than this, note that Walton's need for "some encouraging voice" could be a sentiment from the monster. And of course, the voyage is a great metaphor for an intellectual or life journey. In Walton's statement, "I am about to proceed on a long and difficult voyage," we can perceive his physical journey, his experience with Victor and its subsequent narrative, and even Mary Shelley sighing as she sits down to write.

Letter 2. Note how the letters serve the rather ordinary (but necessary) function of exposition. "I have no friend," "Now I am twenty-eight," "even here in Archangel," "Your affectionate brother." These letters provide

Letter 3. "Why not still proceed . . .?" "What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?" Walton, of course, intends these as rhetorical questions, but we are meant to think about them as very real issues. What can or should stop the heart? Is "follow your heart" always the best advice?

Letter 4. "How can I see so noble a creature destroyed by misery?" Walton foils Victor here, who doesn't feel this way toward his creature. Walton's hamartia (his tragic flaw) is his overreaching desire to conquer nature at any price--for the power over nature and the elements. "How gladly would I sacrifice. . . ." Walton is like Victor in obsessiveness.

Chapter 1. Victor's father and mother loved their child, their creature. Victor is provided with a female companion to love very early (Elizabeth Lavenza).

Chapter 2. Henry Clerval, Victor's school friend, also serves as a foil since he is interested in ethics and Victor is not. Victor pursues natural philosophy (what we now call science) without an ethical base. Love and morality are linked. The power of Elizabeth's love to make Victor and Clerval better and more humane. Victor's thirst for glory--compare Walton. Victor wants to banish disease; raise "ghosts or devils"--compare Faust. Victor acts without moral or spiritual reflection, without thinking. Foreshadowing: "the storm that was even then hanging in the stars." Victor blames his experiences on fate: "destiny was too potent." (It is a common indicator of self-centeredness when a character credits himself with successes that occur but blames fate or fortune for failures.)

Chapter 3. M. Krempe, professor of natural philosophy, ugly and tactless; M. Waldman, chemistry professor kindly. Victor's ambition: "explore unknown powers" (Faust again?)

Chapter 4. Victor finds Prof. Waldman a "true friend."

Victor begins "creation of a human being" eight feet high, without reflecting either upon ethics or consequences. He describes himself as creator and father.

Chapter 5. Victor had tried to create a beautiful being, but he is repulsed by its ugliness. He rushes out of the room--his first act is to abandon it at its birth, in its most need. The monster smiles at Victor, reaches out its hand, feels love. Victor's further repulsion. Victor feels guilt, but no duty toward the life he created, no love. A thread of romanticism is to deny or even flee from personal responsibility.

Chapter 6. Elizabeth writes Victor a love letter reminding him that he is loved. (Note the nice contrasts built into the story.) The influence of others and their love on us.

Chapter 7. Victor's characterization of the monster: "wretch," "filthy demon," "demon," "devil," "the animal," "depraved wretch." Victor assumes that the monster is the killer. Victor refers to the monster as "it." Spectators at the trial of Justine are foils for Victor.

Chapter 8. "How sweet is the affection of others to such a wretch as I am."

Chapter 9. Victor says he began with benevolent intentions.

Victor is tempted to commit suicide, tempted to flee his problems. Calls the monster "fiend."

Chapter 10. The beauty of God's creation, rugged, not "ugly." Victor meets the monster for the first time since fleeing from him: the monster is an abhorred sight. The monster is miserable; Victor uses "words expressive of furious detestation and contempt." The key to the monster's psyche: "Everywhere I see bliss, from which I am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous." The monster is "miserably alone." The monster begs for the redeeming power of love.

Chapter 11. The monster's story: felt pain, wept, ignorant, hungry, cold, alone. Everyone who sees monster shrieks. The monster enjoys music, feels love and benevolence.

Chapter 12. The monster is attracted by gentleness, wants companionship, displays a noble and moral nature, is moved by kindness, shows kindness, calls cottagers "my friends." Monster frightened by his own reflection. Monster is wonderful when invisible, wants the love of his "friends."

Chapter 13. The monster is sensitive to beauty. The monster discovers the paradox of man, "at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base."

Chapter 14. The monster learns the history of his "friends." The theme of exile as a gloss for the monster's life.

Chapter 15. The monster is "raised" by the cottagers in a good home, that is a home with good values. The monster has the "greatest ardour for virtue"--developed by reading Werther, Plutarch's Lives, Paradise Lost. (Are you surprised to find such a literate monster?)Monster compares self to Adam; monster "wretched, helpless and alone," made hideous, lonely and unhappy. The monster talks to old man De Lacey; both are innocent outcasts. Felix responds to monster's external appearance and hits him.

Chapter 16. Monster rescues a girl from drowning but is judged by his appearnce and shot. The monster is willing to look beyond ugliness: he wants a female monster as ugly as himself

Chapter 17. Monster: "I am malicious because I am miserable." The monster can reason, recognizes passion as detrimental, and is affected by kindness: he would return benevolence.

Chapter 18. Henry Clerval enjoys beauty of nature (as does monster). Foreshadowing of Clerval's death.

Chapter 19. Victor calls the monster a blight on his existence, one of his own making because of his attitude and hardness of heart. How much is Victor's own fault? Compare the monster and Victor for selfishness and for temper. Is the monster just like Victor in personality?

Chapter 20. Victor reflects on what he is doing. A creator cannot control a creature endowed with free will; same with parents. Victor again shows himself to be just like the monster.

Chapter 21. Monster has killed Clerval in Ireland; Victor is blamed; two month's fever, in prison. Dramatic irony: Victor feels unloved.

Chapter 22. The power of love--Elizabeth helps soothe Victor's insanity. Foreshadowing (of Elizabeth's death).

Chapter 23. Monster kills Elizabeth, Alphonse dies from grief and old age. Victor is devoured by revenge, asks for help from magistrate, but is denied. Compare Victor and monster in motivations.

Chapter 24. Victor driven by "rage and vengeance": note motivation of both Victor and Monster.

Is it true that the monster is treacherous? Walton says that Victor showed letters and that Walton saw the monster, to lend credibility to the story. Victor had thought to be useful, but without due consideration to values. Epic hero: "the greatness of his fall." Victor's speech: we do something not because it's easy but because it's hard--shows some noble sentiment and aspiration. Walton and Victor similar, both in ambition and in failure. Victor recognizes his duty to assure the "happiness and well being" of his creature. Walton meets the monster; the monster sorrowful at Victor's death. The monster always found painful the doing of evil, has been miserable and remorseful. Monster's tragic flaw is his anger.


Robert Walton, Captain
Margaret Saville, his sister, recipient of the letters and narrative
Victor Frankenstein, the modern Prometheus, maker of the monster
Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor's adopted sister, later Victor's bride for a day
Henry Clerval, schoolmate and friend of Victor
Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor's father
Caroline Beaufort, Victor's mother, Alphonse's wife
Ernest Frankenstein, Victor's brother
William Frankenstein, Victor's brother
M. Krempe, professor of natural philosophy at Ingolstadt, gruff
M. Waldman, professor of chemistry at Ingolstadt, kindly
Justine Moritz, female servant and friend of Alphonse Frankenstein's family
Old man De Lacey, blind father
Felix De Lacey, son
Agatha De Lacey, daughter
Sophie the Arabian (becomes Felix's wife)

Word Changes. Some words have changed usage or meaning since the book was written. Among them are these:
"wonderful" meant inspiring wonder, amazing
"admiration" meant wonder or amazement
"intercourse" meant communication. It turned sexual from the term "sexual intercourse" meaning "sexual communication." Then, in our usual economizing way, the word "sexual" was dropped and "intercourse" by itself has taken on the meaning of the intimate act.
"terrific" meant inspiring terror--it was a negative reaction, the opposite of the meaning today.
"awful" meant awe inspiring or filling with awe, nearly the opposite of the meaning today

VirtualSalt Home
Copyright 2000 by Robert Harris | How to cite this page
w w w . v i r t u a l s a l t . c o m

About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com