A Literary Analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
This paper analyzes the novel Frankenstein. It is subdivided into two parts. The first part is a thematic analysis of the novel and the second part is a discourse analysis of the novel.
Specifically it seeks to answer the following: what are the major themes of the novel; what are the discourses contained in and articulated by the novel?
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is a famous novel by Mary Shelley. It was completed on May 1817, when Mary was just nineteen years of age. It was made while she and her husband Percey Bysshe Shelley were on their summer vacation with Lord Byron in the Alps (“Frankenstein” ). With the best writers in England, Mary offered her contribution to the literary classics, the famous Frankenstein novel, which became famous in two genres: Science Fiction and horror (Milner, p.149).
Thematic Analysis of Frankenstein
The novel Frankenstein is centered on four major themes: ignorance versus knowledge, injustice in world, in a feminist viewpoint—equality of men and women, and murders explained from the viewpoint of the murderers. Among many other themes, these four, in my opinion, are the major themes and therefore should be expounded.
The novel was written in the early phase of the industrial revolution (“Analysis of Frankenstein”), that is, when science and technology was initially progressing. From this premise I can say that the novel is an attempt to criticize the existing social condition, that is to say, the novel criticizes the progress of science and the acquisition of knowledge. Shelley’s use of the character Victor Frankenstein, the medical doctor who created a being more superior to the present race of men, explains my point. Even though Victor is knowledgeable enough to create life, he is still bounded by his imperfections. He created a killing monster instead—The Frankenstein Monster. This suggests that science could unravel the mysteries of nature, but knowledge is still too dangerous for man to acquire. The novel suggests that knowledge is dangerous like when Victor discovered the mystery of life. knowledge is a monster.
Furthermore, the novel suggests that some knowledge should be kept secret from men. Some knowledge do more evil than good, as the novel suggests. It says that ignorance is good. Knowledge is evil (“Remarks on Frankenstein”).
The other title for Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus, is suggestive of the theme of this novel. Prometheus is a mythological character who gave fire to men to keep them warm (“Prometheus gave fire to Men”). But Zeus punished Prometheus for doing so. Prometheus received an eternal punishment. In connection, the fire symbolizes knowledge. In the myth, knowledge is forbidden to men just like in the novel Frankenstein. The fire can warm, but it can also kill just as knowledge can. The novel criticizes the scientist most especially, in their empirical quest for knowledge.
The character of the Monster serves dual purpose in the novel, as far my first and second themes are concerned. First, the character is a concrete articulation of knowledge. It is the product of Victor’s study and experimentation. And so, it symbolizes the fruit of knowledge. In the novel, the monster was depicted as ‘ugly, abhorred, and disgusting’ and a killer. What does it say about knowledge? It suggests that knowledge is also ugly, abhorred and disgusting—a killer, too—a monster.
The second function of the Monster character in the novel points at the second theme of the novel—injustice in the world. First instance is when Victor created a lone monster, without a companion. It lamented saying that “…Even Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred” (Shelley, p. 130). This points out that there is injustice committed to the Monster. Secondly, Victor denied the monster a companion when the monster pleads for it. It pleads:
My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor, and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to a chain of existence and events, which I am now excluded. (Shelley, 147)
Instead of creating a lady monster, Victor destroyed every little chance that the monster have of waiting for his lady companion by destroying the monster he was about to give life to.
Third, there is injustice in the world when the monster experienced ostracism because of its appearance. It was drawn by villagers away and was forced to live alone, and excluded from humanity (“Frankenstein”).
The theme on equality between sexes, in my opinion, is evident in the novel when the Monster pleads Victor to create a lady monster. There was no hint in the novel that the monster will dominate the lady monster because all it wanted was to have a companion whom ‘it shall feel affection to’ (p.147). The novel did not hint at the superiority of men over women, as far as the character of the monster is concerned.
Lastly, the most obvious theme of the novel is murder. But in this case, there was no negative presentation of crime because the murders were explained from the viewpoint of the murderers. The murderers were presented to have logical reasons for committing the crimes [this is unique] (my emphasis). Let us take for instance the first murder case—the murder of Victor’s brother.
Although the novel may have presented a ‘shallow’ reason why the monster murdered Victor’s brother, that is, victor’s brother recited a litany of epithets to the monster, it somehow explained the reason behind the murder. The monster was too sensitive with its appearance that’s why it has over reacted to the epithets.
Another murder was committed when Victor destroyed the lady monster he was about to give life to. Victor is also a murderer. His reason was that if he let the lady monster live, he will bring tragedy to the world by ‘producing a race of devils’. Victor’s course of action was paid for by the monster’s killing of Victor’s fiancée—Elizabeth. It was the price Victor has to pay for his murderous act.
One good point about this novel was that it has presented murder from the viewpoint of the murderer. Shelley has produced characters with realistic motives, that is, the characters were driven by logical reasons for committing the crimes. This is something good about this novel.
In conclusion, the novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus was centered on four major themes: ignorance is good and knowledge is evil; injustice in the world; equality of men and women; and murders as explained from the viewpoint of the murderers.
A Discourse Analysis of the novel
Discourse theory of Foucault can be applied to the Frankenstein Story. Foucault defines discourse as a way of thinking shared by a particular group of people at a particular place and time producing truth and power and controlling actions. It is a lived way of thinking deeply inculcated into individuals. Individuals become the subjects of discourses (Foucault, pp 21-30 ).
Applying the theory of discourse, let us examine the discourses or ways of thinking which the story of Frankenstein articulate. What kinds of discourse are inculcated into individuals by the novel Frankenstein?
Man as God and the Dawn of Scientific Revolution
The story exemplifies man as a God. The giving of a life to an inanimate object is an act only reserved toa God. Yet in the story, man created life through Victor’s creation. It suggests an era where science has triumphed. It suggests that science could be a god, in this respect. It suggests that Science can offer man the impossible– that man can be a god.
Just like in the literary text, the movie Shelley’s Frankenstein (dir. Branagh) explicates the dawn of scientific revolution. Below is an excerpt of the conversation between Clerval and Victor:
Frankenstein: Sooner or later, the best way to cheat death will be to create life.
Clerval: Now, you’ve gone too far. There’s only one God, victor.
Frankenstein: No, leave God out of this. Listen, if you love someone, they have a sick heart, wouldn’t you give them a healthy one?
Frankenstein: No it’s not impossible, we can do it, we’re steps away. And if we can do that, if we can replace one part of a human being, we can replace every part. If we can do that, we can design life. We can create a being that will not grow old or sicken. One that will be stronger than us, better than us, one that will be more intelligent than us, more civilized.”
From the above, we can see that what was ‘impossible’ like a giving of a healthy heart, has become a possibility in the contemporary times. Heart transplant is a commonly practiced surgery these days. And it was made possible by science. The Frankenstein novel provides this transition.
Even the creation of the monster symbolizes the triumph of Science. From this story of Frankenstein, we see that Science is like a God. Science can give life, too.
Imperfect Beings and Unjust World
It is said that we can never be perfect like God. Whatever we do, we are still incomplete and imperfect. It is only God who is perfect. This way of thinking is also exemplified by the story of Frankenstein.
Victor, a medical doctor and the creator of the monster, abhorred his very creation. In his attempt to create a being superior to human race, he had created a monster instead. This suggests that man, in his efforts, cannot create a being more superior to him. Victor has labored days and nights to create a being, yet a monster, instead, breathed to life. Even the monster itself abhorred his condition.
Hateful the day when I received life! I exclaimed in agony. “Accursed Creator! Why did you ever form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?…Satan had his companion, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred. (Shelley, p.130)
Similarly, God created men in his own image and likeness, but then we are not like God who is perfect. More over, with imperfect beings came the imperfect and unjust world.
Because of the grotesque appearance of the monster, the villagers attacked him. Everyone was disgusted by mere seeing the monster. Because of this, the monster too became malevolent to humans. It experienced injustice from the world.
Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous (Shelley, p.100)
Another form of injustice made on the monster is thru Victor’s destruction of the lady monster. The monster had promised to live in peace and live in wilderness with his wife, the lady monster. The monster said:
My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor, and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to a chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded (Shelley, p.147).
It was injustice to give life to a being, and let it suffer without even a friend, a loved one,
not even anybody.
In conclusion, the novel Frankenstein articulates the following discourses: man can be a God through Science; man is always imperfect; and the world is unjust.
The horror science fiction of Shelley entitled Frankenstein, as my arguments pointed out, is a critique of the existing social condition of Shelley’s time—that is—the onset of industrial and scientific revolution.
The novel is centered on the four major themes, namely; ignorance is good and knowledge is evil; injustice in the world; equality of men and women; and murders as explained from the viewpoint of the murderers.
Frankenstein also articulates the following discourses or ways of thinking: that man can be a god through Science, and that man is always imperfect just as the world is always imperfect.
Indeed, the novel has shown us that knowledge and science can bring chaos to man.
Foucault, Michel. Archeology of Knowledge and the discourse on Language. Trans. Smith, Sheridan A.M. USA: Tavistock Publication Limited. 1972
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, dir. K. Branagh (Tristar, 1994, 118 mins)
Milner, Andrews. Literature, Culture and Society. London: UCL press, 1996
Prometheus gave Fire to Men. No date published. A Hand-out in Mythology Class.
Remarks on Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus; A Novel. No date published. April 21, 2007.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. M.K. Joseph (ed) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980