- Social / political context
- Religious / philosophical context
- Literary context
- The Bible: Creation: see Religious / philosophical context
- The Prometheus myth
- The doppelganger
- The monster's reading: Plutarch, Milton and Goethe
- The Romantics: Coleridge, Lamb, Southey, de Quincey
- Title page to the first edition
- Volume 1
- Volume 2
- Volume 3
Ways of interpreting Frankenstein
Since Mary Shelley wrote her novel 200 years ago, it has variously been interpreted as a comment on, among other things, slavery, race and post-natal depression.
In response to a recent magazine feature on the novel, there follows a variety of interesting interpretations by members of the public.
What do you think?
1. I tend to read the novel as more of a warning of the dangers of failing to raise our children properly. As parents we all play the role of creator. If we abandon our creations, and fail to raise them adequately, we the creators, will ultimately pay the price.
Max Thomas, Barnsley
2. The title subtitle of the novel being "The Modern Prometheus" brings it well into the realms of the over-reaching and, crucially, male creative force. The novel is Milton's fall without the female temptation, and with any women in the novel consigned to the sidelines. Instead we are left with the three central, male characters - Victor, Walton and the Monster - who all strive for greatness and ultimately fail. It is what critic Anne K Mellor calls what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman.
Adam McCulloch, Chesterfield, England
3. The book is also about the change from a metaphysical world view to a scientific world view. Remember how the young Frankenstein was gripped by reading the works of Paracelsus the alchemist until told that it was "sad trash" and out of date. The contrast is between a view of the world as manipulative (what is it possible to do), as opposed to moral (what ought we to do). This goes to the core of the modern existential dilemma, and one which has not yet been fully resolved. The book remains highly relevant to the modern world.
Paul Lockwood, Cambridge, UK
4. The story could also be read as a division within man himself. Victor is a driven scientist determined to breach the protocols of life and death itself. The creation quotes philosophy and is shunned by Victor because of its horrific image. In many ways this tale shares similarities between Dorian Gray and his painting and Gyge's ring in Plato's Republic. The real monster in this tale is Victor his deeds reflected on the dark mirror of his creation. Ironically the monster has the nobler soul whilst Victor's is the corrupt one. His desire to destroy his creation is driven by the same desire which leads Dorian to destroy his painting.
Amos Greig, Belfast
5. Frankenstein can definitely be read in a feminist context, as the direct consequences of circumventing maternity in the birth process. That is, to remove the feminine from the creation of life leads to a horrific imbalance in nature. Therefore the notion of "monstrosity" in the novel can be applied to the circumstances surrounding the creation of the creature, rather than aimed squarely at the innocent, child-like creature himself. Look also at the incestuous overtones of Victor's relationship with Elizabeth to see another example of how feminine aspects of Victor's family life are imbalanced, and out of tune with nature.
Dan Haynes, Bristol
6. The story also deals with sexual repression. Victor is both impotent and plagued by incestuous thoughts about his half sister. The monster thus functions as an externalisation of Victor's sexuality - its deformity and monstrous appearance demonstrating his own self loathing. It's also heavily implicit that the monster rapes Elizabeth on Victor's wedding night (the monster does what Victor cannot, ie consecrate his marriage) which means the story also illustrates the fear of an unreleased, primal sexuality - giving it a reactionary bent.
Yasser Rahman, London
7. I studied Frankenstein at university when I read English. My own interpretation, then, was Frankenstein represented the English ruling class and one that tried to play God regarding Ireland and the Irish: They created their monster, the Anglicisation of Ireland. They were indifferent to the feelings and what went on in the monster's heart. Their callousness forced the thing to show them through very reluctantly taking a life to preserve its own. Frankenstein (England) not only continually refused to take the responsibility for the monster, the murder, and his own obvious main part in the dreadful affair, he hypocritically persecuted the monster. No good could come out of the situation and it didn't. That's still pretty much what I believe Mary Shelley was aiming at in this most excellent Gothic novel.
Martin Horan, Perth, Scotland
8. I see it as an allegory for the way disabled people are treated in this society. We didn't ask to be born the way we were, but we aren't ashamed of it - and society should accept us as we are, not shun us or discriminate against us because we're different.
Chris Page, Letchworth, UK
9. Taking Frankenstein back to its origins as part of the Romantic movement, it can be read as a key text in the 'Reason vs Imagination' debate that was a typical concern, both of the older generation such as Wordsworth, and the younger poets such as Byron. In essence, this debated the relative merits of intelligent yet soulless scientific knowledge, against the transformative power of the imagination. With this in mind, Victor can be seen as being skilled in Reason, but severely deficient in Imagination. While he has the technical skills to create the creature, he lacks any ability to nurture it - when the creature is 'born' it comes towards him like a needy child, but he shuns it. He also fails to fulfill the creature's spiritual needs, leaving it to pick up its own understanding of Paradise Lost, for example, and ultimately aligning itself to Satan.
David Hopkins, London, UK
10. Mary Shelley was an intensely political writer and person and, along with her husband, was persecuted and hounded by the government. I am sure Mary Shelley was also attempting to show that her society created 'monsters' which ultimately would lead to the destruction of the society itself. In this way she predates Marx in his description of the exploited and oppressed working people of the world as the gravediggers of bourgeois society.
Bruce Austen, Ludlow, Shropshire
11. Frankenstein can be read as a contrast between what is 'seen' as normal and that which is not, and how underlying lives and experiences are similar for us all. There are many comparisons between the two polar characters in the novel, Walton and the Monster (Walton is about as real as the novel gets, while the Monster is, of course, pure fantasy). Walton, like the Monster is self educated and has a skewed picture of reality. They both long for companionship - but live close to other people (Walton's cabin on board his ship and the Monster's hideaway at the DeLacey's home). Walton's journey and quest are extreme, his environment, harsh and inhospitable. Like the monster, who is driven to solitude, and who thrives in the freezing conditions of the north, Walton, it seems, has been compelled to a similar fate. Ultimately, self interest dominates both their lives and the result for each is different. However, by linking the Monster's life to that of Walton, Mary Shelley is able to show the fundamental influences that dictates our behaviour.
Simon Murphy, St Albans
12. For me, Frankenstein is a commentary on the danger of Victorian ambition. In Frankenstein, the Monster exists as a product of Frankenstein's ambition and intelligence - two things to which the Victorian male was supposed to aspire. That the Monster was a product of such admirable traits in Frankenstein makes the reader question the true merits of ambition, intelligence and knowledge. Shelley explicitly states that ambition corrupts when Frankenstein says to Walton: "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least my by example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow". Shelley is warning against being too ambitious, which makes Frankenstein terrifying because all males in Victorian society aspire to be intelligent and ambitious and so cannot separate themselves from Shelley's character. Shelley deliberately makes Frankenstein recognisable and relatable so that he acts as a reflection of middle-class males, which allows them to identify with her character. The reader identifies qualities in himself that are in Frankenstein and if Frankenstein could create something as horrific as the Monster, the fear is that they too could bring such horrors upon themselves.
Laura Grant, Glasgow
13. Influenced greatly by the Victorian paradigm of homosexuality, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to explore the inability to ignore or destroy one's sexuality. Victor Frankenstein creates a large, masculine being in order to complement his own effeminacy and to fulfill his repressed homosexual desires. The creature acts also as a symbol of Frankenstein's sexuality. The creature pursues Frankenstein and Frankenstein pursues the creature - they have eyes for none but each other, and women act only as intermediaries between the two. Frankenstein's passion clearly overshadows his affection for Elizabeth, and a similar situation arises between the creature and his woman counterpart. Frankenstein's relationships with Walton and Clerval also emphasise effeminacy and are undoubtedly sexual in nature. Throughout the novel, Frankenstein remains unable to escape from the creature's grasp - from his homosexuality - until at last he dies. The creature dies only after Frankenstein's death, finalising Shelley's idea that homosexuality is a natural, inextinguishable trait.
Emily Puleo, Saint Louis, US
14. I just finished re-reading this novel last week, for the first time since school days. What struck me the most about it is that there is a recurring theme of what happens when parental responsibilities are neglected. Of course the most extreme example and the centre of the book is the neglect of Victor of his creation. However the theme occurs again and again. First, in the narrative by Walton at the beginning, before he meets with Frankenstein - he complains in a letter to his sister of his lack of education, with the implication that this need of his was neglected by his parents. Victor himself, although he grows up in a loving family, is imperfectly guided and becomes a disciple of discredited alchemists - the implication being that his considerable mental gifts have been imperfectly formed, which ultimately leads to his inappropriate use of them to create his imperfect "child". Even the incident with Justine is rife with this theme - she is neglected and rejected by her natural mother, and then in her hour of need rejected by her adopted family, the Frankensteins. I am reminded of a bit of Jane Austen's juvenilia, which was written (but not published) only a few years before Shelley's work - "Lady Susan" tells the story of a young girl whose education and formation is sadly neglected by her guardian, and deals with the consequences that result. When reading "Frankenstein", I found that I had a lot of sympathy for the "monster" - the poor thing with a loving heart, turned to evil deeds by neglect from him who should have been its protector.
Tamara Petroff, Maidenhead
15. I think you can also see Victor's apparent usurpation of the female role, which in itself links to the motifs of sexuality, which (although not explicitly) seem to pervade the novel; Victor's relationship with his once-sister-turned-wife Elizabeth is fragmented, stagnant and there is little which suggests at consumation of their brief marriage - a point which is explored in Danny Boyle's production. Creating his monster a-sexually, the woman's role is superfluous, a point which corresponds too with conflicting discussion surrounding the gothic-woman: a subservient, passive mother-figure featured in Shelley or Stoker's sexual, desirous aesthetic?
Katie Angus, Slough
16. The creature represents idealism - the realisation of man's dream - to be the master of life AND death, that is the taking away any fear of death. But of course, this is against all the natural laws and the dream becomes a nightmare, as it rampages out of control, not governed by and of the "nurture" that allows man to be great. The creature represents nature, rampant, wild and frightening. It is a force to be afraid of and representing mankind, Viktor still pursues his dream, trying in some final way, to get it under his control or destroy it in the process.
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