Recent critical approaches

The last 30 years

Until comparatively recently, Frankenstein was rarely studied in schools and universities, but many factors have led to a revival of interest in Mary Shelley's novel over the past thirty years:

  • a new interest in literary sub-genres, including detective stories, science fiction, supernatural fiction and Gothic fiction (to which Frankenstein belongs)
  • this has led to a modification and extension of the literary canon, which is the body of works regarded by a culture as worthy of discussion, so that rather than ignoring such sub-genres – usually on the grounds that they are ‘popular' or ‘not serious' – critics have recognised that such works have a great deal to tell us about the concerns of readers in the period when they were written and first published
  • the emergence of specifically feminine and feminist literary history and literary criticism, which has sought to establish new strands of literary tradition and new viewpoints from which to discuss literature; this has led to a concentration on women writers who might previously have been ignored or neglected, often because they are overshadowed by the work of dominant male writers, including their fathers, brothers, husbands or lovers
  • psychoanalytic criticism, which reads texts in terms of how they relate to the author's experience, to the relationship between the text and the reader, or to changing theories about individual psychology, has often turned to texts which dramatise perverse or transgressive situations
  • the development of formalist criticism has led to a new attention to the ways in which fictional narratives behave, particularly in cases where unreliable or multiple narrative voices are used
  • finally, new historicist criticism has turned its attention to the ways in which the shape and meaning of texts in all genres may be determined by contemporary social, cultural and political concerns.

Mary Shelley's example

It can be seen how Frankenstein offers promising material for the approaches above:

  • Mary Shelley adapts for her own purposes such sub-genres as the Gothic novel and the ghost story, often subverting their established conventions
  • Although there were many women authors – poets, novelists and dramatists – at the time she was writing, literary critics and historians have tended to dwell on the work of a few men (see The Romantics)
  • As a young woman associated with one of the most powerful of these masculine groupings, and as the daughter of a leading proto-feminist, Mary Shelley offers a particularly striking example of the fate of the early nineteenth-century woman writer and thus earns a central place in feminist literary history.

These factors have made Mary Shelley's novel a strong candidate for incorporation into a revised and extended literary canon.

Focus of different critical approaches

The perverse and transgressive elements of Frankenstein – especially as seen in the characters of Victor and the monster – respond to the approaches of psychoanalytic critics. Formalist critics are likely to be interested in the novel's triple narrative and the ways in which it shows Captain Walton transforming the oral into the written; while the book's engagement with contemporary scientific and social issues captures the attention of new historicist critics.

Further reading

This section is not seeking to explore all these approaches to the novel in great detail. A good starting-point for such a study is the anthology Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays ed. Fred Botting (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995) which is referred to several times in this guide. Botting reprints ten essays, all published since 1980, each of which explores the novel from a different critical point of view. At the end of each essay, he adds a useful paragraph about each author's methodology and how it relates to other criticism in the same field. His bibliography contains references to numerous other articles in journals, listed according to their critical approach.

Critical approaches elsewhere in this guide

You will also find that other sections of this guide provide examples of how various critical approaches might be employed in the study of Frankenstein:

A range of critical approaches

Remember that no one critical approach necessarily excludes any others: indeed, they often work most effectively when they are used in combination arguments and conclusions. For example, a formalist concentration on the narrative structure of the novel would need to understand, from a new historicist point of view, how the different narratives are used to construct a critical view of contemporary science. Similarly, a feminist perspective on the language of science and the novel's highly ambivalent attitude towards the maternal (in itself a topic for psychoanalytic criticism) would demonstrate how that critical view actually appears in the novel.

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