Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, has long been considered one of the first and greatest gothic novels of all time. First published in 1818 when the author, Mary W. Shelley was just 20 years old, the novel follows the journey of Robert Walton as he seeks to discover a new passage through the Arctic Ocean. Along the way he encounters a man, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who recounts his tale of his own journey to push the boundaries of scientific discovery and the tragedy that ensued. The novel tackles the issue of unbridled scientific discovery and advancement leading to the destruction of civilization, however underlying themes also arise pertaining to religion and Greek mythology.
The novel’s themes center on the social and cultural aspects of society during Shelley’s lifetime, including the movement away from the intellectually confining Enlightenment. Writers of the Romantic period were concerned with nature, compassion, and heroes, but they also were rebelling against technology, commercialization, and loss of humanity. The characters in the novel reflect the struggles members of society were facing at the time. “Part of the romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, which began with Rousseau (see Chapter 17), Shelley’s novel presented Frankenstein as a man driven by obsessive intellectual curiosity and the monster as a tragic symbol of science out of control.
Written in the optimistic dawn of the industrialized age, when humanity seemed on the verge of taming the natural world, Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the earliest warnings that scientific research divorced from morality is an open invitation to personal and social disaster” (Matthews, Platt, and Noble 481). The monster is portrayed as an outcast from society, and the reader can empathize with his subsequent rage at being ostracized. Nature and science, opposing forces during this period, are important themes shaping the novel.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, is one of the most iconic tales of 19th century literature. Grandly displaying a mastery of psychological depth within the characters, the author portrays a flawed society inherent within their scientific progression. As such, the enriching tale draws many criticisms from the society in which Shelley lived in, some of which encompasses appearances, feminism, and class restrictions. Retold through multiple mediums, the story is generally seen as a tale of the dangers of scientific progression to such an extremity that it illustrates faults in the upbringing of its citizens. Although, there is more to the story than a criticism of science being a dangerous endeavor with harsh complications, the characters show faults in their psyche from being ill-treated by civilization. The creature’s symbolism emphasizes a defect in a hypocritical society and its discontents. Thus, the creature reveals society’s flaw in supporting a superficial image of the world.
Victor represents the tendency of science to divorce itself from ethics. As a scientist, Victor does not consider the consequences of his research, and he does not take responsibility for what happens as a result. What is more, this lapse in Victor’s judgment arises in part from his absence from home, both literally and figuratively: In order to do his work, he must cut himself off from other human beings.
The story begins with an ambitious man’s journey to the North Pole, but he is facing many perils on his way and faces many ethical issues blurring the line between morals and science. Meeting with Dr. Frankenstein, the captain is told the long, life story of a man who cannot see the line between ethics and science, and showing complete remorse over his creation, the unnamed creature. Frankenstein forewarns him, “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I…
Shelley is also commenting on human prejudice, especially concerning appearance.
The story is generally seen as a tale of the dangers of scientific progression to such an extremity that it illustrates faults in the upbringing of its citizens. Although, there is more to the story than a criticism of science being a dangerous endeavor with harsh complications, the characters show faults in their psyche from being ill-treated by civilization. The creature’s symbolism emphasizes a defect in a hypocritical society and its discontents. Thus, the creature reveals society’s flaw in supporting a superficial image of the world.
The novel also explores the boundary between life and death, and the potential dangers human arrogance might arouse when trying to “play God.”
“…Frankenstein contains a great amount of biblical symbolism, particularly the theme of the outcast and the story of creation. The creature is bitter and dejected after being turned away from human civilization, much the same way that Adam in “Paradise Lost” was turned out of the Garden of Eden” (Smith).
Shelley explores some aspects of human nature, specifically human lust for power and the unfortunate way we deal with it once it is achieved. Dr. Frankenstein achieved the power of giving an inanimate body life. This is a Godlike power. He continues to play God by passing judgment on his creation. The tragedy is he (as well as all the other people the ‘monster’ encounters) fails to see the good in his creation that is obviously there. If Dr. Frankenstein is the ‘monster’s’ God, then the ‘monster’ is literally Godforsaken. Considering the situation, the ‘monster’ reacts in a very human way. It is largely agreed in American society today that a child who is isolated from human interaction cannot be blamed for his/her actions, and that neglect is one of the worst forms of abuse. In the same way, Frankenstein’s monster is not at fault for his acts of destruction but is actually the victim. In fact, if there is a villain in this story it would be Frankenstein for his abuse of his ‘monster’.
Shelley’s novel focuses on an aspect of the Prometheus myth typically overlooked in the more traditional version of the Titan’s defiant martyrdom, namely, an offspring’s need for sustained guidance, influence, pity, and support from its creator.
During her European travels with her husband, while staying in Geneva with the poet Lord Byron, 18-year-old Mary Shelley created Frankenstein in response to a ghost-story competition among the literary group. To pass the time, the party held stirring discussions of current scientific theories. They were particularly fascinated by the experiments with electricity carried out the century before by Luigi Galvani, who had observed how an electric current made the legs of a dead frog twitch.
They speculated on the possibility of bringing dead matter back to life by using electrical impulses. Since she and her husband Percy had recently traveled through southern Germany, not far from the centuries-old Frankenstein Castle, some people have speculated that she’d probably also heard the rumors of an eccentric inventor there who claimed to have discovered an “elixir of life.” After all this scientific talk, Lord Byron took the group in a different direction and suggested that each member of the party write a horror story. Out of this parlor game came a new kind of tale, Mary Shelley’s terrifying novel, Frankenstein.
Frankenstein brought new light to the worries of the 19th century population about whether science and technology would lead to the destruction of mankind. Those same fears continue to plague mankind, whether it is cloning of animals, or the current ideas of genetic modification.
The fact that these big questions still inform the social implications of science in the 21st century is a key reason that the popularity of Mary Shelley’s story has only grown over time.