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English Literature

Frankenstein (1818) is a name that has sent a chill through generations of readers and movie-goers; If its author Mary Shelley were alive today, she would be a multi-billionaire from the and film adaptations and copies sold. The book first captured people’s imagination on publication in 1818 and has also been described as the earliest known science-fiction novel. What is Frankenstein really about, though?

Mary Shelley & Frankenstein

To understand Frankenstein, it is worth looking at its author in a little more detail.

Mary Shelley (née Godwin) is best known both for Frankenstein and also for having eloped as a young girl with Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the Romantic poets. Scandal erupted, as Percy Shelley was still married. After wandering Europe, they returned to London, still not pardoned by their parents and in dire need of funds. Their situation eased when Percy Shelley’s grandfather died. Percy’s wife, Harriet, drowned herself in the Serpentine (1816) and by the end of the same year, Mary and Percy Shelley were married.

By 1817, the newly-wed Shelleys were in Switzerland visiting Lord Byron, another voluntary exile, at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. By now the Shelleys had one son (and a daughter who had been born prematurely and died in 1815).

There have been theories about Mary’s state of mind around this time: that she was suffering the anxiety of a young mother and having recurring dreams of the dead baby. At the same time, she was enjoying a new life as yet unburdened by death and depression, which left her imagination free to roam.

Ultimately, we are left with Mary’s journals, letters, and writings. The rest is conjecture.

Frankenstein at Villa Diodati

Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

(Mary Shelley, from Introduction, Frankenstein, 1831 edition)

One evening in June of 1816, the Shelleys and Byron discussed philosophy, the principle of life, and ghost stories. They decided to have a writing contest: who could write the scariest tale? Later Mary describes:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.

(Mary Shelley, from Introduction, Frankenstein, 1831 edition)

The contest had proved easier said than done, and when Mary had this waking dream of horror, she sought to distract her mind:

I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story,—my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night! Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.

(Mary Shelley, from Introduction, Frankenstein, 1831 edition)

Mary started writing, and by 1817 had completed Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

The legend of Prometheus: Prometheus is one of the Titan gods and an ally of humans. He showed humanity how to make fire. As a punishment, Prometheus was tied to a rock and fed upon by an eagle for eternity.

The Main Characters in Frankenstein

  • Frankenstein: a student of natural science, an egotist who puts his work ahead of family and love
  • Elizabeth, his fiancee: adopted as a child, much loved by Frankenstein although he is unable to put her before his work
  • The Creature: made by Frankenstein, the Creature is at first inarticulate, but ultimately has more emotional intelligence and imagination than its creator
  • Frankenstein’s friend Henry Clerval: selfless, nurturing, and of an enquiring nature
  • The de Lacey family: composed of a young couple and their blind father

Frankenstein's Summary

We meet Frankenstein

A sea voyager writes home about how he has rescued a dying scientist called Frankenstein, who then tells his story of how he created a monstrous being ‘The Creature’. Tthe story flashes back to Frankenstein’s student days, which are spent hunting the secret of life. Frankenstein builds a man from body parts he obtains from dissection rooms and brings it to life. Horrified by what he has created, Frankenstein rejects the Creature, who disappears into the outside world.

Frankenstein collapses and is ill with fever for many weeks. His friend Henry Clerval nurses him back to health. When Frankenstein finally recovers, he receives news from his father that his young brother William has been found murdered.

Frankenstein returns home and sees the Creature near the scene of the crime. Convinced of the Creature’s guilt, Frankenstein is unable to prove anything and William’s nurse is convicted and hanged instead. Frankenstein, overcome with guilt, retreats to the mountains. He encounters the Creature, who begs him to listen to his own story.

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.

(Chapter 10)

The Creature's Tale

The Creature describes his initial experiences of life, hated and feared because of his appearance. He takes shelter in a disused building and discovers a family (the de Laceys) in the cottage next door. The Creature learns to speak and read, and develops a friendship with the head of the family, who is blind.

The rest of the family return unexpectedly and, terrified by the giant Creature, attack him and leave the area. The Creature, enraged, despairs of being accepted and decides to find Frankenstein, the one most responsible for its plight.

Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed?

(Chapter 16)

The Creature confesses to killing William and framing the nurse. He also demands that Frankenstein create a female companion for him. If Frankenstein agrees to do this, both the Creature and his companion will then withdraw to South America, never to be seen again. Frankenstein reluctantly agrees after the Creature threatens to kill everyone close to him if he refuses.

‘I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?’

(Chapter 17)

A Broken Promise

Frankenstein travels with Clerval to Scotland where they separate. Frankenstein constructs a female equivalent to the Creature, but, terrified at the thought of their populating the world, destroys her. The Creature, who has been watching outside, bursts in. Frankenstein refuses to create his ‘companion in vice’ and tells him to leave. The Creature leaves, promising that they shall meet again:

It is well. I go; but remember, I shall be with you on your wedding-night.

(Chapter 20)

Into the Darkness...

The Creature murders Clerval and Frankenstein is accused of the crime. Eventually, Frankenstein is freed, by which time the Creature has escaped. Frankenstein returns home and prepares for his marriage to Elizabeth. He takes extra precautions, mindful of the Creature’s threat. However, on the night after their wedding, the Creature enters the house and murders Elizabeth.

The Creature escapes again, and Frankenstein’s father dies a few days later. Frankenstein pursues the Creature across Europe, intent on its destruction. The Creature always manages to elude him. Finally, Frankenstein reaches the frozen wastes of the Arctic, where he collapses from exhaustion and cold. This is when the Captain finds and rescues him.

The story ends with Frankenstein dying in the captain’s cabin. The sea captain closes with a description of a meeting with the ‘Creature’ who, informed of Frankenstein’s demise, disappears on a raft across the waves until he is ‘lost in darkness and distance’. (chapter 24)

Analysis: Is Frankenstein a gothic novel or science fiction?

The Gothic novel evolved during the 18th century after the publication of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) and continued into the 19th century with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

A gothic novel is a story of mystery and suspense, usually set in a haunted house, ruined house, or abbey, and with an element of the supernatural.

At its heart, Gothicism is fascinated with death and all its trappings - the afterlife, decay, the undead. It also speaks to our secret fears, beliefs, and superstitions of the unknown (wear garlic or the vampire will come, pour salt at your door to prevent spirits from entering the house, etc.).

Typical characteristics of the Gothic novel include:

  • Haunted houses/graveyards/ruined abbey, castle or palace
  • An ancient curse
  • Phantom(s)/the supernatural
  • A mystery of some sort (it might be a locked room or a lost treasure)
  • The macabre
  • The fantastic

Gothic fiction grew incredibly popular between 1764 and the 1840s. Its readership, at first mainly female, grew to include all walks of life and gender. It offered an escape from the increasingly industrialised world and has since continued as a reaction to the materialism of everyday life.

18th century Gothic influenced novelists of the 19th century such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontë sisters, and Bram Stoker.

Shelley’s Frankenstein does fit in the gothic genre, in particular, the gothic horror kind: it has scenes of shock, cruelty, and violence. It observes the seemingly impossible, the apparently incredible. It contains the macabre and the fantastic, and while there are no ghosts, there is a sense of something monstrous in it (and that need not necessarily be the Creature).

At the same time, Frankenstein steps outside the realm of gothic into the scientific.

Shelley was well versed in the science of her time, including galvanism, which she adopted as Frankenstein’s method for bringing his Creature to life. Frankenstein therefore qualifies as a work of science fiction rather than gothic fantasy. There is nothing magical about the creation of the Creature; it is a result of Frankenstein’s research and scientific approach.

Frankenstein's main ideas: Prometheus and duality

The major themes of Frankenstein include:

  • the Promethean legend
  • creation/birth - or regeneration
  • the perils of dangerous or forbidden knowledge
  • the duality of the individual

The Promethean Tragedy

There have been multiple interpretations of Frankenstein, some of which have analysed the author as much as the text. It is important to note that Shelley wrote this novel during the period called ‘Romantic’. Furthermore, while writing it she was in the company of leading lights of the Romantic movement: Percy B.Shelley and Lord Byron. One of the recurring themes and concepts for the Romantics was duality: the individual and the alter ego, or alternative personality.

The Romantic period evolved in the late 18th century and was a reaction to classicism; the Romantics focussed on the individual and individual experience, and rejected rationality.

In his Introduction to Frankenstein (2004)¹, Harold Bloom explores the theme of Prometheus and the central duality of the novel. He points out that the ‘double of the self’ is a recurring concept with the Romantics. The Creature and its creator Frankenstein are ‘the antithetical halves of a single being.’

Antithetical: directly opposed. For example, heat is the opposite of cold, so heat and cold are antithetical.

The tragedy of Prometheus is not his punishment, but his empathy with mankind. He has tried to help humanity, yet by doing so, alienates humans from the other gods. His friendship has been costly to humanity. This, suggests Bloom, is indicative of a dual identity of Prometheus.

Bloom also makes the point that Mary Shelley’s astonishing achievement lies in how she makes the Creature

more human than his creator…more lovable than his creator and more hateful, more to be pitied and to be feared.

Here lies one of two paradoxes central to Frankenstein, continues Bloom.

Frankenstein is successful in creating a Natural Man. If anything, he is too successful, in that the Creature has more imagination than its creator. Frankenstein’s tragedy stems from ‘his failure to love; he abhorred his creature, became terrified and fled his responsibilities.’

The second paradox, Bloom continues, is more ironic: Frankenstein would probably not have run away and abandoned the creature if he had been able to construct a Creature that was beautiful. Even a passable one 'would not have been a monster. As the creature bitterly observes in chapter 17:

Shall I respect man when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and instead of injury I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union.

(Harold Bloom, Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: Frankenstein, 2004)

Frankenstein, by discovering the secret of life, by bringing life to the dead, has shown humanity a new possibility. He also breaks the laws of nature, incurring the wrath of the gods, and like Prometheus, is punished. Frankenstein ends up wandering the world, seeking the Creature, intent on destroying it.

Duality in Frankestein

Ann Kostenaletz Mellor suggests that Frankenstein contains two halves of Percy Shelley’s single personality: Henry Clerval and Victor Frankenstein.² She groups their qualities as follows:

  • Henry Clerval represents all the positive aspects of Percy Shelley: nurturing, curious, empathetic, whose ‘soul overflowed with ardent affections’.
  • Victor Frankenstein represents the other side of Shelley: intent on experimentation, with a curiosity that is blind to all else save the thirst for knowledge and his egotism/narcissism.

Bloom has a slightly different interpretation: he feels that Clerval is closer to Percy Shelley than to Frankenstein, but supports the idea that

the monster and his creator are the antithetical halves of a single being. … Frankenstein is the mind and emotions turned in upon themselves, and the creature is the mind and emotions turned imaginatively outward…

Bloom, Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: Frankenstein, 2004

Frankenstein: Dangerous knowledge?

Frankenstein’s dying words are

Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.

(chapter 24)

Is this really the ultimate message of the book?

After Percy Shelley's death, Mary Shelley withdrew from society. Her journals and way of life suggest a shy, retiring nature. Her compulsion to write was not matched by a love of notoriety. Yet the story of Frankenstein, with its Promethean theme, suggests much more than avoiding ambition. Yes, curiosity can kill the cat, but tempered with humanity it may lead to wonders.

Victor Frankenstein, however, lacked the basic humanity and empathy to cope with his own creation. The character of Victor Frankenstein is an exercise in self-deception: he persuades himself that he is ultimately blameless, even though he rejected the Creature and failed to nurture, educate, or train it.

His last words seem to continue in this self-deception and refusal to realise his own failings. He created the Creature ‘in a fit of enthusiastic madness’ (chapter 24). He accepts he had a duty to nurture the Creature, yet glosses over the fact that he ran away, abandoning him.

His Creature, as Bloom points out, is more human than its creator. The abandoned child teaches itself, but up against a brutal parent, and the brutality of nature, it will eventually become brutal itself.

What do you think when reading the book? Who do you sympathize with more, the Creature or Frankenstein? What do you think Mary Shelley's intention was?

Literary Devices in Frankenstein

Mary Shelley adopts the frame narrative for Frankenstein.

A frame narrative is a literary device that enables the author to tell a tale within a tale.

Imagine a painting hanging on a wall. The painting is framed.

Now think of the frame as the introduction to a story and the painting as that story.

A frame narrative works in the same way: the frame is the first narrator, easing the reader into the world of the story. The painting is the main narrator (or narrators) who will show us what happens in that world.

Study tip: When you read Frankenstein, decide how many narrators are involved.

Walton the explorer, as the first narrator, has the task of setting the scene: aboard a ship in the frozen sea. He also introduces us to Frankenstein:

His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. …he is generally melancholy and despairing; and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him.

Once the curiosity of the reader has been whetted, the narrative is handed over to Frankenstein, who now becomes the main narrator for the rest of the novel until halfway through the final chapter.

The reins are given back to the explorer, Walton, who describes an interview with the creature, and concludes with the creature disappearing on a raft across the waves until he is ‘lost in darkness and distance’. (M. Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818)

Frankenstein, Visualisation of the frame narrative for Frankenstein, StudySmarterThe Frame NarrativeJW, StudySmarter Original created on

Within Frankenstein’s own story we discover another narrative: that of the Creature who tells his own story to Frankenstein.

This gives us:

Frankenstein’s narrative within Walton’s narrative.

Frankenstein, Visualisation of the frame narrative for the Creature in Frankenstein, StudySmarterFrankenstein Frame Narrative with the Creature's narrativeJW, StudySmarter Original created on

The frame narrative allows for information to be revealed further on in the story and by more than one narrator - this is useful to writers in general, and particularly so in stories of mystery, suspense, and the supernatural.

Frankenstein - Key takeaways

  • Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1817 while staying at Lake Garda in Switzerland.

  • Frankenstein was published in 1818.

  • Frankenstein is about creation and the duality of the individual.

  • Frankenstein is based on a dream Mary Shelley had after discussing ghost stories with Byron and Shelley.

  • The Creature represents the Innocent, the Child in Frankenstein.

  • Frankenstein is written as a framed narrative; that is, a story within a story.

¹Harold Bloom, Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: Frankenstein, 2004

² Anne Kostelanetz Mellor, Mary Shelley, her life, her fiction, her monsters, 1988


Mary Shelley.

Creation and the duality of the individual.

Frankenstein is based on a dream Mary Shelley had.

The dangers of knowledge without human empathy.

The Innocent, the Child.

Final Frankenstein Quiz


Who is the author of Frankenstein?

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Mary Shelley.

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What is the main idea of the book Frankenstein?

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Creation and the duality of the individual.

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Is Frankenstein a true story?

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Frankenstein is based on a dream Shelley had.

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What is the meaning behind Frankenstein?

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The dangers of knowledge without human empathy.

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What does the monster represent in Frankenstein?

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The Innocent, the Child.

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Choose: Frankenstein is written as 

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a framed narrative.

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Choose: Mary Shelley began Frankenstein while 

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living in Italy.

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Complete: Walton describes Frankenstein: I never saw a man in so ... a condition. He is generally ... and ... .

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Walton describes Frankenstein: I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. He is generally melancholy and despairing.

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Choose: Shelley uses ... as Frankenstein’s method for bringing his Creature to life.

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Choose: Frankenstein qualifies as 

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Where does Frankenstein die?

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The captain’s cabin.

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Complete: Frankenstein’s dying words are ‘Seek ... in tranquillity and avoid ...' .

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Frankenstein’s dying words are ‘Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition.

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True or false? The Shelleys visited Lord Byron at the Villa Eboli.

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False: It was the Villa Diodati.

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True or False? The Creature was adopted by the de Laceys.

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False: The Creature made friends with the blind father.

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Choose: Mary Shelley based the story of Frankenstein... 

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...on a real incident.

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