Frankenstein By Mary Shelley Critical Essays Major Themes

Mary Shelley makes full use of themes that were popular during the time she wrote Frankenstein. She is concerned with the use of knowledge for good or evil purposes, the invasion of technology into modern life, the treatment of the poor or uneducated, and the restorative powers of nature in the face of unnatural events. She addresses each concern in the novel, but some concerns are not fully addressed or answered. For instance, how much learning can man obtain without jeopardizing himself or others? This is a question that has no clear answer in the novel.

Victor Frankenstein learns all he can about the field of science, both before, during, and after his work at the university. Prior to his enrollment at the university, Victor focuses on the ancient art of alchemy, which had been discredited by the time of Shelley's writing. Alchemy was an early form of chemistry, with philosophic and magical associations, studied in the Middle Ages. Its chief aims were to change base metals into gold and to discover the elixir of perpetual youth. At the university, Victor gains new knowledge with the most modern science as a background. However, it is Victor's combination of old and new science that leads him down a path to self-destruction. This is one of Shelley's themes:"How can we harness the knowledge that we have so that it is not self destructive and for the benefit of all mankind?" The answer is not an easy one, and Shelley is not clear on her feelings about the use or abuse of technology. The reanimation of man from the dead is a useful thing to revive people who have died too soon, but what responsibility must we exercise once we bring people back from the dead? This is a morally perplexing question. Thus, we are stuck in a dilemma:"How far can we go in raising the dead without destroying the living?" Shelley seems to conclude that man cannot handle becoming both like God and a creator without much difficulty.

Since the Industrial Revolution had pervaded all part of European and British society by the time of her writing, Shelley questions how far the current wave of advances should push the individual in terms of personal and spiritual growth. She conveys the impression that perhaps the technological advances made to date rob the soul of growth when man becomes too dependant on technology. Personal freedom is lost when man is made a slave to machines, instead of machines being dominated by man. Thus, Victor becomes a lost soul when he tries his ghastly experiments on the dead and loses his moral compass when he becomes obsessed with animating the dead. Victor's overindulgence in science takes away his humanity, and he is left with the consequences of these actions without having reasoned out the reality that his experiments may not have the desired effects.

Shelley presents nature as very powerful. It has the power to put the humanity back into man when the unnatural world has stripped him of his moral fiber. Victor often seeks to refresh his mind and soul when he seeks solitude in the mountains of Switzerland, down the Rhine River in Germany, and on tour in England. Shelley devotes long passages to the effect that nature has on Victor's mind. He seems to be regenerated when he visits nature; his mind is better after a particularly harrowing episode. Nature also has the power to change man when Victor uses the power of lightning's electricity to give life to dead human flesh. The awesome power of nature is also apparent when storms roll into the areas where clear skies had previously prevailed. Victor ignores all of the warnings against natural law and must pay the ultimate price for the violation of those laws.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

How old is Walton at the beginning of the story?




Quiz