Mary Shelley's Frankenstein asks the questions science fiction tends most often to ask: What does it mean to be human? Where does one draw the line between what is human and what is not?
One of the most curious things about Frankenstein, the novel and the movies made from it, is the tendency people have to call the Monster himself Frankenstein. Is this mere careless usage, or does it reflect something telling about the story?
Is there a firm boundary between what is naturally possible and what isn't? If so, what is the role of science and technology in defining that boundary?
On page 7 in the "Author's Introduction," Mary Shelley describes her objective: "I busied myself to think of a story--a story to rival those which had excited us to the task. One which could speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror--one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart."
Why would she want to do this? In other words, what are the uses of horror?
Volume One: The Letters
Describe the narrative structure of the novel? Who is the narrator? What are the uses of the letters?
What is Robert Walton like? See in particular his story of "his lieutenant" on pages 18 and 19. Even thought the lieutenant is magnanimous, what is Walton's final assessment of his character and what does this tell us about Walton?
1. Walton, the explorer who finds Frankenstein on the Arctic ice flow, almost worships him. Why does he do so? In light of what we learn about Frankenstein in the course of his autobiography, is the worship justified?
2. One of the most significant areas of the opening letters in on page 27. In the moments before Victor begins his own narrative, he asks Walton an essential question. "Unhappy man! Do you share my madness?" What is "madness' in this context?
3. And we also can speculate then on why Victor is telling his story in the first place. Why is Victor telling Robert Walton his story?
4. . Much of Frankenstein takes place in austere or forbidding natural settings, many of them in regions of ice and desolation. Is this fact symbolically important?
5. . What function does the frame story, of Walton the explorer, have in the novel?
1. What is Victor's father like? The circumstances of his father's marriage illustrate his father's character. Victor tells us about Beaufort. As Shelley writes, what do you think the story of Beaufort and Victor's father advocates, especially in English society?
2. Beaufort's daughter Caroline is of uncommon mold. And becomes the duty-bound mother in many different ways. How is it then that Victor, their son, is treated? He says he is "guided with a silken cord" (33). What does this mean? Is this at all problematic in your mind?
3. On one of her missions to the poor, Victor's mother discovers Elizabeth. What happens? What is Victor's attitude toward Elizabeth?
4. Interestingly in the 1818 version of this story, Mary Shelley casts Elizabeth as Victor's first cousin. In this 1836 version, Elizabeth is born of a completely separate family. What are the implications of these changes in the novel from 1818 to 1831?
Chapter II: We meet Henry Clerval.
1. Henry Clerval occupies himself with the moral relations of things. In a very interesting and even symbolic way, Victor and Henry represent two very different disciplines. Describe the differences between Victor and Henry and speculate on what the differences might come to represent in a larger way.
2. The youthful Frankenstein is caught up in the writings and theories of outdated, mystical pseudo-scientists such as Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus. This phase of his intellectual development seems wholly unnecessary to the sheer plot of the novel, since Frankenstein's professors at Ingolstadt soon set him straight. Why is this youthful misguidedness included in the novel at all?
3. What are Victor's noblest of intentions for studying the sciences?
4. An accident changes the current of his ideas. The blasted stump. Electricity and galvanism. Victor says he takes to the branches of the sciences--in particular mathematics--built upon secure foundations. Yet in the final two paragraphs of this chapter, Victor expresses a perplexing non-scientific view of how life operates. What is the point of these last two paragraphs? Do yo agree?
Victor's mother dies which delays his departure to Ingolstadt to study at the university.
1. Finally he is a student and the first teacher he meets is Mr. Krempe and then he meets M. Waldman. What are these teachers like? What might they represent?
2. At the end of Chapter III M. Waldman tells Victor: " 'The Labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarily ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind' " (48). Two questions here. First, given what Victor has said at the end of the previous chapter, what might we say is driving the labours of men in the first place?
Secondly, do you think Waldman is correct? Explain.
1. Necrophilia is defined as an erotic attraction to corpses. What is the meaning of erotic? How can you explain Victor's relationship to the dead?
2. Victor says: "After having formed this determination and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began' (52). What materials is he talking about? What attitude of perspective does this attitude represent?
3. Mary Shelley is not giving us all the details. What is the effect?
1. Some suggest that this was the original beginning of the novel. Why might they say this?
2. The first thing Frankenstein does after bringing his Monster to life is to flee, first to sleep in his bed and then to wander through the streets. Is this behavior consistent with his later behavior? What does it tell us about him?
3. Some people argue that the Monster is more human than his creator, Victor Frankenstein. What are the various meanings this statement could have?
4. Frankenstein's creation of the Monster would seem to usurp the creative prerogative of God. A similar motif may seem to underlie the Prometheus model (emphasized most obviously in the novel's subtitle). Is this religious perspective a valid way to approach the book?
5. One of the most disturbing things some readers find in Frankenstein is the suggestion that physical ugliness is so powerful a force that nothing can compensate for it, even among high-minded people like the cottagers. What do you make of this motif in the novel?
6. The creation of the Monster by Frankenstein can also be understood as a usurpation of gender: the usual role of the mother in bringing life into the world is negated. Especially in light of the general treatment of women in the novel, do you think this motif is important?
7. The major female characters in Frankenstein tend to be innocent and ethereal, their role being mainly to instill the gentler virtues in people around them. Is this fact important? Explain.
8. Victor, under Clerval's care, does not recover for a long, long time. It was a divine spring; and the season contributed greatly to Victor's convalescence: "I felt also the sentiments of joy and affection revive my bosom; my gloom disappeared, and in a short time I became cheerful as before I was attacked by the fatal passion" (61). What is the fatal passion? Or is Victor simple evading responsibility?
In the next chapter we learn that Victor has been under the influence and care of Clerval for almost two years. Clerval teaches him to love the aspects of nature. The notion of the natural world and the sublime will begin to play a role in the novel as a source of solace and understanding. It is not so easy to clarify this relationship between Clerval and Frankenstein as transformation, but we have already discussed the significance of Henry Clerval and certainly we may speculate on the relationship between the arts and sciences as the story progresses. Literature is often regarded as a social force. And in turn literature can also be seen as a source of social reform, telling us what happens when science is left to operate in isolation.
Chapter VI and Chapter VII: The Story of Justine Moritz
1. One way to read the final chapters of Volume One is to consider what Mary Shelley might be saying about the justice system. What is the problem with the judicial system?
Compare the novel to the film version of Justine's story?
Larger questions to be answered as we read: Volume Two--
1. Is Frankenstein a condemnation of science? Victor Frankenstein's own reflections on his career would seem to imply as much. Is he right? Is this what the author wants us to think?
2. Mary Shelley is careful to outline the progression of the Monster's awareness, beginning with his earliest sense impressions, and this progression seems to duplicate the stages of infant, child, and general human development. Does this account tell us anything important about what it means to be human?
3. Frankenstein may seem to endorse the common modem sociological premise that antisocial or criminal behavior is conditioned by rage, which in turn is induced by society's rejection of its marginal members. Does the novel give clear support to this sociological premise?
4. After Frankenstein's decision not to create a female mate for the Monster, the latter vows to avenge himself on Frankenstein on his wedding day. Through all the long months during which Frankenstein broods over this threat, it never occurs to him that Elizabeth, and not he himself may be the intended victim. What do you make of his rather incredible lapse of imagination?
5. Even though the monster seems to learn compassion and reason from the cottagers, he still--in the end--vows to make humans suffer. Why? What prevents the monster from developing a sense of ethics?