Characterization in Frankenstein

Instructor: Catherine Riccio-Berry

Catherine is a college instructor. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently completing her Ph.D.

In this lesson, we will review the major characteristics of key figures in Mary Shelley's classic novel 'Frankenstein.' Learn how Shelley used similarities and differences between characters to highlight their personalities!

What is Characterization?

Simply put, characterization tells us who a person in a story is. We can learn about a person in a few different ways, both directly from narrator description and indirectly from a character's words and actions.

Many of the characters in Frankenstein are developed to be the foil of other characters. A foil is a character who is the opposite of another character in order to highlight key characteristics.

Other characteristics can be highlighted when two or more people are very similar to each other. A doppelgänger (from German, literally meaning 'double walker') refers to someone's double. In literature that appeared in the centuries before Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, doppelgängers were often meant to be harbingers of a curse or death.

Enlightenment vs. Romanticism

Shelley used both Enlightenment and Romanticism to create a contrast between characters. The Enlightenment was a time period in Western Europe, between the 17th and 18th century, where thinkers believed that the universe, the world, and mankind could all be understood fully from a strictly pragmatic, scientific viewpoint. The Romantic period came about in part as a reaction against Enlightenment thinking. Romantics believed that an emotional response was absolutely necessary in order to understand the human condition.

Victor Frankenstein begins his educational journey by acting like a cliché Enlightenment thinker. He believes that mathematics and the sciences are the one and only way to understand life and the universe. In fact, Frankenstein's decision to create a living being shows how arrogant he is in this belief! He doesn't include any emotional or moral considerations when he decides to create life. For Frankenstein, the entire endeavor is nothing more than a cold, scientific experiment.

Frankenstein's adopted sister, and eventual wife, Elizabeth is one foil for his Enlightenment tendencies. While they grow up, Frankenstein cares only about science and math. Elizabeth, on the other hand, looks at the beauty and sublimity of nature - a major theme in Romanticism. The contrast between the two is exemplified when Frankenstein tells us, 'While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes' (Chapter 2).

Frankenstein's best friend Henry Clerval is another Romantic foil for Frankenstein. While Frankenstein only strives to figure out what he can do, Clerval ponders whether one should do it. Clerval studies morality and ancient tales of chivalry instead of concrete mathematics.

The Sublime

The use of the Sublime was also another tool used for characterization in 'Frankenstein'. The Sublime, which is a key concept in Romanticism, happens when you encounter something that just blows your mind away, either because of its immeasurable size (try to measure the entire universe!), its power (think about a tornado destroying a building), or its terrifying nature (what's the scariest monster you can imagine?). We cannot ever truly comprehend or understand Sublime things, no matter how hard we try. All we can do is appreciate their grandeur or power.

Two characters in Frankenstein can be considered doppelgängers, or doubles, based on their similar attitudes toward the Sublime. Victor Frankenstein and Captain Walton are both explorers who believe that they can fully understand the world and who end up failing when they face the Sublime.

Frankenstein explores knowledge and science and believes that he can fully understand life and the power of nature. When he watches a bolt of lightning absolutely annihilate a tree, he wants nothing more than to harness that power for himself. He looks at the tree's 'blasted stump' as a challenge. It never occurs to him that this is a power beyond his grasp!

After Frankenstein's creation turns out to be a horrific monster, he recognizes that he was foolish for trying to be nature's master. He tells Captain Walton, 'I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul' (Chapter 19). In other words, Frankenstein finally realizes the true power of the Sublime only after he fails. He wanted to be the powerful lightning bolt, but he ended up being the tree, crushed in body and spirit.

Captain Walton is also an explorer, but instead of trying to master science like Frankenstein, Walton wants to conquer nature. He sails his ship through powerfully treacherous waters, putting his crew at high risk, in order to reach the North Pole.

Why does he do this? Curiosity! He explains, 'What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?...I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man.' (Letter I) Like Frankenstein, Walton eventually fails in his journey and returns home defeated after his terrified crew begs him to give up.

Deformity, Loneliness, and Resentment

The monster is also Frankenstein's doppelgänger in a few ways:

1. They both harbor resentment towards their fathers. Frankenstein resents his father's emotional neglect; similarly, the monster resents Frankenstein abandoning him.

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