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Frankenstein Critical Analysis & Literary Criticism

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

I have worked in higher education since 2008 when I began teaching in remedial ed and teach classes in Humanities, Philosophy, and Sociology. I have a Bachelors Degree from the University of Colorado at Denver in Philosophy with a minor in Theater and a Masters Degree in Humanities.

A closer look at Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' can give us insight into the author and her anxieties over children, into the problems and conditions of her time, and offers a warning about hubris.

The Original Science Fiction

What do the movies The Matrix, Terminator, or Ex Machina, and TV shows like The Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica have in common? Well, all these shows are inspired by a story written by a young 19-year old writer in 1816 named Mary Shelley.

Her book Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is often considered the mother of science fiction. In it, Shelley poses questions about whether the places science can go are places it should. Since its publication in 1818, Frankenstein has attracted many analyses about its author, its time, and its message.

Shelley as Mother

Literary critics, philosophers, and historians have all looked at Shelley's Frankenstein through many different lenses, but most analyses focus on how the book can help us understand Shelley herself, the historical and political world she lived in, and the message she sent about the pursuit of science and the enlightenment.

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley

In reading Frankenstein with an eye towards the author, we learn that Shelley's inspiration came to her soon after losing her first child to a premature birth and shortly after the birth of her second child. Shelley wrote in her journal following her first child's death that she had recurring dreams that her child had come to life again.

Understanding her mindset as a young woman in a world where children and mothers often died young, analysts look at Frankenstein as a story about the anxiety of a new mother towards her child.

Social Engineering

Frankenstein is also read in light of the social and historical changes of the time Shelley lived in. In 1816 when Shelley dreamed of Frankenstein, Europe had just defeated Napoleon and exiled him. The ideas of the French Revolution and the writings of Rousseau on liberating human nature still resonated in Europe, and Shelley's writing about creating a new man is read as a criticism of the social engineering agendas of revolutionaries, i.e. the idea that people can be retrained to be different.

Victor Frankenstein's inspiration for his creature is driven in Chapter 4 by his dismay that mankind dies and decays, the same sort of dismay is expressed by Rousseau in his dismay that man is born free, but is then chained by civilization. Frankenstein can be read then as a critique of the revolutionary passions of the time that sought to upset and recreate the established order. Shelley may be suggesting that the creature that is created by such passions will not bring the future they intend.

Title page to the famous novel
Frankenstein Title Page

Feminist Critique

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is most frequently read and interpreted as a Gothic horror on the dangers of the unbridled optimism of science. Gothic horror is a subset of romanticism as a genre that thrives on the excitement and terror of the mystery of nature and the supernatural.

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