Frankenstein & Paradise Lost

Instructor: Leslie McMurtry
In this lesson, we examine both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Both works are about the creation of life and a rebellion against God. The influence of Paradise Lost on Frankenstein is clear.

Shelley's Frankenstein

Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley and was first published in 1818. Its subtitle, ''A Modern Prometheus,'' refers to the Greek myth of Prometheus, a god who brought fire to mankind. The novel also references the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a sculptor brings his creation to life. The idea of a creator bringing the spark of life to its own creation also references John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Frankenstein is the story of an ambitious medical student, Victor Frankenstein, who uses his scientific knowledge to re-animate dead human flesh. He succeeds, much to his horror, and abandons his creation, known only as the Creature. The Creature eventually finds Frankenstein and is desperate for the scientist to create a mate for him. Frankenstein and the Creature eventually destroy each other.

Milton's Paradise Lost

John Milton was an influential 17th-century English writer whose best-known work is the epic poem Paradise Lost. First published in 1667 and then reorganized and republished in 1674, it retells the biblical story of Genesis, beginning with the casting out from Heaven of Satan and ending with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Three of Milton's characters (God, Satan, and Adam) are echoed in Frankenstein and there are explicit textual references to the poem as well.

Satan in Paradise Lost, in this engraving by Gustave Dore, rebels against his creator, like at least two characters in Frankenstein
Gustave Dore engraving of Satan from Paradise Lost

In-Text References

Paradise Lost is one of the texts that the Creature in Frankenstein reads to acquire language. After being abandoned by his creator, the Creature lives in the forest and takes solace for a short time with a family. He finds Paradise Lost among books in a forgotten knapsack. Reading helps him become literate so that he is able to eloquently confront his creator when he finds him.

Additionally, the poem, having made a strong impression on him, is specifically invoked by the Creature several times. The critic J. Meckier in his 2002 article in The Dickensian suggests that the Creature errs by mistaking Paradise Lost's poetry as true history.

Frankenstein as Adam

As suggested above, both Frankenstein and the Creature share many similar qualities with three of the main characters of Paradise Lost: God, Satan, and Adam. Briefly, Frankenstein is like Adam in that his relationship with his family and friends represents a kind of paradise. When with them, Frankenstein feels safe and content. When he is wrenched away from them, however, it feels like he has been expelled from the Garden of Eden. Shelley suggests that Frankenstein has sinned against his own creator--God--by creating a living monster with raw materials and human body parts, and as punishment, Frankenstein loses his paradise, just as Adam in Paradise Lost is expelled from the Garden of Eden for defying God's word.

The Creature as Adam

The Creature also shares some characteristics with Adam. When Adam arrives in the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost, he is a fully formed, fully grown man, yet his mind is childlike and immature. This is analogous to the Creature, who is ''born'' then re-animated from adult body parts, yet has an unformed, childlike mind.

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