Frankenstein Vocabulary

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the vocabulary in 'Frankenstein' that Mary Shelley employed to describe the desires and emotions of her characters. Learn words like 'indefatigable' and 'venerable' so that you can replace overused words like 'awesome' and 'interesting.' Learn some background information about this literary classic, which continues to be relevant even in the 21st century.

English Eloquence

You may doubt that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, (1818) contains words that you would be inclined to use today. Leafing through the book's pages, you might feel as though the text was written by an author from an old, antiquated world. Mary Shelley (1787-1851) was immersed among intellectuals who valued literature, poetry, and philosophy. Shelley was just twenty years old when she wrote Frankenstein. While she did not enjoy a formal education, she was exposed to great literary works and excelled at selecting words that accurately depicted the events and character's emotions in the novel. Although many of these words are now obsolete and rarely used in everyday conversation, mastering such vocabulary will enable you to express yourself more effectively.

Portrait of Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell (1840)
Mary Shelley

Which words do you use most frequently? Personally, I tend to use 'awesome' and 'interesting' far too often. Overusing words like 'amazing' and 'terrific' can make them meaningless. Choosing appropriate words to precisely describe our thoughts makes it easier for others to understand how we are feeling. Let's assemble a collection of some new words, so that we can express ourselves more artfully!

In this lesson, we will look at three groups of words used in the novel to describe characters: youthful passion, negative traits and wisdom. If we consider how Shelley used these words in Frankenstein, we will learn how to use these words in a contemporary context.

Synopsis and Characteristics

There are many contemporary incarnations of Frankenstein, such as Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (1974), Van Helsing (2004), and most recently, I, Frankenstein (2014). Even before these versions of Shelley's novel, Frankenstein had become a popular icon first through several American B-movies starring Boris Karloff in the 1930's, and then through a series of 1960's British knock-offs produced by Hammer Films and starring Peter Cushing as the doctor. These retellings play on the horror and romance intermingled throughout the novel, though much of the original ambiance and authenticity are lost in translation.

Shelley's yarn about the birth of a monster, reanimated from a corpse, is steeped in late eighteenth-century fears about electricity, a relatively new phenomenon at the time, and grave-robbing, an age-old transgression. The story follows Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who wields the power of science to imbue an inanimate body with life. The doctor succeeds in resurrecting a corpse, referred to throughout the novel as 'the Monster'.

Illustration from the novel, Frankenstein at work in his laboratory

Shelley peppers her prose with words that evoke her characters' strong emotions and physical traits, the outward expressions of their inward demeanor. The word 'demeanor' is used to describe 'the disposition, mood, or general characteristics of a person in the novel.' By seeking out the best words to describe her characters' demeanors, Shelley fills her novel with eloquent and expressive adjectives.

Characteristics of Youth and Free Spirit

At the beginning of her novel, Shelley describes the youth of her characters with words expressing their innocence and spirited nature. The doctor's fiancée, Elizabeth, is described as vicacious, which means lively, cheerful and spirited: 'Time had altered her since I last beheld her; it had endowed her with loveliness surpassing the beauty of her childish years. There was the same candour, the same vivacity, but it was allied to an expression more full of sensibility and intellect. She welcomed me with the greatest affection.'

Shelley uses other words, such as fervent, dauntless, zealous, and indefatigable to describe her character's youthful passions. For example, in chapter twelve, she writes: 'These thoughts exhilarated me and led me to apply with fresh ardour to acquiring the art of language.' Shelley peppers her prose with words that 'relate to the youthful, playful, and energetic demeanor.'

Illustration of youth and innocence, from Shelley, The Keepsake, 1830
illustration of innocence

Negative Traits

In contrast to these positive traits, Shelley also employs 'expressive words to characterize the negative attributes' such as deceit, malice, antipathy, indignation, and barbarity.

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