Irony in Frankenstein

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Mary Shelley's 1818 'Frankenstein' is far more than one of the greatest sci-fi horror stories of all time. In her novel, Shelley masterfully uses irony to show how easily ambitions can be frustrated and how quickly even best laid plans turn to rubble.

Irony in Frankenstein

Have you ever had a perfect plan, one so foolproof that nothing could possibly go wrong? Then it does, and nothing is the way you thought it would be. That is precisely what happens to Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's classic 1818 sci-fi/horror story, Frankenstein. Shelley masterfully uses irony, a literary technique in which the plot and/or the language are the opposite of what is expected, to show how quickly the best laid plans can unravel.

Victor Frankenstein, the scientific genius, dreams of saving humanity from the clutches of death, but instead of saving human lives, he brings about only destruction. He chases his monster to the literal ends of the Earth, the Arctic ice floes, now a doomed slave to that which he had once presumed to master.

Mary Shelley

Victor Frankenstein's Ironic Endings

Mary Shelley is a leading figure in the Romantic movement, a movement deeply skeptical of the forces of modern progress. It suggests that the spirit of modern civilization, with its emphasis on knowledge, rationality, and control, is little more than an illusion. Chaos is always around the corner. There are some things that modern man, for all his learning, simply cannot control. A wind storm can turn a cathedral to splinters. An icy night can chill the life right out of a king.

Shelley's use of irony in Frankenstein illustrates precisely this Romantic warning against the presumptuousness of modern progress. For all Victor Frankenstein's knowledge and despite his best intentions, there are simply some things he can't predict or control.

The monster awakens

Unleashing Death, Not Life

Victor Frankenstein wants, above all, to harness the spark of life, to conquer death. He knows the terrors of mortality. Before he enters the University of Ingolstadt, he loses his mother to scarlet fever and very nearly loses the love of his life, Elizabeth, to the same illness. In so many ways, Victor is a grieving child, a terrified lover. He is freakishly smart and soon surpasses most of his professors at the university. Victor describes his ambition in this way, 'What glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!'

Violent death is precisely what Victor brings about. The monster he creates systematically destroys Victor's loved ones in revenge for the life of loneliness, brutality, and rejection to which Victor has abandoned the monster. Victor wishes to create that which will free humanity from the pangs of loss and the inevitability of one's own death. Instead, he delivers his loved ones precisely into the hands of the thing from which he wanted to free them.

The Children's Curse, Not Their Blessing

As Victor labors with his new creation, he envisions himself as a sort of mighty father, beloved by his creation. After all, you never think your children will curse your name. Victor describes his dreams: 'A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.' Victor turns out to be the most neglectful of fathers. He's horrified to see his creature come to life. He abandons the creature and within hours of its birth, it is being driven by the attacks of terrified townspeople into the forest.

The monster loathes Victor for abandoning him to a life of suffering. He detests him for not being the father/creator he should have been. After all, being a parent is about far more than making the child. Like any abandoned son, the monster has profound daddy issues. Those excellent natures Victor dreamed of might have come to pass had he been the father he should have been, had he provided the nurturing needed. What should have been the blessing of the child turned into Victor's curse.

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