Literary Elements in Frankenstein

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, we will explore the many literary elements found in ''Frankenstein''. We will pay special attention to structural elements, which are often the most interesting and unexplored aspects of the novel.

Literary Elements Explored

What if a teacher asked you to identify the literary elements in the novel Frankenstein? What a daunting question! But it's not too hard if we look at the bigger picture. Let's start with some more obvious plot elements, which center on Victor Frankenstein's experiment to bring life to dead human tissue and the repercussions of the event.

In some ways, the novel is a bildungsroman, which is a narrative about growth. Perhaps even more specifically, the novel could be considered a kunstlerroman, which translates to 'artist novel.' In a sense, Victor's story follows the growth of an artist. When he stitches together parts of dead bodies and brings the whole creation to life, it is a sort of metaphor for an artist's work--or even more specifically an author of literature, who puts together words and endows them with meaning. Food for thought.

Let's explore some more specific examples of literary elements in the novel, including protagonists, frame narrative, and doppelgangers.

Heroes and Villains

We should also focus on the concept of protagonist and antagonist, or rather the roles of hero and villain. It is perhaps customary to think of Victor as the novel's hero; he is the central character, and we root for him to succeed.

With that in mind, we usually consider the creature that he creates as the villain. After all, the creature does go on a murderous rampage, picking off Victor's friends and family. 'I too can create desolation,' the creature reflects: 'my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him.' Indeed, the creature has become a monster in our culture, part of the Halloween dress-up game alongside vampires and mummies.

But Shelley muddles these categories. The creature is often heroic, and Victor is often villainous. When the creature tells his personal and emotional story, he becomes the protagonist of the novel, and readers care about his struggles. And when Victor tears to pieces the creature's incomplete mate, he exhibits his own sort of violence and blood lust. Thus, both characters are hard to define, and each might be considered as an 'anti-hero'--a figure we see regularly today in film and in television.

The Novel's Frame Structure

A frame narrative occurs when one narrative introduces another narrative (and so on). The technique has been around since at least the Arabian Nights, in which a young bride, Scheherazade, avoids death at the hands of the murderous king Shahryar by telling a series of stories. In Frankenstein, Shelley borrows from this rich formal tradition by setting up a series of narratives that introduce one another.

The novel begins with letters penned by Robert Walton to his sister. Walton embarks on an ambitious journey to find passage through to the North Pole. The voyage is treacherous, however, and at the height of his troubles Walton rescues Victor, who was aboard a dog sled on some nearby ice. After Victor is given some time to recover, he begins his story, which Walton carefully transcribes. Thus, Walton's narrative embeds Victor's narrative; it acts like a frame around a central picture.

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