Religion in Frankenstein

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

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

Religion is an underlying theme in Mary Shelley's ''Frankenstein''. In this lesson, we'll examine this theme more closely with respect to both the protagonist and the creature and take a look at some biographical information from Shelley's life that could have influenced her.

Relationship With Percy Shelley

As a teen, Mary Shelley (who was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin at the time, just to be confusing!) met and fell in love with a young poet named Percy Bysshe Shelley. In spite of her father's objections (which in great part were over the fact that Percy was already married), the pair ran off together.

Percy Shelley was previously a student at the University of Oxford. While it is arguable whether Shelley attended to his coursework at university, he certainly was productive, publishing his first novel and a couple of poetry collections. Shelley got in some trouble, however, with his 1811 pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, which led him to be expelled from the university. While the pamphlet argues against the existence of God, it also serves to defend and to support the identity and beliefs of atheists. This context about Shelley's beliefs should be kept in mind when one investigates the theme of religion in Frankenstein, for Shelley (at least) helped Mary edit the novel, and certainly was a part of discussions on its form and themes.

The Necessity of Atheism

Playing God

The main plot of Frankenstein in great part focuses on the ramifications of 'playing God.' The brash young student Victor Frankenstein leaves his family to study at university, where he becomes obsessed with the lessons he finds in some rather outdated textbooks. Eventually, he is led away from these untruths by a couple of teachers, and he begins a new path of study that relies on more scientific pursuits. (We must not ignore, however, the influence of both sides on Victor's intellectual development.)

Inspired by the power that a bolt of lightning produces, Victor sets to work on a project using galvanism, a method to produce action in muscle tissue using electricity. He decides to construct a new human out of pieces of dead tissue, and he begins by robbing burial vaults for the parts he needs. He ultimately succeeds at his experiment and brings new life into the world. He is immediately repulsed by his creation, however, and flees, which is the root cause of all the destruction and heartbreak in the novel. Victor made the mistake of 'playing God,' and he is punished for his sins.

Paradise Lost

Abandoned by his creator, Victor's creature flies from the laboratory and eventually finds refuge in some remote woods. By clandestinely observing a nearby family, the creature acquires the 'godlike' power of language. He also happens upon some books, through which he learns the ways of humankind and theology.

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