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Theme of Revenge in Frankenstein

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

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

This lesson will explore the theme of revenge in Mary Shelley's ''Frankenstein''. We will look at revenge in earlier Gothic novels and will conclude by examining how Shelley makes her two main characters seek revenge on one another.

The Gothic Genre

Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley and was first published in 1818. The novel is a noteworthy piece of the Gothic genre, an artistic mode that focuses on supernatural and other dark elements. Critics generally agree that Gothic literature began with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764. The genre was subsequently taken up by such authors as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew 'Monk' Lewis, and has influenced numerous authors since, from Jane Austen to Oscar Wilde. By the time that Shelley wrote Frankenstein, Gothic literature was established and wildly popular. However, Shelley transformed the genre and the themes and characters in 'Frankenstein' continue to have a presence in our culture today.

Revenge in the Gothic Genre

Frankenstein was certainly not the first piece of literature to deal strongly with the theme of revenge. Shakespeare's plays, for example, are littered with characters seeking vengeance for supposed wrongdoings. Indeed, Shelley was also borrowing from the very genre that she was writing in, for the Gothic had already established the theme of revenge in much of its earlier literature. Walpole's Otranto deals with revenge throughout, both through the actions of characters and through supernatural interventions. Perhaps even more importantly, Shelley's father, William Godwin, wrote Caleb Williams (1794), a novel that places revenge as one of its central thematic elements. However, Shelley certainly ups the ante in Frankenstein, making revenge the principal motivation for at least two of its characters.

Revenge in Frankenstein

In the novel, the brilliant but impetuous young scientist Victor Frankenstein succeeds at creating life. Once his creation breathes his first breath, however, Victor is horrified by what he's made, and he flees. The creature must fend for himself, with no help or companionship. He manages to learn customs and language from a family he observes as he hides out in some remote woods. He grows to love this family, and one day summons the nerve to approach them. He is violently rebuked, however, and is subsequently assailed by another man--all for being misshapen and different. From this point onward, the creature vows revenge against humanity.

The Creature's Revenge

The creature happens upon William, Victor's younger brother, and he strangles him in an act of vengeance. With blood on his hands, the creature sets out to ruin Victor's life further. He frames the Frankensteins' favorite maid, Justine, for William's murder. She is prosecuted and hanged for the crime. Then, the creature kills Victor's childhood friend, Henry Clerval, who had just helped Victor return to health after a debilitating illness. Finally, the creature turns his attentions to Victor's romantic love, Elizabeth, promising to be with the couple on their wedding night. Despite Victor's precautions, the creature succeeds in killing Elizabeth the night of the wedding.

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