Themes in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

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

This lesson explores the most important themes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It discusses how this classic work examines universal themes, including love, wisdom, and revenge.

Key Themes in Frankenstein

When in 1818 Mary Shelley put to paper the story that she had originally conceived as a 17-year-old telling ghost stories with her friends, little could she have imagined that she would create one of the most iconic horror stories of all time. But Frankenstein proved to be an instant classic and rightly so. Because aside from being a good old-fashioned thriller, Frankenstein brilliantly explores the big questions that all humans, no matter who, what, or where we are, grapple with: what is the nature of wisdom? How should I love and be loved? And where is the line between justice and revenge?

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley

Wisdom Versus Knowledge

One of the most significant questions in Frankenstein is what is the nature of wisdom and how is this distinct from knowledge, from learning? Dr. Frankenstein is a born scholar. His entire life is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. But just because he is learned doesn't mean that he is wise. This is apparent early on when he becomes enamored as a young man with ancient philosophers--alchemists, who sought to transform base metals into gold, and metaphysicians, those who subscribe more to supernatural than to empirical studies.

Frankenstein's misguided studies as a young man foreshadow what is to come in his adulthood. In pursuing knowledge, he unwisely steps far beyond what it is in the mortal condition to know. In trying to harness the essence of life and defy the laws of death, he also flouts the rules of nature and presumes to make himself higher, wiser, and more powerful even than God. The result of foolish pride and his arrogant learning is his own destruction and the destruction of all he loves.

Illustration from 1831 edition

What Is Love?

Love is another prevailing theme in Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein's greatest terror and sharpest pains come not from his own suffering, but from the suffering his actions bring down upon his dearest ones. This suggests that as human beings, we are never truly alone: our deeds reflect and reverberate on those around us, even as the ties that bind us to others are also the cords that cut us most deeply.

But it is in the figure of Frankenstein's monster that the theme of love plays out most poignantly. The truth is that the monster is not born bad. He may not be bad at all. But he is hurting.

He wants to belong, to love, and be loved. And yet Dr. Frankenstein recoils from him from the moment of his unnatural birth. Sickened and appalled by what he has done, by the laws of nature he has so flagrantly violated, Dr. Frankenstein cannot bear the sight of his creation as an animated, living being.

The monster, still just a newborn, though grotesquely deformed and frightfully large, flees into the streets, where terrified villagers drive him from the town with blows, screams, and threats. This is how the monster is introduced to humanity. These are his first moments alive on Earth.

But an innately good heart beats beneath the scarred flesh, and when the monster finds refuge hiding undetected in the home of the Delacey family, he learns for the first time in his life what familial love is. This is the connection that he longs for, and for a time he holds out hope that he can be loved in spite of his fearsome appearance. He performs small acts of kindness for the Delaceys, while also learning their language and their manners, believing that he will be able to make himself acceptable to them, that he will someday be welcomed into their home, into their hearts.

But that is not to be. When he reveals himself at last, even the Delaceys, the kind and happy family, respond with revulsion, rage, and terror. The monster learns that there is no safe haven for him; there is no love in the human heart for one such as himself.

This is what prompts him to issue the ultimatum that ultimately seals all their fate: either Dr. Frankenstein creates a mate for the monster, one that the monster can love and be loved by, or the monster will destroy Frankenstein's loved ones, ensuring that Frankenstein is as alone in the world as the monster he created.

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