Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a story of strong characters and their exploration of their own identities. The question of the source of human identity is suggested by the image of a created creature that appears human. Other questions about human identity are explored, is an individual born or made, how are they shaped by nature or nurture, what makes someone a human being? These are the many unspoken questions about the source of life and the living of life explored in this novel. The reader is left to make his or her own conclusions.
This novel shows many environmental influences shaping character. Mary Shelley makes it a point to show the reader that individuals are each unique and it matters not if they are natural born or man-made. Mary Shelley focused not on creation of the artificial creature in her story but instead chose to set the story as an interwoven tale of beings coping with their own flawed physiological natures (Ozolins 103). Mary Shelley chose to create a novel that wove together elements of gothic and romantic styles to create a psychological text about human nature and its possibilities.
In Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, there are multiple conventions utilized by the author Mary Shelley to focus the reader’s attention. A general tone of the gothic as the supernatural is created as an effect when intermittent unusual circumstances are precipitated or encountered. The plot combines strong characters, harsh localities, and unusual actions done naturally and casually. The surrounding environmental elements of ice and rain add to the gloomy atmosphere. Wording of descriptions consistently enforces the tone of the unknown, dread, and sorrow.
In Chapter 10, clear-cut wording clarifies the character’s mood, “The rain depressed me; my old feelings recurred, and I was miserable” (Shelley 59). In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the appearance of normalcy constantly balances the likelihood of circumstances going in unforeseen and disturbing directions. There are story lines within other story lines. The reader encounters a number of unique and personal narratives in this novel. The author encapsulates these narratives in a story of ordinary life and its pursuits as a mechanism to tell a tale.
This is shown by the letters Capt. Robert Walton writes, of Victor Frankenstein attending a traditional university, of plans to get married, in the discussions the characters have and the creature’s comments to his maker. After the encompassing tone of realism is set, Mary Shelley adds in an overt Gothic attitude by offering the reader a tale of a man piecing together a creature and bringing it to life. The sighting of unusual figures by Captain Robert Walton on the northern ice flow is the first key to the reader that events will become more unpredictable as the story plays out.
Another time, in Chapter 1, Captain Walton observations suggest the future when expressing, “I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature” (Shelley 42). Mary Shelley utilizes many structures as plot additives to boost the effect of this gothic story line. There is the underlying question of where the story is going because of the apparent normalcy of most of the story’s actions. Then Mary Shelley interjects casually something strange into the mix. Each time she uses a gothic idea or method, the reader is forced to view the entire story line differently.
When Mary Shelley writes about the casualness of Victor embarking on body part hunting, it intentionally contributes to the supernatural theme in this novel. This offers a subtle reminder, a glimpse, of the abnormal. The reader’s feeling of horror when the novel describes Victor casually hunts for body parts in the dark is classic gothic. Victor is a seemingly normal man, but in the night, he has unusual intentions showing a lack of ethical behavior. Mary Shelley drew concepts from many literary and philosophical resources to employ as influences in her story.
This novel’s name is a clue to the author’s perception as Prometheus sought to steal the ultimate power of fire for human use. Both Prometheus and Victor sought to acquire an unnatural power they did not naturally possess. Mary Shelley used both the Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost to flesh out the structure of realism in this story of the pursuit of knowledge and human creation. In Chapter 15, Mary Shelley also used Locke’s thinking on the conscious mind and his assumptions on perception to suggest questions relative to the pursuit of knowledge when the creature finds a bag with books in the woods.
The creature, a figure of social isolation, mistook one of these books, Milton’s Paradise Lost, for a factual text. This wrong assumption by the creature was just another way Mary Shelley showed the reader the humanity of the creature (Morgan 2). Mary Shelley’s novel used well-developed believable characters. These characters each undertake the challenging pursuit of defining their own relationship with good and evil. The overall impression given by the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is that the creature is only one of the many characters in the novel who seek to resolve their own questions of identity and happiness.
The creature’s story of becoming human through the development of sensory identification (not birth) mimics the perception structures utilized by true human babies. The creature’s personality is shown as developing over time through direct experience closely mimicking the normal human structures of experience. Mary Shelley wanted the reader to see any human life as a constant challenge of personal options (Morgan 6). As the creature said to Victor, “remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel” (Shelley 93).
This psychological path of individual discovery results in surprising levels of humanity in the creature and a definitive lack of humanity in Victor Frankenstein. The un-natural birth of the creature is not a major focus in the novel. The creature’s life after birth is interesting as the creature shows an obvious ability to become more humanlike over time. There is a certain horror in knowing that becoming human is so easy for a creature that by definition is not human. Mary Shelley was making the point that the nature of the living things is not necessarily predictable (Ozolins 105).
Victor Frankenstein’s actions and reactions to the whole circumstance surrounding the creature’s existence should make the reader question Victor’s level of humanity. Victor is the father and mother of the creature, yet he reacts to his own actions with an unfeeling observation, “the different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body” (Shelley 52). Consider that one of the least human characters in this novel is the creature’s creator, Victor Frankenstein.
Victor in Chapter 3 relates that chance, not predilection, forces his interest in certain directions, “rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which asserted omnipotent sway over me” (Shelly 30). Victor would rather blame the whims of fate rather than take responsibility for his own actions, drives, and beliefs. Victor makes a choice to ignore the rational and seek the supernatural. His lack of feeling and any true humanity is shown in the words he used to describe what he saw, “by the glimmer of the alf-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs” (Shelley 51). Instead of describing the creature’s miraculous birth, he describes the action from a cold, clinical, and scientific perspective. His lack of humanity continues in this novel as Victor Frankenstein eventually abandons his creature, his own child of creation, and by this act creates the ultimate denial of his intentionally created family. Over the course of the novel chapters, the author Mary Shelley specifically dehumanizes Victor while increasingly humanizing the creature.
This makes the reader view the creature as the potential protagonist in this novel. This reversal of traditional human roles also subconsciously implies to the reader, that the reader should consider the philosophical concepts surrounding the definition and action of birth, creation, life, and death. The horror of Victor bringing to life a patched together creature does seem almost commonplace as an action in the novel, as Mary Shelley adds the idea but offers no scientific details of how Victor accomplished the animation.
Mary Shelley chose to exclude extensive detail about how the creature was given life. This added to the mystery of the creation. The obvious and intentional avoidance of scientific detail was used to redirect the reader’s focus back onto the bigger story line about human identity. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus tells many interwoven stories of human identity. It is a novel about the consequences of making good and bad choices.
The novel suggests that within the personality of any of us, we may choose at any time to change our moral standards, but in doing so, we risk the consequences of taking that action. Why do some individuals hold to their principles and others so easily change them to seek personal potential gain? The novel suggests that there must be moral consequences from breaking one’s ethical standards. Mary Shelley’s novel asks the reader to consider the question of ethical behavior and moral standards in regards to what constitutes a human identity or what makes any of us human, or more human than any other creature.