Outsiders in Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein in his workshop | Illustration from Shelley’s Frankenstein | 1922 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Two hundred years after Frankenstein’s release, scholars and casual readers alike continue to study Mary Shelley’s most prominent work. On the surface, Frankenstein is simple horror: a gruesome monster turns against the scientist who created him and attacks his creator’s loved ones. One could argue that Shelley intended to warn readers against hubris, and that pushing outside the natural boundaries of science has consequences. However, a closer examination of the text reveals a social commentary in addition to the scientific one. Rather than begin Victor Frankenstein’s tale with his creation of the Monster, Shelley introduces the scientist as a dying man.1 The ailing scientist first reflects back on the events of his early years: his mother’s death and time spent with Elizabeth, a childhood companion who Victor later marries. As the story progresses, Shelley depicts not just the aftermath of the Monster’s attacks, but his interactions with Victor that precede the violence. When taken together, these moments weave a cautionary tale deeper than the apparent scientific warnings. In Victor’s treatment of the Monster, as well as the text’s depiction of women, Shelley paints a world in which the privileged class handles the outsider with disdain, and, in doing so, faces dire consequences.

To fully grasp Shelley’s intent in Victor’s treatment of the Monster, the reader must first consider who Victor is before he brings the Monster to life. In the first seconds of his tale, Victor states that his “family is one of the most distinguished” in Geneva.2 Even when he moves away to school, the young man has a “servant” available to wait on him.3 Furthermore, by pursuing education, Victor seeks “to join the new class of learned men” who “replaced the landed gentry as the upper society in Europe.”4 Through both heredity and action, Victor manifests the privileged class. Of course, the Monster does commit atrocities throughout Frankenstein, but not in his first living moments; if the Monster were inherently evil, he would have killed Victor when he was first brought to life. Therefore, any interaction between the two should not be viewed as man versus creature, but rather as a privileged being versus an outsider.

With this context in mind, Victor’s treatment of his creation is clearly problematic. In perhaps the text’s most gripping moment, Victor marvels at the Monster as “the shriveled complexion and straight black lips” come alive. “Beautiful!” Victor exclaims.5 He dwells on every aspect of the Monster’s appearance, amazed at his own handiwork until he sours at the “horrid contrast” between the Monster’s “teeth” and “watery eyes.”6 In this scene, Victor never considers that he has somehow usurped the natural order or even that the Monster might turn out to be evil. He simply dotes on the physical appearance of his creation. So, when Victor “rushe[s] out of the room,” it is because he is disgusted by the pure physicality of the Monster, and not because of some terrifying moral epiphany.7

The monster comes to life | Illustrated for the inside cover by Theodor von Holst and engraved by W. Chevalier | 1831 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Aside from Victor’s initial fright—which would be understandable were he not the Monster’s creator—his aversion to his own creation never improves. Following the murder of Victor’s younger brother, William, Victor returns home to Geneva and eventually travels to Mont Blanc. As Victor navigates “the field of ice” at the mountain’s base, the monster appears, confronts Victor, and convinces his creator to follow him into a hut.8 Here, Victor asserts that he now understands “the duties of a creator towards his creation,” and this statement might seem true, considering Victor finally speaks with and listens to the creature.9 However, one must also consider that the Monster is both physically more powerful than Victor and Victor believes the Monster has murdered young William, suggesting that Victor never really has a choice in accompanying his creation. Once inside the hut, the Monster details his failed encounters with humans since he last saw his maker, and finally begs Victor to create a second life so that he may have a companion. Victor initially complies, believing that with a mate, the two creatures may find solace together away from Europe.10 While conflicted about bringing a second life into the world, Victor only rips apart the lifeless body of this creation when he sees his first creature staring in through the laboratory window.11 In this series of interactions between the young scientist and his creation, Victor is always motivated by the Monster’s appearance rather than by his actions.

In addition to the major plot events involving Victor, Shelley uses two subtle moments to comment on the Monster’s place in society. Scholar Anne Mellor explains, “only two characters…do not immediately interpret the creature as evil.”12 The blind Father De Lacey, who the monster tells Victor he encountered during his travels, cannot evaluate the Monster’s appearance. And the ship captain, Walton, who finds the dying Victor at the story’s very beginning, hears Victor’s description of the Monster before meeting him. Both men treat the creature with kindness.13 While neither of these characters advances the main narrative forward in the manner Victor does, they both depict a humane response to the creature, and, in doing so, highlight Victor’s cruelty towards his own creation. Unlike Father De Lacey and Walton who come away from their encounters with the Monster unscathed, Victor faces extreme consequences for abusing his creation. Indeed, Victor’s family is both literally and figuratively torn apart by the Monster. And, upon finally deciding to rid the world of his creation, Victor chases the Monster into the Arctic, where he is consumed by the hostile elements and eventually “sinks…into apparent lifelessness.”14 In essence, Victor manifests privilege; he is born into an influential household and receives opportunities others cannot. Contrarily, Victor’s creation is jerked into a hostile world where he is judged entirely by his appearance. Victor’s treatment of his creation—the outsider—is motivated entirely by the superficial trappings of physical appearance, a trap that ends in disaster for Victor and thereby the upper class he represents.

Victor leaving Elizabeth | Illustrated for the title-page by Theodor von Holst and engraved by W. Chevalier | 1831 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Underneath the plot’s surface lies a less obvious but equally important commentary on how humans treat one another. “Frankenstein,” authors Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler assert, “is a novel of male voices.”15 Indeed, this novel relies on three different narrators—all of whom are male—and focuses almost entirely on male characters. As “many Gothic novels…written by women” feature a “heroine rather than a hero,” the reader must examine why Mary Shelley would relegate women in Frankenstein to the background.16 Two sections in this novel should be of particular interest to the reader. First, as a child, Victor does express interest in science, but he does not progress from reading to experimentation until later; immediately after his mother dies, he departs for the “all-male world of the university.”17 Once at Ingolstadt, isolated “from the feminine” influence that defined his childhood, Victor falls into the dark world of pushing outside science’s moral boundaries.18 Secondly, while Victor loves Elizabeth enough to marry her, she remains absent for most of the text, providing almost no value to the narrative until the end. Once the Monster kills Elizabeth, Victor finally resolves to destroy his creation. Therefore, Elizabeth’s only significant contribution to the text is as a passive recipient of another character’s action.

Portrait of Mary Shelley | Originally painted on canvas by Richard Rothwell | 1840 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While one could argue that the lack of female representation in Frankenstein constitutes nothing more than Shelley’s desire to highlight the struggle between Victor and his creation, this argument fails to examine Shelley’s other options as an author as well as the context in which the book was written. Were Shelley only concerned with the scientific aspects of Frankenstein, she would have begun Victor’s narrative in a far more interesting place than his childhood, perhaps in the morgue searching for limbs to fuse together. Furthermore, the Monster’s first murder could have just as easily provoked Victor to action. These alternatives delineate that Shelley’s choice to include Victor’s mother and Elizabeth’s murder in the narrative was a deliberate one. Furthermore, it was “a common convention for women writers” in the early nineteenth century to publish their work anonymously as Mary Shelley did with her 1818 version of Frankenstein.19 This unfortunate reality of the time means Shelley would have been aware that female involvement in a work—as an author or as characters—could diminish the book’s reception, thereby reducing her opportunity to make a point about the treatment of women in society. Her later work, published after Shelley achieved financial independence from her husband, was “highly political.”20 Considering this context, it appears Shelley wanted to make a statement with her female characters but knew doing so would damage the book’s credibility, so she chose instead to make a statement with their absence.

In short, while Frankenstein does, of course, show scientific experimentation devolved into calamity, the cautionary aspect of this tale lies in the human interactions. As both a member of an elite family and an educated scientist, Victor manifest the privileged class who make decisions regarding the lives of others. Responsible for the creation of the outsider, Victor then treats that outsider with disdain, a choice which eventually leads to Victor’s downfall. Hidden inside this narrative is a commentary on a specific class of outsider: women. If Victor portrays the privileged class in society, then his mother is the feminine influence that goes unheard. Shelley’s warning here is significant: viewing the outsider as a monster and ignoring the voices of society’s unseen members can prove disastrous.

  1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 21.
  2. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 27.
  3. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 54.
  4. Lars Lunsford, “The Devaluing of Life in Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN,” Explicator 68, no. 3 (2010): 174.
  5. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 51.
  6. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 51.
  7. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 51.
  8. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 88, 91.
  9. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 91.
  10. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 131.
  11. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 148.
  12. Anne Mellor, Mary Shelley (New York: Methuen, Inc., 1988), 129.
  13. Anne Mellor, Mary Shelley (New York: Methuen, Inc., 1988), 130.
  14. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 188.
  15. Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), 186.
  16. Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), 186.
  17. Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850, December 2003, s.v. “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus 1818,” by Peter Otto.
  18. Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850, December 2003, s.v. “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus 1818,” by Peter Otto.
  19. Bernard Duyfhuizen, “Periphrastic Naming in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Studies In The Novel 27, no. 4 (1995): 477.
  20. Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature, April 2003, s.v. “Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft,” by Nora Crook.
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  • The novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is such a great novel and this article highlights it. The article allows the reader to read beyond the surface of the novel, encouraging to find a deeper meaning to the novel. The novel discusses various aspects of society that can be further understood when paying close attention. This article highlights the importance of Shelley’s personal background and how it influences the novel in a way that informs reader and flows well.

  • I read this book my senior year of high school and I do agree that there is more meaning to the story than just the scientific side. I the novel many people are fast to turn away in fear at the sight of the monster. Many people judge him based on the physical aspects while along he yearned for some form of affection. i think this is the true meaning of the novel. The world judges people based on the physical.

  • I remember dreading having to read Frankenstein because the story seemed endless. However, when I began to analyze it, I loved the themes that it presented. This article is very well informed and I liked how a different perspective of the story was presented. Although like many others, I questioned why Shelley would not include a female leading character, but essentially the story is very well put together.

  • I love this book and its many underlying themes/messages. The monster Frankenstein created was nothing more than a newborn baby who was let loose into an unknown world. This being written in the Victorian era emphasizes those underlying messages regarding the exclusion of women. It was quite interesting how the monster brought his creator’s downfall. This book encompasses the saying “you reap what you sow.”

  • I read Frankenstein in high school, but it was nothing more than a required reading to me; I wasn’t thoroughly engaged in it. However, this article put it in a different perspective for me. The absence of female characters isn’t something that struck me as odd when I first read it, considering the era in which it was written. The underlying political statement in it has given me a different and more sincere kind of respect for Mary Shelley.

  • I’ve only ever had a basic understanding of this famous story and honestly I thought all there was to it was to not push the boundaries of science and mess with the natural order of things. But after reading this article its clear that there is more to this story than I had originally thought! The research for this article is impressive as well, I don’t think I’d be able to go as in depth as you do!

  • This article really opened my eyes. I had read Frankenstein in high school but the focusing themes were how trying to go against nature using science leads to consequences. However, now that this article brings up the theme of class and how Victor judged his monster and how the monster was actually not born evil. It was so obvious but overlooked. The monster was truly innocent until Victor and those around him started treating him like he was a monster.

  • Having read Frankenstein back in the 8th grade, I had not been made aware at this time of the less-obvious message of the tale. I had only learned in school about the struggle between man and creature, between a creator and his creation, so this article really opened my eyes. The biggest clue spoken about in the article is the use of appearance. It is only because of the creature’s ghastly appearance that Victor judges him at first, not because the creature was evil (since at the moment of its creation it was neither good nor evil). This commentary reflects in society even now, so it’s incredible that Mary Shelley was able to write about it even back then.

  • Being the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, it always amazed me that Mary Shelley would choose to write a book solely about a man and leave women as essentially, doormats. This article really showed me that adding a dominant female presence would only hurt Shelley and her career. Women really are the unseen characters in society and I love how the author said that not listening to them would be Mans downfall.

  • This article was researched thoroughly and any reader can tell by reading this article that the author enjoyed writing this. I have always enjoyed Mary Shelley’s work on Frankenstein because it was always more than the monster. Different assertions can be made from this significant story and many can identify with the various meanings it has. (reposted)

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