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Mary Shelley discusses many important themes in her famous novel Frankenstein. She presents these themes through the characters and their actions, and many of them represent occurrences from her own life. Many of the themes present debateable issues, and Shelley's thoughts on them. Three of the most important themes in the novel are birth and creation; alienation; and the family and the domestic affections.
One theme discussed by Shelley in the novel is birth and creation. She does this through the main character, Victor Frankenstein, who succeeds in creating a 'human' life form. In doing this, Frankenstein has taken over the roles of women and God. Shelley discusses how Frankenstein has used his laboratory or 'workshop of filthy creation' (page 53) as a kind of 'womb' as he has worked on his creation. He also refers to his task as his labour, suggesting that he has literally given birth to his creation.
After so much time spent in painful labour
The passing of time from when Victor first began his creation and finished it is also significant.
Winter, spring, and summer passed away during my labours
The length of the three seasons is nine months, representing the time a natural human baby takes to be formed in its mother's womb. This once again suggests that Frankenstein has found a way to take over the role of women, and they become powerless, weak and flimsy. They no longer have a purpose in life, as Victor Frankenstein can now create new life forms - a process which women needed to be involved in previously. An example of women's powerlessness in the novel is the condemnation of Justine for a crime she did not commit. Had she been a man, she would probably have been set free. Frankenstein succeeds in removing the only powers that women had, as well as stripping God from his role.
Through the theme of birth and creation, Shelley criticises Victor not only for creating the new being, but also for abandoning it when it comes to life. Victor first wishes to create the being because he thinks:
A new species would bless me as its creator and source ... No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.
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He seems to want to create a being which would be his child, as a child loves its parents unconditionally. He likes the idea of this until he realises how ugly his creation is.
but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
After Victor realises this, he abandons the monster and becomes ill, leaving it to fend for itself. He does not accept the monster, and therefore does not love, teach or nurture it. Shelley's main criticism is this lack of responsibility that Victor has for his 'child'. This shows that Shelley had high morals on parents caring for their offspring.
Another theme discussed in the novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is alienation. Victor is one character who is alienated from others. This is due to his desire for knowledge, and the vast amount of time in which he spends in completing his scientific experiments. Victor chooses to be alienated, despite the fact that he insists many times that the only reason he is isolated from others is because of the monster.
I must absent myself from all I loved while thus employed.
We know that Victor chooses to isolate himself, as in all the time he is studying and creating the monster, he never once visits his family. Victor's rejection of the family unit, along with his fears of sexuality and natural birth may be reasons why he keeps himself isolated for most of his life. Most of Victor's sufferings in the novel are brought about his alienation. The creating of the monster, and keeping it a secret led about to his downfall in the end.
The theme of alienation is also shown through the creature which Victor creates. The sufferings of the creature in the novel are also the result of being alienated, but unlike Victor, he does not bring this upon himself. Instead, others isolate the monster. This is due to his freakish and horrible looks:
His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath ... his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
Victor, his creator first abandons him, leaving him to learn and fend for himself. Next, when the monster enters the village, people are terrified of him.
but I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted.
The people of the village then drove the monster out by throwing stones and other objects at him. They judge him on his appearance only, showing that many people in society value good looks. The monster is next rejected when he tries to communicate with the blind father of the DeLacey family. The children enter shocked at the monsters hideous looks, fearful for their father's life.
Agatha fainted, and Safie, unable to attend to her friend, rushed out of the cottage. Felix darted forward ... in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently with a stick.
The third instance where the monster is rejected and isolated is after he has saved a drowning child. The child's father shoots him, as the father probably fears that the creature will harm his child.
when the man saw me draw near, he aimed a gun, which he carried, at my body, and fired.
After experiencing all of these things, the monster longs for love and compassion more than ever, but realises that he will never be accepted by human life forms. Due to this, the monster retaliates with violence, stating 'I am malicious because I am miserable' (page 140). This means that he is only violent because he wants to escape the alienation he faces, but as being violent is how people act toward him, he will act the same way to people. The monster insists that Victor make him a female companion to end his misery, but Victor tears the female to pieces before it is finished. The monster retaliates by killing Elizabeth, who is Victor's female companion, in an eye-for-an-eye kind of way. Shelley seems to be criticising the way in which people alienate others because of their looks. This is how the monster reflects the theme of alienation in the novel.
The theme of the family and the domestic affections is also demonstrated in the novel Frankenstein. In the novel, the family unit is something which is frequently idealised. The home seems to be a paradise where the woman is the presiding angel. In the case of the Frankenstein home, Elizabeth is this presiding angel. We see this when Elizabeth is first adopted, as she is described as being somewhat angelic.
their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven ...
In the novel, the home is also a place where refuge and sanctuary can be found. This is seen as when Victor is sick and depressed, he returns home to recover, under the care of his presiding angel Elizabeth, and to be surrounded by his 'perfect' family. The idealistic family is also demonstrated through the DeLacey family. Their family operates with love, and there is never an argument amongst them. The children willingly look after their blind father, and often sing and tell stories together in the evening, whilst working during the day.
the old man played on his guitar, and the children listened to him
This perspective of the family and the domestic affections are shown throughout the novel.
Although the idea of the perfect family is shown throughout the novel, there is also the possibility that Shelley is questioning and attacking the institution of a family. Shelley does this through the characters Victor and the creature. An instance which shows this is when Victor's mother dies when he has planned to leave for Ingolstadt to commence his studies. Victor can't wait to get away from his family, and leaves as soon as he can after his mother's death.
My departure for Ingolstadt, which had been deferred by these events, was now again determined upon.
Victor wishes to leave, as his family does not offer him everything that he seeks in life. He wishes to study and learn the secret of the elixir of life - something that he cannot do at home. This shows how family life is not perfect for everyone. Through the creature and the DeLacey family, Shelley also shows how shut off a family can be from the rest of the world. They have their own fixed pattern, and they do not let anybody interfere with this, or threaten its security. When the creature arrives in their home, the DeLacey family does not give him a chance to speak about why he is there. Instead they drive him out immediately so that he will not interfere with their lives.
overcome by pain and anguish, I quitted the cottage, and in the general tumult escaped unperceived to my hovel.
This shows how hurt the creature was that the DeLacey's reacted so badly when he tried to speak to the blind father. He realises that no matter how good his language is, people will never get past his looks, and he will always be excluded from family life. It is because of this that the monster devotes himself to the destruction of the ideal family. This is how Shelley criticises the family and ideal domesticity in the novel.
Mary Shelley discusses the themes of birth and creation; alienation; and the family and the domestic affections, in her novel Frankenstein. These themes represent incidents which occurred in her own life, in those around her, or debateable issues of the time. The themes discussed show Shelley's thoughts and feelings on these issues, and present the reader with interesting points to think about and reflect upon their own lives.