‘Frankenstein’ is the first science fiction novel, I’ve been told. As true and important as this statement is, what truly makes Mary Shelley’s novel so impactful, and so engaging, is that it is an excellent example (even by today’s standards) of the main pillars of that genre. Not only does ‘Frankenstein’ explore the possibilities of scientific and technological advancement, much more importantly it explores how those developments affect humanity, all while asking complex and interesting moral questions. Mary Shelley handles this masterfully, by focusing not on humanity as a whole, but on a small handful of well written characters.
Having known ‘Frankenstein’ through the pop culture figure and 1931 movie adaptation, it surprised me to find out that this is in fact a character focused story. I was even more surprised to find out that the author’s character work is incredible from beginning to end.
The book features three perspective characters, and not only is each character distinct from the next through their own voice, but this voice comes through in sections of prose too, whichever of the three happens to be narrating at any moment. Whether it’s Walton or Frankenstein speaking, there can be no mistake – we know who we’re listening to. (Of course, I mentioned there being three perspective characters, but that’s something to talk about later in the analysis.)
It’s not just the writing and presentation of each character that’s impressive – the characterisation is excellent too. Each narrator feels real, is relatable, and is fleshed out to the fullest. Their motivations are understandable and emotions are easily empathised with on every page. Not only that but each character is fascinating in their complexity – never is a character one dimensional.
The combination of well written characters and the kind of emotional and moral complexity I’ll discuss in this essay’s spoiler section, mean that whenever tragedy strikes – and, in this story, it does so often – we really care for the characters affected. The book has a strong emotional core that bleeds out of every word.
One thing I’ve always loved about Gothic horror is the presentation. A lot of readers no longer enjoy “flowery” language but, while I understand that perspective, I find this type of prose to flow beautifully in a book as short as this one, and it brings a level of voice and expressiveness that a book with a more simplistic writing style often lacks. These benefits are even greater when the book in question is written as well as ‘Frankenstein.’
What I love even more about Gothic horror presentation is the way the medium has been implemented. These aren’t just books – Gothic authors always placed deep consideration into *why* they are books – how, exactly, this “verbal” story has been transferred into literature – a question that is often ignored in modern books.
In the case of ‘Frankenstein,’ just like many other Gothic horror stories, the chosen answer is letters. This decision has been implemented perfectly, allowing voice and presentation, character and prose, to intertwine. Mary Shelley effortlessly transitions between Walton’s letters, and his transcription of Frankenstein’s verbal narration, which also doubles as the way the book transitions from prologue into the main body of the text. This kind of meta-presentation continues throughout, as within Frankenstein’s narration, there are more letters, as well as other characters giving their own narrations. One Goodreads reviewer described this as a “Russian Doll format,” and I like that description. More importantly though, this format has been handled perfectly, reads beautifully and flows without a single obstacle.
Mary Shelley also demonstrates her talent for pacing, excellent prose, and a superlative awareness of her own medium – qualities that manifest throughout the book. Also, the author never forgets that this is still a letter, or that Frankenstein is still verbally narrating his story – including brief paragraphs where Frankenstein speaks to Walton about the tale he is telling, or devolves into a wail of grief or horror, halfway through a descriptive passage, as he is forced to recollect the psychological torment he has been through over the several years his story spans. Some people might have their immersion broken by this narrative choice, but personally I find it an effective tool for enhancing my immersion into the story.
It’s been said that ‘Frankenstein’ explores themes of science going too far, and this is one of the main areas in which I see most people praising the book. While I agree with the praise Mary Shelley receives for her exploration of themes, in my opinion, there are far more prominent themes throughout the book – most notably familial bonds and companionship, as well as obsession, acting as a masterful allegory for addiction – and the book’s exploration of these themes not only further enhances its already powerful story, but also helps it remain relevant today. These themes have been injected into every small detail, placing a grand emotional weight on Frankenstein as a character, and pushing his mental torment as a result.
In the most prominent example the novel provides, Frankenstein devotes completely to his scientific pursuit (the creation of what will later be deemed the monster or even daemon), foregoing basic human needs to that end, and abandoning things he previously enjoyed – most notably his family and friends, flawlessly combining both of the novel’s two main themes – until his creation is complete.
Mary Shelley pays enough attention to really focus the story on its key components, and therefore these themes never fizzle out. They recur so many times throughout the book in myriad different ways. It’s always unexpected. It’s always powerful.
I’ve read ‘Frankenstein’ twice now. It might surprise you to hear, after everything I’ve said so far, that on my first read it actually took me a long time to get invested. The reason for this is because, when you’re new to the story, the prologue and opening chapters feel somewhat disconnected, and overly long. This is in fact not true – as I came to realise on my second read. Because what you get from these early chapters is *masterful* foreshadowing from a character much more connected to the main story than I at first realised.
Using the character of Walton, Mary Shelley beautifully foreshadows the themes of the novel and adds extra layers and complexities to both the plot, and several characters within it. With the added knowledge I had going into a second read, I noticed the prologue’s many comparisons to and juxtapositions toward Frankenstein, his life, and his later pursuit, plus equally powerful comparisons to the monster, and I also started to notice subtle introductions to the book’s many themes – passion and obsession, familial bonds and friendships, humanity versus nature, and probably others I haven’t picked up on even now. Mary Shelley also uses this incredible foreshadowing to build relatability with and empathy for Walton.
It was this realisation on my second read which made me understand that, yes, ‘Frankenstein’ is a masterpiece. And everyone should read it.
That should technically end my Analysis, but there is one major thing I haven’t mentioned yet – and that was the main reason I love this book so much. It is the main reason I finally became engaged with the story on my first read. And it magnified my strong feelings towards the book on my second read.
I need to get into spoilers now though, so if you have to leave me to read the book before coming back to the rest of this essay – needless to say, I definitely recommend ‘Frankenstein.’ Now, let’s talk about the monster.
*There will be spoilers ahead*
See, as my only previous knowledge of this story came from the pop culture figure and black and white movies, I was really surprised to find that the monster actually speaks in the book. Not only that, but the way he speaks, his unique voice and perspective on the world he's been brought into, and the way his language flows so beautifully. I was awe struck by this writing and characterisation, and the way the monster is used as a point of comparison for his creator.
These are strengths of the book I have already gone into depth with, of course. It gets better though, as we’re now led into a series of chapters where the perspective shifts once again – and once again so masterfully handled – this time to that third main perspective character. As the monster himself narrates his own side of the story.
Mary Shelley’s talent shines through here more so than in any other section of the book. The way she writes his initial childlike naivety, and his first encounter with his senses. The fear but also the wonder that a fully grown human being experiences on first being given life. The monster’s later interest in humanity, his desire to befriend humans but also his awareness of his own appearance and the effect it has on others, and the growth of his intellect and passion.
Strengths I'd seen from the book thus far are magnified tenfold, as I experienced the monster’s growing awareness – and his growing torment as feelings of depression, loneliness, grief and alienation replace his prior naivety and friendliness. The story’s themes, the events we’ve read through so far, the character growth we’ve witnessed – it all becomes so much more complex, so much more engaging once we hear the monster’s side. I couldn't help but become deeply invested in the story by the time I reached this section.
That was my experience both times I read ‘Frankenstein.’
Possibly, there are some nit-picks to be made about how fast the monster learns language. But I didn’t care. Because this part of the book was so incredibly written and so masterfully woven into the greater narrative. It is a deeply affecting section of the novel for anyone who has experienced prejudice and alienation for any reason. And not only serves to enhance the already deep and complex characterisation throughout the novel, but also to serve as a powerful and constantly relevant allegory for hatred and loneliness to compound the genius of the book’s already prominent themes.
The monster first starts committing violent acts by the finale of his narration, violent acts you have already witnessed from Frankenstein’s perspective, but it no longer seems like evil, or malice. That brings me onto the last major strength of the novel I want to discuss – the deeply complex moral questions it asks of the reader.
Frankenstein is a perfect example of the flawed protagonist – the monster himself a perfect example of the tragic villain.
While it’s possible – maybe even easy – to criticise either character for the terrible things they do both to each other, and everyone else… Can you really call either one of them a monster?
It’s incredible to see how much moral complexity, how much depth there is to a two hundred year old book. This brings me back to my earlier praise of Mary Shelley’s ability to write characters so well. We can relate to Frankenstein and his creation. Empathise with them. Understand them. Even during times where we may not necessarily like them.
Thus, there’s a back and forth between which of the two main characters you most relate to, and most identify with, which is made deeper through the switching narrations that happen throughout the book. The story therefore becomes endlessly complex and open to interpretation, but never loses its emotional core and affecting messages as a result.
‘Frankenstein’ is a true classic. A true masterpiece.
I don’t just recommend everyone should read it – I recommend you should read it more than once. Every read through will reveal more and more of the masterful plot, character, theme and storytelling which Mary Shelley exhibits with this book.
There will be something about it for every writer and every reader to learn from.