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About this book

This study focuses on how Frankenstein works: how the story is told and why it is so rich and gripping. Part I uses carefully selected short extracts for close textual analysis, while Part II examines Shelley's life, the historical and literary contexts of the novel, and offers a sample of key criticism.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
It is difficult to approach Frankenstein without preconceptions: the name ‘Frankenstein’ alone makes such an ubiquitous figure in popular culture that we cannot hear or read it without picturing an image from a film, and without activating our own particular reaction to ‘horror’ films or literature. In her 1831 Preface, Mary Shelley claims that she sought a story to ‘speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart’.1 So Frankenstein comes to the modern reader, billed as a ‘chiller’ and surrounded by unreliable assumptions about its content, derived from film or hearsay. We start by acknowledging all this baggage, in the hopes we can then set it aside, and approach the text itself in a spirit of open-minded inquiry
Nicholas Marsh

Analysing Frankenstein

Frontmatter

1. The Narrative Frame

Abstract
Frankenstein is in the form of a series of letters from St. Petersburgh, Archangel, and the Arctic Ocean, written by an arctic explorer called Robert Walton to his married sister Mrs Margaret Saville, in England. Mrs Saville only receives these letters — there is nothing from her in reply. So, the story of Frankenstein is told by Walton to his sister; he reports, apparently verbatim, the story Victor Frankenstein tells to him aboard his ship in the Arctic Ocean; and Victor Frankenstein purportedly reports verbatim the story the daemon tells to him when they meet on the ‘mer de glace’ in the Alps. In other words, Frankenstein is a story that comes to us via an elaborate series of frames. Such narrative framing devices are usually adopted to provide opportunities for the author to manipulate certain effects.
Nicholas Marsh

2. Characterization

Abstract
This chapter looks at the way people are presented in Frankenstein: How are the people who inhabit the story built up for us? Do the characters appeal to us as fully realized individuals? We will focus on each of the main figures at a moment of crisis.
Nicholas Marsh

3. Nature, Society and Science

Abstract
This chapter investigates major themes and motifs in Frankenstein. Clearly, nature is one of these: the grandeur of nature plays a major role in creating the ambience of the tale; and Victor’s search for the ‘hidden laws of nature’ initiates the story’s horrors. We will begin by looking at three short extracts in which nature seems to exert an influence.
Nicholas Marsh

4. Symbol and Myth

Abstract
A symbol can be anything that is literally present in a fiction, which has an added significance beyond its literal function in the story. So, one may find symbolic meaning in a person, an object, an element or a force: almost anything can be ‘symbolic’. The danger is that we are tempted to over-interpret, and will see symbols everywhere and everything as symbolic. An example makes this clear. We have suggested that Walton, Victor Frankenstein and Clerval together create a ‘composite’ character, representative of masculine ambition: so, the ambitions of the explorer, the scientist and the conqueror/imperialist are all represented. Does this mean that these three characters are ‘symbolic’? The answer is no. Why? Because these three men are ambitious. They represent ambition because they literally have it, not because they are symbols of it. On the other hand, we have also suggested that the daemon stands for or ‘represents’ the English industrial working class. This interpretation does suggest that the daemon is a symbol, because the daemon is not, literally, anything to do with the English working class (he is a manufactured humanoid of Bavarian origin). So, if we attach that meaning to him, and read that meaning from his character and role in the novel, then we are saying that he has an added significance, or added meaning, beyond his literal function in the story.
Nicholas Marsh

5. Themes, and Conclusions to Part 1

Abstract
In our first four chapters, we have repeatedly come up against the combination of suggestive richness and interpretative uncertainty that characterizes Frankenstein. The characters work in combinations rather than as individuals, and their psychologies raise multiple unanswered questions. The significance of major elements of the text such as nature and science remains many-stranded and inconsistent, and resists interpretation despite a plethora of powerful suggestions. The same applies to the text’s analysis of society, which is radical and powerful, but applicable in several ways and several contexts. Despite a backdrop and fable ideally suited to symbolic meaning, we were not able to develop a consistent, interpretable symbolic role except for the daemon; and, we could not link one symbolic meaning to another, in order to build a sense of symbolism in the text as a whole.
Nicholas Marsh

The Context and the Critics

Frontmatter

6. Mary Shelley’s Life and Works

Abstract
All biographies of Mary Shelley and most critical works develop theories about her parents, birth and background. We will briefly discuss some of these theories in Chapter 8. For now, we will try to provide a plain account of her life.
Nicholas Marsh

7. The Historical and Literary Context

Abstract
What was the political climate of the Frankenstein decade? International relations were in chaos after the long efforts of the Napoleonic wars. The allies entered Paris and Napoleon was defeated at the beginning of April 1814; and that same summer Mary and Shelley and Claire Clairmont travelled through a disastrously war-ravaged France on their ‘Six Weeks’ Tour’ of elopement. They were back in England before two months had passed, and remained there during Napoleon’s reappearance the following year — the ‘hundred days’ leading to his final defeat at Waterloo in June 1815. Just 12 months after Waterloo, Mary was in the Maison Chapuis on the shores of Lake Geneva, beginning to write Frankenstein. The wars against Napoleonic and Revolutionary France were a huge international upheaval. They lasted, with only a short intermission, more than 20 years. It is not enough, however, for us to mention 1814 and 1815 — even if those military events allowed Percy, Mary and Claire to take their continental jaunt. What is most important for us as we try to understand the eighteen-teens is that this decade would lead up to a 40th year of waiting, for those radicals who wished to make Britain more equal and more free.
Nicholas Marsh

8. A Sample of Critical Views

Abstract
As Frankenstein was first published anonymously and dedicated to William Godwin, the novel was politically defined for most readers before they opened the covers: this was a production of one of Godwin’s disciples, and many thought it the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley. We must remember the political climate when Frankenstein was published. Only the previous year, there was the Pentrich rising; five years before, 17 Luddites had been executed after a mass trial, at York, while working-class disturbances spread right across the country during the teens decade. The Government of the time was one of the most reactionary of the nineteenth century, and set its face firmly against the rising clamour for reform, a radical and reforming movement that had already been strong in the 1790s. Stringent and oppressive measures restricting freedom of speech had been brought in after the French Revolution, and maintained while Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. Godwin’s Political Justice, and his courageous publications and appearances supporting the accused in the treason trials of 1794, had made him famous as a rallying-point for radicals and reformers. Therefore, in a period when politics was at its bitterest and most polarized, to dedicate a novel to Godwin was a radical political act.
Nicholas Marsh
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