Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of Frankenstein, as Victor attempts to surge beyond accepted human limits and access the secret of life. Likewise, Robert Walton attempts to surpass previous human explorations by endeavoring to reach the North Pole. This ruthless pursuit of knowledge, of the light (see “Light and Fire”), proves dangerous, as Victor’s act of creation eventually results in the destruction of everyone dear to him, and Walton finds himself perilously trapped between sheets of ice. Whereas Victor’s obsessive hatred of the monster drives him to his death, Walton ultimately pulls back from his treacherous mission, having learned from Victor’s example how destructive the thirst for knowledge can be.
The sublime natural world, embraced by Romanticism (late eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century) as a source of unrestrained emotional experience for the individual, initially offers characters the possibility of spiritual renewal. Mired in depression and remorse after the deaths of William and Justine, for which he feels responsible, Victor heads to the mountains to lift his spirits. Likewise, after a hellish winter of cold and abandonment, the monster feels his heart lighten as spring arrives. The influence of nature on mood is evident throughout the novel, but for Victor, the natural world’s power to console him wanes when he realizes that the monster will haunt him no matter where he goes. By the end, as Victor chases the monster obsessively, nature, in the form of the Arctic desert, functions simply as the symbolic backdrop for his primal struggle against the monster.
Obviously, this theme pervades the entire novel, as the monster lies at the center of the action. Eight feet tall and hideously ugly, the monster is rejected by society. However, his monstrosity results not only from his grotesque appearance but also from the unnatural manner of his creation, which involves the secretive animation of a mix of stolen body parts and strange chemicals. He is a product not of collaborative scientific effort but of dark, supernatural workings. The monster is only the most literal of a number of monstrous entities in the novel, including the knowledge that Victor used to create the monster (see “Dangerous Knowledge”). One can argue that Victor himself is a kind of monster, as his ambition, secrecy, and selfishness alienate him from human society. Ordinary on the outside, he may be the true “monster” inside, as he is eventually consumed by an obsessive hatred of his creation. Finally, many critics have described the novel itself as monstrous, a stitched-together combination of different voices, texts, and tenses (see Texts).
Victor conceives of science as a mystery to be probed; its secrets, once discovered, must be jealously guarded. He considers M. Krempe, the natural philosopher he meets at Ingolstadt, a model scientist: “an uncouth man, but deeply imbued in the secrets of his science.” Victor’s entire obsession with creating life is shrouded in secrecy, and his obsession with destroying the monster remains equally secret until Walton hears his tale. Whereas Victor continues in his secrecy out of shame and guilt, the monster is forced into seclusion by his grotesque appearance. Walton serves as the final confessor for both, and their tragic relationship becomes immortalized in Walton’s letters. In confessing all just before he dies, Victor escapes the stifling secrecy that has ruined his life; likewise, the monster takes advantage of Walton’s presence to forge a human connection, hoping desperately that at last someone will understand, and empathize with, his miserable existence.
Frankenstein is overflowing with texts: letters, notes, journals, inscriptions, and books fill the novel, sometimes nestled inside each other, other times simply alluded to or quoted. Walton’s letters envelop the entire tale; Victor’s story fits inside Walton’s letters; the monster’s story fits inside Victor’s; and the love story of Felix and Safie and references to Paradise Lost fit inside the monster’s story. This profusion of texts is an important aspect of the narrative structure, as the various writings serve as concrete manifestations of characters’ attitudes and emotions. Language plays an enormous role in the monster’s development. By hearing and watching the peasants, the monster learns to speak and read, which enables him to understand the manner of his creation, as described in Victor’s journal. He later leaves notes for Victor along the chase into the northern ice, inscribing words in trees and on rocks, turning nature itself into a writing surface.
Frankenstein presents family relationships as central to human life. Most of the families that appear in the novel—the Frankensteins and the DeLaceys—are perfect to the point of idealization. Meanwhile, most of the book’s horror and suffering is caused by characters losing their connection to their families, or not having a family in the first place. Frankenstein blames his isolation from his family for his disastrous decision to create the Monster: “If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections[…]then that study is certainly unlawful.” The Monster, too, blames his suffering on the fact that he has no family: “I was dependent on none and related to none.” When the Monster is trying to persuade Frankenstein to create a companion for him, he argues that his lack of family relationships is what has caused him to become a murderer. On the other hand, the Monster does have a family, in that Frankenstein is his father. Before creating the Monster, Frankenstein imagines that “No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve” the Monster’s. Instead, the Monster and Frankenstein spend the novel trying to destroy each other.
Frankenstein suggests that social alienation is both the primary cause of evil and the punishment for it. The Monster explicitly says that his alienation from mankind has caused him to become a murderer: “My protectors had departed, and had broken the only link that held me to the world. For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom.” His murders, however, only increase his alienation.
For Frankenstein, too, alienation causes him to make bad decisions and is also the punishment for those bad decisions. When Frankenstein creates the Monster he is working alone, in a “solitary chamber, or rather cell.” Being “solitary” has caused his ambition to grow dangerously, but this isolation is already its own punishment: his laboratory feels like a “cell.” Once he has created the Monster, Frankenstein becomes even more alienated from the people around him because he can’t tell anyone about his creation.
Both Frankenstein and the Monster compare themselves to the character of Satan in Paradise Lost: alienation from God is both Satan’s crime and his punishment. The novel presents the idea that alienation from other people is caused, at root, by alienation from oneself. Frankenstein’s father points out the link between self-hatred and alienation: “I know that while you are pleased with yourself, you will think of us with affection, and we shall hear regularly from you.” As long as a person feels they have self-worth, they’ll maintain contact with others. The Monster feels that he is alienated from human society because he looks monstrous. He first recognizes that he is ugly not through someone else’s judgement but through his own: “when I viewed myself in a transparent pool[…]I was filled with the bitterest sensations.”
At the end of the novel, with Frankenstein dead, the Monster is alone in the world. His alienation is complete, and so is his self-hatred: “You hate me; but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself.” The ultimate consequence of alienation is self-destruction. Frankenstein drives himself to death chasing the Monster, while the Monster declares his intention to kill himself.
Frankenstein suggests that ambition is dangerous because it has the potential to become evil. Frankenstein’s ambition motivates him to create the Monster, and he compares his own ambition to a list of other destructive ambitions: “If no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.” The fact that Frankenstein compares his own work to the destruction of entire civilizations underscores just how huge his ambition is. His suggestion that his ambition makes him like Satan, “the archangel who aspired to omnipotence,” also points to the grandiosity of Frankenstein’s ideas. Frankenstein imagines himself as nothing less than the devil incarnate. However, the novel also suggests that ambition alone is not enough to cause evil and suffering. Walton is introduced as a character every bit as ambitious as Frankenstein, but Walton chooses to abandon his ambition out of duty to his crew. Frankenstein’s real mistake (and crime) is that he places his ambition above his responsibilities to other people.