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Do you agree? Frankenstein is one of the great novels of English literature, written in 1816 by a young Mary Shelley. The name Frankenstein is generally associated with the terrifying monster created in the many film adaptations of the book. But did Mary Shelley write only to frighten the reader? Or did she write in order to explore deeper issues of the evolving times she was living in? The basic plot of the novel is typical of a blood-curdling horror story: a mad scientist creates an inhuman monster, which subsequently goes on a murderous rampage, not resting until it has avenged itself.
But Shelley’s novel uses various other themes throughout the book, asks questions and expresses strong views on the changing balance between science and religion of the early 19th century. Through her monster she explores the themes of isolation, the relationship between God and man, the importance of respecting nature and the dangers of obsession. Shelley’s novel has been extremely influential on horror stories since as it is one of the most famous gothic horror novels of all time. It is also the first to use the idea of ‘fear of the unknown’ in the context of scientific research.
It is one of the forerunners of later 20th century novels such as Brave New World, which warn of the dire consequences of unchecked scientific progress. The novel was written as part of a game or competition between herself, her husband, the poet Byron and his friend Polidori. They were spending time in Geneva when Byron suggested they should each write a ghost story and see who could write the best. That night Shelly had a terrifying nightmare in which she saw the story of Frankenstein. Shelley’s parents appear to have been hugely influential on the novel.
Her father was the writer and political journalist William Godwin, who became famous with his work An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Godwin had revolutionary attitudes to most social institutions, and as result she had been exposed to many modern radical ideas and had been to public shows where they stimulated the muscles of dead animals or humans to produce twitching. Perhaps it was this which gave birth in her mind to the famous creation scene of Frankenstein? Her mother had died in childbirth and she herself had lost children, which features heavily in the book.
The novel is told through letters from Captain Walton to his sister Margaret in what is known as a Chinese box style. Walton talks about his own story and we get to know him, then we are introduced to another character, Victor, who Walton meets in the desolate landscape of the North Pole. Victor tells his story to Walton who relates it to his sister. Victor then tells us, through Walton, of how he met his creation, the ‘monster’, and tells Walton all that the creature told him which is then written down in the letters.
In this way we get a first hand account from several different characters and we get a feeling of the depth of the story as we delve deeper in to the plot and see each side of the story. Chapter 5 is the beginning of any real horror in the novel. Of course, there have been some mysterious circumstances and the bleak and desolate setting of the North Pole, but nothing to really scare the reader. But the creation of the creature is Shelley unearthing her fears about the progression of modern science.
To begin with Shelley creates tension, setting the scene, saying : ‘it was on a dreary night of November’ and ‘the rain pattered dismally’ both of these creating a sense of unease and darkness. Furthermore, she tells us how ‘the candle was nearly burnt out… by the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open’, which again forms an image of a dark laboratory with flickering candle light, and creates tension, which have all become classic horror settings ever since.