Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote in her 1831 introduction to the reprint of Frankenstein that "supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world" (x). These words not only indicate the manner of her thought on the night she conceived the idea for her gothic novel, they also reflect, as she notes, the ideas discussed between her husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. The two men represented well the doctrines of the Romantic/Enlightenment Age, and the effects of their idealistic creed seem to be personified in Mary Shelley's "Modern Prometheus," a creature whose deformities are despised by its creator. This paper will show how Mary Shelley uses form, theme, character, tone, language and metaphor to convey why Dr. Frankenstein, in his attempt to "recreate" creation, creates instead the basis of Shelley's cautionary tale on the dangerous effects of "mocking" the stupendous mechanism of God.
The novel begins in epistolary form but then assumes a narrative form once Dr. Frankenstein is discovered and his tale unfolded. The initial epistolary form consists of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Margaret Saville. Walton has had literary aspirations in the past, but now finds himself in the Arctic Circle of the North Pole on an expedition through which he expects to win the fame that eluded him in his literary pursuits. In other words, Walton is a reluctant explorer, pushed to the extremes of human endurance in order to produce a work of some renown and significance.
Walton does indeed come upon a story worth telling, but it is not the story he expects to find. Rather than a treatise on the wilds of the Arctic, Walton spies first a man-like creature of enormous dimensions and, in pursuit, the creature's creator Dr. Frankenstein. Frankenstein is provided with room for rest and in return tells his tale, a kind of warning, to Walton. Walton, who possesses the same Romantic streak that is revealed to have possessed Frankenstein once upon a time, accepts the warning and returns to civilization with that warning in hand, the tale. Indeed, the fact that the tale itself is framed by the epistolary form conveys the sense that it is meant to be a kind of cautionary tale. Caution is the subject of Walton's first letter to his sister, which is itself a response to her fear that her brother might come to some harm in such a place as the North Pole: "You will rejoice to heart that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings" (Shelley 17). Walton's letter, however, does not anticipate the narrative he will soon encounter.
The narrative form of the novel is dictated by Dr. Frankenstein to Walton, recorded by the latter without interjection. Once Frankenstein's tale ends, Walton continues his letter to his sister, recording events as they continue to transpire. That Walton assumes the duty of narrator at the end of the novel indicates the transmission of the story from Frankenstein to Walton, from Walton to his sister, and so on. It also suggests that Walton has identified with Frankenstein and now sees his own tale as intertwined with the latter's. Thus, the caution with which the doctor addressed Walton is now Walton's, addressed to his sister, who, ironically, had initially addressed her brother with a caution which he found unimportant to heed.
The theme of the novel may be said to be touched upon by Walton himself when he writes to his sister in his fourth letter that he has found in Frankenstein, whom he has rescued from the cold, a man in possession of a "quality…that elevates him so immeasurably above any other person I ever knew…an intuitive discernment; a quick but never-failing power of judgment; a penetration into the causes of things" (Shelley 37). Walton's impression of Frankenstein helps frame the narrative that is to come, and the theme of which is stated plainly by Frankenstein himself: to Walton, Frankenstein says, "You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been" (Shelley 38). Frankenstein's theme, therefore, is cautionary from the beginning and concerned with the careful pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. It is based on Frankenstein's own experiments with a nature, which he himself did not fully comprehend before experimentation.
The theme of unrestrained pursuit of an idea, represented by Frankenstein's pursuit of the monster into the Arctic Circle, is reflected by Walton in his desire to explore what no man has previously explored -- the North Pole. The cautionary aspect of the theme, however, is certified by Walton, who appears to understand the moral of the story and retreats from his pursuit, returning to society with, instead of glory, a tale of warning.
The character of Frankenstein is one that represents boldness and ambition in matters of science regarding the nature of man. Frankenstein himself states that his "temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned, not towards childish pursuits, but to an eager desire to learn" (Shelley 49). He exhibits in his studies an attitude of one who wishes to comprehend all, who wishes to arrive at a sort of Gnosticism. He also states that this passion, "which afterwards ruled my destiny," stems "from ignoble and almost forgotten sources" (Shelley 51). The point that his character is developed according to the lights of "natural philosophy," which he states "has regulated my fate," compels the reader to conclude that Frankenstein has not been formed according to the moral code of classical Western tradition, which in the Romantic/Enlightenment Age was indeed being replaced by "natural philosophy." Frankenstein, therefore, may be understood as a warning to those would pursue and experiment with the ends of "natural philosophy" without restraint, guidance, or observance of the moral laws that past generations had acknowledged.
Indeed, Frankenstein's character is inspired by Isaac Newton's quest for "truth." Yet, in a despondent mood early in his adolescence, Frankenstein realizes the horror of this search: "I at once gave up my former occupations; set down natural history and all its progeny as a deformed and abortive creation" (Shelley 55). Unable to abide by this realization, however, Frankenstein returns to his pursuits and ends up producing the very "progeny" he detested in his studies: "a deformed and abortive creation" -- his monster.
The tone of the novel is one of detachment and distance tempered and given heart at intervals by the human affection that supports the tale. Since the tale is told in two voices, there are of course two different tones; however, because the two voices essentially merge into one at the end of the novel, the ending tone is both bleak and hopeful.
This would suggest that the overall tone of the novel is discordant as indeed it is. It begins with Walton writing with warmth and assurance to his sister, yet he himself is surrounded by a world of ice and snow and strange beings in the form of the monster and his pursuer Frankenstein. Frankenstein is a physical wreck and yet there is in him such warmth and vigor that he overcomes his depression and melancholy to add his voice to the narrative. The tone of Frankenstein's voice begins happily enough as he recounts his childhood, but it gradually turns towards regrets and remorse as he recounts how he pursued the course of studies in natural philosophy that eventually inspired his attempt to "create" in the fashion of the Creator.
An aspect of isolation is also discernible in the tone of the overall tale. Walton is isolated in his desire to travel to the North Pole, and Frankenstein is isolated in his pursuit of wisdom: "From this day natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation" (Shelley 67). There is a loneliness in both men that seeks to be filled through conquest, and yet their conquests leave them cold both literally and figuratively. Even the monster is isolated from humanity both by his deformity and his lack of a mate. Yet Frankenstein's fear of creating another monster, perhaps worse than his initial creature, compels him to destroy the second "Prometheus." In return, the monster kills Frankenstein's wife, forcing his isolation onto his creator.
While the final scene of the novel is depicted by Walton and concerns the rather bleak isolation of the monster, drifting off with the corpse of Frankenstein, the tone is not without a sense of hope. Walton, after all, is returning to society with the narrative received from Frankenstein, and the monster intends to burn within the funeral pyre. The fire signifies a kind of purgation. Still, the final words of the novel, "He was soon borne away…