Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus | How Mary Shelley Crafted an Epic Tale

Still film Frankenstein 1910

Halloween was the perfect time to start reading one of the classics: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This narrative surprised me in more ways than one. In many regards I had formed the story in my head the way Hollywood had shaped it. A mad scientist, thunder and lightning, a barely sentient monster with bolts in his neck walking with his arms in front of him.

Mary Shelley, they did you wrong. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is more than just a tale about a scientist taking his knowledge too far. It’s about how too much weight is given to looks. How a monster can be created by its environment. How arrogance and selfishness can lead to the ignorance of another’s needs.

Without further ado, let us delve into the story and the writing techniques Mary Shelley uses for her grand masterpiece. Obviously, spoilers ahead!

Summary of Frankenstein

The story of Dr. Frankenstein starts, surprisingly, with somebody other than the grand maester himself. It starts from the perspective of Captain Robert Walton, who writes letters to his sister about his voyages. Captain Robert Walton meets Dr. Frankenstein, who enters his ship with hypothermia. Walton tends to Frankenstein and slowly he starts to heal. When he is well enough Walton urges Frankenstein to tell him his story.

Cover Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus

Victor Frankenstein begins his story in his childhood. One of the early memories he brings forth is the arrival of his cousin Elizabeth, whom he is betrothed to from a young age. Yes, not quite the match we would make today, but not uncommon in the 19th century (in a later edition, Mary Shelley turned Elizabeth into an unrelated adopted sister).

A happy family they spent a lot of time together until Frankenstein finds his mother to be ill with scarlet fever. She soon perishes and asks Victor and Elizabeth to promise her to wed in the future. They promise her to do just that.

Soon after, Frankenstein leaves for the university where he becomes obsessed with his studies. He considers the creation of a human being and starts the process of assembling the pieces to create a body. Though he collects human features that are considered beautiful, when he awakens the creature its collective physique Frankenstein judges as hideous. He’s appalled by his creation and flees, the shock making him depressed and bed-ridden for many months.

After some time he receives a letter from his father stating that his young brother William has died. As soon as possible he returns to Geneva and learns quickly the creature he has created is the murderer. However, Justine Mortiz, the brother’s nanny is convicted of the crime.

Dr. Frankenstein soon meets the creature and starts to listen to the creature’s record. Over time the creature has learned how to live as a human and has adopted intelligent speech. He has spend his time at an abandoned property that was near to a cottage. He grew to like the cottagers and witness the love they had for each other as a thing he wished to enjoy himself. Upon meeting the cottagers they, however, reject his presence, afraid of him simply due to his appearance.

Now seeking to find a form of love, he demands Dr. Frankenstein to make a female just like him and threatens to kill his loved ones if he does not. Frankenstein agrees and travels to England to start his work. Deeply troubled by creating another humanoid, he ends up ripping the new creation apart, and the creature witnesses him doing so. A threat is soon made by the creature to be with Frankenstein on his wedding night, which Frankenstein takes to mean that he will be killed on his wedding night.

Frankenstein starts his journey back home and the creature soon commences his first act of revenge by killing a dear friend to Victor, Clerval. Frankenstein is caught, believed to have been the one to kill Clerval and is put in prison, as the creature intended to do upon framing Frankenstein. Eventually Frankenstein is acquitted and is allowed to return home.

Wishing to be released from his fate, he enters into a marriage with Elizabeth. After the ceremony, he leaves Elizabeth alone, determined to meet his death with the creature alone when he hears a loud screech and realises the goal of the creature was to murder his newlywed.

Outraged and looking for revenge Frankenstein chases the creature further and further north until he reaches the North Pole where he is saved from hypothermia by Captain Robert Walton.

Walton concludes the story with the death of Frankenstein. When Walton catches the creature on the boat, staring at Frankenstein’s death body, he states his crimes have now left him all alone and he will kill himself so that no one else will know of his existence.

Point of Views Used in Frankenstein

Frankenstein is a first person narrative and an interesting one at that. Rather than taking simply one character for the narrative, as is often done these days when using first person singular, Shelley takes the reader into the mind of different characters.

Three first person perspectives are used within the story:

First off, there’s the perspective of Captain Robert Walton. His perspective solely consists of letters to his sister about his journeys. The second perspective is that of Dr. Frankenstein and his journey to bring the creature to life. As Frankenstein sees the creature for the second time after the death of his brother, the third first person narrative follows, namely that of the creature. His account fills in the blanks of the creature’s life and how his journey has made him into the monster he has become.

Interestingly the narratives then revolve back. We again fall into Frankenstein’s narrative and end with Walton’s account of how Frankenstein met his end.

The above technique is called the Russian Doll Structure. You know how inside a russian doll there’s another russian doll and then another? It’s the same with this narrative! We have one first person narrative, then another and then a third. Then, stacking the dolls back into each other we fold the narrative back to reach the first layer, namely that of Walton.

Simply said: it’s a story within a story within a story. Other examples of this technique? Atonement by Ian McEwan and the prime example of embedded narrative: 1001 Arabian Nights!

Epistolary Narration in Frankenstein

The book is partly written in an epistolary form. Epistolary narration is simply said a book that is written in the form of a letter or diary entries. Examples are The Color Purple and Dracula.

The first letters we come across are those of Captain Robert Walton. They encase the novel by having his letter at the very beginning and at the very end. Throughout the story other letters appear. Letters from Frankenstein’s father and cousin (/adopted sibling) Elizabeth.

Archetypes in Frankenstein

Now this took some considering, and I’m sure there are different accounts out there as regards to what archetypes the characters adhere to. After all there are many different theories as to what kind of archetypes there are. I’ve selected what I felt were the best descriptions of archetypes for certain characters.

I wager to the very least that Dr. Frankenstein is the Mad Scientist and – hear me out – the Villain. He is the person so enraptured with his own misery that he disregards the creature’s needs and is physically and emotionally the creator of a murderer.

Captain Robert Walton in this story is the Storyteller. We learn a bit about his background, but his primary purpose is reiterating the story of Frankenstein to his sister and to us, the reader.

Elizabeth easily fills the archetype of the Love Interest. She is devoted to Frankenstein and never steps away from their path to marriage, even though Frankenstein is away from home for many years. In her case she does not neatly fill the archetype’s shoes as Frankenstein is often too involved in his own studies or misery to consider Elizabeth. Therefore she’s not desired as many Love Interests are.

Frankenstein Modern Prometheus drawing Elizabeth Victor Frankenstein

The young brother William who dies by the hands of the creature is the Divine Child as well as the Victim. He’s an innocent boy who is described as having the prettiest features and is adored by everyone. His death in the end is a cause of Frankenstein’s activities. Justine Mortiz, who is convicted of murdering William, can also be labelled under the archetype of the Victim.

The parents of Frankenstein are simply the Father and Mother. We learn little else about their lives and they are there to serve as the parents to Frankenstein.

Character voices and writing style

The style of Mary Shelley is typical of Romanticism. It’s serious and poetic. As the story is told through the characters in a first person narrative this means that the characters themselves also use poetic language. This includes the creature.

In addition, the characters in the story talk a lot about their emotions, rather than objective things. This is typical of Romanticism. For further reading I’d highly recommend reading this analysis on Romanticism in Frankenstein.

There have been debates on the formal diction the creature uses, even though he has only just learned how to speak. A conclusion that is often made is that the creature speaks similarly to Dr. Frankenstein himself, symbolising that the creature is a part of Dr. Frankenstein.

Why the modern Prometheus?

A question often asked and easily answered. Why is the story called ‘Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus’. Prometheus, the Greek god, gave man life. Dr. Frankenstein does quite the same by creating a sentient being. Therefore Frankenstein is the modern Prometheus, giving life much like his Greek counterpart.

This review on writing techniques is part of a series I run on my blog. Interested in reading more? Read my writing review on The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

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