Literary Qualities

Shelley uses an important literary technique-the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Walton tells the whole story of Frankenstein and his monster as related to him by Frankenstein, with the addition of his own meeting with the monster after Frankenstein’s death within the context of his arctic exploration. Within Frankenstein’s account is the monster’s own tale of what he did after fleeing from Frankenstein: how he watched the De Laceys and came to understand human speech, emotion, and history. Each of the stories presents comparisons and contrasts to the others. For example, Walton’s exploration of the Arctic is a scientific discovery similar to Frankenstein’s creation of the monster, but Walton’s expedition fails when his men force him to turn back, whereas Frankenstein does succeed in creating the monster, although the results are questionable.

In addition to having the stories play off one another, Shelley uses the characters to play off one another. Walton, for instance, feels much sympathy for Frankenstein but resembles the monster. He, too, longs for companionship-he has “no friend…no one to participate [in] my joy…to sustain me in dejection.” When Frankenstein dies, Walton loses both his dreams of friendship and his dream of discovery.

Another literary technique which Shelley uses to give greater depth to her story is literary allusion. Frankenstein is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus,” an allusion to the Greek god Prometheus who championed humankind and brought fire to it. Prometheus’s kindness toward humanity, however, has a backlash: humans are alienated from heaven. Frankenstein is a modern Prometheus in that, striving against human limitations to bring light to people, he creates a human-like creature but alienates himself from his creation once he sees it can never fit into humanity.

Another important literary allusion in Frankenstein is to Paradise Lost. The book is introduced by three lines from Paradise Lost, and Paradise Lost is one of the three books which the monster reads and on which he founds his beliefs about the cosmos. He sees himself as both Adam and Satan-alone like Adam before Eve, yet bitter like Satan viewing the bliss of God. From these and other uses of literary allusion, Shelley makes her story much more than a horror story of a mad doctor and his monster; it is a creation story of profound frustration, alienation and responsibility with resonances of ancient Greek and Christian thought.

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