Frankenstein – Context

Image © The National Theatre

As we have said before, you won’t be able to get into the higher bands on the mark scheme if you do not include context (AO3). We already have a post on context for The Handmaid’s Tale, made by Beth, so be sure to have a look at both this one and that one to ensure you have context for both texts throughout your essays. There is a lot here, so try to get at familiar with a lot of it, you will know most of it anyway, but there be more sophisticated context that you can use here 🙂

Other works that influenced Frankenstein (either production or reception)

‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ – William Wordsworth 1798

“that blessed mood ,
In which the burthen of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened
…..We see into the life of things”

This poem explore ideas of The Sublime, a typical Gothic feature, which explicitly relates to the Romantic Movement in the 18th/19th centuries (see below in Generic Features)


In the beginning of Frankenstein, ‘The Modern Prometheus’ is offered by Shelley as an alternate name to her novel. Prometheus was a Son of a God in Greek Mythology who stole fire to give life. This is an example of transgression and can be linked to how Frankenstein gives life through transgression.

Percy Shelley actually wrote his own Prometheus, taking the story to heart and developing a Romantic notion of himself and his heroes suffering champions of humanity.

Paradise Lost – John Milton 1667

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

Paradise Lost is referenced several times throughout Frankenstein, especially as being a major source of the creature’s knowledge. There is an obvious link between the creature and Adam (to which, he even refers to himself as)…

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drives from joy for no misdeed

Both Adam and The Creature are horrified at their appearances…

“Woe, woe unto the shaper of my body” – Adam, Paradise Lost

“My person was hideous and my stature gigantic” – The Creature, Frankenstein

Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Both frame narratives
  • For their transgressions, Victor and the Old Mariner must watch everyone they love die, whilst they live and suffer
  • It is alluded to a lot in the novel
  • Walton expresses his “passionate enthusiasm for…the dangerous mysteries of ocean”
  • Both the Mariner and Walton set out for “the land of mist and snow”
  • The creature quotes a passage from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner…

“Like one who on a lonesome road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind his tread”

Lives – Plutarch

Sorrows of Werter – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

Historical and Political

  • Galvanism – re-animating a corpse using electricity. In 1803, Giovanni Aldini, Luigi Galvani’s nephew stating that carrying out galvanism on a freshly excited criminal was humane, because it may relieve grief to those who are exposed to drowning, suffocation and other accidents
  • “On the first application of the [electric arcs] the jaw began to quiver…and the left eye actually opened”

Historical context is generally considered to be less valuable than generic or critical context, so if you put it in you must make sure to link it explicitly to your argument.

The Author

Births and deaths

  • Her own mother died from poisoning after giving birth to Mary Shelley
  • Early deaths of Mary Shelley’s 3/4 children
  • When her first baby died she wrote in her Journal “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived” – This could link to Victor’s dream that led him to creating the creature and bringing life from death
  • Losses of her husband Percy Shelley and friend Lord Byron
  • It is a very common theme in Frankenstein
  • Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet committed suicide whilst pregnant with his child as he left her to be with Mary Shelley

Beloved Attachment to her father William Godwin

  • In letters to friends she talked of “[her] excessive and romantic attachment to my father”, “Until I met [Percy] Shelley I could justly say that [Godwin] was my God…I remember many childish instances of the excess of attachment I bore him”
  • Could link to the Elektra Complex and Victor’s romantic attachment to his mother and sister
  • He basically disowned Mary after she and Percy eloped

William Godwin’s remarriage

  • Godwin remarried after Wollenstonecraft’s death because he felt he was “totally unfit to educate [his children]”
  • He married his next-door neighbour Mrs Mary Jane Clairmont
  • Mary hated her, once saying at the age of 17 “I detest Mrs G. She plagues my father out of his life.”
  • There could be a link made here. Victor creates the creature in the opinion that it will be great and beneficial, just as Godwin remarried to improve the lives of his children, including Mary. However both the creature and Claremont brought great misery to those who brought them into the picture

That ‘ungenial’ Swiss summer of 1816

  • Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge set by Lord Byron when she, him and Percy were holidaying in the Swiss Alps
  • There is a general mood of the of that trip in Frankenstein
  • Byron described the summer as “I was half mad…between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love inextinguishable, thoughts unalterable”

Percy Shelley’s ‘over reaching heroes’

  • The idea that men had divine powers
  • Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s critique of where this kind of power can lead when in a scientific context

Percy Shelley as Victor Frankenstein

  • Victory was the name used by Percy during boyhood
  • Frankenstein is a ‘divine wanderer’ as Percy Shelley appeared to be
  • Mary described Percy like she does Victor “such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery and be overwhelmed by disappointments, yet when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him”
  • Both Victor and Percy used to lie at the bottom of the boat “and as [they] gazed on the cloudless blue sky, [they] seemed to drink in a tranquility to which [they] had been a stranger”

Typical Figures in Gothic Literature

  • Hero – protagonist of a work of literature. From Ancient Greek writings, a person who displays courage, bravery or self sacrifice for greater good
  • Hero-Villain – The villain of a story who either 1) poses as a hero at the beginning of the story or 2) possess enough heroic characteristics (sympathetic past, guilt etc…) so that the reader see them as more than as flawed or evil character. There are 3 main types of hero-villain:

– Satanic (Such as Satan in Paradise Lost as an example)
– Promethean (Based on Prometheus from Ancient Greek mythology – a character who has attempted to do something goof but only through a bad action/transgression)
– Byronic (Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, had characters which echoes his qualities: aristocratic, moody, handsome, cynical and secretly struggling in their lives)

  • Pursued Female – A ‘defenceless’ maiden ‘exposed to tyranny and loss’ – David Punter. Virgin, fainting, passive. Different to the typical ‘whore’ like figure who were the other type of women who had the power of luring men to do what they wanted

We looked at these figures when considering Victor and tried to place him in one of the categories but soon realised that he has qualities of each (even the female, although he is a man)

Romanticism and Education

Jean Jacques Rousseau – a Genovese philosopher who believed that man had become corrupted by society and civilisation

  1. He saw a divide between society and nature
  2. Man has been corrupted by the artificiality of society and the growth of social independence (wanting absolute personal power)
  3. He believed that nature was the ultimate good
  4. He wrote Emile in 1762 in which he set out his influential views and about how the aim of education is to learn how to live righteously
  5. He minimised the importance of book learning and put more emphasis on learning by experience
  6. He has a very different educational process for women

The Creature enjoys the state of innocence that Rousseau had made famous, before being corrupted by evil in society

Mary Wollenstonecraft – Mary Shelley’s mother who was, in her day, seen as a dangerous radical and ridiculed by conservative thinkers

  1. Pioneer feminist writer
  2. Didn’t agree with Rousseau that the education of women should be relative to men
  3. She wrote in her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that women have a diverse range of duties and roles within life and that this is wondrous
  4. An Age of Enlightenment radical – her ideas about the liberation of women
  5. Influenced by the French Revolution
  6. Died shortly after giving birth to Mary Shelley

William Godwin – Mary Shelley’s father who was an ex-minister turned atheist

  1. Influenced by the French Revolution
  2. Wrote Enquiry Concerning Political Justice 1793
  3. He believed thing like the government, law, marriage tended to put rigid practises into people’s lives and instead wanted ‘universal benevolence’ – all loving, to create a just society
  4. Percy Shelley idolised him and that is how Mary and Percy met
  5. The creature’s explanation of himself and his doings is a key demonstration of Godwinian social-psychological theory
  6. “Real knowledge is benevolent, not cruel and retailing”

Age of Enlightenment

  1. Tried to rewrite history
  2. Religion was humanised, it was not bound up in tradition and superstition
  3. The French Revolution is a key example
  4. The Romantics didn’t agree with it (perhaps with the exception of William Blake)
  5. William Blake used the term ‘monster’ when talking of the French Revolution
  6. They did’t like the smallness and orderliness of it
  7. Instead they appreciated entities like infinity, elevation, wild and untamed aspects of nature
  8. Greatly influenced by Edmund Burke

The Romantics

  1. 1st Generation – William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  2. 2nd Generation – Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats
  3. A strong importance of light ‘The sun is God’ – Turner (A Romantic Painter)

Generic Features

The Sublime Concept – ‘Something both greater in size and stature which beauty and power is almost incomprehensible to the human mind which reduces all man’s issues to insignificant in contrast to the numinosity of the experience’ (We also have a post or two on the Sublime in Frankenstein on the blog so do make sure to have a look at it!)

  1. There is a lack of control over it – terrifying – e.g. an avalanche or a storm
  2. Numinous – things much bigger and more important than one’s self
  3. Felt throughout the body like blood
  4. Everything is made clear through perspective – “weight of all this unintelligible world is lightened” – Wordsworth
  5. Wordsworth (1st Generation Romantic Poet) concentrated a lot on the Sublime in his work “tranquil restoration”

The Supernatural or Preternatural – What is above nature, mysterious, inexplicable

  1. Not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural or physical material
  2. Attributed to a God or a deity, demigod, spirit or devil
  3. e.g. Ghosts, goblins

Some example of the Supernatural in Frankenstein:

  • The monster – Victor brought the dead to life – usurping God
  • Walton’s travels – Archangel is the most revered type of angel – St Peter guards the pearly gates of heaven
  • Modern Prometheus
  • “Learn from me, if not by my nature, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believe his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his precepts will allow”


Some examples in Frankenstein:

  • Fate vs Free Will – Victor thinks it was destiny to make the creature, whereas the master thinks he has free will
  • Death vs Life – Nearly all female characters in the book die, but there is also life such as the creation of the creature
  • Reason vs Passion – Victor knows he should rest but his passion drives him through. There is risk and danger when creating the creature but he forgets reason due to passion
  • Male vs Female – Most women in the book are submissive and die, their deaths give the power to the men. The creature wants a female companion.
  • Reality vs Fiction – How much can we trust Victor, explored through the framing structure of the narrative

The Doppelgänger – A German word meaning ‘double goer, a double or a second self. It could be:

  1. A twin
  2. A mirror of a character
  3. A second being that has developed from another character
  4. A being with alternate characteristic to it’s double, e.g. evil and good

Some examples in Frankenstein:

  • Frankenstein and The Creature
  • Frankenstein and Walton
  • Elizabeth and Justine

The Liminal Concept – Being on a boundary/borderline, the point of uncertainty

Examples in Frankenstein:

  • Death –> life (Victor making the creature)
  • Dream –> real life (Victor waking up from his dream after he creates the creature)
  • Being alone and being with family –> Clerical coming to Victor’s house
  • Life –> death (Justine “who was on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death”)

Lexical Clusters of light and dark (day & night)
Motif of the moon
Pursuing of a female (beautiful and innocent)
Over the top/hyperbolic language


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