Frankenstein Themes, Symbols, and Literary Devices

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a 19th-century epistolary novel associated with both the Romantic and the Gothic genres. The novel, which follows a scientist named Frankenstein and the horrifying creature he creates, explores the pursuit of knowledge and its consequences, as well as the human desire for connection and community. Shelley depicts these themes against the backdrop of a sublime natural world and reinforces them using symbolism.

Pursuit of Knowledge

Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, when major breakthroughs in technology were transforming society. One of the central themes in the novel—man’s pursuit of knowledge and scientific discovery—explores the subsequent anxieties of this period. Frankenstein is obsessed with uncovering the secrets of life and death with ruthless ambition; he disregards his family and ignores all affection as he pursues his studies. His academic trajectory in the novel seems to mirror mankind’s scientific history, as Frankenstein begins with the medieval philosophies of alchemy, then moves on to the modern practices of chemistry and mathematics at university.

Frankenstein's efforts lead him to discover of the cause of life, but the fruit of his pursuit is not positive. Rather, his creation only brings sadness, misfortune, and death. The creature Frankenstein produces is an embodiment of man’s scientific enlightenment: not beautiful, as Frankenstein thought he would be, but vulgar and horrifying. Frankenstein is filled with disgust at his creation and falls sick for months as a result. Catastrophe surrounds the creature, who directly kills Frankenstein’s brother William, his wife Elizabeth, and his friend Clerval, and indirectly ends the life of Justine.

In his search for the root of human life, Frankenstein created a deformed simulacrum of man, privy to all the usual human degradations. With the disastrous consequences of Frankenstein’s achievement, Shelley seems to raise the question: does merciless pursuit of knowledge ultimately cause more harm than good to humankind?

Frankenstein presents his story to Captain Walton as a warning for others who wish, like he did, to be greater than nature intended. His story illustrates the downfall caused by human hubris. At the end of the novel, Captain Walton appears to heed to the lesson in Frankenstein’s story, as he calls off his dangerous exploration to the North Pole. He turns away from the possible glory of scientific discovery in order to save his own life, as well as the lives of his crewmen.

Importance of Family

In opposition to the pursuit of knowledge is the pursuit of love, community, and family. This theme is most clearly expressed through the creature, whose singular motivation is to seek human compassion and companionship.

Frankenstein isolates himself, puts aside his family, and ultimately loses those dearest to him, all for his scientific ambition. The creature, on the other hand, wants precisely what Frankenstein has turned away. He especially wishes to be embraced by the De Lacey family, but his monstrous physique bars him from acceptance. He confronts Frankenstein to ask for a female companion, but is betrayed and cast away. It is this isolation that drives the creature to seek revenge and kill. Without Frankenstein, his proxy for a “father,” the creature is essentially alone in the world, an experience that ultimately turns him into the monster he appears to be.

A scene from the 1931 film adaptation of
A scene from the 1931 film adaptation of "Frankenstein.". Archive Photos / Getty Images

There are multiple orphans in the novel. Both the Frankenstein family and the De Lacey family take in outsiders (Elizabeth and Safie respectively) to love as their own. But these characters are markedly dissimilar to the creature, as they are both nurturing, matriarchal figures to fill in for the absence of mothers. Family may be the primary source for love, and a powerful source for purpose in life at odds with the ambition for scientific knowledge, but it is nevertheless presented as a dynamic in conflict. Throughout the novel, family is an entity fraught with the potential for loss, suffering, and hostility. The Frankenstein family is torn apart by revenge and ambition, and even the idyllic De Lacey family is marked by poverty, the absence of a mother, and a lack of compassion as they turn the creature away. Shelley presents family as an important means for love and purpose, but she also depicts the familial bond as complicated and perhaps impossible to achieve.

Nature and the Sublime

The tension between the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of belonging play out against the background of sublime nature. The sublime is an aesthetic, literary and philosophical concept of the Romantic period that encapsulates the experience of awe in the face of the natural world’s extreme beauty and greatness. The novel opens with Walton’s expedition to the North Pole, then moves through the mountains of Europe with the narratives of Frankenstein and the creature.

These desolate landscapes mirror the problems of human life. Frankenstein climbs Montanvert as a way to clear his mind and minimize his human sorrows. The monster runs to the mountains and glaciers as refuge from civilization and all its human fallibilities, which cannot accept him for his façade.

Nature is also presented as the ultimate wielder of life and death, greater even than Frankenstein and his discoveries. Nature is what ultimately kills both Frankenstein and his creature as they chase after one another further into the icy wilderness. The sublime uninhabited terrains, of equal beauty and terror, frame the novel’s confrontations with humanity so that they underline the vastness of the human soul.

Symbolism of Light

One of the most important symbols in the novel is light. Light is tied to the theme of knowledge as enlightenment, as both Captain Walton and Frankenstein search for illumination in their scientific pursuits. The creature, by contrast, is doomed to spend much of his life in darkness, able to walk around only at night so that he may hide from humans. The idea of light as a symbol for knowledge also refers back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which darkness symbolizes ignorance and the sun symbolizes truth.

The symbolism of light arises when the creature burns himself in the embers of an abandoned campfire. In this instance, fire is both a source of comfort and danger, and it brings the creature closer to the contradictions of civilization. This use of fire links the novel with the myth of Prometheus: Prometheus stole fire from the gods to aid in humankind’s advancement, but was eternally punished by Zeus for his actions. Frankenstein similarly took a kind of ‘fire’ for himself, by harnessing a power not otherwise known to mankind, and is forced to repent for his actions.

Throughout the novel, light refers to knowledge and power and weaves in myths and allegories to make these concepts more complex—calling into question whether enlightenment for humankind is possible to achieve, and whether or not it should even be pursued.

Symbolism of Texts

The novel is filled with texts, as sources of communication, truth, and education, and as a testament to human nature. Letters were a ubiquitous source of communication during the 19th century, and in the novel, they are used to express innermost feelings. For example, Elizabeth and Frankenstein confess their love for one another through letters.

Letters are also used as proof, as when the creature copies Safie’s letters explaining her situation, in order to validate his tale to Frankenstein. Books also play an important role in the novel, as the origin of the creature’s understanding of the world. Through reading Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives and the Sorrows of Werter, he learns to understand the De Lacey’s and becomes articulate himself. But these texts also teach him how to sympathize with others, as he realizes his own thoughts and feelings through the characters in the books. Likewise, in Frankenstein, texts are able to portray the more intimate, emotional truths of the characters in ways that other forms of communication and knowledge cannot.

The Epistolary Form

Letters are also important to the novel's structure. Frankenstein is constructed as a nest of stories told in epistolary form. (An epistolary novel is one told through fictional documents, such as letters, diary entries, or newspaper clippings.)

The novel opens with Walton’s letters to his sister and later includes the first-person accounts of Frankenstein and the creature. Because of this format, the reader is privy to the thoughts and emotions of each individual character, and is able to sympathize with each one. That sympathy extends even to the creature, with whom none of the characters within the book sympathize. In this way, Frankenstein as a whole serves to demonstrate the power of narration, because the reader is able to develop sympathy for the monster through his first-person storytelling.