Frankenstein Study Questions

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Frankenstein Study Questions

  1. What does Mary Shelley’s introduction reveal about her purposes in writing Frankenstein, publishing it, and republishing it years later?

  1. Keep track of the nature imagery throughout the novel, especially weather/storms, temperature, places (mountains, Arctic, forest, etc.). How does the imagery interact with the thematic messages?

  2. How do the opening letters set up the story? Whose point of view do we see the events from in the letters, then in the narrative? How is this point of view important?

  3. Why do you think Shelley writes this novel as a "framed tale," a story within a story? What do Walton and Frankenstein have in common in their backgrounds?

  4. From his letters, draw a character sketch of Walton.

  5. How does Victor’s childhood prepare him for becoming a scientist who will go beyond the limits that have stopped others? Think about where he lived and what he read.

  6. Why does Frankenstein create the creature?

  7. How does Victor react to creating life? What is your assessment of him based on this reaction?

  8. Are we supposed to admire, or condemn, Victor for his extreme states of mind? How would you analyze him, psychologically speaking?

  9. Describe the creature’s original personality and its metamorphosis. What causes the creature to become violent? Look at all possible factors.

  10. Frankenstein jumps to a conclusion about his brother's murder; is he justified? Why or why not? How do you feel about Frankenstein's silence after Justine's trial?

  11. How is your viewpoint affected when the creature tells his story? What part(s) of his story are most influential in how you react to him?

  12. How does Shelley characterize society, justice, and injustice in relation to Victor’s criterion?

  13. In chapter XX, when Victor Frankenstein destroys the creature’s Eve, are we meant to approve or disapprove?

  14. Why does the creature want Victor Frankenstein to live?

  15. When Walton faces the decision whether or not to abandon his quest, what do you think should he do?

  16. Do you approve, or disapprove, of Frankenstein’s speech of inspiration to Walton’s men? Does he remind you of Dante’s Ulysses in Canto 26 of the Inferno?

  17. When Victor Frankenstein advises Walton to "seek happiness in tranquility," then adds, "Yet another may succeed," do you think he is renouncing his dream of omnipotence, or holding on to it?

  18. When Walton gets the chance to kill the creature, why doesn’t he?

  19. What is the significance of the fact that at the end of the novel the creature escapes upon the ice? Kenneth Branagh’s film has him self immolate. Was that the right way to end the story?

  20. Do you think that in the nuclear age, in the age of genetically engineered crops, in the age of cloning, Frankenstein has more relevance to us than it did for Shelley’s early 19th Century audience? What lessons should we learn from this parable of scientific pursuit?

  21. In the end, whom are we supposed to sympathize with more, Victor, or the Creature?

  22. In viewing this novel as a tragedy, which it is from the classic standpoint, what is Victor’s tragic flaw?

  23. How does Shelley handle the concepts of love and friendship in her novel?

Bonus Questions Based on Further Studies

You may choose to do all or only a few of these bonus questions which all require some extra reading and studying on the subject. Total points earned depends on how many questions you take on.

    1. What did Shelley learn from John Milton in telling the creature’s side of the story, Chapters X through XVII?

    2. What side do you think Mary Shelley takes in the debate between Jonathan Swift and Jean Jacques Rousseau on the nature of man and the nature of education?

    3. In the creation of the personality and sensibility of Victor Frankenstein, do you think Mary Shelley was influenced by Goethe?

    4. Do you think that in writing Frankenstein Mary Shelley was more influenced by her father, William Godwin or her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft?

    5. Do you think the cinematic renditions of the creature are true to the novel? Which do you think comes closest?

    6. Should we read Frankenstein literally, or should we interpret it from a psychoanalytic, feminist, lesbian, Marxist, or cinematic perspective? Some combination? Something else?

    7. Do you consider Frankenstein a "romantic" novel? How?

    8. Think about this story in relation to these others: Oedipus; the fall of Satan from heaven; Adam & Eve. What similarities do you see in the storyline and main characters?


(circa  45 - 125 A.D.)
Priest of the Delphic Oracle

       Greece, by the turn of the first millenium, was a sad ruin of its former glory.  Mighty Rome had looted its statues and reduced Greece to conquered territory. 1  Despite these circumstances, Mestrius Plutarchus (known to history as Plutarch) lived a long and fruitful life with his wife and family in the little Greek town of Chaeronea. 

       For many years Plutarch served as one of the two priests at the temple of Apollo at Delphi (the site of the famous Delphic Oracle) twenty miles from his home.  By his writings and lectures Plutarch became a celebrity in the Roman empire, yet he continued to reside where he was born, and actively participated in local affairs, even serving as mayor.  At his country estate, guests from all over the empire congregated for serious conversation, presided over by Plutarch in his marble chair.  Many of these dialogues were recorded and published, and the78 essays and other works which have survived are now known collectively as the Moralia.  

       After the horrors of Nero and Domitian, and the partisan passions of civil war, Rome was ready for some gentle enlightenment from the priest of Apollo.  Plutarch's essays and his lectures established him as a leading thinker in the Roman empire's golden age: the reigns of Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian.

       The study and judgment of lives was always of paramount importance for Plutarch.  In the Moralia, Plutarch expresses a belief in reincarnation. 2   His letter of consolation to his wife, after the death of their two-year-old daughter, gives us a glimpse of his philosophy:

"The soul, being eternal, after death is like a caged bird that has been released.  If it has been a long time in the body, and has become tame by many affairs and long habit, the soul will immediately take another body and once again become involved in the troubles of the world.  The worst thing about old age is that the soul's memory of the other world grows dim, while at the same time its attachment to things of this world becomes so strong that the soul tends to retain the form that it had in the body.  But that soul which remains only a short time within a body, until liberated by the higher powers, quickly recovers its fire and goes on to higher things."

       Once his judgment had been seasoned by maturity, and his writing skill by long practice on his essays, Plutarch commenced the composition of his immortal Parallel Lives.  The language Plutarch wrote in was Attic Greek, which was well-known to the educated class in the Roman Empire.  The installments of this ponderous work (what has survived totals approximately 800,000 words, ~1300 pages of fine print) were sent to Sosius Senecio, who was consul of Rome during the years 99, 102, and 107 A.D.  Through Sosius, Plutarch had the ear of the emperor Trajan and the means to have many copies of his work made.

      Plutarch's plan in the Lives was to pair a philosophical biography of a famous Roman with one of a Greek who was comparable in some way.  A short essay of comparison follows most of the pairs of lives.  His announced intention was not to write a chronicle of great historical events, but rather to examine the character of great men, as a lesson for the living.  Throughout the Lives, Plutarch pauses to deliver penetrating observations on human nature as illustrated by his subjects, so it is difficult to classify the Lives as history, biography, or philosophy.  These timeless studies of humanity are truly in a class by themselves.

       Plutarch's Greek heroes had been dead for at least 300 years by the time he wrote their lives (circa 100 A.D.).  Plutarch therefore had to rely on old manuscripts, many of which are no longer available.  But even the legends of antiquity may be smelted by the power of reason to yield some insight, as Plutarch assures us at the beginning of his life of Theseus.  It is up to the reader to use this divine spark to intuit the truth from the details by means of the power of abstraction, which is "passing from a plurality of perceptions to a unity gathered together by reason."  (Plato, Phaedrus 249).  Plutarch himself had no faith in the accuracy of even the purportedly factual materials he had to work with, as is evident from this comment in his life of Pericles:

"It is so hard to find out the truth of anything by looking at the record of the past.  The process of time obscures the truth of former times, and even contemporaneous writers disguise and twist the truth out of malice or flattery."

       The Romans loved the Lives, and enough copies were written out over the next centuries so that a copy of most of the lives managed to survive the coming Dark Ages of dogma and neglect.  However, many lives which appear in a list of his writings, such as those of Hercules, Scipio Africanus, and Epaminondas, have not been found and may be lost forever.

       At the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, it was the rediscovery of Plutarch's Lives that stimulated popular interest in the classics.  Epitomes, which hit the highlights of the best stories and were written in Tuscan and other local dialects, circulated as popular literature.  Captains and merchants took time to read the popularized Plutarch for its practical wisdom, and thus the Lives not only survived, but became a huge hit all over Europe during the Renaissance. 3   "We dunces would have been lost if this book had not raised us out of the dirt," said Montaigne of the first French edition (1559). 4    C.S. Lewis concludes that in Elizabethan England, "Plutarch's Lives built the heroic ideal of the Elizabethan age." 5    Sir Thomas North prepared the first English edition of Plutarch's Lives in 1579, and Shakespeare borrowed heavily from it. 6   In 1683, a team of translators headed by John Dryden authored a complete translation from the original Greek (North had translated from Amyot's French edition).  

       Great souls have found comfort in Plutarch's wisdom.   Beethoven, growing deaf, wrote in 1801: "I have often cursed my Creator and my existence.  Plutarch has shown me the path of resignation.  If it is at all possible, I will bid defiance to my fate, though I feel that as long as I live there will be moments when I shall be God's most unhappy creature ... Resignation, what a wretched resource!  Yet it is all that is left to me."  Facing death in Khartoum, General Gordon took time to note: "Certainly I would make Plutarch's Lives a handbook for our young officers.  It is worth any number of 'Arts of War' or 'Minor Tactics'." 7   Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Lives "a bible for heroes." 8 

       By the twentieth century, however, Plutarch's popularity began to fade.  Professional classicists produced no revitalizing new edition of the Lives in modern English, and by the 1990's, classical studies had so declined in popularity that a riot at Stanford University featured thousands of the top students in the United States chanting the battlecry of the new creed, Diversity: "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Culture's Got To Go."  Plutarch's heroes had no place in their brave new world of gray equality, populated by puppets of money, resentful of eminence. 

        Moreover, all discrimination between good and bad was actively suppressed among the intelligentsia.  In the words of Simone Weil: "The essential characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century is the growing weakness, and almost the disappearance, of the idea of value. ... But above all [those responsible were] the writers who were the guardians of the treasure that has been lost; and some of them now take pride in having lost it." 9

       Another cause for Plutarch's loss of popularity was that reading skills declined generally with the advent more seductive entertainment such as television and Nintendo games, and the decline of public schools.  Plutarch's elaborate sentence structure and long digressions, preserved in the Dryden edition, are a challenge to modern young readers of English, who, if they read at all, require a pruned-down text that gets to the point. 

       As classics departments continue to close, embattled scholars demand cramdown Greek grammar for all, and Greek drama in the original.  The best has indeed become the enemy of the good.  Scholastic diligence has produced such a dense cloud of ink that the ancient light grows dim, and so, at the end of the twentieth century, the cycle of Plutarch's popularity has reached its perigee. 

       But Plutarch will always come back, as he has after other dark ages.  We find Plutarch surprisingly relevant today because nothing really has changed in human nature over the nineteen centuries since Plutarch wrote.  As the greatest English thinker, Samuel Johnson, put it: "... we are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure."  The Rambler, No. 60.  And we all need heroic examples to show us the way.

       There is a definite effect on readers of these ancient stories.  Emerson said: "We cannot read Plutarch without a tingling of the blood; and I accept the saying of the Chinese Mencius:  'A sage is the instructor of a hundred ages.  When the manners of Loo are heard of, the stupid become intelligent, and the wavering, determined.' " 10   The spiritually inductive power of Plutarch's heroes, apart from Plutarch's own skill at sketching character and imparting wisdom, may explain the perennial appeal of theLives.

       To the biographies of his heroes, Plutarch brought a master's eye for the essence.  Impressionist artists and poets are not to be faulted for failing to record every detail of their subjects with scrupulous fidelity, and likewise we should recognize that a deft sentence from Plutarch means more than volumes from minor scribes.  Historical details are only incidental to the character of Plutarch's subjects.  He clearly disclaims any pretensions to being a historian at the beginning of his life of Alexander: "My intention is not to write histories, but lives."  The difference between Plutarch and a dry chronicle of the times is the difference between a cake and a pile of ingredients, understanding and knowledge, a person and a corpse.  

       It is this difference which makes a classic.  Plutarch transcends the historical subjects he deals with and the period he wrote in.  As Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, we may say of Plutarch: "He was not of an age, but for all time."


1.      Rome destroyed Corinth and enslaved its population in 146 B.C.  Macedonia had already been crushed at the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C.  The Peloponnesus became a Roman province in 27 B.C.

2.     Plutarch believed in one unitary god, with different names for its different aspects.  In between god and mortal men, Plutarch believed that there was an infinite hierarchy of other beings, who were subject to death and rebirth but on longer cycles.  Inasmuch as they had not completely purged all of their passions, these spiritual beings had weaknesses, such as anger.  Men could be promoted into angels, and angels could be demoted into men, according to how they had lived their previous lives.

3.     One of the first books printed was a complete edition of the Lives translated into Latin from the original Greek, published in Rome in 1470.  First publication of the Lives in the major European languages occurred as follows: Italian (1482), Spanish (1491), German (1541), French (1559), and English (1579).

4.     Montaigne, "To Morrow is a New Day," in The Essayes of Montaigne, tr. John Florio (paraphrased) (New York: Random House, 1933).

5.     C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954) p. 305.

6.     For the influence of Plutarch on Shakespeare, see Antony and CleopatraCoriolanusJulius Caesar, and Timon of Athens.  Characters having Plutarchean names are found in A Midsummer Night's DreamPericles, and The Winter's Tale.

7.     C.G. Gordon, The Journals of Major-Gen. C.G. Gordon, C.B., at Khartoum, edited by A. Egmont Hake (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1885) p. 64.  Cf. pp. 163 and 240.

8.     Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Introduction" to Plutarch's Morals, edited by William W. Goodwin (London: Sampson, Low, 1870) p. xxi.

9.     Simone Weil, "The Responsibility of Writers" in The Simone Weil Reader, edited by George A. Panichas (New York: David McKay Co., 1977).

10.     Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Uses of Great Men" in Representative Men (1850).

Sorrows of Werter

Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of the Young Werter) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was originally published anonymously in Leipzig in 1774. Almost instantly it became a best seller, catapulting its young and unknown author into fame and a major literary career that would span more than half a century. By the end of the decade the novel had been translated into the other European languages, attaining a pan-European success that continued well into the nineteenth century: as late as 1892 it afforded Jules Massenet one of his greatest musical triumphs at the Paris Opera.

The first French translation was published in 1777 as the work of C. Aubry, a pseudonym for Friedrich Wilhelm Karl, Graf von Schmettau (1742-1806), and it was frequently reprinted in that language. The first English version, by Daniel Malthus, was published in 1779 as The Sorrows of Werter, using the French text, rather than Goethe's original, as its base. It is not therefore a strict translation, but since presumably the Creature reads this novel in its French adaptation, this is the version included in this hypertext edition.

The novel coincided with what has come to be known as the Age of Sensibility, whose flames it helped to fan. it is an epistolary novel, told in Werther's voice and from his perspective, and there is little in the way of plot. Charlotte, the oldest of six children, is left an orphan by the sudden death of her mother, and she marries the sensible, if somewhat plodding, Albert as a means of holding the family together. Onto the scene comes the young student Werther who is befriended by the couple but then falls passionately in love with Lotte. His infatuation progressively deepens to a point of desperation in which he commits suicide. The novel was said to be responsible for making suicide fashionable among the young men of Europe.

What the Creature responds to are less the episodes of the plot or even the dynamics of infatuation than the sense of moral emptiness that Werther finds in the world and from which he turns for refuge to the somewhat maternal Lotte. Precociously intellectual with a late-adolescent intensity, Werther too seeks to understand his identity and to discover his place in a middle-class milieu that cares for little that is not prudent and sensible, the world represented by Albert. In reference to the particular dynamics of Mary Shelley's novel, this milieu would appear very much on the order of the temperate Swiss world of Alphonse Frankenstein and Henry Clerval's father. Thus, curiously enough, the novel establishes a link to Goethe's fiction both through the intense self-questioning and bleak alienation of the Creature as well as the obsessive behavior of his creator Victor Frankenstein, who also turns away from the commonplace Geneva expectations in which he was raised to fathom a new mode of being.

Kubla Khan

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer

In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Theme Analysis

Several themes seem to run through Shelley’s Frankenstein, some obvious, others subtle. The most widely heralded theme is the idea that ignorance is bliss. In Shelley's time, the power of human reason, through science and technology, challenged many traditional precepts about the world and man's relationship with his creator. Yet at the same time, many questioned these humanist notions, stressing the limits of human capacity. Shelley details this theme in her book, making an allusion to the counter-humanist idea in chapter four when Victor warns Walton not to follow in his footsteps, saying, “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” Indeed, to Shelley and many others of her time, some riddles of nature should never be discovered by man. Even the alternate title, The Modern Prometheus, undeniably relates this point. Prometheus, a figure in Greek mythology, took fire from the gods in order to give it to man and consequently suffered eternal punishment. Clearly, Victor Frankenstein is this modern Prometheus; in a way, he stole the idea of creation from God and used it for his own ill-advised purposes.
A second theme stresses the idea of human injustice towards outsiders. Throughout his narrative, the monster laments over man's cruelty to those who are different. Indeed, Frankenstein's monster is an outcast; he doesn't belong in human society. Yet the monster's alienation from society, his unfulfilled desire for a companion with whom to share his life, and his ongoing struggle for revenge, are all shared by his creator. As the story develops, Victor becomes increasingly like his creation. Both live in relative isolation from society, both hate their own miserable lives, and both know suffering. Shelley, through this theme, paints a very bleak portrait of man and his relationship with outsiders, as well as the cruel vengeance of society.
A third, subtler theme, indicts society for its sexist viewpoints. Throughout his narrative, Victor portrays women as weak, suffering, subservient beings who live for and depend on the men in their lives. Surely Shelley experienced this in her own life, though she may or may not have agreed with it. Ironically, the monster, the one who Victor calls a barbarian, has a very progressive notion of the opposite sex. He believes that men and women are largely equal, not being brought up in Frankenstein's pre-feminist culture. The monster's desire for a female companion does not convey a desire to rule over a woman or a belief that a woman should be dependent on him, but it simply shows his need for an equal companion with whom to share his sufferings.

Frankenstein Character Study

In five stages, you will become very familiar with one of the main characters in Frankenstein and share your perceptions with your classmates so that we all may attain a closer understanding of these people and their actions.

  1. Take five minutes and write everything you know about one character in Mary Shelly’s classic novel. Include physical attributes well as mental and emotional components of this character’s personality.

  1. Select a few passages that support your writing. Write the page numbers and more significant words and phrases from the quotes you‘ve found. Explain why these passages helped you gain a better understanding of your character.

  1. Select six adjectives that clearly describe this person. Fold a blank sheet of paper in six sections in which you can write a sentence for each adjective that describes what you see in this person. For bonus points, you may draw pictures for each adjective.

  1. Write a letter as your chosen character to another character in the novel. This letter should be written in their voice as an expression of their feelings regarding the situations that have occurred.

  1. Based on all the work put into this letter, write a character analysis essay in which you break down this person in all his or her finer points and expose his reason for action, results, and how he has affected those around him. The essay will serve as a test for this project.

All work will be collected at the end of each stage and graded separately. Most will be completed in less than one class period and the essay may be completed over three days. Your final draft must be typed with the standard format. Any questions, please ask.

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