Theme of Parent-Child Tensions in Frankenstein

Modified: 18th May 2020
Wordcount: 1480 words

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 The novel Frankenstein is referenced heavily on the author’s, Mary Shelley’s, own family relationships. Mary Shelley’s troubled family became translated into her writing. The resulting theme is the failure of human beings to “parent” their offspring. Such children become unable to take a proper place in society and turn into recluses. Parental responsibility was emphasized in Frankenstein’s time. Shelley reflected her parent’s subtle misconduct toward their children in the parents of her story: Victor’s parents to Victor, and Walton’s writings to Margaret, and Victor’s negligence and abuse of his creature.

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Parental failure is the signal of people who are unwilling to be a part of society. They misuse or reject their places as parents. They are usually insensitive to their child’s needs, and most families fail in similar ways. Within the novel, Victor recognizes that he was only an object of his parent’s love, not a participant. From a young age, he was taught patience, charity, and self-control. With Elizabeth, they had no quarrels, only harmony, and Elizabeth becomes his own plaything like his parents formed out of him, a possession. Other parents that have failed their children include Justine’s mother, who gives up her daughter to her surrogate family, and the De Laceys, who was able to figuratively “see” the character of the creature, not prejudiced by his appearance; his children destroy the chance of kinship for the creature by enabling their father to “see through their eyes,” removing his unprejudiced view.

Victor is not the only character in the novel with family troubles. This theme is evident in every character of the world in some way. Elizabeth is orphaned, Henry is discouraged from academic life, Justine loses her father and is left with her mother, Beaufort betrays Safie’s interest over his pride. The most important conflict than Victor is Walton to Margaret, in which he tries to prove himself and his actions to her; an emphasis on the “murky undercurrents” of parent-child relationships.

 Most of the novel is spent on telling Victor’s struggles, which mirror or represent Shelley’s own struggles. Alphonse Frankenstein is insensitive to Victor’s state as a person. He disapproves of his grief of his mother and loves Victor conditionally. This leaves a scar on Victor for his life.

 Victor is also rebelling from his father in a sense, through his academic pursuits. This also mirrors Shelley’s own struggles against moral obligations. Shelley was cast off from her father’s favor with her marriage and refusing his advice in her grief for her child that passed away, for the threat of loss of love from her close friends and loved ones. The child’s sensibilities were consistently ignored with Shelley and Victor, as well as consistent disapproval.

 Such neglected children can be influenced either positively or negatively. “The need to win approval” can push for excellence in studies or skills, or it can be twisted too far; Victor is a clear example of such extremes. He wanted to create a new species but feels “guilty of a crime” after becoming successful. He created a creature to give terrible horror, though he repressed the truth, to overthrow his father’s authority over him as Victor’s creator. The creature is inferior to none, in physical ability. Victor finds this to be his fatal mistake with his reversal of roles from the neglected child to becoming the failed parent himself. His creation, his child, takes his revenge on his creator, his parent.

 Walton also reflects Shelley. He pushes for his lofty dream voyage, though his replacement mother, Margaret, has implied anxiety about his journey. He wishes to kill his father through his rebellion, though he reminds Margaret of the danger of his own peril many times. The subtle attempts at gaining power in Walton’s letters reveal his attempt at gaining his own independence from his father’s will, a rebellion against his parent. Walton ends up failing, giving up his journey for the sake of his crew’s lives, and Walton returns to parent-child relationships.

 Returning to the main subject of Frankenstein, Victor becomes the unwilling bearer of the parent role with his creature’s creation. He is enchanted by his ability over his child’s body, in choosing the “parts” he desires for his creation. It becomes cruelly ironic with the final result’s grotesque figure; that Victor is disgusted and abhors his creation. Such a creation is what is sown from his aggressive emotions for his past and his parents, as well as the guilt of such feelings. Still, Victor abandons his responsibilities as a parent, justifying his repulsion through the creature’s appearance. Victor still is aware of his connection to the creature, but he makes no effort to fulfill its needs. Such a view of the creature is caused by Victor’s parents, who treated their children as playthings to satisfy them. When his creature does not please him as an object, Victor repels it.

 Shelley’s influence from her life is evident. She directly infers her experience with the portrait of Caroline over her father’s coffin with the creature’s anguish over his dead creator. Its creator refused to do his duty for it, therefore it did not honor or appreciate its creator; a resonance of Shelley’s parental advice from her writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

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 Since the creature has no human connection, it thrives in its own self-education. It is different from Victor in which it learns what life is about, while his creator researched only as far as obtaining power over life. The creature wonders over its own unique creation, though he will never be answered. The world will never answer his questions, shaping it only to cause others pain to quiet the feelings of its own worthlessness; it is unnatural, not being nature’s child or belonging with mankind. The creature’s nature is not to destroy, but to create a presence for itself in the world. It is motivated by its rejection from William, one he thought would be innocent through youth, and from Justine, who is a representation of the relationships that it cannot obtain. The creature is pushed to such extremes as having his creator pursue it into the North Pole, a place of isolation relating to the creatures. A metaphor of the cold in which the creature is unaffected shows how naturally it is shaped by isolation, how “at home” the creature is in such ultimate seclusion. With Victor’s death, the creature’s motivations for revenge through isolation are clear, and the horror at its completion spells an end to the creature’s purpose.

 While Victor and his creature represent subvert civilization, Walton is the resolution between the desire for affection and the pull of ambitions, a balanced society. He was a “potential Frankenstein,” but he has responsibilities to his crew and their fears. Walton is someone that has to “raise the spirits of others” to keep his own up; unlike Victor, who leeches off other people’s spirits for his own. Walton fulfills his responsibility to his peers and family and gives up on his dream. He is like the parental figure of his crew, and Walton fulfills that role with Victor and the creature, in which he listens to the story calls upon the creature to stay.

 Walton became a mature adult, rather than letting his past as a neglected child filling him with pity for himself. He fully takes on the parental role, “He chooses human connections (J. M. Hill). Walton represents Shelley’s vision of a “modern Prometheus.” One that forgoes poetic exaggeration and romanticism for a real view of human limits and needs. Shelley’s story is transformed from a “dream story” to a commentary of modern proportions.

Works Cited

  • Brooks, Peter. “In Body Work (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, l993), Pp. 199-220; Reprinted in Frankenstein/Mary Shelley, Ed. Fred Botting (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), Pp. 81-106.” “What Is a Monster? (According to Frankenstein)”, 1993, Accessed 7 Sept. 2019.
    • Claridge, Laura P. “Parent-Child Tensions in Frankenstein: The Search for Communion.” Studies in the Novel, 17:1 (Spring 1985), Accessed 7 Sept. 2019.
    • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus : the 1818 Text. Oxford ; New York :Oxford University Press, 1998. Accessed 7 Sept. 2019.


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