Frankenstein and the Romantic Tradition

Grace Lapointe
11 min readMar 29, 2024

[Note: I found this essay on my computer, which I wrote for Professor Matthew Borushko’s class The Romantic Age in spring 2010 as a college junior. I have fixed a typo or two but otherwise haven’t edited it.

— Grace Lapointe]

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the monster exhibits several qualities associated with poets and artists in the Romantic tradition. Like many poets and artist figures in Romantic writing, he is often physically isolated from others, and his intellect seems to alienate him emotionally. The monster’s struggle to learn language reflects the idea, expressed in the poetry of John Keats, that emotions can be almost impossible to articulate. All three narrators are motivated by a desire for knowledge. The monster illustrates qualities often associated with artists in Romantic poetry, such as sensitivity, curiosity, and alienation, showing that these traits are inherent rather than instilled through culture.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is divided into three distinct sections, each with a different narrator: Robert Walton, an explorer searching for the North Pole, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and his creation, the monster. The complex narrative structure reflects the novel’s moral complexities, because readers must choose which character with whom to sympathize. By presenting each character’s point of view, the novel does not present one character as completely morally right. All three narrators are motivated by a desire for knowledge. In addition to sharing similar personal qualities, all three narrators attempt to justify themselves through their narratives. Like the character of the Poet in Percy Shelley’s poem “Alastor: or, The Spirit of Solitude,” all three narrators go on quests. The monster and Walton go on physical journeys, while Dr. Frankenstein’s main journey is his intellectual quest to create the monster. However, he does embark on a physical quest to destroy the monster by the end of the novel. By presenting both literal and figurative journeys, the novel draws a parallel between physical journeys and the intellectual quest of an education.

All three narrators exhibit an insatiable desire for knowledge. In the first chapter, Robert Walton writes in a letter from the Arctic that he is a failed poet: “I also became a poet and lived for one year in a paradise of my own creation; I imagined that I also might obtain a niche in the altar where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated” (M. Shelley 12). The fact that Walton is a failed poet creates a parallel between his physical journey to the Arctic and the figurative quests experienced by poets and other intellectuals. In Percy Shelley’s poem “Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude,” the Poet embarks on a quest to exotic lands, which can be viewed as a metaphor for his classical education. Schug writes that readers of romantic novels must actively participate in the characters’ quests rather than passively learning about them (Schug 611). The fact that Walton is creative also forms a parallel between Walton and Frankenstein, who attempts to create life.

While Walton literally embarks on a journey to the Arctic, Victor Frankenstein’s quest to create the monster resembles the Poet’s metaphorical quest in Percy Shelley’s “Alastor.” The Poet journeys through ancient civilizations: “Among the ruined temples there/Stupendous columns and wild images, of more than man, where marble daemons watch/The Zodiac’s brazen mystery, and dead men hang their mute thoughts on the mute walls around” (P. Shelley 115–119). The image of dead men imparting their words suggests that the poet is learning from the works of dead writers rather than literally traveling to ancient civilizations. His metaphorical quest draws an explicit parallel between an epic journey and a person’s education. Similarly, Schug writes that Frankenstein’s competing narratives force the reader to participate in the characters’ search for knowledge.

The monster is also motivated by a desire for knowledge. His first interactions with the world are an attempt to understand his surroundings. Soon after he is created, the monster is miserable because he has no knowledge about the world around him: “I knew and could distinguish nothing, but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept” (M. Shelley 97). The desire for knowledge seems inborn in the monster because it is only through learning that he eventually adjusts to his surroundings. The monster becomes happier when he “begins to distinguish sensations from one another” (98). For the monster, knowledge is associated with happiness and ignorance is associated with alienation. However, even though the monster has the same desire for knowledge that his creator has, this shared desire for knowledge does not make him identify with his creator.

Because the monster has the same desire for knowledge that Walton and Frankenstein have, this implies that intellectual curiosity is an innate quality rather than something instilled by external forces. The monster first encounters the world by wanting to learn more about his surroundings. Later in the novel, when he learns to read and write, he reads Milton’s Paradise Lost and identifies with Satan. “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence, but his state was far different from mine in every other respect [. . .] Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me” (M. Shelley 123). When the monster becomes educated, he arguably becomes more similar to his creator. However, instead of making him identify with Dr. Frankenstein, the monster’s education heightens his feelings of alienation.

Walton’s initial description of the monster resembles an educated gentleman, suggesting that the monster has innately noble qualities. When Walton meets the monster at the North Pole, he is distressed that Frankenstein wants to destroy the monster, because the monster embodies ideal Romantic qualities. Walton writes, “He is so gentle, yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated, and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence” (M. Shelley 23). Although the monster has been isolated from society and has never received a formal education, he possesses “cultivation” and erudition valued by Romantic intellectuals. The fact that the monster possesses these qualities suggests that they are innate, not a result of a person’s education.

In his article “The Romantic Form of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Charles Schug compares the narrative structure of Frankenstein with that of a Romantic poem. Schug identifies several characteristics of Romantic poems in Shelley’s novel: a challenging narrative that demands active participation from the reader, complex moral dilemmas, and the analysis of irrational feelings. Schug writes: “Romantic literature necessitates the active participation of the reader, who must attend closely to the workings of the artist’s (actually the persona’s) mind as it shapes and controls the work of art” (Schug 608). This “active participation” indicates that the novel produces a subjective experience for the reader rather than providing easy answers. The readers must grapple with moral dilemmas alongside the characters. Schug distinguishes between the writer and the narrator or “persona” because Victor Frankenstein, the monster, and Robert Walton all offer conflicting narratives with opposing moral views. The multiple perspectives challenge readers, making it difficult to sympathize entirely with one particular character.

Because all three narrators use their stories to rationalize their behavior, readers must choose with whom to sympathize. Schug writes that Frankenstein and the monster’s narratives create a moral dilemma for the reader: “[W]ith which character are we to sympathize? It cannot be both, since to sympathize with Frankenstein is to disbelieve, as he does, the sincerity of the monster’s promise to exile himself with a newly-made bride far from human society, while to have sympathy for the monster is to brand Frankenstein heartless and cruel for his skeptical treatment of him” (Schug 613). Instead of offering a resolution or allowing readers to sympathize with one particular character, the novel’s multiple perspectives complicate its morality.

Like the figure of the artist or poet in Romantic poetry, the monster uses language to convey his point of view and attempt to gain others’ sympathy. After the monster murders several members of Victor Frankenstein’s extended family, the monster begs his creator to listen to his story. He does not even ask Frankenstein not to kill him, only to listen to him: “Listen to my tale, and when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me [ . . .] You accuse me of murder, and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature” (M. Shelley 95). The monster uses his narrative to appeal to his creator’s sympathy. By asking his creator to judge him, he also criticizes Dr. Frankenstein’s morality by holding him accountable for his actions.

Through the characters’ unique experiences, the novel demonstrates the subjective nature of language. Schug views Frankenstein as part of a tradition in Romantic writing which uses language to depict experiences that are so subjective that they are almost impossible to describe: “Mary Shelley sets herself a task that she approaches in a way similar to that of the Romantic poets: she tries to talk about — and thus to define, to set the boundaries of, to limit — what is essentially a purely subjective and creative experience” (Schug 609). Because Frankenstein’s experience of creating the monster, as well as the monster’s own experiences, are completely unique, they cannot be completely conveyed in words. Although Frankenstein, Walton, and the monster all attempt to justify themselves by telling their stories, the uniqueness of their experiences makes them difficult to explain.

Frankenstein’s horror at initially seeing his creation shows the inadequacy of language. He is so appalled by the monster that he cannot describe him adequately. After the monster first comes to life, Frankenstein says, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch with such infinite pains and cares I had endeavored to form?” (M. Shelley 52). Frankenstein’s inability to describe the monster reflects the inadequacy of language, particularly when faced with a unique or terrifying experience.

The monster resembles the Romantic figure of the poet because he feels that his intellect alienates him from other people. When the monster first encounters people, they flee in horror. He enters a cottage where an old man, “perceiving me, shrieked loudly” (M. Shelley 100). While the old man’s reaction may be in response to the monster’s appearance, the Poet in Percy Shelley’s “Alastor” receives a similar reaction after he has been wandering in the wilderness. People react to the Poet as if he is monstrous or inhuman: “the infant would conceal/His troubled visage in his mother’s robe/In terror at the glare of those wild eyes” (P. Shelley 262–264). Because Frankenstein’s monster elicits a similar reaction to the Poet in “Alastor,” this suggests that the monster is not horrifying only because of his physical appearance but because he is alienated from human society.

Like his creation, Dr. Frankenstein also experiences alienation, suggesting that the monster’s alienation stems partly from his intellect. After the monster kills several of Dr. Frankenstein’s relatives, he writes that “solitude was my only consolation — deep, dark, deathlike solitude” (M. Shelley 85). Although this results partly from his guilt over creating the monster, he also physically isolates himself while he is creating the monster. The novel depicts solitude and loneliness as emotions experienced by all creative people, not feelings that are unique to the monster.

The monster’s impulse to communicate and create suggests that creativity is inborn, not instilled by society. When the monster discovers that people communicate with one another through language, he wants to participate by communicating with them. The monster says that he “found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experiences and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers” (M. Shelley 105). The monster is intellectually intrigued by language and realizes that it enables people to connect emotionally. His desire to use language to connect with others reflects a common theme of Romantic poetry. In addition to his impulse to reach out to others using language, the monster also has a desire to create.

The monster’s inability to reproduce the songs of birds reflects the idea that language cannot fully express a person’s thoughts and sensations, a theme commonly found in Romantic poetry. Before the monster encounters humans, he tries unsuccessfully to imitate birdsong, but finds that “the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again” (M. Shelley 98). The monster attempts to reproduce intelligible sounds but finds that he is unable to do so. This reflects the subjective and often counterproductive nature of language in Romantic writing, where words may have different meanings for different individuals. In John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the speaker laments that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter” (Keats lines 10–11). This expresses his inability to produce words which will fully describe the scene on the urn. The monster experiences a similar sense of frustration at not being able to express himself.

The monster’s attempt to reproduce birdsongs mirrors the creative impulse in Romantic poems such as John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which the nightingale’s song inspires the speaker to create poetry. In Percy Shelley’s poem “Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude,” when the Poet sees a swan, he envies animals for having a home in nature: “Thou hast a home, beautiful bird!” (P. Shelley 280–281). In both instances, seeing an animal in its natural habitat causes a character to feel increasingly isolated from the world.

The monster’s impulse to express himself creatively also underscores his similarity to his creator, who tries to reproduce life. Dr. Frankenstein creates the monster out of a quest to “bestow animation upon lifeless matter” (M. Shelley 49). He also studies ancient scientists such as Albertus Magnus and attempts to supersede their efforts. His creation of the monster is a triumph of his intellect. Because the monster and his creator possess similar qualities, they serve as foils for one another. The similarities between the monster and his creator increase the novel’s moral complexity.

Frankenstein’s three competing narratives morally complicate the story, making it difficult for the reader to sympathize with any of the three characters. Charles Schug writes that the two characters’ narratives produce “competing claims on our sympathy” (Schug 619). Schug writes that rather than resolving moral issues, the novel creates moral ambiguity similar to that of a Romantic poem: “the real source of each narrator’s vision of experience is purely subjective and creative and cannot be told about” (619). The novel’s morality is complicated by the fact that the monster and his creator possess many of the same traits.

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the monster possesses several qualities commonly associated with poets and artists in Romantic writing: intellectual curiosity, a desire to connect emotionally with those around him, and a sense of isolation. The novel’s complicated narrative structure draws attention to the similarities between its three narrators: Dr. Frankenstein, the monster, and Robert Walton, the Arctic explorer. All three of these characters are on journeys. Walton embarks on a physical quest to reach the North Pole. The monster wanders in the wilderness and tries to learn about the world around him. Victor Frankenstein’s quest is both physical and intellectual: literally, he goes on a journey to find and destroy the monster, but metaphorically, his attempt to create life is an intellectual quest.

By presenting these three narratives, the novel allows all three characters to rationalize their actions through words. Like Romantic poetry, the novel shows that language cannot fully convey a person’s subjective experience. Although the monster is physically isolated from the world around him, he still attempts to connect with the world around him. The monster’s acquisition of language shows that the desire for knowledge is innate, not produced through class or education. Like the figure of the poet in Percy Shelley’s “Alastor,” Frankenstein evokes horrified reactions because he is isolated from people. Because all three narrators possess similar qualities, the novel allows readers to sympathize with each of them, rather than depicting the monster as completely alien and unlike other human beings.

Works cited:

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Schug, Charles. “The Romantic Form of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 17, №4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1977), pp. 607–619.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Fall River Press, 2009.

Shelley, Percy. “Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude.”