Literary Devices In Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a masterpiece of 19th century Gothic horror literature. Published in 1818, the novel tells the tragic story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who creates a hideous sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Shelley’s highly imaginative tale explores profound themes of scientific ethics, the human need for companionship, revenge, and mankind’s relationship with the natural world. Beyond its gripping narrative, Frankenstein is remarkable for Shelley’s literary skill and artful use of rhetorical techniques including vivid imagery, symbolism, doubling, and frame narration. This analysis examines how Shelley employs these literary devices to add emotional power and depth to her creation.

Introduction to Frankenstein

‘Frankenstein’ was written by Mary Shelley. At the age of 18, she conceived the idea for the novel during a cold Swiss summer spent telling ghost stories with peers including the poet Lord Byron. The work is part Gothic novel. It’s some parts are philosophical meditation on science and the remaining parts are about mankind’s hubris in trying to manipulate nature.

‘Frankenstein’ was one of the first major works of science fiction. It has become an enduring classic that spawned countless interpretations in film, theater and literature. It’s thoughtful exploration of scientific responsibility and ethics alongside powerful literary devices makes it essential reading.

Summary of Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein is a young Swiss scientist obsessed with the secret of creating life. At university he develops a scientific method to give life to inanimate matter. He constructs a humanoid creature from assorted body parts and electrical jolts. However, when his creation comes alive, Frankenstein is horrified by the creature’s hideous appearance. Disgusted with his own handiwork, Frankenstein rejects the creature and flees in terror.

The nameless creature is sensitive and intelligent. He is abandoned alone in a hostile world, but eventually educates himself and hopes to find a companion and creator in Frankenstein. But Frankenstein continually treats him with disdain and cruelty. This leads the creature to become misanthropic and vengeful. He exacts a terrible revenge on Frankenstein by murdering his young wife and other loved ones.

Seeking to end the mutual cycle of violence, the creature demands that Frankenstein create a female companion for him. Frankenstein reluctantly agrees but then destroys the female creation in fear of an entire race of monsters emerging. The betrayed creature then vows to be with Frankenstein on his wedding night. Frankenstein spends months fruitlessly pursuing the creature, who remains always one step ahead. The creature finally reveals his intention was simply for Frankenstein to know the anguish of loneliness and loss. In the end, Frankenstein dies pursuing the creature into the Arctic. The creature drifts out on an ice flow, lamenting his solitude and tragedy before disappearing.

Themes of Frankenstein

Some major themes of Frankenstein include:

  • The dangers of unethical scientific pursuit and of mankind overstepping its boundaries into God’s territory of creation
  • The human need for companionship and the consequences of isolation and loneliness
  • Revenge and the destructive cycle of violence and retribution
  • Mankind’s relationship with the natural world
  • Prejudice and rejection towards outsiders

Characters of Frankenstein

The main characters include:

  • Victor Frankenstein – The scientist and protagonist who creates the creature; becomes obsessed with science at the cost of empathy and family
  • The creature (Frankenstein’s monster) – Intelligent yet hideous, rejected by society and his creator; his loneliness drives him to revenge
  • Robert Walton – An Arctic explorer who finds Victor and records his story; provides the novel’s outer frame narrative
  • Elizabeth Lavenza – Victor’s virtuous adopted sister and eventual wife, murdered by the creature in revenge
  • Alphonse Frankenstein – Victor’s caring father and indulgent supporter of his scientific interests
  • Henry Clerval – Victor’s close friend at university who is also eventually killed by the creature

Literary Devices in Frankenstein

Mary Shelley employs powerful rhetorical techniques to breathe life into Frankenstein and give it richness and thematic depth:



Through descriptive language, Shelley paints unforgettable visuals, such as in this chilling description of the creature’s creation:

“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

The excerpt describes the character in both positive and negative ways. Positively, he has muscular physique, shiny and dark hair. These attractive features make his other features more ugly by contrast. His eyes are described as unnaturally pale and sunken into his face. His skin looks shriveled and yellowish. His straight and black lips also look unnatural. By first describing some handsome features before contrasting them with ugly ones, the passage makes him seem more disturbing and monster-like. The mixing of attractive and repulsive details creates a strong impression of an un naturally grotesque figure and evokes a sense of horror. Rather than just calling him ugly, the contrasting imagery provides visceral description that makes the reader feel the character’s profound hideousness.



Doubling and opposites are key symbols Shelley employs. The two main characters are presented as symbolic opposites or doubles:

The creature is associated with symbols of light/goodness (like the brightness of the moon on which he was created) while Frankenstein’s darker nature is reflected in descriptions of night, thunder, and lightning.

The creature is isolated, abandoned, and experiences wild nature firsthand while Frankenstein retreats into books, artifice, and indoor laboratories.



Shelley laces her narrative with hints and portents of future events, like when the creature describes the circumstances of his creation:

“…the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places.”

The excerpt subtly hints at coming events through ominous imagery and description. The moon “gazing” on the narrator’s “midnight labours” evokes secrecy and the sense of some dark deed underway. The reference to pursuing nature “to her hiding places” further suggests transgressing boundaries into potentially dangerous realms, which has been reinforced by terms like “unrelaxed,” “breathless” and “eagerness.” There is an implicit tension that his unrelenting and potentially unethical experimentation may lead to overstepping perilous thresholds in nature with unforeseen consequences. The imagery thus portends the unraveling of a foreboding mystery that should perhaps have remained veiled.


Frame Narrative

The novel uses a frame narrative structure, whereby an explorer named Robert Walton finds and rescues Victor Frankenstein and takes his tale of the creature’s creation as a framed interior narrative. This allows for the story to transition back and forth in perspective between characters:

“He then told me that he would commence his narrative the next day when I should be at leisure. This promise drew from me the warmest thanks.”

The frame narrative allows the story to weave between Walton, Frankenstein and the creature’s diverse viewpoints.


Pathetic Fallacy

Shelley employs the pathetic fallacy, giving human emotions and characteristics to elements of nature, to reflect the inner emotional states of her characters:

“The weight upon my spirit was sensibly lightened as I plunged yet deeper in the ravine of Arve. The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side, the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence.”

In this passage, the mountains, river, and waterfalls are described with words like “overhung,” “raging,” and “dashing” as if they possess human vigor and force. This reflects Frankenstein’s own animated, youthful energies driving his quest to discover the secret of life.


Epistolary Form

Frankenstein is structured through letters and eyewitness accounts, a format known as epistolary form:

“To Mrs. Saville, England
My dear Sister,
I write a few lines in haste to say that I am safe…I am already far north of London; and as I walk in the streets of Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves, and fills me with delight.”

The novel opens with an introductory letter from explorer Robert Walton to his sister Mrs. Saville, establishing the epistolary format. This device allows a sense of immediacy and authenticity as the story unfolds through first-person accounts.

Literary Devices In Frankenstein
Literary Devices In Frankenstein

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