It's alive

Henry Frankenstein and the Creature at the moment of his creation in James Whale's Frankenstein, released by Universal Pictures in 1931. Image reposted from Giphy here.

There are two major strains of thought, literal and sextual, in regards to the parent-child relationships displayed in Frankenstein. On the level of the narrative, Victor Frankenstein, in bringing the Creature to life, has found an alternative means of giving “birth,” one that circumvents the women’s role in creating life and is reminiscent of parenthood. Instead of nurturing an important relationship with his creation like a fit parent, he leaves the Creature to educate himself through experience. The events that follow, Victor’s denouncement of his offspring and the demise of his family because of this, are thus often read as a metaphor for the negative effects of negligent parenting. This role is complicated later in the text as the Creature gains agency and begins to chastise Victor, who begins looking more childish in his desertion of reason.

Separately, in the field of meta-textual criticism, many have remarked that the Creature symbolizes the process of the writer giving birth to her novel. Shelley felt tremendous anxiety as a female writer, in a culture that denied women’s role in literary production, in claiming authorship over Frankenstein. Shelley herself referred to it as her “hideous progeny” in her introduction to the 1831 text and “the offspring of [her] happy days” (191). There are biographical reasons for this as well. Three of Mary Shelley’s children died(lol) young and fears about her ability to raise healthy offspring are also embedded in the relationship between Victor and the Creature.

Adaptations of the text will explore and expand upon the parent-child relationships between Victor and the Creature, as in Young Frankenstein’s depiction of Victor as a stereotypical Jewish mother, and others, such as The Bride of Frankenstein, that comment more explicitly on Shelley’s familial relationship to her text.

Relevant Characters

The parent/child theme is most explicit in the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. At first, the roles in the relationship seem clear, with Victor acting as a father to the nascent being he’s created. Over the course of the story, however, Victor and the Creature shift roles in ways that challenge this dichotomy, acting at times as creator and created, subject and master (respectively), and as bitterly embroiled near-equals.

A second, less prominent, parental figure exists in the form of Alphonse Frankenstein, whose concern and involvement in the life of his son Victor persists throughout Shelley’s text. Notably, it is Alphonse who travels to see Victor after he is falsely imprisoned for the murder of Henry Clerval, and Alphonse who seeks to raise his son’s dreary spirits afterwards.

A related theme also appears in the high number of characters who are orphaned in Shelley’s text: Caroline Beaufort (Victor’s mother), his adopted sister Elizabeth Lavenza, the Frankenstein family servant Justine, and, in effect, the character of Safie, who loses her mother at a young age and separates from her father to join the De Lacey family. Additionally, the Creature himself is often considered an orphan, particularly in the moments when Victor is not serving as his de facto father.

Over the course of the story, each of the aforementioned orphans (save for the Creature) follows a markedly similar trajectory, as each becomes quickly connected to a stable family unit following their orphanhood—Caroline and Safie through romantic relationships, Elizabeth through adoption, and Justine through servitude. This suggests there is danger inherent in the isolation of orphanhood, which ought to be avoided through engagement with a one's community. For more on the related themes of isolation and community in Shelley’s text, see here.

Major Scenes

Victor's Childhood Recollections

The concept of a close bond between child and parent is evident early on in Shelley’s Frankenstein, as Victor Frankenstein begins his tale to Robert Walton by recounting the care with which his mother, Caroline, attended to her own father prior his death.  Victor proceeds to recount how a similar affection was lavished upon him by both his father and his mother (prior to her death) over the course of his childhood. He explains to Walton that, “No youth could have passed more happily than mine. My parents were indulgent, and my companions amiable” (Shelley 21).

Victor later adds that he received not only affection from his parents, but intellectual guidance. He recalls in detail a discussion he and his father had concerning Cornelius Agrippa, whose writings on natural philosophy captivated young Victor. Thought Alphonse told his son Agrippa’s writings were “sad trash,” young Victor continued to pursue them, as he lacked a more detailed explanation of their ineptitude from his father (Shelley 22). Victor explains: father had taken the pains to explain to me, that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science had been introduced, which possessed much greater powers...I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside, and, with my imagination warmed as it was, should probably have applied myself to the more rational theory of chemistry which has resulted from modern discoveries. It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. (Shelley 22)
Recollections like this one demonstrate the tenets of parenthood as Victor Frankenstein learned them, namely that parents must not only cultivate close relationships with their children, but act as moral and intellectual guides, both implicitly through their actions and explicitly through advice and conversation.

Note that Victor’s recounting of his childhood is also emblematic of a number of other critical themes (critical both in terms of Shelley’s text itself and in the context of the moral/intellectual climate in which it was written), particularly nature versus nurture and education.

Moment of Creation

Rather than rendering the creation scene from a scientific perspective and offering the methods Victor uses, Shelley chooses highly-sexualized terms of creation. For example, when Victor is rooting through body parts for his experiment he “disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame” (35). As the process progresses, it moves from the language of conception into the language of pregnancy. When he is on the verge of building the Creature, “after days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, [he] succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life . . .” (Shelley 33). The word “labour” is used throughout the creation sequence, “painful labour” being another such strong analogy to the pains of childbirth. Although Victor views the Creature as hideous upon birth, its actions are infantile and apparently non-threatening: “his jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks” (Shelley 38).

Despite this, the parent-child relationship is strained from the moment the Creature first lives. Leading up to this moment, Victor had clear, positive expectations: “No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their’s.” He imagines a race of children that “owe their being” to him (Shelley 34). This problematic notion of parenthood turns when he beholds the Creature’s horrific body. He flees the room, describes the Creature as a “wretch” with “watery eyes” and a “shriveled complexion,” and doesn’t make another attempt to connect with him until he is confronted at Mont Blanc (Shelley 37).

Mont Blanc Confrontation

When Victor is confronted by the Creature at Mont Blanc, he is prompted to think explicitly about the responsibilities of a parent/child, creator/creature relationship. Although Victor attempts to deflect responsibility for the Creature’s life by referring to him as “monster” and “devil,” the Creature refers to himself in terms of Paradise Lost’s Adam and repeatedly calls Victor “my creator.” The Creature offers this rhetoric that causes Victor to be receptive to his story: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous” (Shelley 73).

Victor realizes that, in contrast to his earlier beliefs, a child shouldn’t merely be grateful for his or her existence. He says of this, “For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness” (Shelley 74). These thoughts are reminiscent of Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her view of parenting as expressed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: “A great proportion of the misery that wanders, in hideous forms, around the world, is allowed to arise from the negligence of parents” (Wollstonecraft 246). This is supported by Ellen Moers' notion that “most of the novel—two of the three volumes, can be said to deal with the retribution visited upon the monster and creator for deficient infant care” (Moers 94).

Upon hearing out the Creature’s tale, and his request to have a female companion made, Victor “compassioned him, and sometimes felt a wish to console him” (Shelley 113). Although he ultimately cannot get over his senses that perceive the Creature as a “filthy mass,” for brief moments the compelling language causes nurturing, fatherly feelings to well up in Victor against his own will.

Argument on the Orkney Islands

The argument between Victor and the Creature on one of the Orkney Islands signifies a significant change in the dynamic between the two. While the pair’s previous relationship seemed to be one of parent and child, it is clear by this point that the division of authority has become considerably more murky. Upon realizing that Victor will not creature a female companion for him as he’s requested, the Creature becomes exceedingly angry. He remarks to Victor:

Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master;—obey! (Shelley 131)
He later continues:
I may die; but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery. Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict (Shelley 131).
The implications of the Creature’s words here are profound. In referring to himself as “master” to Victor’s “slave,” he is suggesting a near inversion of the parent/child relationship outlined above. He notes that he, too, has power in the relationship, and the capacity to make Victor so “wretched that the light of day will be hateful to [him].”

Such language suggests the consequences parents face when they neglect their children as Victor has the Creature; as it stands at this moment in the story, Victor has completed none of the fatherly duties his own father afforded him, which include (as outlined above) not only being present and engaged in the life of his son, but helping shape his son’s moral and intellectual development.

From this point onwards, the dynamic between Victor and the Creature becomes increasingly strained and more markedly adversarial, departing significantly from the parent/child model it once was.

Impact for Frankenstein


Understanding the theme of parent/child relationships in Frankenstein is important on multiple fronts. This view of Victor and the Creature informs our response to Victor’s initial shunning of his creation, his eventual acceptance to make him happy with a female creature, and the role reversal that takes place at the end of the novel. If the Creature is considered a child (or adolescent by the end) rather than a monster, wretch, or devil, he will certainly draw more sympathy from an audience. Positioned more as an antagonist or anti-hero, Victor becomes more culpable for the monstrous nature of his child, and in many modern adaptations he becomes more monstrous than the Creature himself.

As the prominence of this theme has been established, the early reading of Frankenstein as a moral allegory warning about usurping God and gaining too much knowledge is diminished. More modern critics, citing the parent/child threads, have seen Frankenstein instead in part as a warning of the horrific effects of negligent parenting. This, too, has been reflected in adaptations such as Kenneth Branagh’s that situates the father/son relationship within Freudian psychology.

Finally, the view of Mary Shelley as creator and parent to the Frankenstein narrative that the meta-textual relationship implies has been important to second-wave feminists in their reclaiming of the novel’s authorship.

Victor Frankenstein as Biological Parent v. Parent of the Creature

In several adaptations of Shelley’s story, Victor Frankenstein is presented as a literal father—the biological parent of children unrelated to the Creature. For instance, in Henry Milner’s 1826 stage play Frankenstein; or, The Man and the Monster, Frankenstein appears to have had a child with Emmeline Ritzberg (a character adapted from Shelley’s Elizabeth Lavenza); in The Curse of Frankenstein, released by Hammer Film Productions in 1957, Frankenstein is informed by his maid, Justine, that she’s pregnant with his child.

In both adaptations, Victor shows little interest in the lives of his biological children. In Milner’s play, he seems to have neglected his child entirely, leaving the caretaking to Emmeline while he immerses himself in his work. In the Hammer film, he reacts negatively to news of Justine’s pregnancy, and seems unconcerned about the loss of his impending child when Justine is destroyed by the Creature.

The lack of enthusiasm Victor expresses in his role as biological father in these adaptations lends support to the idea suggested in Shelley’s original text: that Victor is invested in fatherhood insofar as it concerns the Creature, but remains largely uninterested otherwise.

The creation scene as birth theory is explored to its most visually-explicit extent in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film adaptation. The Creature is animated here by electric eels in a vat of amniotic fluid taken from the maternity ward of the hospital. After the event, the live Creature is spilled out of the womb-like vat and onto the floor. There are homoerotic undertones as a half-dressed Victor struggles to steady a naked Reanimant, the name given to the Creature, in the spilled amniotic fluid.

Victor’s initial reaction differs from his disgust in the novel and many early adaptations. The Reanimant reaches out, as it does in Mary Shelley’s narrative, but instead of pulling back here Victor tries in vain to bring the Creature to his feet. It isn’t until an accident occurs and it appears to be dead that he begins to regret his decision to give it life. Unlike in the novel, where a major theme is that the Creature’s looks are the sole reason that he can’t make connections, in Branagh’s film the main tension between father and son comes from the sexual competition between Victor and the Reanimant over the reanimated Elizabeth’s affections. In the climactic scene a stand-off over her affections leads to her suicide.

Freudian familial connections are implicit in Branagh’s adaptation. Of his decision to take on the film he said, “In the last 20, 30 years, [Frankenstein has] been claimed by a whole generation of academics and scholars as a seminal piece of literature of that time. [It's] something which now, post-Freud, they feel reveals so many observations about family life, and incest, father-and-son relationships, and husband and wife relationships” (Rea).

The degree to which Victor continues to be interested in the role of parent to the Creature over the course of his life is a question that each adaptation of Shelley’s story answers differently. Of particular note is the careful guidance given to the Monster (the term used by Brooks instead of Creature) in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. In the course of Brooks’ adaptation, Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (a rather reluctant grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein) acts as a mentor to the Monster he creates, familiarizing him with social norms in preparation for one of the film’s most notable moments: a joint performance with his creator that includes an extended tap dance routine.


Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frederick Frankenstein and Peter Boyle’s Monster perform a tap dance routine in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, released by 20th Century Fox in 1974. Image reposted from NPR tumblr here.

In analyzing Frankenstein’s behavior in Brooks’ film, critics have likened him to a “Jewish mother,” which is to say that he’s exceedingly involved in the life of his “child” (Schor 76). Notes Esther Schor in her essay "Frankenstein and Film":

Frederick intuits that what his miserable, violent creature needs is precisely a mother’s care. And, quite remarkably, he undertakes to supply it...As a good Jewish mother, Frederick takes his monster well beyond walking, speaking, moving, and thinking, teaching him to sing and tap dance. (76)
Despite such careful tutelage, however, the Monster struggles to conduct himself as Frankenstein desires, and it is only through a near-total brain transfusion that he’s ultimately able to function as an accepted member of society. This suggests that careful parenting alone is not enough to assimilate a nascent “child” like the Monster into society, and raises, as Shelley’s original text does, questions of nature versus nurture.

Mary Shelley as Parent/Author of Frankenstein Text

Later adaptations and analyses of Shelley’s text also bring to light a more subtle aspect of the parent/child theme, namely the role of Mary Shelley herself as parent of her own text, and the degree to which her life ought to be considered when reading and interpreting Frankenstein.

Ann Marie Adams has suggested that these questions are first explicitly raised in film by James Whale in Bride of Frankenstein, his 1935 sequel to Frankenstein. Bride opens with the characters of Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron involved a fireside discussion of how Shelley’s delicate, feminine mind could create such a deeply monstrous tale as Frankenstein. The rest of the film might be seen as Whale’s response to such a question, his penultimate answer arriving when the actress who plays Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) reappears as the Creature’s newly animated bride.

Adams has observed that this frame narrative created by Whale speaks to a different kind of parent-child relationship: Mary Shelley as parent and her text as child. This is a relationship acknowledged explicitly by Shelley herself, who wrote in the the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein:

I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart. (191)
Notably, Shelley suffered a series of traumatic experiences prior to, during, and after the writing of Frankenstein, including the death of her own mother (which took place shortly after her birth), the deaths of her premature daughter, her daughter Clara, and son William, the suicides of her half-sister, Fanny and her husband’s ex-wife, Harriet, and the death of her husband (for a more complete timeline of Mary Shelley’s life, see here). The degree to which this knowledge ought to affect one’s reading of the Frankenstein text is explored at greater length in Ellen Moers’ Literary Women, as well as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic. Adams explains:
Looking specifically at Shelley’s own journals, and her fateful introduction to the text, Moers argues that Frankenstein was and is a specifically ‘feminine’ literary work (a ‘female gothic,’ to be exact), born out of the experiences of pregnancy and the trauma of afterbirth. Although later critics would challenge Moers’ seemingly ahistorical formulation, and subsequent trends in feminist theory would reject the essentialist paradigm of a ‘woman writer’ articulated in her study, the reading has proven remarkably resilient. In fact, it is now a critical truism that Frankenstein can be enriched when it is read alongside the biography of the young author (408-9).

References/Suggestions for Further Reading

Adams, Ann Marie. “What's in a Frame?: The Authorizing Presence in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein.” The Journal of Popular Culture 42. 3 (2009): 403-418. Print.

Bride of Frankenstein, Dir. James Whale. Universal Pictures, 1935. Film.

Frankenstein, Dir. James Whale. Universal Pictures, 1931. Film.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. “Horror’s Twin: Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve.” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. 213-47. Print. Note: full text of the cited chapter can be found here.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. TriStar Pictures, 1994. Film.

Milner, Henry M. Frankenstein; or, The Man and the Monster! A Peculiar Romantic Melo-dramatic Pantomimic Spectacle, in Two Acts. John Duncombe's ed. London: John Duncombe, 1826. Print. Note: a copy of this play can be found here.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. New York: Doubleday, 1976. Print.

Rea, Stephen. "Branagh Fathers His Own Creature Feature Past." Philly-archives. Philly.Com, 06 Nov. 1994. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.

Schor, Esther. “Frankenstein and Film.” The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 63-83. Print.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. Longman, 2006. Print.

The Curse of Frankenstein. Dir. Terence Fisher. Hammer Film Productions, 1957. Film.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, and Sylvana Tomaselli. A Vindication of the Rights of Men; with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Hints. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Young Frankenstein. Dir. Mel Brooks. 20th Century Fox, 1974. Film.