‘Frankenstein’ – a cautionary tale of bad parenting

This essay was written by Susan Coulter.

In this essay, I shall be examining the two main characters, Victor Frankenstein and the creature, and considering what Shelley could be telling us about parenting, child development, and education through their experiences. As a young child, it could be said that Victor Frankenstein is indulged and spoilt by his parents, and later on by his adopted sister, Elizabeth and his friend, Henry Clerval.

In the first chapter, as Frankenstein is recounting his story to the mariner, Walton, we learn that he was born into a wealthy family from Geneva, and lived in Italy for the first part of his life. His mother was the daughter of his father’s friend, and, therefore much younger than he. We are told that she was caring and dutiful, that she, "possessed a mind of an uncommon mould" (page 32), and had nursed and kept her own father during his illness until his death. Frankenstein’s parents are very much in love, and he was an only child for the first five years, doted on by them as we can see when he says, "they seemed to draw inexhaustible stores of affection from a very mine of love to bestow them on me." (page 33). Victor’s first recollections are of his, "mother’s tender caresses", and his, "father’s smile of benevolent pleasure" (page 33). They regard him as being, "bestowed on them by heaven", and recognise that his future, "was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery". He also tells Walton that his mother and father felt that they, "owed" something to him because they had given him life.

At the age of seven, having moved to Geneva with his family, he meets Henry Clerval with whom he becomes great friends, although it is interesting to note that he chooses not to mix with the other local children. At the beginning of chapter two, Victor describes his childhood thus:

No human being could have passed a happier childhood than
myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of
kindness and indulgence. We felt that they were not the
tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents
and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed. (page 37)

But even though he was growing up in what could be perceived as an idyllic family, he comments to Walton that, "My temper was sometimes violent and my passions vehement" (page 37). He was also prone to, "become sullen" (page 37), but Elizabeth seems always to have been ready to soothe and comfort him, to,"subdue", him, "to a semblance of her own gentleness." (page 37) , and whilst Clerval is enthusiastically learning all he could about life, and the world around him, Victor is interested only in "the physical secrets of the world." (page 37.

We can see that Victor is very much left to his own devices without much direction from his parents, when he retells the events when, at the age of thirteen he found a book by Cornelius Agrippa which sparked his interest in alchemy. Even he recognises that his father should have given him more guidance when he tells how his father,"looked carelessly at the title page" (page 38), and merely dismissed the work as, "sad trash." (page 38) . He states that, if instead, his father had taken the time to explain that alchemy had been disproved, then, "It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin." (page 38-39). It seems that his father is not interested enough in what his son is studying, and takes little notice of what he is doing. Frankenstein says of himself, "I was to a great degree, self taught" (page 39), and that,

My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with
a child’s blindness added to a student’s thirst for knowledge.
(page 39).

So without any supervision, he engrosses himself in his studies, concentrating on the more altruistic side of alchemy – the secret of eternal life. Frankenstein’s first experience of real sadness comes when he is seventeen and his mother dies having contracted scarlet fever whilst nursing Elizabeth back to health. We are told that, "her countenance expressed affection even in death."., and he describes death as, "that most irrepairable evil;". This event appears to make him even more determined to find a cure for this "evil". There is now only Elizabeth to give a feminine balance to his life, but he leaves for university with Clerval, having agreed to his mother’s deathbed wish that he and Elizabeth would one day marry.

At university in Ingolstadt he is persuaded that alchemy has been superseded by natural philosophy, and his aptitude for science impresses both students and tutors alike. However, having decided to try and create life by scientific methods, he isolates himself from any friendly support and advice he may have received from Clerval, and the professional opinions of his tutors. He is, of course, away from his family, and so works alone.

Shelley could be seen to be saying through Frankenstein’s tale, that parents’ love alone is not enough for a child’s healthy development. Unless love is given together with discipline and guidance, the child is unable to develop into a well rounded adult who can be assimilated into the wider society, and have a balanced view of themselves and the world around them. Not only does Victor appear to be selfish and too introspective, he seems never to mature and develop self discipline, as his obsessional nature seems to show. The cosseting he has received as a child has led him to grow into adulthood with no true sense of responsibility for his actions. This is highlighted when, having created the creature, on seeing the contrast between his dream and the reality of the, “"..miserable monster.”(page 57), he flees from his apartment, and when, on returning, he realises that the creature has escaped, he remarks, "I clapped my hands for joy" (page 60). It is not until the desperate and unhappy creature has already murdered his young brother, William, and tells him his story, begging for a mate, that Frankenstein briefly feels the slightest responsibility for him. It is at this point in the novel that he thinks to himself,

and did I not as his maker, owe him all the portion of happiness
that it was in my power to bestow?

Shelley seems also to be showing the reader that self-education is not always a good thing. Unless supervised, the autodidact is in danger of gaining knowledge in a very narrow field, for instance, Frankenstein’s learning seems to be solely focused on science, without any education in morals, the arts, or social skills which would have helped him to mature and be a more social and compassionate individual.

The creature’s ’childhood’ is condensed into a matter of months. His first experience of Victor, his parent and maker is one of rejection, and this sets the pattern for his life. We are told that, on being ’born’, the creature made his way to Frankenstein’s bedside,

He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes
they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened,
and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin
wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not
hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain
me (page 57)

In all probability, the creature was reaching out, as a small child does to their mother, but his ugly appearance only frightened Victor into running away.

With no one to love him or care for him, the creature spends his first days in the forest near Ingolstadt. Through his narrative, we learn that, at first he was like an abandoned baby, alone, and in his own words:

I knew, and could distinguish nothing; but feeling pain
invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept. (page 99)

At this point in his life, he has only a basic sensory awareness, and we are told,

No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused.
I felt light and hunger, and thirst, and darkness;
innumerable sounds rang in my ears, and on all
sides various scents saluted me: the only object that
I could distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my
eyes on that with pleasure. (page 100).

Eventually he learns that drinking from the stream will quench his thirst, eating nuts and berries will sate his hunger, and he can be shaded by the trees. He has an instinctive appreciation for nature, and even tries to mimic the birdsong that give him so much pleasure, but the, "uncouth and inarticulate sounds" (page 100) that he utters, frighten him into silence. The creature discovers an abandoned fire and, just as a young unsupervised child would, he learns about its heat by putting his hand into it and feeling the pain of the burn. However, he also finds it can keep him warm, and that nuts and berries taste good when cooked in it. At this stage, he still has no idea or curiosity about his appearance, and is therefore surprised when his arrival at a shepherds hut causes the old man to run away in terror. His next encounter with humans is even more negative than the last, and he is pelted with stones when he enters a village. Again, he is puzzled by people’s reactions to him.

This last experience teaches him to be cautious of interaction with humans, and he decides to take refuge in a hovel which is built onto the back of a forest hut, but not to make his presence there known to the inhabitants. The first thing he learns about people is their, "barbarity" (page 103). From his position in the hovel, through a crevice, he can observe the family who live in the hut. It is during this period in his life that most of his education takes place. He first appreciates the beauty of M. De Lacey, the old man, with his, "silver hair and benevolent countenance" (page 104), and that of Agatha, his daughter, who is described as a, "fair creature." With, "gentle manners" (page 104). He sees the love and care that the family show towards each other, and watching them together, he also feels emotions which he has not experienced before. When Agatha is upset and her father comforts her, the creature recalls that he,

felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature:
they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had
never before experienced, either from hunger or cold,
warmth or food;" (page 104)

At this moment he has begun to develop more sophisticated emotions as he becomes aware of others, and feels compassion, sharing their joy and sorrow. His emotions are no longer purely based on his own basic needs and his senses. Just as a small child learns about their relationships with others, the creature also learns, although from a distance.

The creature spends many months in the hovel, and learns to speak, partly by listening to the De Laceys, and then by listening to the French instruction that they give to Safie. Whereas, in the beginning his education had been, for the most part experiential, he is now able to follow these lessons.

It is once he has learned to read, that that his thoughts and ideas about the world he has found himself in, start to form. He has found three books in the forest; Plutarch’s ‘Lives’, ‘The Sorrows of Werter’ by Goethe, and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. The creature learns something different about life from each book. In ‘Paradise Lost’, he can see similarities between himself and Adam, and is introduced to the idea of God, the Christian myth, and good and evil. He realises that wealth and social standing, are most highly prized in society, from Plutarch’s ‘Lives’, and in Goethe’s work, he reads that suicide can be an option for a desperately unhappy person. In the same way that Frankenstein is self educated, the creature is also and, like his creator, he is learning in a vacuum, with no other influences to balance his views.

It may be interesting to note that, a century after Shelley’s novel was published, the psychologist, Maslow, listed what he described as the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ in human development, including:

  1. Physiological –
    The need for food, drink, shelter, warmth and relief from pain
  2. Safety and security –
    The need to feel safe and secure
  3. Social and affiliation –
    The need for friendship and interaction with others
  4. Esteem –
    The need for self esteem and the esteem for others (1943)

The creature appears to follow these steps in his development but, unfortunately, although he feels these needs, they are not all met. He never manages to interact positively with others or find friendship, and we can see his self esteem sink lower and lower, the more he is rejected, and becomes lonelier and more alienated from society. It is at this that eventually changes him from a kind, affectionate, and reasonable being, to a bitter murderer. He tells Frankenstein,

I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned
and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me
to pieces, and triumph; remember that and tell me why I
should pity man more than he pities me? You would not call
it murder, if you could precipitate me into one of those
ice-rifts, and destroy my frame, the work of your own hands.
Shall I respect man when he condemns me? Let him live
with me in an interchange of kindness; and, instead of injury
I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude
at his acceptance. (page 140).

It could be suggested that his education and intellect have betrayed him. They have served only to highlight his misery. His understanding of his predicament, and how he falls short of society’s norms and aspirations, can only make him more wretched. Apart from hearing his voice when trying to sing, he no real self awareness until, like a perverse Narcissus, he sees his reflection in a pool, and becomes, “fully convinced that I was in reality the monster I am” (page 110). Now he can see himself as others see him. Through reading, his knowledge of man’s capacity for evil gives him a more realistic view of society, and his place in it. Like Adam and Eve and their consequent banishment from the Garden of Eden after eating from the tree of knowledge , he has developed from a ‘noble savage’, as unselfconscious and close to nature as an animal, to acquiring knowledge and the loss of innocence that accompanies it. He has, in effect, been cast out like Adam and Eve before him.

Considering all the points I have discussed above, Shelley seems to me, to be telling us that without unconditional love, but also with discipline and guidance as children, we can never develop to our full potential. Victor received weak parenting, love but without discipline, and therefore, grows into a self centred and immature adult. The creature has received no affection whatsoever, only rejection. He is first rejected by his parent/creator on first seeing him, an this is followed by rejection and prejudice by everyone else he meets, be it the villagers who stone him, the man who shoots him after he has saved the little girl’s life, the DeLacey’s who beat him and then disappear overnight or William, who even though he is a child, shows the very same prejudice because of the creature’s appearance. No matter how kind he is, or how educated and civilised he becomes, the result is always the same.

To benefit from an exchange of ideas or another perspective on their studies. Shelley appears to be showing us, through the creature’s development that, although children will, on the whole, follow the same basic developmental pattern, regardless of outside influences, love, nurture and respect are important if the instinct for goodness they are born with is not to be lost, and through the events in the novel, Shelley also shows us, that keeping in balance and harmony with the world around us, including society and especially nature is crucial for our well being.


Shelley. Mary: ‘Frankenstein’
(Penguin. London, 1992)

Maslow. A.H: ‘A theory of human motivation’
(Psycol. Rev, 50, 370-396, 1943)

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