Formalist Method of Literary Criticism on the Example of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

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Middlebury College
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Literature review
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The formalist method of literary criticism is primarily focused on the text itself, rather than external topics such as history and background, the author's biographical information, or the social contexts which surround a piece of work. In the formalist perspective, we ask ourselves, why did the author choose to write his or her work in this specific style? Why did he or she choose to include certain literary elements? What matters most to the formalist critic is how the work comes to mean what it does show its resources of language are deployed by the writer to convey meaning (DiYanni 2076). A reader can employ the formalist method to decipher many meanings in Mary Shelley's classic text, Frankenstein. Shelley uses setting, foreshadowing, point of view, and characterization so that the reader can gain a sense of suspense and anticipation, which are all essential to the book's distinctive gothic mood and tone.

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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Analysis of the Setting of the Text

A fundamental factor of the formalist outlook is the setting of the text. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has a very dark, gloomy setting that reflects the hideousness of the monster and society's reaction to him, as well as our own. A very important factor of the setting is the weather: Our situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were compassed around by a very thick fog. (page 8). The description gives the reader a feeling of interaction with the characters in the novel and with the environment also. The narrative generates a sense of suspense that entrances the reader. The text itself relies on the setting because the reader needs to feel the emotions arising from the novel and that's why Mary Shelley integrated this into the story using the creature's monstrosity and nature as an element of anticipation. As a result, these components are crucial to the book's triumph.

In chapter ten, we see how Victor reacts to his surroundings. While at Chamounix Valley, he feels consolation at the nature that surrounds him. At the same time, he notes that the landscape is characterized by disorder and destruction: the valley is plagued by constant avalanches, and it often seems that the mountains themselves will crash down on Victor's head. The ascent is precipitous¦It is a scene terrifically desolate¦where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground (page 93). As though he wanted to conquer the mountains that are so dangerously overwhelming, he climbed to the top of Montanvert, one of the region's most forbidding glaciers. While at the top, Victor begins to feel the massive power nature has over man. While Victor is undergoing a major change in his perspective, we see what effect the setting has on him.

Victor being at the top of such a dangerous glacier also foreshadows the coming of danger. When the monster shows up, the reader begins to speculate as to what kind of confrontation Victor is going to have with the monster. If this same meeting between Victor and the Monster were set in a field of flowers, we would definitely have a completely different idea of the text, and it would change the story incredibly. The immense snow coverage, high altitude, and dangers of the glacier give the reader a better understanding of the text. Mary Shelley's novel left an impression on its readers because of its dark tone. She used deliberately used foreshadowing as a method of enticing the reader and drawing them into her suspenseful story.

Plot Analysis of Frankenstein

The story of Frankenstein starts off with Robert Waltons string of letters to his sister, Margaret Saville. Waltons letters utilize a literary device called framing, which sets up the major premise of the novel. The use of multiple narratives calls the reader's attention to the telling of the story, adding layers of complexity to the intricate relationship between author and reader. As Walton listens to Victor's story, so does his sister. As his sister reads Victor's story, so does the reader. By using the framing method, Shelley may have been trying to link her novel to the oral tradition of telling ghost stories which inspired her to write her own novel. In addition to setting the scene for the telling of Victor's narrative, Waltons letters introduce an important character: Walton himself. Waltons second letter introduces the idea of loss and loneliness, as Walton complains that he has no friends with whom to share his triumphs and failures, no sensitive ear to listen to his dreams and ambitions.

Walton turns to Victor as the friend he has always wanted. His search for companionship parallels the monster's desire for a mate later in the novel. But I have one want which I have never been yet to satisfy "I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy, if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavor to sustain me in dejection¦I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine. (page 18).

Characters’ Relationships and Roles in Mary Shelley's Novel

This similarity between man and monster becomes clearer as the novel progresses. It suggests that the two may not be as different as they seem. Framing helps the reader find the interrelation among the characters and come up with observations that would be concealed in other circumstances. The framing technique also makes the story more compelling because Walton will eventually see the monster at the end of the novel. The story about the creature would just be a story, if not for Waltons personal encounter with Frankenstein and his creation. Shelley uses Walton and the framing perspective to add validity to the novel.

Another important part of analyzing using the formalist perspective is looking at characters' relationships and roles in the novel. Most obviously, in Frankenstein, there is the creator, Victor Frankenstein, and the creation, the monster. But what do these roles mean? A creator is one who brings something into existence; Victor literally creates the monster's body piece by piece and it becomes his sole obsession in his scientific career, but Victor stops there. Once the monster's body is created, it is abandoned, physically and mentally. This is where Victor fails his role as a creator; he fails to see through the full development and process of his creation. If Victor had taken the role of a mentor or father and helped his creation developmentally, he and the monster would have been united in the book instead of becoming bitter enemies. Instead, Victor repeatedly turns away, rejects, and loathes the monster: My abhorrence of this fiend could not be conceived! (page 81).

The monster however tries to fulfill his role as creation as much as possible. He is trusting in his creator, until he realizes that he has been abandoned and what he is to society Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned? Still yet, the monster realizes that as his creator, Victor is obligated to endow some happiness upon his creation: Do you duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. (page 89). The monster now recognizes himself as a monster, but still knows it is Victor's duty to aid him, and sadly concedes that society will never accept him for anything because of his appearance. One of the other roles portrayed in Frankenstein is that of Master and Slave. Unlike the creator and creation roles, this relationship changes during the course of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Frankenstein was working for himself and created the monster for the advancement of science. The monster had no power because he was dumped and abandoned in an unknown world; he barely knows what to eat at this point.

Victor still lived in his society with his friends and allies. Later in the book, the balance of power begins to shift as the monster recognizes the great physical power he has because Victor created it to be better than himself. Also, Victor begins to find his power slipping when he cannot begin to turn to his friends and family because of what he has created and done. However, when the two meet, the power switches. The monster proceeds to tell his tale and uses his power of persuasion to use Victor. When Victor quits the female creation, the monster becomes supreme. During this period, Victor has almost no control because he created the monster to be better than himself, as the monster realizes early on. The monster knows that Victor cannot escape or keep up with him, thus is very open with his attacks against Victor. He knows that there is no retribution worse than the misery and hatred he has already experienced (and that was just for being created).

Thus, he has nothing to lose, he shows Victor his supremacy by killing Elizabeth while Victor is in the house and then escaping completely unscathed. During the scene in the graveyard, though, the power shifts once more between the two. The entire scene is filled with irony as the creation scoffs at the creator. The man of science invokes spirits of the dead and wandering ministers of vengeance, and the creator vows to destroy his creation. From this point on, the monster and Frankenstein are locked in a race towards oblivion. Neither have anything to lose, while both have all they have left in life to gain. The final satisfaction of the annihilation of the other and the peace of death is all that lay ahead of them. Victor becomes the haunting and trailing harasser to the monster. Neither have anyone to help them on their journey. The monster has destroyed all of Victor's support, and in doing so, assured that he shall never be accepted by anyone. They have nothing left in their lives except hatred for one another and thus, follow this hatred blindly into nothingness.

Another trend in reading the story is Frankensteins' lack of recognizing the creature as his own essence, not giving the monster his name. This is the creature's root problem. The monster is called plenty of names by his creator, from at best, the accomplishment of my toils to wretch, miserable monster, and filthy demon. The monster possesses familiar impulses to seek knowledge and companionship, but he has no name, and therefore, no identity. So, he cannot obtain these basic things he so longs for, which leads to his problems. Monster is extremely harsh but is the first thing introduced into our frame of mind.

The monster does not even give himself a name other than what has been previously stated. Sympathy for the anonymous being and our confusion of creator and created, as well as our interest in depicting the creature's human side, indicate an unconscious acknowledgment of Frankenstein. Walton notes the possibility of living a double existence representing a self-divided mind in conflict with itself. The monster and his creator are two halves of the same being. Shelley doesn't give the monster a name to clearly point out the contradictions but also, the connections between Frankenstein and his creation.


Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an innovative work that weaves a tale of passion, misery, dread, and remorse that personifies the gothic novel. The mood for Frankenstein is set from the very first pages of the story. In a gothic novel, the setting is usually dark and brooding. The setting can bring about feelings of short-lived happiness, loneliness, isolation, and despair. Shelley's writing shows how the varied and dramatic settings of Frankenstein can create this gloomy atmosphere and tone. The dreary night of November, where the monster first comes to life is a defining moment in the dramatic tale. Shelley can sustain the mood and create a distinct picture and it is admirable the way she begins to foreshadow coming danger.

Shelley writes so that the reader sees and feels these scenes taking permanent hold on the memory. She also uses the framing perspective to add realism to the story. We, as the reader, are actually transported into the story through this method of point of view. We are seeing Frankensteins' amazing tale through the words of Robert Walton and through the eyes of Margaret Saville. The connection between the two main characters, Frankenstein and the monster, is crucial to the story's success as well. The dynamic shifts, bonds, rifts that grow between these two set the pace and conflict throughout the story.

We are able to notice how Victor's own actions, as well as the monster's choices, greatly determine the flow and direction of the novel. Had, for example, Frankenstein followed through and nurtured the monster (maybe giving it a name, at the least), they both would have become a great asset to society, instead of a menace. The uses of foreshadowing, point of view, and characterization help the reader to experience the life to which Frankenstein is accustomed. The author depicts the time period, mood, and tone with the use of setting and plot structure, which is necessary to the understanding of the novel.

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