There isn’t one way to read Mary Shelley, but given her family and her other works, its hard not to see Frankenstein as a metaphor for the liberal revolutions, specifically the French Revolution.
Frankenstein and Politics: Frankenstein as a Metaphor for the Liberal Revolutions
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) can be read as a political metaphor where Dr. Frankenstein and his monster represent the philosophies and attitudes of the liberal revolutionaries, specifically those of the French Revolution and ensuing “Reign of Terror.” 
The above is best understood by realizing Mary Shelley’s Mom was the mother of Feminism Mary Wollstonecraft, her father the radical liberal William Godwin, and her Husband the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. All were political writers living around and after the French Revolution which lasted from 1789 until 1799.Don’t Reanimate Corpses! Frankenstein Part 1: Crash Course Literature 205.
TIP: In the book, the monster isn’t green, he is yellowish. He is sensitive and smart; one could say he has both sense and sensibility. He is, in ways, the most enlightened character in the book, yet he is considered a monster. “How can a thing be at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” asks the monster… Indeed. That is the main political theme of the book.
READ ONLINE: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The whole book contains metaphors, but I suggest starting in Chapter 10 when Victor meets the Monster, and then reading the Monster’s monologue which lasts a few chapters.
Reconstructing Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster
The first thing to realize when taking a closer look at Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is that the title itself is a nod to it being a political metaphor.
Dr. Frankenstein, Prometheus’ Enlightenment, and the Reign of Terror
Prometheus was a deity of Greek mythology who created the human race from clay. Later he stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to the humans against the will of Zeus, bringing to them the arts of civilization, such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science.Animation: The ancient myth of Prometheus.
Like Prometheus, Frankenstein pieced together his creation from the earth and harnessed the heavens to give it life, and like Prometheus defied Zeus, the doctor does this against the will of the state. Later the monster seeks his own enlightenment, learning about human culture in his journeys, as he recounts to Victor starting in Chapter 10.
The liberal Enlightenment in the Age of Reason, which brought about the liberal revolutions (British, American, French), is easy to equate with the fires of Olympus and the “fire” that brought the monster to life. It too is a mashup of ideas, which brings the wisdoms of the heavens to the people.
In all these cases fire is a symbol of Enlightenment, meaning it represents science, reason, liberty, human rights, liberalism, etc.
Frankenstein and the French Revolution
As noted above, Frankenstein’s monster itself is specifically a comment on the radical liberal Jacobin Reign of Terror at the onset of the French Revolution. It was called a Reign of Terror because 40,000 people were killed (mostly beheaded) by “angry villagers” (in this case radical liberal Jacobins). Those who lost their heads included the Jacobin club’s former allies the intellectual Girondists and royals like Marie Antoinette. This liberal revolution is famous for being both “virtuous and magnificent” in its ideals and yet “so vicious and base” in its [pardon the pun] execution. When Mary Shelley wrote her novel the subject was still fresh on everyone’s minds, and given the rest of the proofs i’ll provide below, it is essentially for certain that her novel is a commentary on this. See the Story of the Reign of Terror (the story can’t be chalked up to “the Jacobins are monsters”, like Frankenstein’s monster, the revolution and revolutionaries were complex) .
Tying this together, we can say the fire of Olympus, despite the best intentions of Prometheus, created what some might consider a monster, just like the Enlightenment created the Reign of Terror, and just like Victor created his monster. This is the tale of Frankenstein.
The French Revolution: Crash Course World History #29. About 40,000 French people died in the reign of terror at the hands of the revolutionaries. The revolutionary philosophy was valid, and their cause righteous, but the outcome disastrous for those who lost their lives.
“One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” – The Monster, Chapter 11.
“Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” – The Monster Chapter 13.
TIP: The French Revolution is emblematic of a more general “monster”, and that is liberalism, socialism, or any evolution of revolutionary sentiment against the traditional order in any form. We can see this is the Jacobins, but the metaphor works just as well for the mid-1800’s to WWII ideologies (especially in their more monstrous ones, like fascism in-action or the Marxism that became the monster Stalinism). We don’t need to “go there” here, especially since both these things happened after Mary Shelley, but consider the symbolism in the following two images and how that might relate to the concept of a Frankenstein’s monster in any era.
It’s Alive! – Understanding Frankenstein as Political Metaphor
Dr. Frankenstein initially plays the role of the scientist putting together his “liberal” monster (an abomination of cobbled together ideas in the dark of night, ideas that will surely reign terror on the town). Later, the monster plays the part of the rational philosopher, while Dr. Frankenstein plays the part of the emotion driven anti-Revolutionary who fears his creation, a Girondist of sorts.
Later the town folk play the role of the anti-Revolutionaries and Revolutionaries, but generally who is playing what role switches between characters, as it can when we are dealing with a fictional novel where one can do such things.
The novel is thick with metaphors of liberalism, feminism, race, politics, cultures, and human nature in general. So it is hardly a comment on just one thing.
For instance, “Stein” is a German or Jewish name and the French were once called Franks. So perhaps even the doctors name itself is a nod to the French, German, and Jewish liberal ideals in the Age of reason, liberalism, and science. Interestingly, the monster learns to speak French, German, and English in his travels (which span many nations).
Frankenstein in Context pt1 Dr. David Higgins. This video discusses themes of the book and brings up a philosophical hero of French liberalism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is sometimes accused of inciting the French revolution, in part, due to his coining of concepts like the General Will. Rousseau, though he immigrated to France, was from Geneva, just like Victor Frankenstein.
‘By your language, stranger, I suppose you are my countryman; are you French?’ “‘No; but I was educated by a French family and understand that language only. I am now going to claim the protection of some friends, whom I sincerely love, and of whose favour I have some hopes.’ “‘Are they Germans?’ “‘No, they are French. But let us change the subject. – The Monster Chapter 15
The monster’s dialogue with Victor (such as in Chapter 13) is the clearest proof that Frankenstein can be read as a political metaphor. However, this excerpt below works well due to its imagery:
Frankenstein as a Metaphor. More Frankenstein metaphors.
I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to conclusion. [P. 50]
Understanding Mary Shelley’s Family, the Liberal Revolution, and Burke
As noted above, while the themes of the book are clear themselves, but are even better understood by understanding Mary Shelley’s family and time. As Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and politics correctly points out:
- There are passages in Frankenstein that contain echoes of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
- There are passages in Frankenstein that contain echoes of William Godwin’s An Enquiry into Political Justice (1793) and Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1974).
- Also of note is Edmund Burke, who debated Wollstonecraft over her book (Rights of Woman), and was critical of the revolution and the New Radicals of the day (the “new left” of the late 1700’s). Burke often used prose to describe the aforementioned revolution as monstrous and demonic. In the book the monster is called both daemon and monster.
. . . out of the tomb of the murdered monarchy in France has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination, and subdued the fortitude of man. Going straight forward to its end, unappalled by peril, unchecked by remorse, despising all common maxims and all common means, that hideous phantom overpowered those who could not believe it was possible she could at all exist.
— Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796)
Mary Shelley eventually rejected the radicalism that had been her birthright, and a close reading of her work hints she was never exactly as radical as her parents or Husband. In October of 1838 she recorded in her Journal:
“since I lost Shelley [husband Percy Bysshe Shelley] I have no wish to ally myself to the Radicals — they are full of repulsion to me — violent without any sense of Justice — selfish in the extreme — talking without knowledge — rude, envious, and insolent — I wish to have nothing to do with them.”
With that in mind, Mary Shelley did not abandon liberalism or the enlightenment, just radicalism, which is obvious by her 1938 work Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France.Mary Wollstonecraft vs. Edmund Burke (Women and the French Revolution: Part 4).
TIP: Mary Shelley’s birth name was Mary Godwin, she called herself Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley, taking her mother, father, and husband’s names.
Strange that a people . . . should have bred up such monsters! Still we ought to recollect, that the sex, called the tender, commit the most flagrant acts of barbarity when irritated. – Mary Wollstonecraft speaking of the women of the French Revolution (here one can conclude that isn’t just the Jacobin mob being eluded to in Mary Shelly’s book, but events like the Women’s March on Versailles and general Militant Feminism in the French Revolution as well).
Let’s end with a passage from Chapter 13 of Shelley’s Frankenstein:
“Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm.
For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing.
Every conversation of the cottagers now opened new wonders to me. While I listened to the instructions which Felix bestowed upon the Arabian, the strange system of human society was explained to me. I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent, and noble blood.
The words induced me to turn towards myself. I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages, but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs.
When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me.
Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?“
- A Reading of Frankenstein as the Complaint of a Political Wife
- The racial metaphor of Frankenstein
- REVOLUTIONARY READINGS: MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN AND THE LUDDITE UPRISINGS
- “It’s Alive” Frankenstein’s Monster and Modern Science
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and politics
- The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel – quoting Marry Shelley’s Journal, Frederick L. Jones (1947) p. 481