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Portrait of Mary Shelley courtesy of <> 13 February 2015

Education is one of the most important themes shown throughout Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. During the early 19th century in England at the time that Shelley wrote her novel, education, at least in the public sense, was not widely available for every child. Churches often undertook the education of children born into poverty, and other working-class children were able to attend various "trade" schools where they would learn basic reading, writing, and mathematics, while also learning a profitable trade. However, most children's families, especially of lower income, were not able to afford the expense of sending their children to school, as they helped to support their families by earning money working in factories, or apprenticing to the family business. Wealthy families were able to send their children to expensive schools were they would receive an extensive education before attending a university, and educational opportunities were reserved for boys. A large number of children, mostly middle and upper class, were educated at home. Among those educated at home were girls, as their education was not seen as necessity. It was thought more important for females that beyond simple education, their time would best be spent learning their proper place in the domestic sphere. (Learn more about 19th century education in England here.)

The emphasis on education within Frankenstein is evident as the author spends a great deal of time detailing the various learning experiences of her three main characters: Victor Frankenstein, Robert Walton, and the creature, himself. All three characters were self-educated with varying degrees of success and influence, and thus each has a different perspective on the importance of education and content, as well as the importance of outside influence over education. The question of Nature vs. Nurture also comes into play, especially when considering the circumstances of the creature and his education.

Relevant Characters

The emphasis on importance and quality of education in Frankenstein is embodied in its three main characters: Victor Frankenstein, Robert Walton, and Frankenstein's monster.  While all three characters are self-educated, it is by varying degrees and with equally varying outside influence.  

Robert's education is encompassed in his Uncle Thomas' library, learning all he can about the sea-faring life, against his father's approval, and it is not mentioned that he ever attends a formal university.  

Victor Frankenstein's education was, as he put it, "never forced," and beyond his basic education he endeavors to learn all he can about the science of Natural Philosophy.  He also attends the university at Ingolstadt, where he furthers his education in Natural Philosophy, and where he begins his creation of the monster who will become his downfall.

Frankenstein's monster is also self-educated, but without the family structure and affection that is afforded to Robert Walton or Victor Frankenstein.  The creature is instead forced to discover everything on his own by observing, including the threat of danger, self-preservation and disappointment, language, reading, and human nature.

Major Scenes

Robert Walton The extent of Walton's education is revealed through the letters he writes home to Margaret.  He explains that he became interested in exploring on the seas by perusing the library of his Uncle Thomas.  His father disapproved of the sea-faring life, and so Walton instead attempts to turn his attention to poetry.  However, he fails at his attempt to live the life of a poet, and coming into an inheritance from his cousin, once again fixes his attention on a sea-faring adventure.  The most important reference to his education is written in Letter Two of Volume One, before the chapters begin.  Within this letter to Margaret, he explains his disdain at having been self-educated.  While most formal educations at the time included the learning of additional languages, such as Greek and Latin, Walton expresses his disappointment that he never learned beyond his native language stating, "Now I am twenty-eight, and am in reality more illiterate than many school-boys of fifteen" (Volume One, Letter Two).  Because of his lack of a formal education, Walton feels a sense of inferiority.  He wishes to be highly educated, and though he is the captain of his ship, he often questions his own intelligence and authority.  Walton feels he must work twice as hard at accomplishing his goals, and having previously failed at an occupation, he also has a great fear of failure and disappointment.

While Walton does not feel that his education has been acceptable and proper, he seeks a companion superior to himself in knowledge, who might be able to guide him in his ventures.  Again, in "Letter Two," Walton affirms, "It is true that I have thought more, and that my day dreams are more extended and magnificent; but they want... keeping; and I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavour to regulate my mind."  Walton is afraid of a second failure, and feels that although he is intelligent and a dreamer, a guide would ensure that he is kept on the right track in order to make proper educated decisions, while also supplying him with the companionship which he so desperately feels he needs.

Victor Frankenstein - Frankenstein details his education throughout the first few chapters of Volume One.  He explains that his parents were extremely liberal when it came to the education of their children, including their niece, Elizabeth, whom they adopted as their own.  The children were able to read about and discover the world on their own.  Victor studied profusely, mastering mathematics, languages, including Latin, Greek, English, and German, as well as the early theories and discoveries of science.  However, Victor's knowledge of the earlier scientists was discovered to be remedial and outdated, having read only Cornelius Agrippa , Albertus Magnus , and Paracelsus, and while attending the university in Ingolstadt he furthered his education in the modern understandings of natural science.  It was during this undertaking that Victor's most influential moment of education comes into play.

Chapter Three describes Victor's eagerness at learning the secret to life.  He explains, "One of the phaenonema which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life.  Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?"  In the search for answers to these questions, Victor throws himself into discovering where the secret of life lies and how to create, manipulate, and control it.  After his hard work pays off and the discovery is made, he describes his delight, saying, "After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life, nay, more; I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.  The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture."  Victor's thirst for the knowledge of the innerworkings of life come at the expense of his own mental, physical, and emotional health.  While surrounding himself in solitude, forgetting to afford himself the basic necessities of life such as food and sleep, as well as fresh air, Victor closes himself off even to his own family and friends.  He becomes obsessed with his discovery, which will soon become his downfall.  He speaks his most foreboding warning on the pursuit of education when he tells Walton, "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."  Victor reveals his regret at having taken the power of life into his own inadequate hands and warns his friend of the perils of trying to be greater and posses more power and knowledge than one should.

Frankenstein's Creature - Perhaps the most interesting perspective on education within Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is that of the creature.  He explains the extent of his education in Volume Two, chapters Three through Seven.  After having been abandoned by his creator, the creature is left to fend for himself.  He acquires most of his elementary knowledge through observation and discovery.  Without parents to guide him through the world's dangers and prejudices, he is compelled to discover it all on his own.  Motivating the creature's pursuit of knowledge is the search for love and companionship which has been taken from him with the desertion of his creator.

The creature fixes his attention on the De Lacey family, French expatriots living in exile.  Through their interactions, the creature learns the basic concepts of love, family, and companionship.  He learns how to speak by listening to them and learns various tasks by watching them.  He eventually learns to read and furthers his knowledge of human nature through such works as Paradise Lost , Plutarch's Livesand Sorrows of Werter.  Of these books the creature states in Volume Two, Chapter Seven, "I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books.  They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings, that sometimes raised me to ecstacy, but more frequently sunk me into the lowest dejection."  While these books taught the creature of human nature and the rise and fall of empires, they also reminded him of how different he was and the fact that he was cut off from mankind.  However, the creature's most important lesson is the one he learns when he tries to make a connection with the De Laceys.  Instead of embracing him as he'd hoped, the De Laceys are repulsed and frightened at the sight of him, beating him and chasing him away.  He learns that he cannot belong in the human world and must live a life of solitude and loneliness.  He says of his education, "Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was."

Impact in/for Frankenstein

Understanding the theme of education within Frankenstein is crucial to understanding each character and the novel.  While each character is self-educated by varying degrees, the extent of their education, the tools at their disposal, and outside influences upon their education, has an impact on each character as a whole and explains how each character sees himself in the world.  Walton's extensive reading of the sea-faring life, coupled with his father's disapproval of it, and his previous failure as a poet, compels Walton to seek adventure and glory in discovery on the open sea.  He places his passion for adventure above all else in his life.  Similarly, Frankenstein's thirst for scientific knowledge and discovery blinds him to the things in his life that are truly important.  He has a family who loves and supports him, but he is willing to push them aside in order to attain his goal.  Not only is he willing to discard his family, he also abandons his own health and well-being.  Frankenstein's creature, as well, has a thirst for knowledge, but only as it affords him the opportunity to make a connection with the human race which has abandoned him.  He longs for what Frankenstein has in his loving family, but has taken for granted.  He longs for someone to love and care for him as his creator never will.

Upon his deathbed Frankenstein imparts to Walton the lessons that he has learned in his own life and education:  "Farewell, Walton!  Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.  Yet why do I say this?  I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed."  Frankenstein realizes that he has veered off course in his ambitions and placed them above more important things, like family relationships.  Though he warns Walton of making his same mistakes, Frankenstein sees that someone other than himself may be able to keep important values in perspective, while still seeking discovery and knowledge.

References/Suggestions for Further Reading

The European Graduate School.  Henrich Cornelius Agrippa Von Nettisheim - Biography.  13 February 2015.  < >

The European Graduate School.  Paracelsus - Biography.  13 February 2015.  < >

Gillard, Derek.  Education in England: A Brief History.  13 February 2015.  < >

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Albert the Great.  13 February 2015.  < >

Paradise Lost.  Paradise Lost Study Guide: A Simple Guide to John Milton's Complicated Masterpiece.  13 February 2015.  < >

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft.  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.  London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818.  Electronic Print.

Sorrows of Werter.  13 February 2015.  < >  Parallel Lives.  13 February 2015.  < >

Image of Mary Shelley.  13 February 2015.  < >