How technology can challenge our understanding of Frankenstein

Dr Francesca Benatti believes specialised text analysis software can help us develop new insights into classic literature.

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A promotional photo of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster — Copyright free: Public Domain

When Mary Shelley published Frankenstein two hundred years ago in 1818, she probably did not imagine that her novel would continue to be read and reprinted into the twenty-first century. Like many other works from our cultural past, Frankenstein is available in several digital formats and from free collections such as Project Gutenberg. This gives us the opportunity to examine new ways of reading Frankenstein with the help of specialised text analysis software.

Computers excel at tasks that humans find challenging, such as identifying and counting repeating patterns. Digital reading can thus draw our attention to textual phenomena that deserves further investigation. What insights can we then gain if we read Frankenstein with the help of Voyant Tools , a free suite of online text analysis tools created by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell?

A word cloud containing the most frequently used words in Mary Shelley’s 1851 Gothic novel — Stéphan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, Voyant Tools under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

The first tool Voyant proposes, Cirrus , creates a wordlist and a word cloud visualisation based on the most frequent words present in our chosen text. Before studying its output, it is worth remembering that by default Voyant excludes “stopwords”, the most common words in the English language, such as articles, pronouns and prepositions.This simple wordlist can act as a springboard for our analysis of the novel. We can, for example, compare the high frequency of man (137 occurrences) and father (134) with the only 24 occurrences of womanand the 33 of mother. This can lead us to formulate hypotheses on how gender is represented within the novel, which we can then develop by reading the novel with our own eyes. We can also observe that the 115 instances of life in the wordlist are balanced with 79 instances of death, as are the 92 instances of night with 80 of day. The 104 occurrences of eyes and the 94 instances of saw could indicate that the novel’s narration of extraordinary events relies on the visual perception of its narrators.

…digital reading, when used in conjunction with the careful human reading of a text, can allow us to test hypotheses…

Frankenstein’s most frequent words list is significant also for what does not appear in it. If we compare Frankenstein with another famous 1818 novel, Jane Austen’s Persuasion , we can observe that the latter’s wordlist is dominated by the names and titles of the characters, such as the protagonist Anne (447) Elliot (254) and her love interest Captain (303) Wentworth (191). By contrast, the names of Victor Frankenstein only occur 28 and 27 times respectively. But there is, however, an even greater absence in the Frankenstein wordlist. Though popular culture usually refers to the “Frankenstein monster”, monster only occurs 31 times in the novel. These contrast with the frequent mentions of other characters, such as the 92 instances of Elizabeth, the 59 of Clervaland the 55 of Justine. If we also include creature, a further 44 occurrences are registered.

To analyse these, we can test another feature of Voyant, the Contexts tool, which allows us to examine the words that immediately precede and follow a chosen term.Monster is accompanied by strongly negative expressions, such as “hideous”, “detestable” and “hellish”. He furthermore engages in violent actions such as “seizing”, “grasping” and uttering “wild and incoherent” noises, which emphasise his characterisation as inhuman and animal-like. If we examine creature, however, the picture is more ambivalent. Firstly, the usage of the word is split roughly in half between references to the monster and to other human beings. The latter tend to be associated with positive adjectives such as “noble”, “happy” and “young”. The monster is instead connected with negative descriptors such as “miserable” and “unfortunate”. Frequently, it is the relationship with Frankenstein that is emphasised, through possessives such as “thy”, “my” and “his”. The creature’s very lack of an individual name makes his existence impossible to separate from that of his creator, who at a certain level shares responsibility for his actions.

Feel free to explore Frankenstein with the numerous other tools in Voyant, and to examine how digital reading, when used in conjunction with the careful human reading of a text, can allow us to test hypotheses, build our own interpretations and gain new insights.

The links will redirect to the Voyant Tools interface with the text of Frankenstein already pre-loaded. The link will remain valid provided the page is accessed once a month. If the link is no longer valid, download Frankenstein from a digital text repository and get exploring.

Dr Francesca Benatti is a Research Fellow in Digital Humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University. This article was previously published on OpenLearn in January 2018. Subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.

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