Alphonse Frankenstein’s advice (which possibly reflects Mary Shelley’s) is that wisdom should temper our excesses; “a human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity”. (56)
One element of Victor’s failed experiment is his lack of moderation — his excessive ardour and his self-absorption. He admits that he knows what his father’s “feelings” are likely to be, but nevertheless cannot “tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination”. (56) The object itself has “swallowed up every habit of my nature”. Both before and after the creation of the “great object” even Victor is aware of his inability to temper his passion and obsession. During his efforts prior to the creation, Victor had become “nervous to a most painful degree” and was “oppressed by a slow fever” (57), and as he neglects his family and the seasons, he becomes oblivious as to how “grossly was I engrossed in my occupation”.
He justifies his heightened state of tension through the comparison with the fall of the Greek empire and the Roman conquest. He ruminates that it is perhaps the obsessive, fervent and (unbalanced) spirit that propels mankind forward, headlong into danger. “If no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually.”
After he creates the monster Shelley notes that he had worked with ‘an ardour that far exceeded moderation’. After witnessing the horror of the “demoniacal corpse”, Victor’s heightened state of agitation gives way to “languor and extreme weakness” (59).
Frankenstein privileges his own safety over Elizabeth’s. Likewise, Victor also revels the depths of his self-pity when he agonisingly states in the aftermath of Justine’s execution that the ‘tortures of the accused did not equal mine’. The creation scene exposes the creator as painfully self conscious, with an emphasis on the horror of his deed.
Victor’s “work”: his “one pursuit”
A student of chemistry, Victor’s desire is to bestow animation (“I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation”; “I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter”) but he needs to find the “frame for the reception of it”. He tells Walton that he spent months “collecting and arranging my materials” which he stored in a “solitary chamber” at the top of his house. He works in his “dissecting room”, examining these objects of decay and death that have been gathered from graveyards. (“I pursued nature to her hiding-places”. “Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave”. )
Victor’s hope and intention
A self-possessed individual in pursuit of knowledge and glory, Victor, above all, seeks to create “a new species” that would “bless me as its creator and source”. He even imagines that “many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” Furthermore, “no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs”. He particularly wishes to “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption”.
As critics note, there are references to the ideology of “galvanism”. Indeed in her introduction, Mary Shelley “says that talk of Dr Erasmus Darwin’s experiments and ‘galvanism’ led to speculations that ‘the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth'”. (See Introduction by Maurice Hindle.) (One could perhaps also see the Freudian desire of the mother to reanimate the baby dies shortly after birth, and one to two years before the mother writes her famous monster story.)
The creation scene and the Promethean myth
The focus of Frankenstein is Victor’s attempts to usurp the role of God and spawn his own creation. He is obsessed with “penetrating the secrets of nature” and with discovering the “secrets of heaven and hell”. He dedicates himself to natural philosophy, particularly chemistry and spends more than two years obsessed, “heart and soul”, in the pursuit of his project at Ingelstadt University. His pride knows no bounds and nothing deters him from his project until the first sign of life, which causes him to recoil in horror.
Unlike the perfect creation of Adam, who is “perfect, happy and prosperous”, Frankenstein’s offspring has some decent qualities, but these “luxuriances” form a hideous contrast. The teeth of “pearly whiteness” and the “lustrous black hair” form a “horrid contrast with the creature’s “watery eyes”, with his “dun-white sockets” and with his “shrivelled complexion”. The “lifeless thing” opens his “dull yellow eyes” and yields a “convulsive motion”.
If God nurtures his creator, Victor abandons his. Whilst the monster yearns for love and contact and recognition, with his “one hand (was) stretched out, seemingly to detain me”, Victor “escaped, and rushed downstairs”. (59) Feeling very agitated, he is anxious to escape any “approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life” (59). After the birth, Victor becomes, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, constantly aware of a heinous presence, stalking him. The Ancient Mariner “walks on, and turns no more his head/Because he knows a frightful fiend/Doth close behind him tread”. (60) This leads to a heightened state of anxiety and frustration. He is never at ease.
As he ponders the toils of his labour, the use of the first person, promethean “I”, emphasizes Victor’s role as a creator and the burden of his creation: “I beheld the accomplishment of my toils”. And as Victor is aware of his desire to “infuse(s) a spark of being into the lifeless thing”, Shelley leaves readers in no doubt that his quest for dominance, transgresses human and scientific boundaries.
The pursuit of the secrets of existence and the desire to usurp the role of God and the mother is presented as sacrilegious and blasphemous. The promethean light that penetrates the darkness and grasps its essence is associated with the process of “infusing life into an inanimate body”. A certain “pearly whiteness” suggests “luxuriances”. However, the “life” turns into a grotesque monster focusing our attention on the blasphemous attempts of man to usurp the role of God and of the mother.
And if the original Prometheus is punished for presuming to usurp the role of God and create life, a similar fate awaits Victor. Because of his hideous nature, the monster curses his creator: ‘ O cursed creator, why do I live?’.
It is not surprising that the birth scene takes place on a “dreary night of November, because characteristically Shelley uses the natural setting throughout her novel to reflect the emotional state of the characters. Here, the dreariness reflects Victor’s anguish and anxiety that arise to a fever pitch. Also the rain that ‘pattered dismally’ becomes associated with the lugubrious appearance of the monster which cruelly foreshadows Frankenstein’s imminent disappointment.
The excessive use of the first person pronoun, “I” reflects Victor’s narcissistic streak and his self-indulgent response: “how can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe”. That Victor has completely devoted himself to this task and alienated himself from all human companionship is evident in his extreme exhaustion upon the birth. Readers are invited to share Victor’s sense of outrage when he exclaims that he had “deprived myself of rest and health”. Shelly also critically explains that Victor ‘had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation’. Later, Victor reaffirms his self obsession, when after the unjust execution of Justine, which he is partially to blame, he states ‘tortures of the accused did not equal mine’. Shelley also places the spotlight on Victor’s instinctive rejection and resentment of his creation which lays bare his excessive pride. His rejection of the ‘catastrophe’ is the first step towards his own torturous demise. As the monster states, unlike Adam’s God, Victor “had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him”. (134) Adam also has a companion: the monster has no Eve, who ‘soothed my sorrows and shared my thoughts; I was alone” (134)
Throughout the “creation scene”, Shelley juxtaposes images of darkness and light reminiscent of Romantic Gothic themes so as to endow the creature’s birth with an aspect of the grotesque. This interplay also reflects Victor’s emotional state of mind and foreshadows his descent into darkness as he becomes increasingly aware of the “hell” within. In this regard, the monster appears as an externalisation of repressed elements of Victor’s psyche. As “night .. closed around” him Victor is aware of his extremely gloomy state of mind. “I foresaw obscurely that I was destined to become the most wretched of human beings.” (76) After Justine’s death he comments that “I bore a hell within me”, and “I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible” and yet his heart “overflowed with kindness” (94) . Realising that the monster is the true criminal, Victor feels responsible. His comment, “my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave” reiterates the notion of the grotesque double. His vivid imagination torments him and he becomes steeped in “scenes of evil and despair”.
That Victor had selected his features to be “beautiful” and yet they turn grotesque highlights his deep seated angst and brutal disappointment. The horror particularly becomes apparent through the “watery eyes” which are almost the same colour as the “dun white sockets”. Victor feels personally betrayed by the monster’s birth, and, wallowing in self pity, grieviously mutters: “I was unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created”.
Like Prometheus, Victor suffers the hellish rage of his creation, with his nightmare reaching a dramatic climax in Elizabeth’s death. The original Prometheus was punished for presuming to usurp the role of God and create life. Shelley suggests that the monster’s “hellish rage” becomes a suitable punishment for Victor’s reckless desire to unlock and penetrate the secrets of life, defying the laws of humanity. Likewise, Victor seeks to audaciously usurp the role of the mother, which reveals just as much about his horror of sexuality as his arrogance to become godlike. Metaphorically, the mother’s death highlights the absence of the role of mother in Victor’s own creation, emphasizing a patriarchal belief that it is possible to exclude and marginalise women. Upon the monster’s “birth”, Elizabeth immediately appears in a dream in the “bloom of health”. His kiss becomes “livid with the hue of death” (59), foreshadowing the tragedies to come.
The image of Elizabeth also merges with those of his “dead mother in my arms” – this string of images reflect Victor’s symbolic murder of the mother figure.
The compliant female and the lack of a mother
In her passive and supporting role, Elizabeth patiently waits on the sidelines, treated somewhat possessively, as if her role were inconsequential. Earlier Victor admits, “I looked upon Elizabeth as mine” “till death she was to be mine”. Shelley also highlights the submission of women through Victor’s refusal to create a female monster. He is concerned that events would further spiral out of control as he could potentially give rise to a reproduction of “malicious” creatures. This would ironically minimize the importance of men in this patriarchal society. Through the portrayal of her women characters, Shelley suggests that Victor’s attempt to exclude women is immoral. His attempt leads to the monster’s thirst for “vengeance”. Sadly, both Elizabeth and Justine, both the epitome of kindness and compassion are discarded in a harsh society that prejudicially focuses on the “hard” facts and circumstantial evidence. Elizabeth’s intuitive defence of Justine fails to sway the ‘harsh unfeeling reason’ of the judge.
Furthermore, as Shelly suggests, Victor is particularly heinous because he abandons his creation in his time of need. Also, it is through his inability to nurture and care for his creature as a mother that Shelley shows Victor at his most self-absorbed and negligent. Immediately, upon the birth, Victor is filled with “breathless horror and disgust”. The sterility and scientific nature of the monster is evident in the description of “the work of muscles and arteries”. After William’s death, the grotesque form of the monster continues to dominate his vision.` “The deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon to whom I had given life” (78)
Shelley not only critiques the mother’s exclusion during the birth process; the author also shows the importance of the mother in the socialization and nurturing process. The monster endures a confusing sense of identity because he does not have a mother or a family life. He learns how fathers “doted on smiles of the infant” . He learns of a parallel existence of mothers in society as he becomes aware of infants in the “care of the mother”. Through this comparison, the monster increasingly becomes aware of the unusual circumstances of his birth and of the harshness of his lack. He believes himself to be a “miserable, unhappy, wretch”. He realises that he was “strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener”. “I was dependent on none, and related to none”. Like Adam (in Milton’s Paradise Lost) “I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect.” Adam had sprung from the “especial care of his Creator”, the knowledge of which feeds “the bitter gall of envy”, transforming his intuitive sense of the “abhorrence of vice” .
The monster knows that he is bound to “my father, my creator” through birth, and this gives rise to complex emotions – the more he becomes aware of the fact that Victor is the only possible one who could grant him “succour” the more acutely he feels his rejection. He knows that it is only from Victor that he can expect “justice” and yet Victor is the one who seeks to constantly escape. Hence, an ensuing and interwoven relationship not unlike the traveller in Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” whereby Victor feels himself stalked by his own double figure (his doppelganger) – his doubt, his guilt and his horror.
When Victor returns home upon William’s death, the monster’s presence is foreshadowed by lightening. Again the Gothic interplay of light and darkness, dazzles Victor and recalls the initial creation scene on the dreary night in November. “Vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire” then a “pitchy darkness” (77) The Shakespearean reference to the “tempest” which is “so beautiful yet terrific”, recalls the ambivalent characteristics of the monster. He recognises in the “noble war in the sky” the vivid flashes of lightning that dazzle and illuminate the lake, and provide the perfect backdrop for Williams’ funeral, “this is thy dirge”. The same flash of lightning also illuminated the figure of the “gigantic stature” and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity”. It was indeed the “filthy daemon” that besmirches the perfect aspect of mountain and sea and Victor has the alarming insight into the fact that “nothing in human shape could have destroyed that fair child”. (78)
The “double existence”
Becoming aware of his “friend’s” capacity for joy and despair, Walton describes Victor as the “divine wanderer” who has a “double existence”. It is this “double” nature which makes him “suffer misery” but he also appreciates, acutely, the beauties of nature. Victor is like “a celestial spirit, that has a halo around him”. The halo is an allusion to the albatross in Samuel Coleridge’s poem, The Divine Wanderer. The “divine wanderer” kills the benevolent albatross and this act dooms him to a life of woe, misery and guilt until he finds redemption.
Victor’s double nature, then is in essence that of the “divine wanderer” who knows the joys and despair of existence.
Shelley also uses the natural setting to reflect Victor’s mood swings. His plunge into despair alternates with periods of bliss and joy and echoes the violence of Goethe’s romantic hero, Werter (The Sorrows of Werter is one of the monster’s favourite novels), and who contemplates his despair from the perspective of his exclusion from Lotte’s love. Likewise the monster suggests that he, too, learns from Werter’s imaginations the true meaning of “despondency and gloom” and the “disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder”. After the news of Williams’ death Victor returns home, overcome by grief and fear. His gloom is matched by the dark and sombre surroundings. As “night … closed around him”, Victor is aware of his extremely gloomy state of mind. “I foresaw obscurely that I was destined to become the most wretched of human beings.” (76) Upon his approach to the town, he is initially excluded because of his late arrival and then is confronted by a violent storm (77). Soon there is a “terrific crash over (his) head”. After Justine’s death he comments that “I bore a hell within me”, and “I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible” and yet his heart “overflowed with kindness” (94).
This “hell” within is also symbolically represented by the “fiend”: an externalisation of the evil that lurks in the hearts and minds, particularly of those in positions of dominance and power. (See “doppelganger” figure below.) If they “suffer misery” it is because of their capacity to commit evil.
The “serene conscience” and moderation
Contrastingly, Alphonse Frankenstein constantly reminds Victor of the importance of balance and moderation. He gently chastises Victor who descends into overwhelming gloom following Justine’s and William’s deaths. “No one could love a child more than I loved your brother … but is it not a duty to the survivors that we should refrain from augmenting their unhappiness by an appearance of immoderate grief ? It is also a duty owed to yourself ; for excessive sorrow prevents improvement or enjoyment, or even the discharge of daily usefulness, without which no man is fit for society”. (94)
It is ironic, in more ways then one, that in his letter to Victor after William’s death, Alphonse exhorts his son to return home as the “comforter” who will “console” Elizabeth. As always, the father realises the moderating impulses of both emotions, and hopes that Victor will return “not brooding thoughts of vengeance against the assassin, but with feelings of peace and gentleness, that will heal, instead of festering, the wounds of our minds.” He urges him to show kindness ofr those “who love you” and not “hatred for your enemies”. As always, Victor is unable to heed his father’s advice.
Is the monster justified in what he does to his creator?
The monster commits a series of heinous acts in Frankenstein. When the monster discovers his ability to impart pain upon his creator, he effectively murders all those who are dear to Victor. Whilst it is evident that Shelley does not condone the murderous acts of revenge, she puts forward a series of mitigating circumstances that evoke a sense of both horror and sympathy in readers. From the moment of his birth, he suffers cruel rejection by his creator in his selfish pursuit of knowledge.
Victor recoils in horror from the ugliness of his creation. His rejection is replicated in other social relationships experienced by the monster, which lead to a sense of acute despair and loneliness. In this regard, both Frankenstein and the monster vie for the position of most grieved owing to their feelings of acute suffering. ‘Blasted thou you wert’ the monster says over the dead body of Victor, ‘my agony was still superior to thine’.
Shelley’s Frankenstein is depicted as noble and given tragic heroic status, which belies her later apparent disgust when Frankenstein transcends the boundaries of knowledge and worse, rejects his creation. We also pity Frankenstein’s monster who states ‘sorrow increased with knowledge’ and his anger becomes incited after being able to read the notes in Victor’s pocket. The more aware he becomes, the deeper his sense of confusion. He struggles with his sense of identity: “My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I What was I Whence did I come? What was my destination?”
Please see: the “daemon’s revenge agenda and demands: Is the “wretch” justified?
The female monster: a (double) figure-companion
This despair continues to build sympathy in readers which reaches a climax when he implores Victor to create a female monster which is modelled upon Eve. If Adam was cared and loved for by his creator, the monster feels that he has been wrongfully cast out of Eden. He does not even have a female companion, Eve, to share his torment. Shelley deliberately includes the monster’s narration in the novel to provide an acute sense of his humiliation which culminates in the murder of Elizabeth. The ultimate act of revenge is directed at Victor who fails to provide the companionship for which he so desperately yearns. He thereby denies Victor his own right to love and companionship and ensures that he suffers eternally.
The refusal to create the second monster reinforces the isolation of the monster which is an abomination and prompts his threat ‘I shall be with you on your wedding night’. Whilst Shelley does not condone the disgraceful murder of innocent and ‘beautiful’ Elizabeth, she suggests that it is Victor’s abominable actions, which render the monster alone and lonely, are the true abomination.
By placing Victor in an impossible dilemma, Shelley reveals her view that a life of exclusion and complete isolation is one of the greatest abominations. For this reason, the monster invests a lot of emotion in his appeal to Frankenstein to create another monster to save him from his unbearable loneliness. He avers that such a monster will help him to ‘again be virtuous’ and he will halt his vendetta against his creator. The monster again depicts analogies between himself and Adam, which suggest that it is cruel and unnatural for the monster to live in isolation without a companion. By placing Frankenstein in an unenviable dilemma Shelley brilliantly shows how the abomination has social needs which compels Frankenstein to repeat his mistake. As a result of his indecision and mentor torpor, Frankenstein’s nervous energy dangerously exhausts him and the monster learns that ‘my enemy is not invulnerable’. He senses that murder is the best form of revenge.
Please see: the “daemon’s revenge agenda and demands: Is the “wretch” justified?
Power structures in society : the “strong” trample upon the “weak”
The doppelganger motive: the “fiend” that lurks within
The “daemon” implores Victor: “O Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone”. (103)
The “wretched devil”, although far superior to Victor in physical size, (“Thou hast made me more powerful than thyself”) refrains from a physical encounter: it appears to be a conditioned response of those who occupy the weaker position defer to those who are more powerful. The “daemon” does not wish to engage in physical combat, because, as he avers, “I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king”.
Similarly, Elizabeth also alludes to a monstrous spirit in man’s heart who, she contends, use and abuse their power, to “lord” it over others. In this case, she refers specifically to those who deny justice to Justine. “Men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood … Every body believed that poor girl to be guilty.”
As Shelley, suggests, this fiendish double figure becomes the wretched impulses of those in power, who commit evil acts upon the downtrodden, the socially and economically disadvantaged.
Victor, too, in the position of the dominant, becomes the “true murderer” aware of the “fiend that lurked in my heart” – the deep and dark “cloud” that forever pervades his soul. He admits, “I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible” and he systematically attributes the deaths to his own impulses.
Narrative perspectives as metaphorical device : “Hear my tale it’s long and strange… you can decide”.
In an epistolary form, Captain Walton begins the narrative with a series of letters to his beloved sister, Margaret. A self-educated man, he is keen to “satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited” and thus pre-empts Victor’s own struggle. Walton wishes to “tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man”. He, like Victor, is motivated by the pursuit of glory. “I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path”, and pursues, like Victor, the study of mathematics and branches of physical science. Because of the pursuit of glory, he finds mind who are capable of “dauntless courage”. He describes himself, as desperately in need of a friend in order to “repair the faults” of one who would also share a similar “courageous”, “cultivated” and “capacious mind”. His, like Victor’s, is a mind in need of regulation, so vulnerable it is to the dangers of overreach. He is pleased to introduce his lieutenant, who is also “madly desirous of glory” (20).
Margaret is also a silent companion, who like Elizabeth, is capable of selfless affection and compassion. He thanks her repeatedly for “all your love and kindness”. Elizabeth is to play a similar supporting role who would temper Victor’s excess. Unlike Victor, Walton pays tribute to the kind, civilising effect of his sister. “A youth passed in solitude, my best years spent under your gentle and feminine fosterage, has so refined the groundwork of my character that I cannot overcome an intense distaste to the usual brutality exercised on board ship” (20).
It is of particular note that readers are introduced first to the gigantic stature of the monster and then the limpid and distraught appearance of Victor. As Walton notes, the figure has the “shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge and guided the dogs”. The apparition of the gigantic man made it seem as if the land were closer than they had envisaged.
Contrastingly, Victor is on the “brink of destruction”, and appears distinctly “European” rather than a “savage inhabitant”. “His limbs were nearly frozen and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition”. (26)
The fact that they are able to restore Victor to life by “rubbing him with brandy and forcing him to swallow a small quantity” inversely parallels Victor’s experience with his own creation. Whilst they are not responsible for the birth, they provide the love and care that the monster lacked. Lovingly, the sailors swaddle their infant-like companion in blankets and place him “near the chimney of the kitchen stove”. Whilst Victor was obviously distraught, Walton notes that acts of kindness help to restore him and light up his “whole countenance”. As we shall note, this is in stark contrast to the rough treatment the creature experiences upon his birth. Victor himself notes, “you have benevolently restored me to life”.
Victor functions as a cautionary device, who recognises his own extreme pursuits in Walton and asks him, “do you share my madness”. Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught?”. This is in response to Walton’s exclamation that he aims to pursue his enterprise regardless of one man’s life or death, which pales into insignificance for the “acquirement of the knowledge which I sought for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over elemental foes of our race”.
Walton attributes his passion and ardour to penetrate the secrets of the ocean to that wonderful poet, Coleridge, the author of the Ancient Mariner , who kindles a similar “love for the marvellous”.
In this regard, Walton also refers to Victor as a “divine wanderer”, which echoes the wandering spirit in the poem of the “Ancient Mariner”. He has a certain quality that “elevates him so immeasurably above any other person I ever knew” It is his capacity of “intuitive discernment”. Victor recognises the similarities with the Captain – “you seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you as mind has been”.
It is only with hindsight, as Victor contemplates, and narrates his predicament to the outsider (Mr Walton), that he recognises just how rash he was, and how foolish to ignore his father’s advice. The time shift, from the ardent student, to tormented wanderer, is evident as he recognises the importance of moderation: “I am now convinced that he was justified in conceiving that I should not be altogether free from blame”. We recall the father’s advice: “a human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity.”
Although Victor launches into his precautionary tale, he punctuates this tale to remind readers that he is addressing his tale to Captain Walton whom he hopes will be suitably chastened in his own pursuit of glory. “I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted.” He asks him to “learn from me” and abide by his example in order to protect his own happiness. (54)
Victor realising that he is “moralising” with regards to the importance of a certain tranquillity of mind and spirit that ought not be disturbed by extreme passion – a precept that is transmitted from father to son. “I forget that I am moralising in the most interesting part of my tale” (57).
And unlike Victor, it appears that Walton understands the message.