Analysis of the Tragedy of Victor in the Novel Frankenstein
Written by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein is a story of a young scientist who creates a sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Presented in Jill Lepore article in New Yorker, Mary Shelley created Frankenstein out of the death of her first child, “Dreamed that my little baby came to life again.” Frankenstein was a character based from wanting her first child to be reborn. Beneath the initial monster story, the use of archetypes, themes, and characterization help develop the character of Mr. Frankenstein.
Victor is a tragic hero because he is the main character in a tragedy and his flaw of sacrificing anything to gain knowledge eventually brings about his downfall. Do to the long months and months of trying to study his experimental creature before it came to life, Victor would write notes in his journal. “I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.” Victor has an unbridled ego which helps him satisfy the urge to know and use his learning to create a new race of man. He isn’t fully aware of his consequences while creating a new race of humans. The archetype is shown because he overreached to seek knowledge that shouldn’t be known by any human being and when he receives such knowledge it ends up turning his life upside down.
Frankenstein is a look at humanity and sticks to the theme of keeping information from family and dangerous knowledge. Victor did everything he could to keep his secret from his family, and it ended up ruining his life. If he had told at least one other person, they might have been able to help him or at least give him some advice on what to do with the monster. Victor found the knowledge of life; this theme still remains relevant to today. With Victor trying to make new creations using man, he is upsetting God which is why his life ended up being ruined. Informed in Forbidden Knowledge, Danny has stated that, “The first that man should not play God. Victor Frankenstein embarks on a quest to create life, which ends in tragedy.” Frankenstein was supposed to be visioned as another human being just with larger features, but instead he turned out to be a terrifying monster. As the monster fled the house, going out into society trying to fit in the picture, but humans weren’t being welcoming sending the creature; hatred, fear, and confusion.
Through other characters such as Walton, the author made Victor seem like a mad-scientist and like a man with a deep passion and curiosity of the sciences. Frankenstein tried to portray himself as a kind, benevolent creator who just made a simple mistake, he ended up sounding like a shallow, prideful man.
The use of archetypes shows the character description Victor is filling in the storyline. It also helps the reader understand how he should be viewed in the story. Using themes shows how the plot of the story will eventually play out once the characters are developed. Lastly the use of characterization shows how the person is viewed and the characteristics shown.
Analysis Of Volume One Of The Novel Frankenstein
This novel ‘Frankenstein’ is written by Mary Shelley. She was an English novelist, dramatist, travelled writer and she was best known for her Gothic novel (an English genre of fiction characterized by an atmosphere of mystery and horror) ‘Frankenstein’. Story of ‘Frankenstein’ touches on issue of bioethics, morality and religion. This novel is about a person named as ‘Victor Frankenstein’. He has been raised in a gentle family by loving Parents. He has two younger Brothers named as Ernest and William and an adopted sister, Elizabeth.
Victor come to know about Death for the first time when his Beloved mother dies because of Scarlet Fever. This incident effects ‘Victor’ badly. Before the death of his mother he was a very lively person but after his mother’s death he become so lost that he become retarded. To restore his mental condition he decided to go to university to study science and philosophy at Ingolstadt. He set his Goal of creating life. He does not want anyone to be dead. He wants to eliminate the concept of death by renewing life. In other word, we can say that he was afraid of death.
So to achieve his goal, he burns the midnight oil. He does not care about his health and works day and night. Soon he accomplished his goal. The Monster awakens. He opens his eyes and breaths fast. From chamber he goes into his room in shock leaving the monster alone. Finally, he falls asleep. Dreams of death and horror fills his mind until he awakes. He saw the monster standing next to his bed. The monster was trying to approach him. Victor was deeply wrenched with fear. Sweat poured out from his face. He does not know what to do. Finally, he escapes from the monster and rushes from the house. He goes to his best friend named as Henry. He brings back Henry to his apartments but the monster was gone. Victor don’t know that what has become of the monster he only knows that he is gone. As spring arrives, Victor regains his health. During that year he take a walking tour with his friend Henry. It has been two years since the monster has been disappeared.
Now, Victor was back to the life. He has forgotten about everything. As he returns from his tour, he received a letter from his Father. The letter contains a dreadful news about the murder of his younger brother ‘William’. He was deeply shocked on hearing this news. It reminds him the death of his mother. Although the word ‘death’ was really terrifying for him. He escapes from the concept of death but due to his fate he has to face his fear again and again. He begins his journey home deeply grieved over the murder of his younger brother. He decided to go to the site of murder and for this he must take a boat across a lake to do so. It is a stormy night, as he arrives on the bank he observes a large and horrifying figure in the flash of lightening. He remains shocked on what he sees. He saw that it is his creation, his monster who killed his younger brother. This all happens beyond his imagination. He wants to eliminate the concept of death because he has already lost his mother so that’s why he made a creation but Alas! He does not know that his own creation will become devastating for him.
So, after that Victor decided to remain silent in the fear for being called mad. When he reaches home, he finds a suspected person for the murder of his brother. It is the Beloved servant girl, Justin, who is accused. She is convicted. After seeing this all, Victor remains silent. He does not utter a single word. He can defend Justin by speaking the truth but he does not do so. He became selfish at this point because if he speaks the truth he will be accused instead of Justin which he does not want at any cost. The little innocent girl is hanged. Now, Victor is responsible for two deaths(His mother, younger brother) because of his monster.
How’s does Mary Shelley present scientific discovery in the opening chapters of Frankenstein
Shelley’s creation in Frankenstein has become synonymous with the dangers of taking scientific ambition too far and in this extract we see the first tangible example of her titular character’s terrifying obsession with transgressing the line between life and death. Writing in a time of rapid scientific discovery, Shelley highlights the ‘age of wonder’ and the concern that science has the ability to ‘unweave’ the rainbow as we see her Modern Prometheus angle in a Neo Faustian pact just for personal scientific passion. Crucially, this extract demonstrates the irresistibility of scientific passion against the trope of male hubris seen in Frankenstein’s wish to change the natural processes in favour of his own scientific intervention. Shelley explores the limits and inherent dangers of scientific discovery.
In the context of contemporary paranoia on the dangers of science, Shelley captures Frankenstein’s apparent obsession with transgressing the line between life and death as some sort of Neo Faustian pact. Frankenstein declares how he has such ” astonishing a power placed within my hands”. The possessive pronoun ‘my’ hints at the personal quest for power linking to the Neo Faustian reflected in the subtitle: The modern Prometheus. The adjective “astonishing” symbolises the Romantic’s sense of wonder at nature and science as well as reflecting the early 19th century’s sense of awe at the power of science. In stark rejection of the imposing figure of the solitary male genius, a figure popularised by the Romantics Wordsworth in his lionising poem, Shelley presents a case for what her husband deemed as “domestic affections” and what a modern feminist interpretation may call the puncturing of the male ego. Frankenstein declare that “no one can conceive” the feelings that bore him forward as he figuratively describes this ambition as “like a hurricane”.
The image of natural destruction captured in this evokes Frankenstein’s own self revising narrative that his work was out of his control reflecting his previous abdication of personal responsibility earlier in the novel when he personifies destiny as being “too potent. “Shelley is perhaps at her most perceptive when capturing the intensive and all consuming passion for the creative arts. Surrounded by writers and thinkers from a young age, Shelley’s own conception of Frankenstein the novel is often framed as some otherworldly mania. Here, her titular character epitomises the human desire to strive towards the next level of man made creation. Frankenstein starts his journey of going further in science than any one person has ever gone ; ” there is continual food for discovering and wonder”. By showing his effort to surpass everyone, he begins to alienate himself from all he loved. His quest to become more like god preventing him from being able to remain in a community of loving humans beings. Shelley’s epistolary form allows Frankenstein a reflective narrative, and although we can never be sure of its veracity we can interpret his repeated attempts to figuratively express his scientific desires as some sorts of fated destiny. Evoking undoubtedly the tale of the original Prometheus, Shelly transforms it for the contemporary reader.
Frankenstein’s ambition and his desire to create a living being has driven him to exceptional lengths and to a point where his mind is starting to fail him. The intensity of his feelings about what he is doing is shown in the use of strong, forceful verbs such as ‘clung’,’pursued’ and ‘urged’. He seems compelled by an outside force to carry out his terrible scheme even though it is also having physical effects as he neglects to look after himself “My cheek had grown pale” reiterating the retrospective dangers of his ambition.
The Essence Of Humanity
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, humanity is cast under the shadow of physical form rather than character. As such, one must deeply analyze the emotional and not the physical attributes of characters. For the most part, society exudes monstrous behavior that conflicts humanity. For instance, the monster secretly helped a family but when it approached them in person, they ran away in horror and disgust. The monster laments, “There was none from the myriads of men who would pity or assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies? No” (Shelley 16). Here, society is depicted as monstrous because nobody bothered to offer help to a kind and loving personality just because it was embodied in carcasses. Therefore, this suggests that judging is part of human nature. People often conceive ideas about someone or something just by observing their external appearance. Furthermore, it indicates that the true monster was Frankenstein whereas the creature was a victim of society’s marginalization.
Apart from that, humans are depicted as monstrous because they alienate the innocent. When Frankenstein conceived the monster, he was deformed but equally innocent. Therefore, he deserved to be treated with a little compassion. “His jaws opened and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear, on hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs. (Shelley 5)” Here, the creature was looking up to Frankenstein for guidance. In fact, he tried to restrain his master who unceremoniously walked out of him. However, Frankenstein refused to become a father figure to the creature. He does not take time to observe the creature and ascertain whether it was kind or intelligent. Instead he dismisses it merely by its grotesque look. Additionally, society conceives the same perception of the creature that was abandoned by its own creator.
Furthermore, the monstrous part of humans is depicted in their selfish acts. After the monster escaped from Frankenstein’s lab, he meets his master years later. He explains to Frankenstein the hardships he has met living in solitude. The monster laments, “Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred” (Shelley 15). Subsequently, he requests Frankenstein to create a partner for him. However, his creator dismisses the idea by stating, Begone! I do break my promise; never will I create another like yourself, equal in deformity and wickedness” (133). Notably, this is an act of selfishness because Frankenstein himself sought company from society, yet he did not bother to attend to the creature’s need for companionship. Later the creature decided that it would begin acting like a monster because that is how people treated it. Therefore, the selfish acts of humans portray them as monstrous and the creature as human.
On the other hand, the monster is portrayed as the human because of his kind intentions. Apart from that, the monster is sensitive and emotional. He observed the warmth that humans had and ‘longed to join them’. Furthermore, evidence of the monster’s desire to join the human society can be traced in his desire to learn their way of life. The monster learns to read and write with the hope of partaking in the human society one day. However, the more he learns the more he realizes how impossible his quest is. Because of this, he appeals to Frankenstein stating “You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being (Shelley 17). ” In essence, this proves that the monster recognizes his emotional needs. Also, he is intelligent enough to observe and understand that he can never blend in society. The only way for him to battle solitude was if Frankenstein created him a partner.
Additionally, Victor’s monster exudes humanity through his emotional reactions. When he is born, his immediate thought is to explore the world. He states, “I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees. I gazed with a kind of wonder. It moved slowly, but it enlightened my path” (Shelley 85). If the creature was the true monster, the first idea he would have conceived is that of destruction. Apart from that, the creatures decision to kill Frankenstein’s wife and friend is a reaction to stigma from society. It shows that the creature is able of sustaining emotional injuries just like any ideal human being would. Therefore, the true monster in this story is not the creature; it is Frankenstein. The creature only became malicious after it was severely marginalized by society.
The Way Physical Appearance Influences The Way One Is Treated
“How has reading Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein supported my understanding of the way physical appearance influences the way one is treated.”
Mary Shelley’s text Frankenstein explores the effect physical appearance has on the treatment of a person. The society in Frankenstein is much like today’s society, in which a person’s worth is defined based on the way they look. The novel encompasses the journey of a creature who enters into a society where his physical appearance differs from the ordinary, and is therefore seen ‘ugly’, and therefore rejected from society. The novel draws parallels with prejudice based on skin colour, as well as other racist prejudices based on appearance. The novel brings into focus wider thematic issues such as sexual politics and the representation of women.
One of the first observations Frankenstein makes when he beholds his newly created creature is that “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.” (Shelley, 37) and his immediate perception of the creature was “breathless horror and disgust” (Shelley, 37) The indication that Frankenstein’s first judgement of the creature is based on the colour of his skin is one common in today’s society, and treatment of people based on this observation is due to social prejudice and discrimination due to racist beliefs.
The injustice of racial discrimination often stems off the way one appears. The Turkish merchant, Safie’s father, was condemned to death for a crime he did not commit, and “it was judged that his religion and wealth, rather than the crime alleged against him, had been the cause of his condemnation.” (Shelley, 92) It is specified in the novel that the Turk was Mahometan, a follower of the prophet Muhammad; a Muslim. It can be assumed that the Turk’s religion is indicated from his clothing and appearance, as the novel is set in the 18th century, and it is therefore likely that the injustice in his sentence was based on racial discrimination. “The injustice in his sentence was very flagrant” (Shelley, 92) as, from the evidence given in the text, it is evident that if the Turk had been a french Catholic, it would have been unlikely for him to get the same sentence. [Further discrimination is exemplified when Safie’s mother, who was an Arab Christian, was enslaved by the Turks. The Turk, who was rescued by a Frenchman named Felix, betrayed him in an act of hypocrisy and treachery, by promising him his daughter’s hand in marriage, while making plans to flee the country and deserting Felix, because he “loathed the idea that his daughter should be united to a Christian” (Shelley, 94)] As Donnie Mathes states, “although some progress has been made throughout the centuries, racism still exists and “colours” our vision of other people.” (year) and this is evident throughout the text Frankenstein.
The treatment of the creature is perhaps the best example of appearance based discrimination. His account informs the reader that he was virtuous and benevolent in his early life; he would have been a . The first person to fail him was Frankenstein, his creator; “Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…” (Shelley, 37) Frankenstein, of all the characters in the text, should have compassion and tolerance, if not love, for the creature to whom he gave life to. The creature then had a series of encounters with members of society in which he was assumed immediately, solely from appearance, to be dangerous or fearful. The villagers whom saw the creature, either ran, fainted, or attacked him. The first man, “perceiving me, shrieked loudly, and, quitting the hit, ran across the fields … his flight, somewhat surprised me.” (Shelley, 78) The next village he went, “I had hardly placed my foot within the door, before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted. The whole village was roused; some fled, some attacked me, until, grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons, I escaped… and fearfully took refuge…” (Shelley, 78) These reactions are based on the fact that the creature looks different to what they are used to, regardless of him being much the same in personality, and is therefore seen as not being good. “When I looked around, I saw and heard none like me. Was I then a monster… from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” (Shelley, 90) The only creature only ever heard words of kindness said to him from a blind man, De Lacey, who was removed from the effect of appearance based judgement, “from your words first have I heard the voice of kindness directed towards me” (Shelley, 103) The kindness and acceptance of De Lacey is juxtaposed to the behaviour of his family and relations, who behaved the same way as the other villagers whom the creature had encountered. The difference in behaviour towards him is incontrovertibly because “a fatal prejudice clouds [De Lacey’s family’s] eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster.” (Shelley, 102)
Aside from the creature, who’s appearance is drastically different from all humans, the preponderance of characters in the text are judged and categorised as “good” or “bad” people based on their appearance. Frankenstein’s two main professors can be read as foils; Frankenstein is not captivated by M. Krempe, who was “a little squat man, with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance; the teacher, therefore, did not prepossess me in favour of his doctrine.” (Shelley, 28) M. Waldman, on the other hand, was “very unlike his colleague” (Shelley, 29) and Frankenstein became deeply appreciative of him. “It was, perhaps, the amiable character of this man that inclined [Frankenstein] more to that branch of natural philosophy which he professed, than intrinsic love for the science itself.” (Shelley, 31) Frankenstein was more inclined to accept M. Waldman as a friend, than his colleague who had “a repulsive physiognomy” (Shelley, 31)
The history or Elizabeth Lavenza’s adoption into Frankenstein’s family establishes the importance of appearance in the culture. Elizabeth was “at that time the most beautiful child she had ever seen” (Shelley, 19) and so was valued and loved by the family. This family culture of valuing beauty is further expressed by the family’s adoption of Justine. It is no surprise that Justine Moritz, who was happily received into Frankenstein’s family, was accepted with regards to her pleasant appearance. Elizabeth describes her as “extremely pretty” (Shelley, 45) and said that “if you were in an ill humour, one glance from Justine could dissipate it, for the same reason that Ariosto gives concerning the beauty of Angelica – she looked so frank-hearted and happy.” (Shelley, 44) It is because of this that Frankenstein’s mother “conceived a great attachment for [Justine]” (Shelley, 44), that Elizabeth loved her tenderly, and she was a great favourite of Frankenstein’s. Her treatment was exceptionally good from Frankenstein’s family; they were “induced to give her an education superior to that which she had first intended.” (Shelley, 44)
Through a feminist reading position, it is clear that attitudes towards the appearance of women differs from that of men in Frankenstein. A major point to consider is that Frankenstein acknowledges that if he were to make a female equivalent of his creature, she would be “equal in deformity” (Shelley, 131). Why, then, does he he reason that “the creature who already loved loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form?” (Shelley, 129) This statement shows the inequality that exists between expectations of female and male appearances. Frankenstein thinks that the same deformity in female form may be “ten thousand times more malignant than her mate.” (Shelley, 129) This inequality experienced in the 18th century is also present in contemporary society. There is an everlasting pressure to dress, look and present one’s self a certain way, and if they do not comply with this Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was one of the first feminists, and authored the feminist text A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which, as suggested by the name, argued for the rights of women. Her text was one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. The influence on her mother’s text resonates throughout Frankenstein through the character Safie, who fought to seek religious liberties and freedom from the control of her father.
“To Be Answered Only With Groans”: The Language of the Deferred Desire in Frankenstein’s Consciousness
Frankenstein’s Creature is, to be sure, an essential actor in the unraveling of Shelley’s narrative. For this reason, it is logical and arguably necessary to question his unnamed status throughout the novel. He is described as many things: a “monster,” a “wretch,” and a “thing such as even Dante could not have received,” but nonetheless remains officially nameless. Alone, feared, a social pariah at best, the monster is clearly in conflict with the rest of society, but more specifically, the fact that the Creature has no name underscores a further, more fundamental conflict with language itself. The defining aspect of the Creature is his struggle to find identity in a society that abhors him, yet because of the constraints engendered by society’s linguistics, his identity amounts to nothing more than a lack thereof, a void where a sense of wholeness might have been.
As the Creature becomes increasingly aware of himself as a separate and distinct entity, he falls subject to a socially and linguistically influenced set of metaphors and representations that attempt to locate him in relation to the social order, and in turn classify him as an individual. Of greater import, though, is the space between the Creature’s subjective identification and his actual intentions. The charade that language imagines as “self” is at best “a delusory construct plagued in its very constitution by imaginary identifications with a spurious sense of wholeness or unity.” He desperately yearns to positively engage the world, to find companionship and arguably even love, but owes to language the unflinching denial of these desires. Furthermore, there is a space between what the Creature’s appears to wish for (wickedness and destruction) and his true longing, which is to restore a Lacanian union with his creator Dr. Frankenstein so that he might exist as an undifferentiated form of the force from which he originated and channel Lacan’s uncharacteristically unknowable “Real.”
At first I stared back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror. I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am.
The Creature’s realization of his physical self is the genesis of his – and arguably Justine’s, William’s, and Dr. Frankenstein’s — ultimate demise. According to Lacan’s theory of the “mirror-stage,” the Creature undergoes a drama “whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency,” and from that moment on assumes “the armor” of an identity whose contours come to shape his development throughout the story. When he discovers the “god-like science” of language as revealed to him through the French family and their “articulate sounds,” he is vitally transformed. As has already been established, language transcends the realm of speech, and its “words” carry a weight we as participators in its scheme could never truly begin to anticipate. Herein lies the difficulty: once the Creature is introduced to the family and their language, he is incarcerated by the fecklessness of linguistic civilization. Though he is first “unable to believe” the reflection, he is given no choice but to embrace what he calls “the monster that I am,” to accept a socially constructed symbol for lack of any other choice.
Lacan borrows from and slightly alters Freud’s idea of the Oedipal Complex, essentially arguing that the human desire to reconcile the hollow, linguistic, fragmented self is gauged by an Oedipal struggle with cultural images and standards enforced by language. The Creature engages the same issue, an issue that often manifests itself in his relationship with the French family in the countryside. A rest in the Creature’s “movement along a chain of desired objects…that can never convert themselves into the object of desire,” the family embodies a part of a series of battles the Creature fights — and continually loses — to retrieve totality. What is interesting, though, is that the family only serves to accentuate his lack of unity. When he visits the family in hopes of winning them over, only to “escape unperceived to his hovel…overcome by pain and anguish,” he realizes that “like Adam” he is “apparently united by no link to any other being in existence.” Here, we grasp as readers that the sense of self-unified identity he searches for has been replaced by an identity defined more by what is not there than what is; the family is involved in uncovering his true identity only by revealing how truly unreachable it is.
Crestfallen and unthinkably alone, the Creature migrates further towards Lacan’s Symbolic Order. Like Addie Bundren of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (a melancholic, dejected woman contemplating her identity), he is forced to reckon with the jumbled mess of language, a game of signifiers and signified objects, that has come itself to signify only the absence of what he seeks to unearth within himself. Both having been “violated and then made whole again by the violation” created by language, which alienates those who participate in it, they are at the same time empowered with a sense of unity because their being is defined by that very violation.
Why Anse…I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar.
Addie, lying in the dark next to her husband, wonders at the ineffectuality of words, symbols “profoundly without life,” whose meaning loses legitimacy, at which point we forget their names. Addie is more willing to accept her Lacanian fate and the flaws of language — “I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that word was just like the others: just a shape to fill a lack” — than the Creature, who insists that Dr. Frankenstein “comply with his requisition” for a wife, “a companion of the same species, and same defects.”
Nevertheless, both characters are equally powerless in trying to grasp pre-linguistic identities. Addie has learned that we can’t “get at” anything on this earth “until we forget the words,” and the Creature soon discovers that in response to his question, “What was I?” language can answer “only with groans.”
I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion.
Perhaps the most powerful moment in the novel, this is an image of the Creature standing somberly over the newly deceased body of Dr. Frankenstein. At his lowest point, he is confronted in the most absolute manner with the reality of his estrangement from the “Real.” Having been a “slave of language” since his “jaws first opened…while a grin wrinkled his cheeks,” the Creature is, if examined closely, set free from linguistic bondage.
Now that his source, his imagined self-oneness, is quite literally dead, he is no longer forced to face his severance from it. In this sense, he has indeed been aborted, purged of the angst intrinsically present in watching from an empty doorframe the “cold molasses” flow slowly from darkness into the vessel of language. Now the creature must come to terms with Dr. Frankenstein’s abortion, and strive to find satisfaction in the shape and echo of the words that whittle the centers of our being into yearning. Lacan’s language, because of its twofold nature, is at once capable of nothing and everything, and it is reasonable to consider, instead of worshiping the frustration, celebrating the substitutes. They are, really, all that we have.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. London: The Penguin Group, 1992.
Lacan, Jacques E. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 441-445.
Lacan, Jacques E. “The Instance of the Letter.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 447-461.
Rivkin, Julie. Ryan, Michael. “Strangers to Ourselves: Psychoanalysis.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 390-396
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Random House.1987.
How Binary Oppositions Are Shown in Frankenstein
A binary opposition refers to a pair of related non-physical elements that are opposite in meaning; it is an important concept of Structuralism which defines the contrast between two mutually exclusive terms. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is rich in these contrasts and none are more relevant and remarkable as the oppositions allegorised in the relationship between Victor and his creature. These can be separated into seven binaries which interlink, blend, blur and mutate to deconstruct the text; creator and created, civilized and savage, inclusion and rejection, love and hate, life and death, good and evil, and freewill and determinism. Between each of these there exists a boundary, a human-applied liminal threshold which divides the two and creates the opportunity for the swapping, shifting and breaking down between the two characters to procure only misery and suffering as Victor dies and the creature disappears into ‘darkness and distance’ .
Binary oppositions in themselves are exceptionally problematic as the contrast between two mutually exclusive terms is difficult to define and separate. When we envisage two elements that are opposed in meaning or significance we often see only two entities that lie on opposite ends of a spectrum and negate the infinite mass of possibilities which lie between them. Furthermore, we incorrectly imagine a clear-cut boundary between the two which is as negotiable as the forward slash between light/dark. Whilst as humans we are capable of identifying the difference between light and dark, or hot and cold, the boundary between the pair is fabricated entirely from human subjectivity as stated in the Protagorean maxim, ‘man is the measure of all things’ and therefore compelled to disintegration. In terms of hot and cold, we place our perception as the fulcrum of measurement; we are comfortable in our climate at anywhere around twenty degrees Celsius, anything distinctly above or below this is branded hot or cold without a moment’s consideration for another body’s subjective opinion, or the concept of infinity (there is no limit to how hot or cold something can be) and the perpetual decimals in temperature shift which may completely alter a state of being; this demolishes the notion that there is some kind of imaginable boundary where one can cross from hot to cold or vice versa. This is complicated immensely if we replace temperature with morality, the binary opposition between good and evil, as subjectivity shreds any possibility of a shared human knowledge which would allow for an easier understanding of hot and cold. By this means, the boundary between good and evil is non-existent, yet we still place value on the two as a binary opposition.
In addition, no two binary opposites are of equal merit, an idea developed by Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida who both commented on the necessity of a ‘dominant’ element in binaries; it is a fundamental element of human nature to organise everything into hierarchal order. This dominant element is the ‘presence’ and is positive and the other the ‘absence’ or ‘lack’, which is negative. Cold is thereby the ‘lack’ of heat and evil the absence of good; heat and goodness are the ‘presence’. However, as Nietzsche alludes to in his essay On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense, this attribution of the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ is simply a ‘human construct’ ; there is nothing innately negative about coldness or darkness or evil or even the word negative, it is simply something that humanity has deemed non-beneficial and therefore ‘bad’. Shelley explores this notion in her deconstruction of the binary between Frankenstein and his creature. Victor is at first represented to be the former, ‘presence’, and the positive and the creature the latter, ‘absence’ and negative. Almost every binary opposition, where Victor was the positive and his creature the negative, is blurred and reversed. At first Victor overcomes the laws of nature in creating his creature, but in destroying his machinery in the sea the binary of Science and Nature is inverted as the natural sea swallows the scientific technology. Victor’s physical creation leads to his mental destruction and the creature’s acquisition of knowledge leads to his mental development. The creature desires integration into society and Victor desires to escape from it. The creature wants to live happily and Victor wants to die fighting. The creature wants to be equal by having a wife and Victor loses all of his family because he refuses to allow his creature one. The creature is at first determined entirely by Victor, but in learning of the nature of life with the DeLacey’s he gains a level of free-will, meanwhile Victor is enslaved by the threat to all of his loved ones; this notion is epitomised in the creature’s line ‘you made me but now you are my slave’.
In the Structuralist theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, units of language are defined by signs indicating what they are not as ‘in language there are only differences’ . These opposing relative and negative signs derive from the syntagmatic and paradigmatic context of conceptual and phonic differences meaning that ‘language is a form and not a substance’. Saussure would argue that there is the idea of a ‘something’ and ‘not something’ within this form which defines signs and creates binary oppositions. This holds true when referring to physical entities; here there is only the presence and the lack. The opposite of the moon is not the sun, but no moon, the creature learns this in his coming to terms with the world and the DeLaceys in Volume II chapters III to V. The creature follows a process akin to Saussure’s notion of differences to ‘learn to distinguish between the operations of my various senses’. He does this through discovering series of binary opposites, the first of which is light and dark; the creature is blinded by the light before ‘darkness then came over me and troubled me’ and then ‘light poured in on me again’. This greatly confuses the creature and leaves him as a ‘poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing’. This shows that a lack of binaries leads to suffering and blending binaries also causes suffering, there is only joy when there is a comfortable equilibrium of the two, which is almost impossible. In identifying physical objects such as the moon/not moon, stream/not stream, foliage/not foliage, the creature is confused binaries as they are not opposites but lack or absence of the thing itself. In learning conceptual language with the DeLacey family the creature learns that some words produced ‘pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness’ and reflects on this language of opposites as a ‘godlike science’. He learns of ‘fire, milk, wood, bread’ through what they physically point to, but has difficulty when it comes to ‘good’ ‘dearest and happy’ as they rely on opposites to be identified. If words do not have an intrinsic valuable meaning, then the monster is not a monster until he is named ‘the wretch, the filthy demon’ by Victor; he is allocated a place within the system before he has even done anything monstrous. This deconstructs the binary idea that Frankenstein and his creature are opposites.
Whilst the notion of conceptual opposition is certainly recognisable in Frankenstein, as with the idea of the creator and the created, the more prevalent and interesting themes of the novel occur in the grey area between and the imaginary border which separate binary oppositions which gives way for shifts; as with the creator and created binary: ‘you made me but now you are my slave’. These boundaries are a kind of liminal threshold between states, yet are far more complicated and ambiguous than a simple border line between two states. This idea is tangible in Shelley’s deconstruction of binary oppositions; she begins her novel at this metaphorical border, with Victor on the scientific border of great discovery and Walton on the geographical border of the North Pole. Furthermore, both are trapped in a liminal limbo; the Victor through his mental capacity and Walton through the physical polar ice. Victor manages to overstep his boundary and create the creature who becomes his binary opposition, however over the course of events in the novel this binary is shifted immensely, the new border (between creation/created, civilized/savage, inclusion/rejection, love/hate, life/death, good/evil, and freewill/determinism) is swapped, shifted and broken down until Victor loses everything and dies. Frankenstein crosses the liminal border of science and creates a creature that then destroys everything Victor ever loved. Walton, who sees this and decided ultimately not to cross the literal geographic border, is allowed to live and return to the comfort of home.
The relationship between Frankenstein and his creature is far more complicated and contains far more ambiguous binaries that classical representations of antithetical characters such as God and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is constantly referred to throughout Frankenstein. The separation between heaven and hell and good and evil is exceptionally clear cut, Shelley employs this as a reference to depict how the nameless creature is somewhere between Satan and Adam and throw our sympathy between Victor and the innocent and helpless creature. This is epitomised in the creature’s line ‘I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed’. Analysing Umberto Eco’s essay The Narrative Structure in Fleming and James Bond as the ultimate depiction of perfect binary oppositions further demonstrates the lack of clear cut binaries and the blending which occurs in Frankenstein. Bond and Villain are absolute opposites where Bond is the ‘Anglo-Saxon, masculine and loving’ protagonist and the Villain is the ‘foreign, impotent and sexually deviant’ antagonist, or ‘variant’ to Bond. The creature is in no way comparable to these villains, as he wants to love and live as a human, and Victor wishes to die fighting the creature. Terry Eagleton argues that we ‘cannot catapult ourselves beyond this binary habit of thought into an ultra-metaphysical realm’, so we can only form understanding of the world through the discovery of opposites. However he goes on to say that ‘one term of antithesis secretly inheres within the other.’ The idea that an element of every entity exists within their opposite is fascinating when applied to the creature and Frankenstein. In many ways they are one and the same person and it is the creatures attributes which are similar to a ‘good’ human, mingled with the fact that he is not a human which produces horror; as Diana Fuss states in her 1996 book Human, All Too Human, ‘sameness, not difference, provokes our greatest anxiety’ .
The opposition of inclusion and rejection, situated within good and evil in Frankenstein and the creature, is another primary example of the mutation of binaries through the breakdown of boundaries. On his first discovery of evidence of humanity, a supposed blessing of the fire left by ‘wandering beggars’, he quickly ‘thrusts’ his hand ‘into the live embers’ only to unearth the harshness of the human inferno and see his ‘joy’ turn to a ‘cry of pain’. This is a very early metaphor for the creature’s attempt at inclusion in humanity, but he is burned through his ignorance of amorality. ‘How strange’ he reflects ‘that the same cause should produce such opposite effects’. The creature is intrinsically moral; he never once fights back, and maintains the belief that he is ‘the same cause’ as humanity and therefore can be part of it. The creature, however, is not part of the same cause. Humans are created from ‘nothing’ in a sense that they begin as an unimaginably small element and grow and develop, Frankenstein’s creature does not grow or develop, he is created out of chaos from mixed parts of other humans, and therefore he is not human and devoid of many human traits. Humans gain morality from experience but the creature already has innate knowledge as he is built from other humans who have already gained it; why else would he know instantly to eat berries and not branches or twigs?
Finally, Victor Frankenstein, like Faustus and Icarus, is the epitome of the hyper-ambitious man who seeks to transcend his corporeal imprisonment and reside in the realm of divine authority having attained absolute truth; he wishes to reject himself from humanity by escaping it. However, Victor is a man and will always be a man; he is tries not be a man by surpassing the laws of humanity and playing God, and is therefore punished with suffering through the death of loved ones and ultimately his own death. The creature, although he is built out of man, is not a man and so will never be accepted as one. However he exists (or at least tries to exist) in a man’s world (or at least a world entirely defined by the ideas of man). Therefore by trying to become part of it in wanting acceptance into the social life of men and wanting a woman (which is in the patriarchal society a man’s possession), he is committing the same illicit offence to transcend his place and is condemned to the same fate of his creator; death and suffering. Both Victor and the creature overstep the boundaries of whom they are and who they can be which break down binary oppositions and cause suffering.
Derrida, Jacques. Of grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. 88
Eagleton, Terry Literary Theory: An Introduction Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008
Eco, Umberto. The role of the reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts. Bloomington: 1984
Fuss, Diana. Human, all too human. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Nietzsche, F On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, 1873 m in Rivkin and Ryan.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in general linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and J. Paul Hunter. Frankenstein: the 1818 text, contexts, nineteenth-century responses, modern criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Rays of Personal Glory, Selfishness and the Persecution for Immortality
The desire to make history to discover what remains undiscovered, or to know what remains unknown is a timeless human goal. Although many have failed to realize this dream, a very few have been wildly successful in its pursuit. The immortality afforded these select few has, of course, only served to encourage those who come after. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein is a literary meditation upon this intensely human desire here exemplified by the title character’s quest for personal glory by means of scientific discovery.
Both Victor Frankenstein and the Arctic explorer Robert Walton, whose letters open the novel, possess an insatiable thirst for privileged knowledge of those things that are unknown to the common man. Shelley presents their stories as being in some sense parallel to each other: each is a failure, and each suffers from the same fatal flaw. Walton, a voyager, explores the secrets of the natural earth, in the company of a crew of men on the same mission. Victor works in solitude to penetrate secrets of a metaphysical nature: namely, the principle of life. Though they explore entirely different realms, Walton and Victor are both bound by a common cause. Each longs to further the knowledge of mankind and to glorify his own name.
The reader is invited to stand in the place of Mrs. Seville, Walton’s sister and the recipient of his letters. The selfishness of Walton’s ambition is not immediately apparent; it only becomes clear when the reader takes the subtleties of Walton’s point of view into account (Walling 35). In his opening letter, Walton attempts to assure his sister that he is safe and to remind her of the reason for his journey: he wishes to confer an “inestimable benefit”(2) upon all mankind. The reader may initially perceive this wish as sincere, but this is not precisely the case. Above all else, Walton craves fame, and he presents his desire as altruistic only in order to inspire his beloved sister’s admiration. She, for her part, had anticipated his journey with “evil forebodings” (1).
In his ensuing letters he speaks of his intrepid crew, first briefly introducing his lieutenant, whom he describes as “madly desirous of glory”(5). It is clear that Walton assumes that his crew has the same passion for this journey that he does; he believes that they would willingly sacrifice their lives for the cause. Walton’s assumption is spectacularly mistaken, and reveals him as utterly insensitive to the real motivations of his crew. Walton goes on to say that the life of one man would be “a small price to pay” (11) for the success of the expedition and the advancement of the entire race.
Walton’s “cause,” however, is nothing more than his lust for fame hardly edifying to humanity as a whole. Walton’s self-regard becomes apparent in that he never once asks about his sister’s well being, despite the fact that he has not seen her for a number of years. He believes that she is pining for him and spends every moment awaiting his return. In each of the letters, Walton reveals the disproportionate quality of his ambition through his redundant references to “glory”, “admiration” and “triumph.”
Victor Frankenstein desires to acquire knowledge hidden from the eyes of the common man. He talks of ridding the world of disease as a means of making man immortal. Although his altruism seems genuine, the personal glory that his discovery would provide him dominates his thoughts. He aspires to the absolute, unlimited powers of a god, and believes himself to be a genius, with a natural propensity to discover the secret of life itself. He declares to Walton that men of his extraordinary intelligence “however erroneously directed” (28) almost always provide new benefits for mankind.
The danger of pride and egotism is one of the novel’s central themes (Kiely 166). Significantly, Victor begins his tale with the story of Beaufort, a man whose pride results in his own demise, thereby leaving his daughter an orphan. It is from the union of this girl with the elder Frankenstein that Victor is born.
The decision to adopt Elizabeth Lavenza ends Victor’s days as an only child. If the dangers of pride and egotism are a part of the novel’s foundation, then the horrors of isolation serve as one of its beams of support. Shelley seems to suggest that solitude gives rise to pride and self-love; intimate companionship is thus an absolute necessity for living a moral life.
It is significant that, in Victor’s mind, Elizabeth does not join the family as an equal member but as a “gift” to him; it is as though his parents recognized the hazards presented by his solitude and attempted to save him from them. Even after Elizabeth joins the family and a second child is subsequently born, Victor elects to be alone, avoiding crowds and having only a single close friend. He seems almost proud of his introversion: he regards it as an emblem of his individuality, his elevation above the common man.
The novel reflects Wollstonecraft Shelley’s own philosophical views. She alludes to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher of the French Enlightenment, whose theories greatly interested her. Rousseau argued that humanity was in essence good; only the influence of society led to the corruption of man. He also argued, somewhat contradictorily, that humans are at birth weak and innocent and thus require guidance and proper education. Without such guidance, the nature of the isolated man would become irretrievably degraded by society. Rousseau maintained that “A man left entirely to himself from birth would be the most misshapen of creatures” (Stevenson 110). This notion is absolutely crucial to Frankenstein: while it undoubtedly applies to Victor, it finds its most direct and literal illustration in the character of the monster.
Frankenstein’s research, as well as the desire for fame that animates it, so entrances him that he neglects his family and friends. He works in solitude; thus isolated, he becomes incapable of resisting his obsession. The obsessional quality of his labors is apparent in his description of himself through such words as “unremitting”, “dedicated”, “tortured”, “resistless”, “frantic”, and “engaged” (33). He admits that he had become “pale with study”, “emaciated with confinement”; he was so focused on his endeavors that he “lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (34).
Frankenstein was written during the period of the first industrial revolution, and it contributed to some of the developing ideas of the age. The novel (like the Marxist theory that it might be said to prefigure) implies that men embody themselves through their creations (Wolff 153). Wollstonecraft Shelley extends this idea to suggest that a creation can only be a magnified image of its creator.
Many critics have argued that Frankenstein lacks complex characterization, insofar as Victor and his monster have the same personality. The confusion of the name of the creator with that of his monster (who is deliberately given no name) is but one example of the results of this misreading. These critics fail to recognize the philosophical implications inherent in Victor’s mirroring of his monster and vice versa. As man was made in the image of god, the creature is made in the image of his creator Frankenstein. The novel makes this connection explicit through the monster’s realization that his form is but a “filthy type” of Frankenstein’s own (93).
It is on a “dreary night of November”(34) that Frankenstein finally realizes his ambition; the concrete accomplishment, however, spectacularly fails to approximate the ideal (Kiely 162). Victor’s creature-child (the prodigious birth of his unholy experiment) is cobbled together out of fragments of the dead; though Victor chose the fragments for their beauty, the monster is grotesquely ugly. Victor describes the creature as a “catastrophe”, a “wretch” and finally, a “monster” (35); this rapid progression indicates the speed with which his hope of immortality has led instead to ruin. Frankenstein’s decision to abandon his creature reveals his “scientific” pretensions to be a sham: he flees, rather than examining the creature to determine the reason for his failure (Kiely 172).
In creating the monster, Victor longed to produce a superior race of men. The monster can be seen as Victor’s “child”: he is a reproduction of Victor (his uncanny double). The creature, like a child, is expected to mirror Frankenstein’s own desires; Frankenstein imagines that this “new human” will be infinitely grateful to him, and will overwhelm his creator with worship (Brooks 224). The relationship between creator and creation reproduces the Biblical myth of the creation of man albeit in a non-Christian context (Levine 11). Although Victor wishes to play the role of god, he lacks the requisite knowledge (recall that the Christian god is held to be omniscient). His human imperfections can only conceive of something less than himself. The monster thus becomes an eternal self-inflicted wound upon his creator, and serves as a horrific embodiment of the consequences of hubris and ambition.
Appropriately enough, Victor Frankenstein begins his cautionary tale with a warning against the overzealous pursuit of knowledge: “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” (31). His reference to knowledge as a “serpent”(13) once again recalls the Christian myth of Creation: Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise because a serpent persuaded them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Frankenstein’s tale has a profound effect upon Walton: he is filled with remorse for endangering the lives of his crew, and thus consents to turn the ship about. His “moral transformation” is hardly complete, however: he is furious at being deprived of his chance at glory. Frankenstein, too, is hardly redeemed by book’s end: he raises himself from his deathbed to exhort Walton’s crew to continue their expedition despite the fact that they will thus be courting death. He instructs them to “be men” and to be dauntless in the face of the “danger and death” that surround them; only in this way, he maintains, can they acquire glory and avoid disgrace.
Victor Frankenstein dies a failure, insistent that his fate is an “accident of circumstance, the result of insufficient knowledge, or an imperfection in nature itself” (Kiely 160). Though he tells Walton to “avoid ambition” (162), he blames nature itself for his failure and fails to take responsibility for the catastrophic effects of his selfish pursuits. In the world of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, redemption (at least for mere men) remains impossible.
Brooks, Peter. “‘Godlike Science/ Unhallowed Arts’: Language, Nature,and Monstrosity”. The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Levine, George. “The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein”. The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. 3-30.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Candace Ward. New York, Dover, 1994. Based on a reproduction of the third edition of 1831, as originally published by Colburn and Bentley (London).
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987.
Stevenson, Leslie. The Study of Human Nature: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Walling, William A. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Wolff, Robert P. About Philosophy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.
Fantomina and Frankenstein: How Gender Roles Are Shown
It is no surprise that the function of men and women in a society plays a huge role in the pieces of literature that would arise during a specific time. The roles of both men and women in the 18th century, for example, may even align with those in the next century. For instance, both Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina: Love in a Maze (1735) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) depict women as nothing more than objects. In Haywood’s novella, Fantomina is described as a “Victory” after she is assaulted by Beauplaisir whereas in Shelley’s novel, Elizabeth is introduced, after the death of Caroline, as a “pretty present” for Victor. However, because they were written a century apart, the two texts also demonstrate a difference in response to the roles that were upheld in each of the societies the texts took place in. Both Haywood and Shelley critique the traditional roles of women during their time period but while Fantomina challenges the traditional roles of a woman, the women of Frankenstein uphold them.
One of the ways that Fantomina challenges the role of a woman in British society is by changing her appearance from a lady of higher social standing to a woman of lower standing – a prostitute. When Haywood states that there is no authority figure nor anyone Fantomina knew in town to whom she is accountable, she is suggesting that a lady should not be acting in such a manner, but the protagonist is still able to get away with it (Haywood 36). At the Playhouse, she resides in a gallery box at the theater, which is a key symbol of wealth and class, but as a prostitute, Fantomina smoothly enters the Pit, where the prostitutes mingled with the men, in a “free and unrestrain’d Manner” (Haywood 36). It is here that Haywood reveals the impact of one’s behavior and clothes on their social status. When the protagonist changes both her behavior and clothes, she is no longer a “Lady,” but a “Woman.” Yet with the downgrade of her status, she is able to experience a new sense of freedom, where she also mingles with men. One of the men Fantomina converses with is Beauplaisir and by doing so, she defies the societal restriction of women pursuing men, while also carrying out long sojourns outside of her town. Whereas a woman of low birth possessed the freedom of interacting with any man she wished, a lady did not. Fantomina had spoken to Beauplaisir before, but “then her Quality and reputed Virtue,” or in other words, her virtuous status, kept her from making advances (Haywood 36). Because she is unrecognizable now, Fantomina finds pleasure in freely conversing with him. However, if an authority figure or anyone Fantomina knew were around, she would not have attempted to pursue Beauplaisir at the Playhouse as herself. Furthermore, as her feelings for him strengthen, Fantomina goes to great lengths to win the affection of Beauplaisir, especially embarking on “whimsical Adventures” on the false pretence of visiting a relative in the country (Haywood 52). The protagonist’s severely virtuous mother abruptly arrives upon hearing rumors about her daughter to constrain the vast deal of freedom that she was exploiting. This suggests that British women were restricted from traveling outside of their town and were to be kept in check of taboo behavior. Lastly, Fantomina challenges the societal expectation of unmarried women’s sexuality as being a restrained quality. Under her disguises as Fantomina, Incognita, and Celia, the protagonist engages in intercourse, which she refers to as her “Virtue” and “Honor,” multiple times with Beauplaisir (Haywood 38). While unmarried men in 18th century Britain exercised their freedom to have intercourse before marriage, women were expected to remain virgins until marriage, which is evident in Fantomina’s deliberate plan in hiding her charades for the security of her reputation (Haywood 40). If women had done otherwise, they were unfit to be married because they would have “nothing left to give” to their husbands (Haywood 39). By having intercourse before marriage, the protagonist establishes a new sense of freedom that she will use as a way to manipulate Beauplaisir while she is Incognita. Typically, a man would have more power than a woman but in this case, the protagonist uses her sexuality as a way to gain some control over him. Incognita had him “always raving, wild, impatient, longing, dying” and this newfound power that the protagonist now possessed differed from the stereotypical image of power between men and women (Haywood 50).
Frankenstein reveals that it was a crucial responsibility for women to provide happiness to their male counterparts. Elizabeth adheres to this norm by believing that it is the “most imperious duty” to deliver happiness to her uncles, cousins and Victor and she is “determined to fulfill her duties with the greatest exactness,” even after the death of her aunt (Shelley 26). Shelley’s usage of the words “imperious” and “greatest exactness” suggest that Elizabeth’s priority was not to render happiness to herself, but to the men in her life. It also shows that women were expected to be forgetful of themselves, especially their own emotions, in respect to men. In order to fulfill her duties, Elizabeth was expected to sweep her feelings under the rug, as if they were insignificant and insubstantial. Another instance where Elizabeth demonstrates her dedication to providing happiness to her male counterparts is when she writes to Victor, even after suspecting him of cheating: “Be happy, my friend; and if you obey me in this one request, remain satisfied that nothing on earth will have the power to interrupt my tranquility” (Shelley 135). The word ‘cheating’ can be defined as acquiring feelings for a person while being in a commitment to another. Elizabeth displays a lack of anger or sadness when she accuses Victor of loving and seeing another while committed to her and urges him to seek his own happiness. This would bring Elizabeth “tranquility” and when she states that nothing in the world would be able to ruin her tranquility, Elizabeth insinuates that Victor’s happiness is the source of her everlasting happiness. Thus, Shelley indicates that the happiness of women was dependent upon the happiness of men. Shelley’s purpose of Elizabeth’s character in the novel was to accentuate the effects of Victor’s transgressive science, which ultimately leads to her death. While Elizabeth is portrayed as merely collateral damage in a fight between Victor and his creature, Margaret Saville demonstrates no significance to any of the major characters and is only included for the enhancement of the plot. Women were presented as passive figures whose presence, or lack thereof, emphasized the dominance of a male voice. Although Shelley introduces Margaret as the very first character in the novel, she provides little to no information regarding Margaret’s personal life even though she is whom Walton’s letters are directed towards. Additionally, she is not even granted a voice because she only reads the letters and never writes back even when Walton informs her of the harsh weather, which could put his life in danger, thus proving she is passive. For instance, Walton writes to his sister, “You will not hear of my destruction, and you will anxiously await my return” (Shelley 153). As a result, the readers are left to infer how Margaret must feel knowing that her brother’s life is at risk. On top of that, the reader must also infer whether Margaret would condemn or pardon Victor’s transgressive and harmful experiment. Hence, she is merely an idea because in addition to being written as a figure of moral support for Walton because of his loneliness, Shelley does not confirm whether or not Margaret is still alive. Not only was Elizabeth portrayed as collateral damage in the fight between Victor and his creature, but also Justine. Justine’s character revealed that women were submissive and held no power in their male dominated societies. After being falsely accused of murdering William, Justine confesses to the court, “I did confess; but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins…ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me, he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was…” (Shelley 58). Justine is seen as an object of undeserving blame and despite knowing that the accusations brought upon her are false, she admits to murdering William. Justine falls as victim to a corrupt justice system and an unforgiving priest who manipulates her into believing that she is the monster he said she was. This implies that women are easy to control and are scapegoats to the wrongdoings of men. Furthermore, no one but Elizabeth made an effort to continue the investigation but, even Elizabeth’s stance against the accusations proved no significance in turning the execution over. As Anne K. Mellor states in “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein,” “the impassioned defense she gives of Justine arouses public approbation…but does nothing to help Justine,” (357). However, Victor was the only one who could prove her innocence. He was the one who possessed the power to reveal who the real killer was yet, he chose not to for the protection of himself. Therefore, it is evident who held the power in Victor’s and Elizabeth’s relationship.
In both Fantomina: Love in a Maze and Frankenstein, women were seen as nothing more than objects of love and purity whose ultimate faith was marriage. While Fantomina challenged the traditional roles of women, Elizabeth, Margaret and Justine adhered to those in their society. Haywood’s and Shelley’s texts succeeded in exposing the traditional roles of women during the time they were written in.
The Influence of Frankenstein on the Author’s Life and Literature
Frankenstein, recognized as one of the most famous literary works of horror ever written, was the direct result of three brilliant authors challenging themselves to create a story that would incite fear and horror in the reader. Mary Shelley and her husband Percy, along with friend and fellow writer Lord Byron, decided they would each write horror stories, read them, and declare a winner after all had been read. After a vivid dream, Mary Shelley began writing the gripping tale of Victor Frankenstein. Although the challenge by her fellow writers, along with an obscure dream, was the impetus for her writing, many specific and often tragic events throughout Mary’s life greatly affected the way she shaped her novel (“Mary Shelley” 2). Frankenstein, often viewed only as the horrifying tale of a scientist gone mad, can be analyzed as being the articulation of the fears of a woman, Mary Shelley, about pregnancy, birth, and as a direct result of influences from other writers and even her own parents.
In order to thoroughly understand the influences that affected Shelley’s writing, specifically Frankenstein, one must have an adequate knowledge of a few key events in Mary’s life. Born on August 30, 1797, Mary Shelley was a prominent, though often overlooked, literary figure during the Romantic Era of English Literature. She was the only child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous feminist, and William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist (Classic Writers 199). Mary’s parents were shapers of the Romantic sensibility and the revolutionary ideas of the left wing. Shortly after giving birth to Shelley, Mary Wollenstonecraft, her mother, soon contracted puerperal fever and died. This had a profound effect on Shelley’s thinking as she grew older, taking the tragic event as inspiration to become a good writer (Coulter 2). She was also the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary, Percy, Byron, and Keats were principle figures in Romanticism’s second generation, important though short-lived as it was. Whereas the principle poets of the second generation died young in the 1820’s, Mary lived through the Romantic era into the Victorian. Among her completed works are History of Six Weeks’ Tour, written collectively with her husband, Valperga, a romance set in the 14th-century, and The Last Man, which depicts the end of human civilization, set in the 21st century (Houston and Percy 152).
From a very early age, Mary was surrounded by many powerful and influential writers, shaping her ideas as she grew and eventually leading to the writing of Frankenstein. The Romantics of her time were fascinated with dreams (and Gothic nightmares). Dreams were seen as predictors of what could happen or horrible recollections of what did actually take place. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and “The Pains of Sleep” all reflect a horrible nightmare world of what happens when the subconscious rapes the daylight (Houston and Percy 152). The romantic obsession with the imagination and the creative process undoubtedly had profound influences on Frankenstein. After all, Shelley got the idea for her novel from a nightmare (Coulter 3)! As a direct result of these Romantic influences, Victor himself experiences a complex dream:
“I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon… I beheld the wretch – the miserable monster whom I had created (Shelley 58).”
Thus, Shelley effectively induces this sense of a dreamlike, horrible Gothic fantasy that the writers of the Romantic period inspired in her (Woodbridge 2). This Gothic, misty world based on the idea of what dreams were interpreted as was a central theme to Shelley’s writing and originated from the writing of many prominent Romantic writers of the time.
Central to the underlying theme of Shelley’s Frankenstein is the complex and enlightening process of childbirth and motherhood. Incorporating the dreamlike, unrealistic setting inspired by other Romantic writers, Shelley wishes to express her views, experiences, and fears of becoming a mother. The first tragic event involving childbirth was the death of Shelley’s mother shortly after giving birth to Shelley. Although despairing for her father, later in life Mary took the event as inspiration to become a better writer. Childbirth would come back to haunt Mary later in life. Her first child, Clara, was born prematurely on February 22, 1815, and died March 6. Mary, as any person would be, was devastated by this and took a long time to recover. Mary’s second child, William, was born on January 24, 1816. (William died of malaria June 7, 1819.) Thus, at the time that Mary conceived of the story, her first child had died and her second was only 6 months old (Woodbridge 1-3). There is no doubt that she expected to be pregnant again and about six months later she was. Pregnancy and child-rearing was at the forefront of Mary’s mind at this point in her life.
These experiences of childbirth undoubtedly raised, if not fear, certainly questions about childbirth and why her first child had died. As a result of her bad experiences with motherhood, Mary creates this horrid looking, asymmetrical monster who comes to ravage the countryside (Coulter 4). What is important about the monster is that not only is it hideous, but it starts out its life as a good being, only to have rejection from society and bad “parenting” on the part of Victor turn it into a thoughtless, insensitive murderer (Afterword 195). As Victor meets his creation for the first time after the death of his relatives, the monster proclaims:
“Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall be virtuous (Shelley 81-82).”
This testament of Victor’s monster explains how Victor has failed. Leaving his “child” alone to wander the world with no moral support, Victor has failed miserably at being a good parent (Woodbridge 2-3). Thus, Shelley is able to express her fears of having another child die and not knowing if she will be a good parent by incorporating these themes into the miscarriage of Frankenstein’s monster.
Finally, Mary was influenced greatly by her parents Mary Wollenstonecraft and William Godwin, both influential writers during their lives. Mary Wollenstonecraft is often called the “mother of feminism.” A Vindication of the Rights of Women is probably her most famous work, in which she skillfully used the pen to speak out against the mistreatment of women. Recognizing the Enlightenment thought circulating throughout society, which put reason at the center of societal thinking, she saw a stark contrast with the realities women faced in everyday life. Shelley, although she was never able to know to her mother, took solace in knowing that her mother was a good writer, and that she was using that writing for a good cause (“Mary Shelley” 1-4). Although she never grew to know her mother, Mary was inspired to write by her legacy.
Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was also a famous writer. His works included An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams. From an early age Godwin encouraged his daughter to put her thoughts on paper. The company he kept included many great writers of the time. Mary was influenced early in life by these writers, and as a result began to publish her work at the age of ten. Shelley was only nineteen when Frankenstein was published, and wrote throughout the rest of her life. After running away with Percy, Godwin condemned his daughter and their relationship was never fully mended (“Mary Shelley” 2-4). Godwin had a profound effect on Mary, starting her writing at an early age and thus setting the literary stage which she would perform on for the remainder of her life.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, is not simply the tale of a scientist taking the intellectual bonds of man to the limit and creating life from death, but rather a communication by the author, Mary Shelley, of issues which took precedence in her life up to the time of her writing the book. Shelley had many underlying themes that she wanted the reader to pick apart, analyze them for what they are, and simply digest them. She effectively created a story that, while being an enjoyable account of a horrific monster’s life, relays to the reader her fears of giving birth and not becoming a good parent, along with other concerns she had at the time. The way she approached this story was influenced mainly by other writers of the Romantic Period, chiefly Samuel Coleridge and Lord Byron, and her parents, two great writers themselves. Frankenstein was not a simple challenge by a fellow writer to write a book, but more accurately the complex compilation of an eighteen year olds’ diverse life experiences.