Downward Direction: Frankenstein’s Downhill
In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s behaviour becomes more and more grotesque in the buildup to the creation of the monster. When he leaves for the university in Ingolstadt he is healthy, of sound mind and optimistic. However, as his research continues, his mentality and appearance decline and his behavior becomes increasingly obsessive and revolting.
Frankenstein’s abnormal behaviour begins with his obsession with science. Frankenstein explains that science fueled him with an ardour unmatched by any other interest because ‘in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.’ This ‘supernatural enthusiasm’ leads to sleepless nights, spent poring over scientific tomes. Frankenstein begins to neglect his family, and, having surpassed his professors Krempe and Waldman academically, his teachers. This link between the pursuit of knowledge and isolation is one which Walton himself feels. The more Frankenstein knows, the fewer people there are who can empathise with him. This inevitably results in isolation, which leads to a loss of touch with society and, consequentially, with social norms and accepted ways of behaving.
Frankstein’s obsession in these chapters leads him to spend time disassembling dead bodies and in charnel houses. He exhumes bodies in pursuit of the secret of life. He states that his “father had taken the greatest precautions that [his] mind should be impressed with no supernatural superstition;’ as a result, Frankenstein was not afraid of spending nights amongst the dead. Nor was he apparently affected by the vile scenes he witnessed, such as when he ‘beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life.’
As his ambition grows, Frankenstein’s sense of power and desire grows as well. He sees life and death as ‘bounds, which I should first break through.’ Frankenstein believes himself to have discovered God’s role, instilling life where there was none before. He names himself ‘the creator’ of this new species and says that ‘no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.’ This abject rejection of religion is another stage in Frankenstein’s descent. In his isolated world, he sees himself as a God amongst his creations. This shows that Frankenstein has completely ignored any negative repercussions of his experiments; this fantasy supports his spirits almost entirely. Similarly, he states that “All the steps by which I had been progressively led to [my goal] were obliterated, and I beheld only the result.’ If the outcome is good, Frankenstein believes, the morality or immorality of the previous actions is irrelevant.
Frankenstein’s behavior damages him physically and mentally. In one of the final passages before the monster’s creation, we see Frankenstein’s own life seeming to fade away: ‘my cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement.’ His addiction consumes every hour of his time: he has ‘lost all his soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.’
With this descent in mind, the reader can now assimilate why Frankenstein reacts in the way he does to the monster’s sudden animation. There are a number of reasons. Firstly, the appearance of the monster would be the most frightening. Frankenstein intended for the monster to look beautiful, but, instead, he looked terrifying, with yellow skin, milky white eyes and black lips. This, coupled with the monster’s convulsive motions, would be enough to cause severe and instinctive panic in anyone. Frankenstein has also been a recluse for the last two years, ignoring his family and friends in the pursuit of this goal. He had tortured animals, laid awake in charnel houses and toiled in his laboratory through the night for this goal. The imperfection of it may serve to be both terrifying and devastating. His passion for this project had been the driving force of his work and, now that had gone and the work had resulted in this monster, it is understandable why Frankenstein wishes to escape as quickly as possible.
Secondly, Frankenstein’s sudden awareness of the problems with his creation appear just as the monster becomes conscious: ‘…the beauty of the dream vanished.’ The creation scene, which has a dream-like quality to it, has finally become a nightmare to Frankenstein. Exactly why this happens to Frankenstein at this moment is unclear. The moral boundaries he has crossed and the ethical implications of his decisions may have just become clear to him, mainly because he no longer has this driving passion which supports him, leaving the magnitude of his decisions bare. He has adopted God’s role in the creation of life, but his creation is far from beautiful and it is clearly against the natural order of things.
Another reason for Frankenstein’s reaction is because of the similarities between himself and the creation. When Frankenstein is referring to the discovery of the secret of life, he talks of the ‘painful labour’ which allowed the secret to be his. The word ‘labour’ here has implications of child birth – the monster is his child and is the fruit of his labours. Furthermore, during the creation scene, the words ‘convulse’ and ‘yellow’ are used in relation to both the monster and Frankenstein: ‘his yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles’ and ‘yellow light of the moon;’ ‘a convulsive motion agitated its limbs’ and ‘my teeth chattered, and every limb convulsed’. Later in the novel, Clerval needs to remove the chemical instruments from Frankenstein’s study as it reminds him of the monster too much: in this, the two are unified.
The most obvious reference to the link between Frankenstein and his creation is in Chapter VI. Frankenstein sees the monster lit up by a flash of lightning after William’s death. It becomes obvious to him that it was this monster who had killed William: ‘…my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.’ It is clear that Frankenstein has given to the monster his own isolation and social awkwardness. The creation was innocent when it came into being; it was Frankenstein who was the monster.
There is a clear order to Frankenstein’s swift, dramatic descent. It begins with an obsession with science but soon progresses to isolation, grotesque behaviour, an elevated sense of his own power and, finally, physical deterioration. The denouement of this is a violent and terrified reaction to the monster’s animation. It is clear that, despite Clerval’s best efforts, Frankenstein will be mentally scarred forever – the tragic outcome of his own ambition.
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