Hamlet, The Metamorphosis, and Frankenstein
Familial relations are often strained in the world of literature, especially between fathers and sons. However, these strains grow when traditional notions of fatherhood are altered or circumvented; so Hamlet has a difficult time dealing with an uncle-turn-father, and Gregor Samsa’s father is unable to truly be a parent to a gigantic cockroach. Even Victor Frankenstein is unsure how to treat his creation—as a son to care for and provide for, or as an out of control science experiment gone awry.
Each of these texts shows traditional notions of father and son relationships breaking under the strain of unconventional fatherhood. Hamlet, perhaps, provides the most telling example of these strains of convention—Hamlet’s primary difficulty is his inability to be a good son to both of his fathers. To be a good son to King Hamlet means avenging his alleged murder by murdering Claudius; to be a good son to Claudius means ignoring the pleadings of his ghostly father.
Prince Hamlet sees his role as son to Claudius as essentially void, due to the marriage of Claudius and Gertude being (at best) “damned incest” and, at worst, a politically-contrived accessory to the murder of the king. This is what fuels Hamlet’s odd confrontation with Gertrude—he sees his plan to murder Claudius as a way of returning the family to the way it was. Of course, Hamlet fails to freshen up what is “rotten in the state of Denmark”—he merely added to the decay via the pile of bodies at the end of the play.
Of these three tales, it is a morbid irony that the father/son relationship between a man and a giant cockroach of a son may, in fact, be the most conventional one. This relationship is highlighted by a kind of brutal utility—Gregor is useful to his father for as long as he is able to provide for his father. In this sense, the most profound change in the story in the eyes of the eldest Samsa is not his son into an insect, but his son changing from a provider to one who needs to be provided for. This sparks anger, outrage, and ultimately, abandonment.
This brutal utility is highlighted by the end of the story, in which the family hopes to find a young man for Greta, essentially scheming to replace one provider with another. Gregor, in turn, feels his death is the best thing for the family: while dying, “he remembered his family with deep feelings of love. ” Victor Frankenstein’s relationship with his creation is a mockery of traditional father/son relationships, just as Frankenstein’s actions are a mockery of God’s abilities. Victor wants his “son” to be a walking, talking example of his own genius.
However, this focus on his own achievements means that he is unable to provide for his son—as he says, his focus is on “treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. ” His son, unable to experience the love of a woman or a father, is left to feel like he is “miserable and the abandoned” and “an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. ” The phrasing is very apt: the monster feels like he is merely the discarded and abandoned tissue that his “father” never wished to claim as a son.
Three disparate tales—Hamlet, The Metamorphosis, and Frankenstein—prevent father and son relationship that are outside the bounds of normality. In this sense, the tales are normative, as they illustrate what a normal father/son relationship is by clearly exhibiting what one is not. Audiences are left to ponder whether they will treat family members differently when their family changes; whether shifting relationships means they, themselves, must change; and whether children from alternative circumstances are somehow worth any less of a parent’s love.
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