Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
, is often thought of as a story of one man’s act of playing god
and the retribution that ensues. More often in film, the story revolves around the zombie
like, unintelligent creature that ravages the German
countryside. None of these, in my opinion, really show what is the real struggle in Shelley’s novel, There clearly seems to be three men involved in similar situations.
Walton, the explorer that finds Victor Frankenstein tossing and turning on an iceberg in the Arctic, is in pursuit of a place where no man’s foot has trod and finds himself and his crew in danger or losing their lives. His desire then turns to keeping himself and the crew alive while they find a way home. Victor Frankenstein, a young doctor, was in pursuit of cheating death by reanimating dead tissue and then later in pursuit of correcting his mistake by destroying the creature. Both of these men are in a cause and effect situation, in many ways, they are themselves the cause of their obstacle which they have this drive and passion to overcome. Frankenstein’s creature, however, through no fault of his own, is thrust into his predicament through the actions of Dr. Frankenstein. His quest is to understand his origins, and to find a fitting place in a world that is disgusted by his disfigured appearance. The injustice that he feels has been perpetrated against him and reinforced by the De Lacy family has sent him into an irrational rage that can only be quenched with Victor’s blood. This is why the creature in Shelley’s Frankenstein is the ultimate Romantic hero.
Both Walton and Frankenstein are in search of fame, although in different arenas. Walton wants to discover, almost like Columbus, “a passage near the pole” to hard-to-reach countries. Frankenstein, at first, wants to finish the work of the ancient alchemists and the turns his mind to the reanimation of dead tissue. Like so many scientists in reality it is only when it is too late that the horrific implications of his work dawn on him. No sooner does he see the eyes of the creature open up does he run frantically out of his laboratory. This action unleashes Victor’s creation to the human race at large, thereby putting all that he loves in danger. Walton can be excused from such heinous behavior since he has only put himself and his crew in danger.
Victor has one vital weakness, he fails to care for his creation and lead him on to what could possibly be a normal life for the creature, despite his physical deformities; such is conjecture, we may never know. The point, however, is that Victor never gives the creature the opportunity. “Frankenstein’s tragedy stems…from his own moral error, his failure to love. He abhorred his creature, became terrified of it, and fled his responsibilities” (Bloom). In view of the fact that the creature refuses to kill his creator even after Victor rejects him.
The creature, -and I have tried to use ‘creature’ instead of ‘monster’ because creature does not have the same destructive connotation, for indeed the creature need not have been destructive- is bereft of all contact with anything resembling love. He is born innocent, perhaps free even of original sin. This creature bears the least mark of blame or sin upon him. “In our civilizations we corrupt what is by nature innocent. The monster is not evil; he is transformed into evil by a human injustice” (Griffith). It is even more horrific to imagine that a man like Victor, who was given nothing but love from his family and friends while growing up, could withhold love from his creation to such an extent. Victor, like everyone else who comes along the creature’s path, is repelled by his countenance.
It is interesting to note that it is not the first time his shallowness has directed his response to someone. Victor himself comments on the physical appearance of his first professor, M. Krempe, and his reaction to him. “M. Krepe was a little a squat man, with a gruff voice and a repulsive countenance; the teacher, therefore, did not prepossess me in favour of his pursuits” (Shelley 44). This clearly shows that he makes snap judgements about people based on their appearance.
Another flaw in Victor’s character is his inconsistency in execution of his plans. When he first confronts the creature, he adamantly refuses to create a mate for the creature. “I do refuse it…and no torture shall ever extort a consent from me” (Shelley 144). He does relent, however, after a series of vacillations and through no torture, no physical torture, at least. He sets about creating a woman for the creature, but suddenly he has a flash of “conscience” and destroys the female creature that he was almost finished creating. Again, when the creature confronts him, he chastises him and cheats him again. “Begone! I do break my promise; never will I create another like yourself, equal in deformity and wickedness” (Shelley 166). It seems as if he wants the demise that eventually comes to him. He is trying to taunt him, perhaps by taunting the creature enough; the creature will become enraged and kill him instead of hurting another one of his friends or relatives. If that is indeed his plan, it does not work, and what a costly risk he takes.
The creature is singularly minded; his actions are motivated by spirit, pure and simple. His passionate drive to discover his origins and to belong is coursing through him even before he learns to express it. He pauses in his quest only to educate himself in the only way available to him and this only so that he can better pursue his quest. In fact, this vicarious schooling that he receives drives him on even further into torment. “…sorrow only increased with knowledge….Of what a strange nature is knowledge!” (Shelley 119).
Frankenstein sees himself as a Romantic hero, even going so far as to identify with some of the most famous: “Often…I was tempted to plunge into the silent lake…” (Shelley 89). This is mostly likely an allusion to the Romantic hero Werther in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther who meets a watery end and was so popular that many young men of the time committed suicide in the very same way (Karbiener 228). He can’t even commit suicide in an original way. Victor almost throws himself into this turmoil, trying to give himself a crisis to contrast with what seems to be a gilded childhood.
The creature has no choice; he is born in crisis, lives in crisis and dies in crisis. He is instinct, raw nerves, a superior survivor and a tragic hero. He is adrift in a sea, much like Victor, but this is a sea of raw emotions that he cannot understand. He deals with them in the best way that he can. His situation can only end tragically as does all the characters, with the possible exception of Walton. The creature, however, accepts this fact early on and intends to live on through his emotions, which is all that he has. How much more of a Romantic hero can one be?
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. New York
: Barnes and Noble Classics. 2003.
Karbiener, Karen. “Introduction and Endnotes” for Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics. 2003.
Bloom, Harold, An excerpt from a study of Frankenstein: or, The New Prometheus, in Partisan Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Fall, 1965, pp. 611-18. Reproduced in Literature Resource Center.
Griffith, George V., An overview of Frankenstein, in Exploring Novels, Gale, 1998. Reproduced in Literature Resource Center.
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