The Two "Monsters" of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Throughout Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein pursues, with a passion lacking in other aspects of his life, his individual quest for knowledge and glory. He accepts the friendships and affections given him without reciprocating. The "creature," on the other hand, seems willing to return affections, bringing wood and clearing snow for the DeLaceys and desiring the love of others, but is unable to form human attachments. Neither the creature nor Victor fully understands the complex relationships between people and the expectations and responsibilities that accompany any relationship. The two "monsters" in this book, Victor Frankenstein and his creation, are the only characters without strong family ties; the creature because Frankenstein runs from him, and Victor because he runs from his family.

In Elizabeth’s letter to Victor in Volume 3, Chapter 5, she makes it clear that she really feels a genuine love for Victor, but feels that he does not return that love. She confesses to Victor that: "I love you and that in my airy dreams of futurity you have been my constant friend and companion" (130). She is the only character in the novel who actually states that she loves another person. For all of the other characters there is only affection and friendship. In this letter, Elizabeth becomes the only person to transcend the bounds of familial affection. The theme of familial affection is an important one throughout Frankenstein, for apart from the master/slave dynamic, it is the relationship that most of the characters are involved in. This affection rarely transcends the boundary into love, however, that passion is reserved for science and the pursuit of knowledge. The only times Victor Frankenstein speaks passionately during the novel is when he describes his quest for knowledge which leads him to create the "monster," and when he devotes the remainder of his life to killing his creation. He is never passionate about another living being.

In his letter back to Elizabeth in Volume 3, Chapter 5, however, Victor seems more focused on his own tale of the monster rather than his feelings for her. He devotes one sentence to his affections to her, and the rest of the letter is preoccupied with his own "secret" (131) of the creation. Indeed in the latter part of the book he uses his marriage to Elizabeth as a means of attracting the monster to him that he may destroy him and achieve happiness. Throughout the first part of the novel he refers to his "affection" (24) for Elizabeth, but he also uses the same term for his feelings for the rest of his family, as well as his friend Henry Clerval. When he speaks of them to Robert Walton, he makes no distinction between his feelings for Elizabeth and others that he cares for, namely his family and Clerval. "I enjoyed friends, dear not only through habit and association, but from their own merits" (147-148). In fact, it is not until Elizabeth is dead that he "embrace[s] her with ardour" (136). It seems possible, given his continual flights away from those who loved him, that his feelings toward all of his family were never very strong until they were murdered by his creation. Victor is never forced to maintain his friendships, which are practically given to him, and whenever he runs off to some foreign country, Henry, Elizabeth and the rest of his family stand behind him steadfastly. They politely ignore the fact that he does not write, and think it no matter at all to run off to England for two years, leaving Elizabeth to wait even longer to marry him.

In this same vein, Frankenstein remarks on his brothers little until after William’s death; indeed he seems to have very little feeling toward them at all. His one remark concerning them, prior to William’s death, is "My brothers were considerably younger than myself" (20). What little we learn of Ernest and William does not even come from Victor, but is rather included in one of Elizabeth’s letters to her cousin. She describes Ernest as "grown quite robust and active" (39) and speaks of his becoming a farmer. William is pictured as a "little darling" (41). When Ernest is the only one of Victor’s family left alive, Frankenstein hardly gives a thought to him, or mentions him at all.

Upon hearing of his William’s death, Frankenstein is so self-centered that all the reader hears him say on the subject is: "Dear mountains! my own beautiful lake! how do you welcome your wanderer? Your summits are clear; the sky and lake are blue and placid. Is this to prognosticate peace, or to mock at my unhappiness?" (47). While his father is concerned for Elizabeth’s feelings, and Elizabeth worries about Justine’s plight, Frankenstein can only think of himself. He has such a high opinion of himself that he believes the mountains, sky and lake can purposely mock him. Likewise, he cares about exonerating Justine only insofar as it would release some of the guilt he feels. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that "the tortures of the accused [Justine] did not equal mine; she was sustained by innocence, but the fangs of remorse tore my bosom, and would not forego their hold" (54). He is so wrapped up in his perceived problem (at this point he has no proof whatsoever that the creation killed William) that he cannot even accord a woman condemned to death the same torture which he has fabricated for himself.

Yet self-centeredness is hardly a crime, and while detestable is hardly reason enough to call Victor a "monster". It is the fact that his ego led directly to the deaths of 5 innocent people that accords him the same status as his much-maligned creation. Not only did Victor aspire to god-like status, but once he knew the creature capable of murder, he did nothing to protect the rest of his family from similar fates. Like the romantic poets, he finds it becoming to be moody and aloof. He is so convinced of his own moral superiority to the creation that he cannot even consider the fact that there might be a way to solve the problem. He is mistrustful and always assumes the worst of people; when he sees the figure of the creation shortly after William’s death, the first thought that crosses his mind is "Could he be...the murderer of my brother? No sooner did the idea cross my imagination than I became convinced of its truth...The mere presence of the idea was irresistible proof of the fact" (48). This willingness to find the worst in people is the most evil of human traits and leads to prejudice and animosity.

Frankenstein’s creation, however, is not given a family and friends upon birth; rather he is deserted by the one person who should have cared for him. Yet he still desires to be helpful and return small favors. The DeLacy family do nothing for the creature. He learns through clandestine observations rather than actual interpersonal interaction. He gains a sincere affection for the family, but rather than based on friendship it is more the interaction between masters and an ignorable slave. He performs tasks for them, bringing wood, clearing the path through the snow, but receives nothing in return. The creature performs the role which Victor Frankenstein neglected, that of a dutiful, helpful and reciprocating member of a community. His creator, however, reaps the rewards.

There is no doubt that Frankenstein’s creation is a monster; he kills three people, deliberately frames another, sending her to death, and drives his creator so mad that he eventually dies from remorse and fatigue. It may be that his brutal treatment at the hands of the other characters contributed largely to his actions, but it cannot be denied that he holds the responsibility for those actions. He chose to murder Clerval and Elizabeth and plotted Justine’s death as well. Yet, at the end of the novel he repents his actions and atones for them, saying, "now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No crime, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine" (154). He continues on to say, "Farewell, Frankenstein! If thou wert yet alive, and yet cherished a desire of revenge against me, it would be better satiated in my life than in my destruction. But it was not so; thou didst seek my extinction, that I might not cause greater wretchedness" (155-156). Unlike Frankenstein, the creation not only repents his actions, and is willing to atone for them by committing suicide, but he also admits that he harbors no resentment against him who condemned him to a life of misery. This a far cry from Victor’s dying plea for Walton to carry out the death of the creature.

The fact that Frankenstein’s creation turns on him and murders innocent people is never overlooked; it has been the subject of virtually every popularization of the novel. What is not often acknowledged is the fact that Frankenstein himself embodies some of the worst traits of humankind. He is self-centered, with little real love for those who care about him; he is prejudiced, inflexible and cannot forgive, even in death. While some of these traits could be forgivable, to own and flaunt them all should be enough to remind a careful reader that there are two "monsters" in Frankenstein.

 

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Ed. Paul J. Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996.