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Grab the Pitchforks! Frankenstein’s Afoot

On recently viewing the film version of Frankenstein for the first time since childhood, I was amazed at how stridently the film criticized Victor Frankenstein for “playing God.” Such human defense of divine prerogatives does not appear in Hollywood’s works these days. Of course, that film bears little resemblance to the story that provided its name.

Mary Wallstonecraft Godwin Shelley wrote
her gothic-leaning novel
after exchanging ghost stories with such literary lightweights as her husband Percy and Lord Byron.  What is one to make of this story?

My first reaction to the book is a strong desire to re-animate Victor Frankenstein in order to smack him. The novel is an agravating study in Victor’s ineptitude. After acquiring a profound level of knowledge of science to such a degree that he can create life anew, Victor forges his new man: the fiend, the daemon, the monster. Far from squealing in frenzied delight, “It’s alive, alive!” Victor instead goes to bed. The monster appears at his bedside, driving Victor, in despair, to an outside courtyard. The next morning, the monster is gone.

What follows is a year of Victor depressed to the point of serious physical illness. Victor recovers his senses for a season when he learns of the murder of his brother. In the wake of this event, Victor travels to England, stands accused of murder, becomes ill yet again, and generally accomplishes nothing despite understanding the root of all his problems. His mission should be clear: find the monster and subdue it. Instead, he dithers and distracts himself. Upon returning to Geneva, Victor marries his beloved Elizabeth, knowing full well that the monster intends to visit them on their wedding night. His response? He leaves Elizabeth unattended, allowing the monster to kill her. Only then does Victor resolve to pursue and dispose of his creation.

Shelley subtitled her work, “The Modern Prometheus,” yet that seems an odd allusion. The Greek Prometheus defied the Olympian gods by taking fire to his creation: man. Victor, while creating a new sort of man, gives him nothing. Victor simply recoils from his creation.

Perhaps Shelley thought it too irreverent to call her story “The Modern Yahweh,” but there the parallels–or rather contrasts–seem most clear. In Genesis, God gives Adam a name, something that Victor never bestows upon the monster. He provides Adam a place to live in Eden. He provides guidance, both positive and negative. God apparently attends to Adam’s need for language, which Victor utterly ignores. (That the monster can acquire such stunning verbal facility and the ability to read complex texts in the space of a year spent hiding out in a barn should cause any reader to refuse the suspension of disbelief.) Unlike God, Victor refuses the monster’s desire for a mate. Compared to his predecessor in creation, Victor Frankenstein must be ranked as a failure.

Modern interpreters of the Frankenstein story have sought to create from the monster a Romantic hero, a sort of justified Faust figure. Certainly, Shelley’s creature could complain, with the most petulant of teenagers, that he did not ask to be born. Happily, only a tiny proportion of the teens who utter those words act upon them through suicide. Similarly, the monster, despite his protestations of misery, continues to live and demonstrate agency, first pursuing and later fleeing Victor. Despite his justified complaints of an uncaring creator, the monster seems lost after Victor’s death.

‘Farewell! I leave you, and in you the last of humankind whom these eyes will ever behold. 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.’

After these words, the monster declares his intention to travel to the north and end his own suffering. With his creator to torment or to evade, the monster possessed a purpose. With Victor’s death, he can do nothing besides put an end to his existence.

If the monster’s life has no meaning in the absence of his neglectful creator, how much more does our lives’ meaning depend upon the existence of a present and attentive Creator? This is, perhaps, not the question that Mary Shelley intended to raise, but it is the question that I find before me as I read her tale.

Posted in English Literature, Romanticism.

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