Consequences of Selfishness: Historical Allusions within Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

by Jessica P. Ramos, University of Florida

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity… If this rule were always observed… Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.” (Shelley 53-54)

Despite centuries having passed since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), its handling of human nature has ensured its place within the literary canon. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is found under mysterious circumstances by the captain of a ship, Robert Walpole. He is nursed back to health and eventually entrusts Robert with the story of how he came to be where he is, revealing that it all started with a scientific experiment to give life to the nonliving. In the middle of his story, he breaks free from his narrative in order to directly address Robert, who is listening to him. The above quote is taken from this address; the placement and meaning of the chosen allusions emphasize a possible motive behind Victor’s sharing of the story with Robert, while also implying a grander message from Shelley to her readers.

Though it is emphasized throughout the novel that Victor is more of a scientific man than a cultural one, the chosen allusions in this excerpt refer exclusively to events in history that had negative effects on culture. Using words such as “enslaved,” “would have spared,” “discovered more gradually,” and “not been destroyed” suggests that Victor disagrees with how these historic events have played out: though not a literal form of “enslavement,” when the Greeks became a part of the Roman Empire, many of their original copper sculptures were destroyed; Julius Caesar’s assumption of a dictatorship stripped the people of their democracy; the desperation to obtain new land in the Americas led to the mass death of the native people; ancient empires were completely obliterated in the quest for power. All of these examples portray the loss of culture due to the ambition of another sovereignty. The decision to focus on the cultural advances of society rather than the scientific suggests that one holds greater importance over the other, even in the eyes of this genius scientist. By comparing his situation to these iconic events, Victor suggests that his desperation to fulfill his own curiosity led to consequences that are just as historically poignant as those he alludes to, implying that his mistake is just as damning to the course of human history. In the sentence following this quote, Victor admits to “moralizing” within his own story, meaning that he is giving Robert his present opinion on the topic of passion in relation to collective society. At the same time, these allusions help set the foundation for the ongoing juxtaposition of science and nature throughout the course of the novel; science brings about ambition, stress, and selfish consequence, while nature and the liberal arts (often in the form of Henry Clerval) bring about tranquility, comfort, and peace of mind.

By breaking out of his role as storyteller and addressing Robert directly, Victor interjects his present thoughts regarding his past actions. Before this narrative interruption, Victor is recounting how he became so devoted to his desire to create life that he began ignoring everything else—including his family. When he resumes his storytelling, he admits to being “checked by [his] anxiety,” “oppressed by a slow fever,” and “nervous to a most painful degree” (Shelley 54). This emphasizes the negative effects of the reckless passion Victor entertained in order to satiate his curiosity. Before Victor begins retelling his story, he tells Robert, “the strange incidents connected to [my tale] will afford a view of nature, which may enlarge your faculties and understanding” (Shelley 25). This preface to his story solidifies the idea that the breaches in narration serve as direct addresses to Robert himself, but this only leads to another question: why must a character who hardly has anything to do with the main events of the story be addressed in the first place?

Victor’s narrative is framed by Robert’s letters in order to further imply a particular reading of the text. Robert’s opening letter states that “[his] life might have been passed in ease and luxury; but [he] preferred glory to every enticement,” therefore sharing the same passionate drive as Victor (Shelley 10). When he later gets to converse with the man, he admits that he wants a companion who is “wiser and more experienced than [himself], to confirm and support [him]” (Shelley 24). This desire to fulfill a single, long-term goal, while receiving confirmation and support from peers is not uncommon and is in fact a common facet of human nature. Like Robert, the readers of the novel are listening to the tale of Frankenstein; when Victor breaks his narrative to “moralize” with Robert, he is also addressing the reader and warning them to be careful of what they allow to have control over their lives. During a time when the Romantic love for nature was being replaced by the rapid development of science, Mary Shelley used this novel as a medium through which she could express her thoughts on the changing world around her. In Frankenstein, human curiosity leads to the destruction of the innocent, just as human selfishness led to the deterioration of human culture in her chosen historical allusions. By comparing curiosity to selfishness within the debate of nature versus industrialism, Shelley raises moralistic questions about human nature itself that remain unanswered even to this day.

Source:

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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It’s “Doctor” Frankenstein, Okay?

By Troi Watts

Frankenstein. We hear the name and what do we think of? The monster: a thing constructed from the bodies of various corpses and brought to life by a mad scientist. We do not think of the mad scientist himself, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s horror novel is the namesake of this man, not the creature that so many people choose to associate with the name. But why do people make this mistake? This could be interpreted as an effort to displace the monstrous qualities of Dr. Victor Frankenstein onto the Creature. Society does not always want to accept the fact that humans can be monsters because humans have morals, values, and rules that are supposed to prevent them from doing anything monstrous. However, when examining Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s monster theory, Dr. Frankenstein’s actions, and the actions of the Creature, it becomes clear that the true monster of Mary Shelley’s novel is actually the main human character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

But wait, why is the thing that looks like a monster not actually the monster? It is easy to associate the word “monster” with the disfigured, frightful looking Creature, but when looking at the Creature’s actions, “monster” is not the right label. Cohen’s fourth thesis, “The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference,” explains that monsters are “difference made flesh” (Cohen 7). Yes, the Creature’s appearance is absolutely different from that of a regular human, but let us look beneath the surface. The Creature’s experiences are very similar to that of an unwanted child. It is brought into this world forcibly, without having asked to be created. Its “father” (Dr. Frankenstein) rejects and abandons it, despite its helplessness. It must then find a way to live and learn all by itself. The Creature may look different, but its personality and upbringing are not monstrously different from that of an unwanted child. Unwanted children survive in society and are not labeled as “monstrous.” So why should we treat the Creature this way?

With this information in mind, what makes Dr. Victor Frankenstein the true monster of this story? Connecting to Jeffrey Cohen’s first thesis, “The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body,” Dr. Frankenstein is the embodiment of both the fear of what will become of our bodies after death and the unspoken desire to become something superior to human, to have more power. Dr. Frankenstein’s process of creating the Creature involved grave robbing and the mutilation of corpses. Considering that respect for the dead is a common trait among societies, people could assume their corpses to be safe in the ground, cremated, etcetera because it is difficult for them to comprehend anyone breaking these social mores about the dead. Dr. Frankenstein’s actions speak for themselves, refuting these beliefs that corpses will rest in peace. He is proof that there are people in our society that have no respect for the dead and will violate corpses. In Dr. Frankenstein’s own words, “a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life” (Shelley 51). A receptacle. There is no hint of respect or consideration of what he has done in that objective word. Therefore, the fear that people’s helpless corpses could be pulled out of the peaceful ground and played with by anyone is instilled in readers of this novel.

On the other hand, in his explanation of what makes a monster’s body cultural, Cohen states that the monster’s body could also represent a cultural desire (Cohen 4). When interpreting Cohen, this desire is not a pleasant or acceptable thing (based on the fact that he is discussing monsters). Dr. Frankenstein is embodying the desire to gain power through his prideful attempt to create life, an ability exclusively associated with a deity.

When faced with the evidence of Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrosity, it seems odd that people continue to ignore the scientist and displace the monstrosity onto the Creature. In Dr. Frankenstein’s defense, he is a human, just like anyone reading Shelley’s novel. He was once a child, went to school, made friends, and had normal feelings (happiness, sadness, anger) just like a regular human would. He is too relatable for people to accept that he is a monster. But people do not want to relate to a monster because of the fear of what it means to be a monster.

As Cohen’s third thesis, “The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis,” explains that monsters do not easily fit into any category. Humans enjoy order and classification, usually in a binary system: good and bad, black and white, true and false. Throw in a shady, gray-area third option, and things get uncomfortable for humans.

Another thing that makes humans uncomfortable is difference, and, as Cohen states, “The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference.” Xenophobia and fear of the yet-to-be understood has been a serious problem of societies, even today. It connects back to the category crisis. By not being able to classify a monster, humans do not know how to handle or cope with it.

By refusing to consider Dr. Frankenstein to be “the monster” of Mary Shelley’s novel, readers are ignoring the idea that a human could be a monster. Dr. Frankenstein is a relatable character due to the fact that he is a human with real emotions and a personal life. Readers do not want to relate to a character that contains monstrous aspects because they do not want to associate those monstrous traits with themselves. They do not want to be monsters! Therefore, they give the title of monster to the Creature, whose appearance allows people to consider him something other than human, something they cannot relate to.

Frankenstein. When we think of the name now, what do we think? We should think of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the man who tried to play God, the man with no respect for the dead, not the Creature who was forced into being. After all, the creature is simply “a man’s [Dr. Frankenstein’s] invention brought to life” (Skalošová 18). In other words, a man’s monstrosity brought to life.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”. Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. Oxford University Press, 1969.

Skalošová. Žaneta. “Monster and Monstrosity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Masaryk University Information Systems., Dissertation, Masaryk University, 2015.Accessed 13 Feb. 2017. http://is.muni.cz/th/431198/pedf_m/Diplomka_Zaneta.pdf.