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Victor Frankenstein's "creation": monster or victim?

One of the most popular movies of all time is Frankenstein with Boris Karloff in the leading role. It is, of course, a horror movie, but one that can be enjoyed by most viewers because most of them view the film as a fantasy. Most of them, however, would be surprised to learn that the book on which the film is based was written by 19-year-old Mary Shelley, at that time the wife of the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, on a dare. They were vacationing in Switzerland at the time and, as she wrote: "It proved a wet, uncongenial summer and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house." Bored and unable to go outdoors, to pass the time Byron suggested that they each a "ghost story" and the winner would get a prize. They all agreed and, as a result, the winner was Mary. Unlike the others, who soon dropped out, Mary persisted and finished her story. She created the ghost story we now know as Frankenstein, published as a novel in 1818.

When one reads the novel one is surprised to see that it is quite different from the movie. Of course the basic plot is the same, but the construction of the novel is quite different. Part of it is epistolary--i.e., it is told in letters, and much of the story concerns the author's interest in electricity, what Byron and Shelley called "vital warmth." The conversation that sparked Mary Shelley's novel consisted of the possibility of reviviflying a corpse with this "vital warmth." She later wrote: "Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken." That statement is the heart of the novel, and the author brilliantly conveys it.

The author tells most of the story through letters. Many of them are from Robert Walton, who is attempting to find a quick way to the North Pole, to his sister, Margaret Saville, to describe his journey. His ship becomes stuck in ice, and he describes the sighting of a man "of gigantic stature" on a sledge being pulled by dogs. The next morning, he finds that his crew has rescued a man who has been following the strange creature they saw the previous day. The rescued person, of course, is Victor Frankenstein, who tells Walton that he is pursuing the savage they saw the previous day. While recuperating aboard ship Victor tells Walton his story, who in turn tells it to his sister through a series of letters.

The main episodes of Victor's story comprise the heart of the novel. Victor describes his early life in Geneva, describes his close family--father, mother, his two brothers, and the adopted daughter Elizabeth. Victor adores Elizabeth and they both become close friends with Henry Clerval. Victor and Henry are especially close. Victor becomes interested in alchemy and is fascinated by the idea of finding what Shelley describes as "the elixir of eternal life." Lightning is particularly fascinating to him. Frankenstein then begins his studies at the University of Ingolstadt and becomes obsessed with chemistry and the idea of discovering the secret of creating life. One night he succeeds in doing just that. But when he realizes what he has done, he recoils from the monster he has has created and runs from it in horror. He becomes very ill and his friend Clerval nurses him back to health and they both set out on a walking tour.

Much of the novel is then spent on describing one specific episode and its aftermath. The monster asks Victor to create a female companion for him. After much resistance Victor does, in fact, do so. Then, again after much thought and inner struggle, at the last moment he destroys it. Mary Shelley describes the event: "The wretch saw me destroy the creature on whose future existence he depended on for happiness, and with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, he withdrew."

In contrast to the movie, much of the remainder of the novel focuses not on Victor but on the monster's story. He comes into contact with various people; he discovers copies of Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther and learns to read and speak. He also learns of his own "birth" by reading Victor's diary. The climax occurs with the monster's killing of Elizabeth, Victor's wife, on their wedding night. From that moment on Frankenstein sets out on a mission to destroy the monster, a mission that ends only when his health fails him and he dies in his cabin aboard the rescue ship. As Walton enters the room he finds the monster standing over Victor's body. "Never, "he exclaims," did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome, yet appalling hideousness."

The final pages of the novel reveal Mary Shelley's unquestionable approach to her "ghost" story. Through the final words of the monster she reveals her sympathy for him and for the life he has has been forced to live. His last words reveal that his agony has been greater than that of his creator. He tells Walton: "For whilst I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me? Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice."

After speaking these words, the monster tells Walton that he will go to the North Pole and, in his own words, "ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exalt in the agony of the torturing flames. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus." He then springs out the window onto the ice-craft which is next to the ship. The final words of the novel seem most appropriate in the light of the author's approach to the tortured soul. "He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance." In contrast to the movie goer who comes away with the conviction that the monster is evil, the reader of the novel is left to ponder if Mary Shelley's "creature" should be condemned of pitied.

Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (City University of New York). His major interests are 19th-cetury literature and drama. He has published and lectured widely on both scholarly and popular subjects and is currently one of the editors of Dickens Studies Annual . He has published many articles on various subjects in The World & I over the past years.
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Title Annotation:THE ARTS
Author:Timko, Michael
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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