The Sins of the Father
Amidst the burgeoning Gothic horror genre of the nineteenth century, a novel arose that would be read, celebrated, and contemplated for generations. A cerebral tale of morality, responsibility, and the nature of mankind itself, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein revolves around the eponymous Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who is slowly but surely destroyed by his inner demons and their manifestation, the Creature. Though not malevolent at his core, Victor was a deeply flawed man who did not know how to master himself and his vices. Victor Frankenstein’s greatest failings were his irresponsibility, obstinacy, and all-encompassing ambition, and these faults along with Victor’s own inability to overcome them ultimately made his demise entirely of his own doing.
Essentially, Victor was a good man, but in a fit of mad aspiration he managed to bring out the worst in himself. It can be seen in his dealings with his family throughout the book that he loves them deeply, and is capable of great kindness. As he ages and attends university, however, his Romantic mindset fades and is replaced by an increasing faith in pure, cold, scientific rationalism (Willis 2). This would pave the way for his future thoughtlessness when working on the Creature, as he gives no thought to the potential repercussions of toying with something as abstract as the human soul. Victor’s disregard for ethical boundaries was bolstered by the fact that he was not in his right mind when making the Creature, the impetus for all his misfortune. He tells Walton after all is said and done that “During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment; my mind was intently fixed on the consummation of my labor, and my eyes shut to the horror of my proceedings” (Shelley 120). Even Frankenstein himself looks at his project as a fit of temporary insanity, and when he tried to return to the work without his delusions, he was unable to stomach it. All the same, a steady deterioration of morals is seen within Victor during his bout of madness. Beginning with his desire to push the boundaries of science, Victor becomes willing to do increasingly horrific things in pursuit of his goal. He repeatedly states that he was swept up by unimaginable curiosity at the time, and once that had passed he felt nothing but disgust for his deeds. By then however, it was too late and Victor was prey to his own faults, represented by the Creature. Some of Victor’s most powerful traits – be they good or bad – are seen in the Creature. By spurning and neglecting the Creature, Victor shows his compulsion to ignore both his reprehensible actions and the facets of himself brought to light by those actions (Themes 4). This ties in directly with one of Victor’s greatest faults, his irresponsibility and weakness in the face of adversity.
Victor once dreamed of being a god, but ultimately he was unprepared to control himself and take responsibility for the Creature he left at large. Against all his better judgement, he brought an artificial life into the world through unsavory means in the name of science and his own aspirations. The way he describes it later on, he was unable to stop himself, and was not in full control at the time. He says, “My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; a restless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (Shelley 33). This speaks of an inner weakness, an inability to resist temptation or work past his visceral reactions to do what is right. Perhaps this was easier due to the fact that at the time, Victor did not see himself as an intruder on forces best not meddled with. Instead, throughout his project he envisioned himself as a creator, giver of life, and the man who would shed a new light upon the world by going beyond the conceivable. Once the work is done, though, and all illusions are shattered, he is immediately repelled by his creation and proceeds to studiously ignore it for as long as possible. He scorns the Creature, misunderstands it for a good deal of their interactions, and feels no obligation to watch over it. There is a direct correlation between these; Victor passes judgement easily, distances himself and makes no attempts to understand the “fiend,” and so he does not believe he has any responsibilities in regards to his creation (Themes 2). As a result, the Creature exacts its revenge as if it were calling down Victor’s divine retribution. “The melodrama suggests the heavenly retort of an irate deity whom the scientist has mocked by dabbling in black arts” (Victor 2). This brings forward the irony of Victor’s fate. He once dared to deify himself, and in return his unholy creation retaliated against him with all the fury of the heavens. The Creature is also the only one who can truly rebuke Victor, knowing the full extent and effects of his misdeeds. It points out Victor’s arrogance, saying, “You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life?” in response to Victor’s belief that he must dispose of the Creature (Shelley 68). This simple question is one that Victor desperately needed to hear, ineffective though it turned out to be. It is a slap in the face to the scientist, questioning his right to play at being a god among men. All the same, the Creature does give Victor the chance to take some accountability. Victor’s stubborn refusal of this proverbial olive branch plays another key role in his self-wrought demise.
At several points in the book, Victor has the chance to rectify his mistakes and possibly avoid his grim fate. Without fail, his prejudice and close-mindedness prevent this. After spending years of work on the Creature, singularly obsessed with giving it life, Victor is horrified the moment his work is done and the result is clear (Shelley 35). When faced with reality, he was ultimately unprepared to accept the consequences of his actions, even when the consequences were as simple as learning to deal with an ugly being. He is extremely biased against his creation due to its appearance, and it seems he only would have accepted the fruit of his labors had they been perfect. At first he fantasized about being the father of a new people who would revere him – he says, “A new species would bless me as its new creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Shelley 32) – but when faced with his creation’s flaws he abandons the idea. In keeping with this attitude, one of the only times he feels sympathy and responsibility for the Creature is after it proved itself intelligent and emotive. His inability to move past the Creature’s appearance soon quashes the sentiments, however. “I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened, and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred” (Shelley 106). This is not the first time he has such a violent reaction to the Creature, either. When he first saw the Creature after William’s death, he immediately concludes that his creation was a malevolent, bloodthirsty beast that had killed his brother, though his only experience thus far with the Creature was their brief meeting on the night of its animation. This is both a turning point in Victor’s mindset regarding the Creature and possibly the man at his most prejudiced.
A part of what made Victor’s demise nearly inevitable was the incorrigible nature of his ego. His overconfidence in his abilities was one of the initial causes for the Creature’s ill-advised conception, and he later admits this freely. He says, “… my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man,” and as such was completely blind to his project’s inviability (Shelley 32). Generally, he did not seem to consider the various ways his work could go terribly wrong, and he was so convinced of his impending success that he became unreasonable. Once all was said and done, Victor did express regret, but not entirely for the right reasons. He says to Walton:
In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and wellbeing. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater portion of happiness or misery (Shelley 161).
This conveys a certain remorse on Victor’s part – he sees the error in his ways and recognizes that he failed in his duties – but at the same time he justifies his actions, arguing that he needed to look after humanity first. He is still too proud to provide any explanation as to why he denied the chance to provide for the Creature before it became a threat to humans and possibly admit to cowardice or neglect. Despite all that befalls him, Victor never accepts the notion that he, a brilliant, privileged man deserving of power, erred immensely in his judgement, actions, and duties (Bennet 1). At the very end of his life, Victor goes so far as to apparently discard his regrets and defend his actions, saying, “During these last days I have been preoccupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable” (Shelley 161). After a close appraisal of his choices and path, Victor still believes that he was in the right, overlooking his project as temporary insanity, and skimming past areas of indubitable misconduct. His very last words imply that he never could have been kept away from black sciences and lofty ambition, as he believes that his singular attempt was cursed with poor fortune, and another may succeed where he failed (Shelley 162). It is clear that in the very end, Victor Frankenstein learned nothing.
Throughout the novel, Victor’s fatal flaws interwove as they worked to completely and utterly destroy all that he once had. This decline was a lengthy one years in the making, begun long before the Creature first moved. He at one point mentions “the storm that was even then hanging in the stars, and ready to envelop [him]” when referencing his childhood, recognizing that certain unchanging traits of his were already setting him on the path to destruction (Shelley 23). The process’s true beginning was certainly during Victor’s time at work, though, when he forces himself to his outermost limits and compromises his physical well-being, mental stability, and interpersonal relationships (Victor 1). His flaws and the events they set in motion would continue to affect him similarly at intervals throughout the book. After giving all of himself to the creation of his daemon, he is unable to renege on this devotion, and as a result he must prioritize the Creature over his loved ones time and time again (Themes 1). Then he has everything actively stripped of him by the Creature as it attempts to gain recognition and make its creator’s circumstances mirror its own (Responsibility 1). It comes to the point where the Creature is truly all that Victor has left and vice versa, leading to the mutual decision that they are bound to each other, and one will kill the other for vengeance. The Creature takes all option from Victor and forces him to be struck by the full repercussions of his choices (Responsibility 2). Ultimately Victor must suffer without the means to help himself as a result of his own poor decisions (Bennet 2). While many events later on were out of his control, they were only so because he had long since relinquished his right to steer events.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein experiences a train of misfortune after giving in to his flaws and pushing the boundaries of nature. To a certain extent though, these continuous disasters were of his own doing, as he once possessed the ability to preempt or halt them but did not exercise it. He was not an evil man, for all his faults, but he was just proud, irresponsible, and weak enough to ruin his own life. Victor’s fall is so devastating that his story provides a haunting cautionary tale about the repercussions of negligence and arrogance, even centuries after it was first written.