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The Hidden Commentary Behind the Creature in Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
Just after the end of the Enlightenment period, the early 19th century saw a large scientific debate over the ethics of research into electricity. Mary Shelley, in her gothic novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, capitalizes on the widespread fear of electricity in order to warn against its unethical scientific applications. The novel outlines the story of Victor Frankenstein, a gifted scientist who uses the power of electricity in order to create a creature from dead body parts. Soon after its creation, Victor realizes that his creature is a hideous monster who will be rejected by mankind and, as a result, abandons it. Abandoned by its creator, the creature then attempts to embed itself into society, where it is consistently met with rejection until it ultimately becomes alienated from all sectors of human civilization. Harboring resentment towards its creator, the creature then vows to destroy Victor’s family and subsequently wages war on the human race. Ultimately, the creature’s interactions with mankind have larger implications in regards to Shelley’s commentary on ubiquitous societal discrimination. By highlighting the destructive effects of alienation through the creature’s perspectives, actions, and effect on Victor, Shelley uncovers the corrosive nature of isolationism caused by innate human superficiality and elitism. Consequently, she incites the reader to ponder the consequences of both rogue scientific advancement and inherent human prejudices.
Shelley’s argument hinges on the independent development of the creature’s perspective as the only truly alienated member of society. Briefly, after his creation, the creature experiences his first human rejection: “[The shepherd] turned on hearing a noise, and perceiving me, shrieked loudly, and quitting the hut, [the shepard] ran across the fields with a speed of which his debilitated form hardly appeared capable” (Shelley 111). Despite the shepherd and the creature sharing the same experience of seeing each other for the first time, the shepherd is immediately frightened by the creature’s strange appearance and flees, while the creature is left in confusion and despair. Unable to understand the apparent prejudice towards his appearance, the creature then sets out to learn more about humans and their culture. After observing a group of cottagers, the creature attempts to, once again, escape its loneliness by asking to join the humans. In doing so, the creature faces the ultimate form of rejection after he is beaten with a stick in response to his request. Jessica Bomarito and Russel Whitaker elaborate on this idea, citing that “[The creature] attempts to do good, but is treated harshly by humans he encounters and then begins to realize how very shunned and abhorred he is” (Bomarito and Whitaker). As a result of this rejection, the creature begins to become hyper-aware of the elitism and hypocrisies that define humans and their culture. While explaining his realization to Victor, the creature states “Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed? I know not; despair had not yet taken possession of me; my feelings were those of rage and revenge” (Shelley 146). Here the creature cites its feelings of “rage and revenge” towards the human race because of their inability to see past its appearance and appreciate its personality and intellect. Through her meticulous presentation of the creature’s perspective regarding humans, Shelley forces the reader to see the human race for its elitism and superficiality, as she establishes the creature’s accounts to be accurate due to the lack of outside influences on its perspective. As a result, she simultaneously highlights the pain and suffering associated with alienation and subliminally urges against similar scientific exploration.
Equally essential to conveying Shelley’s warning against scientific induced isolationism, is the creature’s choice of violence in response to its alienation. Jay Parini explains this idea when he states “... the circumstances of [the creature’s] existence are so monstrous and uncommon, that, when the consequences of them became developed in action, his original goodness was gradually turned into inextinguishable misanthropy and revenge” (Parini). Although innately innocent, the creature is gradually forced to turn towards violence and destruction as isolation continues to plague its thoughts. Upon its rejection by the cottagers, the creature declares “My protectors had departed and had broken the only link that held me to the world. For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom, and I did not strive to control them, but allowing myself to be borne away by the stream, I bent my mind towards injury and death” (Shelley 149). Here the creature essentially makes a declaration of war on mankind in response to its exclusion. In order to fulfill its declaration, the creature seeks to destroy its creator, Victor Frankenstein. In its first act of revenge, the creature kills Victor’s brother William and frames Victor’s close friend Justine which ultimately leads to her death. Later, in its final act of retribution, the creature kills Elizabeth, Victor's wife, who throughout the story is cited as the only person who can provide him joy and love. Through these deplorable actions, Shelley portrays a horrific scene of vengeance, depression, and murder. As a result of her brutal depiction, Shelley calls upon the reader to make a judgment on whether or not these horrific events are worth the pursuit of scientific advancement. Furthermore, Shelley justifies the revenge that the creature extracts on Frankenstein through her presentation of the creature’s frustrated and desolate perspective. This leads the reader to see the motives behind the creature’s deplorable actions as almost reasonable, and as a result, Shelley highlights the effect of inherent human prejudice.
The creature’s effect on Victor also plays a significant role in the development of Shelley’s commentary on rogue scientific advancement and human-induced isolationism. This idea is highlighted in the Children’s Literature Review: “The horrors unleashed by Frankenstein's actions turn his story into a cautionary tale...” (Children’s Literature Review). After the creature murders Elizabeth on her wedding night, Victor dedicates his life to finding and destroying his creation. Utilizing Victor’s proclamation, Shelley identifies the corrosive nature of revenge as the creature’s violent actions only cause Victor to respond with more violence and anger. At the end of the novel, it becomes apparent that Victor’s quest for revenge ultimately gives him nothing and only propels him further into despair: “Yet when she died! Nay, then I was not miserable. I had cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish, to riot in the excess of my despair. Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen” (Shelley 231). Through his confession to Captain Walton, Victor reveals the toxic nature in which his life changed in response to the actions of his own creation. Victor openly admits to succumbing to evil and violence which is what ultimately leads him to die an unadmirable death, alone on a cargo ship in the middle of the arctic. In the end, the effect of the creature’s actions on Victor is more debilitating than the actions themselves as Victor, similar to the creature, is unable to move past his crippling loneliness until his death. Through the creature’s effect on Victor, Shelley adds the final dimension to her depiction of isolationism as a result of immoral scientific advancement. Here, Shelley spurs the reader to rethink their ideas of what the “pursuit of knowledge” really means and whether or not they are willing to face the potential consequences.
Throughout its entirety, Frankenstein exposes the harsh reality of alienation caused by inherent human prejudices via the creature’s thoughts, behavior, and impact on Victor’s sanity. Ultimately, Shelley encourages the reader to be aware of the potential implications of scientific advancements while simultaneously commentating on human superficiality and elitism. Drawing largely from her own experiences, Shelley carefully crafted the novel to express her own experience of loneliness and solitude. Explaining this in a letter to her husband, Shelley says “... I am alone in the world, have but the desire to wrap night and the obscurity of insignificance around me” (Carson and Carson). Shelley’s struggles with isolation contribute significantly to the realistic depiction of its debilitating effects in the novel. Furthermore, her personal integration allowed her to more accurately convey her criticism of human elitism and immoral scientific advancements. Overall, Shelley’s careful integration of her personal experiences enabled her to more effectively frighten her readers into aligning with her commentary on immoral scientific pursuits and innate human elitism. Still, the reader is left to make the final judgement on the events presented and must continue, abiding by their own values and morals, humanity's quest for the advancement of society.
Bomarito and Whitaker,"Frankenstein." Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, vol. 170, Gale, 2006. Gale Literature Resource Center, Web. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021.
CARSON, JAMES P., and James B. Carson. “Bringing the Author Forward: ‘Frankenstein’ Through Mary Shelley's Letters.” Criticism, vol. 30, no. 4, 1988, pp. 431–453. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23112085. Accessed 4 Jan. 2021
Children's Literature Review. Gale. Frankenstein. (n.d.) .link.gale.com/apps/doc/ H141000209/LitRC?u=colt56342&sid=LitRC&xid=c6740cef
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus. New American Library, 2000.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "On Frankenstein." Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, edited by Jay Parini, vol. 14, Gale, 1987. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420019691/LitRC?u=colt56342&sid=LitRC&xid=0bd7a1b4. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021. Originally published in The Athenaeum, no. 263, 10 Nov. 1832, p. 730