A very commonly used quote when referring to power comes from a comic book; “with great power, comes great responsibility.” It is famous for a reason. The quote embodies an ideal held by most modern societies. In a world of checks, balances, and laws, power is carefully watched in order for it not to get out of control. An entire genre of literature even warns of scientific power ranging from manipulating genetics (Jurassic Park) to controlling robots (I, Robot) which is called science fiction. Such scientific power gone wild is seen by the creation of life in the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster that causes his endless despair and tragedy throughout the span of his life, all just to conquer nature. There seems to be no contemplation of the consequences of his actions while creating the being, only retrospective hatred for giving life to such a terrible creature. Frankenstein’s best friend in the book, Henry Clerval, has a different tendency when it comes to power. Although his ambitions follow those of an imperialist, Henry learns restraint early on and is able to quell his ambition. He becomes a happy, poetic character to rival the ambitious but depressed Frankenstein. The disasters of Frankenstein find their source in his lack of restraint due to his powerful upper-class distinction while Henry Clerval learns how to wield power from his lower social status.
Both Henry Clerval and Frankenstein have ambition to be the best in their field, but their differences are clearly based on their upbringing. At the beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to Henry Clerval as a chivalrous being who reads and loves stories of knights and grand adventures. In the words of Frankenstein, Henry, “occupied himself, so to speak, with the moral relations of things,” and that he had, “made doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition.” (pg. 19-20, Shelly 1994). Henry has the dream to, “become one among those whose names are recorded in story, as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species.” (pg. 19, Shelly 1994) In a way, he does achieve his dreams becoming chronicled in Frankenstein’s narrative as being a perfect individual. One could see these lofty ambitions of someone who hasn’t ever had too much. Clerval is born to a “merchant of Geneva,” which is not necessarily a poor occupation, but certainly bellow the class of Frankenstein. In fact, another merchant of Geneva is seen falling, “through numerous mischances, into poverty” right at the beginning of the novel, showing how quickly a merchant can descend into poverty if they are not careful (pg. 14, Shelly 1994). Clerval is described to be cultured by being, “deeply read in books” as well as plays of chivalry (pg. 19, Shelly 1994). This indicates that he attempted to culture himself rather than take up his father’s trade and become his apprentice. Clerval has learned to balance his relationship to his father as well as these higher cultured practices and truly appreciates whatever he has.
Being raised as a wealthy child is not all about laziness and happiness. Frankenstein’s parents were wealthy and kind people, attempting to raise their children to be so. The Frankenstein’s acquire their fortune through an ancestry of counselors and magistrates showing that inherited power is common in the Frankenstein lineage (pg. 14, Shelly 1994). Victor Frankenstein develops a feeling of ownership over everything, and air of arrogance and egocentric thinking, as well as a need to break the limits of his world. The paper “Acquirers’ and Inheritors’ Dilemma” by Dennis T. Jaffe and James A. Grubman offers insight to the innate difference between these two characters. It examines “growth and development in relating to…wealth and its role in [wealthy family members’] lives” (pg. 1, Jaffe and Grubman 2007). In the context of this essay, Frankenstein falls into the role of the “Inheritor” while Clerval embodies the “Acquirer”. Frankenstein gets his power and wealth from his parents while Clerval “acquire[s] it during [his] lifetime through effort or chance” (pg. 2, Jaffe and Grubman 2007). In this case, Clerval puts in effort to escape the middle class life to join Frankenstein in college as well as travel to London. He has “already developed much of [his] personal identity in the economic culture of [his] birth,” learning the forethought and restraint of his middle class father (pg. 2, Jaffe and Grubman 2007). Frankenstein on the other hand, is a “[native] of the land of wealth” and feels that he is “automatically…special without their ever having done anything to earn it” (pg. 2, 10, Jaffe and Grubman 2007). Some of the issues in the paper with wealthy children stem from poor parental interaction, but this is not the case for young Frankenstein.
Frankenstein comments that “[his] parents were possessed by the spirit of kindness…. [and] not the tyrants to rule our lot” (pg. 19, Shelly 1994). His parents are kind and supportive, yet there are still many problems that can and do develop. Victor’s parents have enough money to travel Europe when Frankenstein is only a child, and even buy two houses at a time when most could barely afford one (pg. 18, Shelly 1994). His parents can afford a house in “considerable seclusion,” which made Frankenstein generally secluded as well until he meets Clerval (pg. 19, Shelly, 1994). Research shows that wealthy children “distrust others whom they fear will take advantage of them” (pg. 13, Jaffee and Grubman 2007). This might assume that Victor was raised by servants or that his parents, since they could afford anything, never really had to reprimand Frankenstein. Victor didn’t have to face overbearing control by his parents like Clerval. Having everything he wants in childhood gives Frankenstein an air of possession that carries throughout the rest of the novel. He is seen “expressing arrogance, entitlement, and insensitivity to others” as the novel continues (pg. 12, Jaffe and Grubman 2007). After his mother connects the two on her death bed, Frankenstein says that he, “looked upon Elizabeth as [his]” and that she was a “promised gift” for him (pg. 18, Shelly 1994). While creating a creature, Victor Frankenstein also comments that, “a new species would bless me as its creator and source” (pg. 32, Shelly 1994). This possessive nature is caused by Victor’s upbringing in a high social class. He feels he is entitled to everything since he could have anything anyway as a child. Such arrogance is seen when Henry and Elizabeth die by the monsters hand. The monster directs threats to Frankenstein, but he only perceives, “menace to himself” (pg. 598, Brooks 1978). If Frankenstein did not just believe that all danger was his due to his upper-class arrogance, he might have been able to protect his friends from death by his creature’s hands.
The one time Victor is refused and scorned by his parents leads to his downfall. As Frankenstein grows up, he becomes interested in natural philosophy. Victor states that it is his father’s disgust at a book by the natural philosopher Agrippa that prompts him to take up the subject. Since Victor is in a high class, he is not used to being said “No” to. This scoffing by his father rather than pointing out the problems with natural philosophy leads Frankenstein down the path to creating the monster that plagues him. Even Frankenstein reflects that if “instead of this remark”, an explanation by his father might have turned him away from natural philosophy. Instead, he develops this need to break even the barrier of the natural laws to prove he is limitless. The mad scientist has many, “enquiries (that) were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.” (pg. 19, Shelly 1994) Professor Peter Brooks of Harvard notes that we see this need for recognition from his father once the monster requests a bride. Just as Frankenstein wants to act beneficial as a creator to his creation, Victor wishes that he could receive acceptance from his “creator” (his father) as well (pg. 597, Brooks 1978). He initially attempts to create the bride just in order to escape “the monstrous element in his own nature which led him to create a monstrous being” (pg. 597, Brooks 1978). Rather than being instilled with the idea of what is feasible or not through work, he is urged by his upbringings of luxury to break the one natural boundary he couldn’t buy his way out of; life and death.
Along with this difference in ambitions, the reader sees Clerval rewarded for his restraint while horror continues to surround Frankenstein based on his impatience. Frankenstein does not have respect for nature and attempts to defy it as quickly as he attains the knowledge. Frankenstein moves along in his work so quickly that there is not enough time to think about the moral consequences of his actions. Frankenstein directly says, “Idleness had ever been irksome to me,” right after he creates the monster that plagues him for the rest of his life (pg. 44, Shelly 1994). His so called rebellion of the limits of his existence ends in the creation of the monster. As is seen in other heirs to wealth, Frankenstein “never recover[s] from rebellion and fall[s] into self-destructiveness” (pg. 16, Jaffee and Grubman 2007). Henry, on the other hand, pursues his ambition in a more controlled way. He is held back from going to college by his father who, “was a narrow-minded trader, and saw idleness and ruin in the aspirations and ambition of his son.” (pg. 24, Shelly 1994). The fear of Clerval’s middle class father is exactly what happens to Frankenstein as he finds ruin while pursuing his aspirations in science. Holding back Clerval from such education teaches him not to refute a similar kind of ruin by relentlessly going after his passion. He leads up to his goals rather than jumping straight to the end. Instead of learning a language and running off to India in search of adventure, he learns the trades of his father and then goes to, “the university with the design of making himself a complete master of the Oriental languages,” before, “[pursuing] no inglorious career.” (pg. 44, Shelly 1994) Such is seen in self-made people. They tend to have, “higher levels of self-control, achievement, and motivation” (pg. 16, Jaffee and Grubman 2007). Clerval limits his ambitions and works up to his goals rather than demanding immediate satisfaction and travelling to the Far East.
Both Clerval and Frankenstein keep their inherited traits from childhood all the way until their respective deaths. Clerval ends up being destroyed by Frankenstein’s monster after Frankenstein refuses to build the monster a bride. Clerval remains blissful and happy until the misery of Frankenstein leads to his downfall. When journeying from Frankenstein’s home to London and then to Scotland, Clerval is described in being completely delighted with the journey and nature on the trip. He, “desired the intercourse with men of genius and talent” in London and admired the “beauty and regularity of the new town of Edinburgh” (pg. 114,118, Shelly 1994). Frankenstein even uses a Wordsworth poem to describe the wonder with which Clerval saw the world of nature (pg. 113, Shelly 1994).The reader sees that “Clerval cleaves to nature in such a childlike love and trust.”(pg. 601, Brooks 1978). Clerval’s social status meant that he was able to appreciate the sights and sounds of the world all the more. After being stuck in Geneva forcibly by his father who would not allow him to go to college, this freedom is all the sweeter to Clerval. Frankenstein, on this journey with Clerval, “follows [Clerval] as his shadow,” literally embodying the darker side of the two (pg. 118, Shelly 1994). He constantly praises Clerval, yet continues to promote woe and sympathy for only him. He makes the trouble of the monster his sole problem and suggests that the misery he feels is above the lofty ideals of Clerval. This relates back to the egocentric behavior prompted by his upbringing which caused him to claim Elizabeth as his own and pursue natural philosophy since it was the one thing his father denied him in his life of abundance and wealth.
Clerval dies shortly after this, leaving the reader with these respected images of the journey in their minds. Till death, Clerval is left to enjoy the world until Frankenstein’s terror ends an individual who had only begun a rise to prominence. Frankenstein dies on a different note. We see Frankenstein, alone and lost in the Arctic with his fortune, family, and friends gone at the hands of his monstrosity. It deeply contradicts the origins of Victor in his life of luxury and wealth. Frankenstein even says that only the memories of childhood bring back good memories, while the conditions at the end of the book are quite the opposite. All these losses are on account of Victor’s creation which was spurred on by the childhood he idealizes. Yet, even at the end, the beliefs instilled by Frankenstein’s upper class life pervade his mind. When the crew of Robert Walton’s ship wants to turn back from their dangerous Arctic voyage, Frankenstein comes to the captain’s rescue with a speech. In it, he states that, “You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species,” yet only focuses on the captains successes that they are giving their lives for (pg. 159-160, Shelly 1994). He not only urges the crew to brave the danger they know is deadly, but insists that the power and fame are entirely the captain’s rather than the crews’. Just like he ignores the dangers of creating a human abomination and seeks to be praised by his creation, Frankenstein is repeating his mistakes caused by his upbringing. The last we see of Frankenstein, he withers away still corrupt by the ease of his upper class life.
Frankenstein’s negative characteristics leading to his downfall spawn from his upper class upbringing as seen in the novel Frankenstein. Victor’s arrogance and immense ego come from his wealth creating a feeling that he owns everything. In a world where he can have whatever he wants, Victor pursues to break the only barrier that’s existed to him, that of the natural world. He has no restraint or concern of the future from these traits, leading to the creation of the monster and Frankenstein’s continuous self-destruction in the form of long bouts of madness. To counter this type of development, the character of Henry Clerval shows the benefits of a middle class upbringing. His success requires effort and he learns restraint from his father and generally being limited by his lesser wealth. Having greater wealth as a child leads Frankenstein to go crazy with power, becoming a reclusive scientist who creates life without thinking of the consequences. Henry is held back from knowledge and power in order to learn restraint due to his social class. Seeing this comparison between power crazy and restrained ambitions is relevant to the problems of today. We today see many irresponsible inheritors of power and idolize them like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. They only have wealth to throw away, but inheritors such as Kim Jong Un who now rules North Korea and Bashar al-Assad, who struggles to hold on to his rule violently as Syria is consumed in civil war, have more power to go crazy with. Careful consideration of these children of wealth and power could stop terrors much like the monster that Frankenstein unleashes upon the world just due to his upper class upbringing.
Brooks, Peter. “Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts: Language and Monstrosity in Frankenstein.” New
Literary History , Vol. 9, No. 3, Rhetoric I: Rhetorical Analyses (Spring, 1978), pp. 591-605
Jaffe, Dennis T., and James A. Grubman. "Acquirers' and Inheritors' Dilemma: Discovering Life Purpose
and Building Personal Identity in the Presence of Wealth." Journal of Wealth Management 10.2
(2007): 20-44. Official Site of James Grubman. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1994. Print.