Thursday, October 3, 2013

Frankenstein and Consequences

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the character Victor Frankenstein has trouble dealing with and even acknowledging the consequences of his actions. This view of the world is much like the one that online interface fosters. Although the root cause of this issue is different, the result is fundamentally the same. Both Victor and some of today’s youth refuse to recognize that their actions may affect and alter the lives of others. The lack of consequences has made them immune and indifferent to the adverse effects of their actions. Victor’s ignorance of the consequences comes from his upbringing and social status, while the emergence of video games and online interactions, rather than real-world interactions, has produced the same ignorance.
 In Frankenstein, Victor tells the story of his childhood. His parents regarded him as both “their plaything and their idol” (Shelley 24); these praises suggest that his parents did not instill a true sense of responsibility in their child. Victor even remarked, “life seemed but on train of enjoyment to me” (24), again showing his lack of contact and therefore understanding of consequences. As he gets older, his wealth and social status create an environment where he never has to deal with his actions. Because of his money, he has the ability to literally run away from his problems to relieve his guilt, for example, leaving to Belrive after Justine’s conviction allows Victor to avoid dealing with the issues he created. Most people would not have this option to travel but Victor’s family wealth creates the opportunity. His family’s social status permits him to escape from his responsibilities time after time. He is acquitted from charges in England, even after he admits his guilt several times, calling himself the “murderer of William, of Justine, and of Clerval” (202). Compared with the life of the monster, who is accused of crime and assumed guilty for every action he takes, the affluence of Victor’s life seems even more extreme. The monster saves a young girl from drowning in the stream and then gets punished for his actions (158), while Victor is never really held accountable for any of his actions, good or bad. The monster is basically the polar opposite of Victor in terms of social status: where Victor has a highly regarded family, the monster has none whatsoever, where Victor has wealth, the monster has only the clothes on his back; and on top of that, the monster’s appearance puts him beneath even the most unfortunate of people. The contrast of the two emphasizes the lace of responsibility Victor is held to, including an ignorance to repercussions of his actions, which leads him to create the monster in the first place. He does not expect any sort of punishment or adverse effects from the construction of the monster because all of his life he has never experienced either. So when he encounters the reality of his actions, he instantly abandons the situation and continually blames “destiny…and her immutable laws” for his misfortune rather than taking responsibility (34). Victor’s hasty departure essentially leaves the monster with the consequences of Victor’s actions. This abandonment has a much greater effect on the monster than on Victor at this point. Victor is allowed to integrate directly back in to his society. He does get sick after the creation of the monster, but even then Clerval nurses him back to health. Yet again, Victor’s wealth and social status allows him to avoid the consequences of his actions. The monster, however, is left completely alone, “confused and indistinct” with “a strange multiplicity of sensations” (110). He has to figure out how to survive all on his own. Essentially, he is punished for Victor’s actions.
The monster and Victor have completely differing views of the world and personalities stemming from their difference in treatment and consequences. The monster experiences immediate punishment for his good deeds, such as helping the De Lacey family with their daily chores or helping the little girl out of the stream. According to psychology, immediate punishers are often more effective than delayed punishers (Cerutti 1). The effect of these immediate punishers is that the monster is much less likely to repeat the actions punished. The repeated reinforcement of the negative consequences for the monster molds his hardened view of the world that we see at the end of the novel. He receives no positive reinforcement for his good actions so he is left without a clear sense of right and wrong. The monster acknowledges that “evil thenceforth became my good” (Shelley 255), even he realized his sense of good had become so warped by the end of the novel. This is a direct result of the constant stream of consequences the monster faced: after so much punishment for his actions, the monster’s behavior is bound to reflect this view of the world.
Sensitivity to the consequences of one's own behavior is among the most significant evolutionary innovations—a sort of ontogenetic natural selection to local aspects of ecology—extending the process of adaptation throughout the life of the individual” (Cerutti 1). This sensitivity is one that Victor Frankenstein lacks, and this in turn shapes his behaviors later in life and in the book. Frankenstein has never been exposed to consequences for his actions and therefore has not been allowed to evolve or adapt. He has not been able to learn from his mistakes because they were never presented to him as mistakes. Without consequences, Victor’s life has been one in which he can do as he pleases all of the time without regard for anyone or anything else, especially when faced with the monster he has created. When the monster enters his life, Victor is at a loss because he has not developed a sensitivity to consequences and, ultimately, this leads to his demise. Victor’s lack of consequences early in life as a result of his wealthy upbringing creates an ignorance of consequences altogether that results in his creation of the monster and his actions in dealing with him. The monster, on the other hand, develops a hardened and frustrated view of the world because of a constant stream of consequences for actions he meant to be helpful. The monster’s relationship with consequences and punishment highlights Victor’s lack of both. Together they show the need for a delicate balance between consequences and freedom in life.
The world of online social networking allows Victor Frankenstein’s ignorant view on accountability and consequences to come into the real world. The same issue that Victor deals with, a lack of direct and immediate consequences or any at all, can be found in cyberspace, as well. Cyber bullying is a real problem among today’s youth. During a recent study, it was found that cyber bullying “affected 56.1 percent of students” in this study and “89 percent of the respondents reported knowing a friend that had been targeted” (Hoff and Mitchell 655). The reasons that many of the respondents believed that cyber bullying is so prevalent is that “the anonymity of cyber bullying contributes to the phenomenon because of the power it gives bullies, emboldening them beyond what they might do on a face-to-face basis” (657).   This lack of face to face contact results in a lack of direct consequences for actions, such as observing the immediate effect on the victims or the possibility of authority figures seeing.
Another problem in the fight against cyber bullying is that it is extremely difficult to catch “the anonymity of the perpetrator and the students’ skill in using technology have made it more difficult for schools to…track down cyber-bullies” (Hoff and Mitchell 622). This lack of consequences mirrors Victor’s experiences due to his wealth and social status. He is even allowed to admit to crimes without any consequence in England just as cyber bullies are allowed to commit a sort of crime without taking any responsibility. Another reason found in the study that contributes to the rise of cyber bullying is that “adults, who normally would be supervising the lives of teens are left on the outside” (661). This again is much like Victor’s early life. He is generally left without an authority figure because his parents treated him as “their plaything and their idol” rather than enforcing necessary consequences on him (Shelley 24).
 Both online interactions and Victor’s life present a world virtually free of consequences. The longer one goes without consequences for their actions the more likely they will stop thinking about them all together or even being aware them. Victor Frankenstein and cyber bullies in society today experience this same phenomenon that creates a real danger in their lives.
 Like Victor’s creation of the monster, cyber bullying has tremendous effects on the lives of those around. Just think of  15-year-old Phoebe Prince who “is suspected of killing herself in January after being subjected to name-calling and bullying by students at her school and through social networking Web sites” (Bock 1) in addition to the string of deaths in the Frankenstein. Virtually all of the people Victor loves end up dying as a result of his creation and his abandonment of the monster. The need for consequences becomes clear and the lack of comprehension of them leads to dangerous and horrible effects on a large scale.
Both Victor and many cyber bullies today have issues with understanding the results of their actions. This issue is apparent in the fact that both create circumstances for themselves completely unaware of the dangerous consequences that often result. Victor creates the monster and more extreme cases of cyber bullying are coming into view. The lack of understanding may not spawn from the same place, but it does end with the same result. Victor is repeatedly taught that his actions yield no consequences by both his parents and society.  Online social networking teaches people this same idea through the continual disregard of punishment.  Victor and people in today’s society act expecting no adverse effects, only thinking about how they can benefit from these actions. When faced with the consequences of their actions, they are unable to make smart decisions and often ignore those repercussions completely.  Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has trouble understanding the full extent of the consequences of his actions and the online world produces the same trouble. Although the root cause differs slightly, the end result is the same.

Bock, Linda. "Cyberbullying; Emerging as a public health crisis." TELEGRAM & GAZETTE (Massachusetts). (April 7, 2010 Wednesday ): 711 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2013/10/01.
Cerutti, Daniel T. "Reinforcement, Reward, and Punishment." Encyclopedia of the Human Brain. Oxford: Elsevier Science & Technology, 2002. Credo Reference. Web. 28 September 2013.
Dianne L. Hoff, Sidney N. Mitchell, (2009) "Cyberbullying: causes, effects, and remedies", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 47 Iss: 5, pp.652 – 665
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print

1 comment:

Adam said...

In your introduction (which is fine), I'd like to see something a little stronger - not only *can* we make the connection between Victor Frankenstein and cyberbullying, but we *should*. Ideally that's the approach you'd take, especially in a revision.

Your paragraph about Victor Frankenstein's childhood is painfully long. You also cover what is (for anyone in this class) very familiar material. You do have a couple nice touches - I'm not saying that it serves no purpose - but what you wanted here was it to be more clearly focused upon your argument. In other words, it should already be about cyberbullying, at least to some limited extent (I'm not really sure how - but then it's not my topic). Incidentally, I wondered about your use of Clerval here - note that the Clerval is of a similar (but somewhat lower, in status if not in wealth) class to Victor Frankenstein, but behaves rather differently. This seems relevant to me. This is someone whose life is embedded in his connections, who puts Victor first and himself second - how could you use that?

Your reading of the monster's response to punishment is good. It's not difficult or strange, it's just a worthy insight. But what does it have to do with your argument as a whole?

"The monster, on the other hand, develops a hardened and frustrated view of the world because of a constant stream of consequences for actions he meant to be helpful." This paragraph on sensitivity is my favorite part of the essay so far. It's smart, succinct, and makes effective use of research. Again, nothing here is surprising, but you do a good job of explaining the characters' psychology. I wonder if there is a whole essay here? For instance, I'm beginning to ask who else has & lacks this sensitivity, and what the origins of its absence are in Victor's case. For my part, I'd like to see it connected to his relationships with Elizabeth, his mother and his father. I don't think failure to understand consequences is the same thing as this lack of sensitivity, is it? They need to be connected/related in some way that make them both part of a whole.

What are you doing in the paragraph about anonymity? The monster, after all, is the anonymous one - it seems like there's a missing dimension here if you neglect that. Victor is immune to being caught not because nobody knows who he is, but because everybody knows who he is. The monster is the one who gets away with anonymous, hidden crimes here.

That fundamental fact continues to bother me for the last few paragraphs. You're right, of course, that Victor can avoid consequences for his actions. But so can the monster, at least when he turns to evil (you yourself traced how his treatment led to a quick change in his behavior - and the changed behavior is effective!), and in ways which to my mind far more directly parallel what happens with cyberbullying/stalking/etc.

Overall, the fundamental problem here is *why* we should connect the story of Frankenstein with cyberbullying. You don't make a strong case for why we should, but there are implicit hints. People respond quickly and powerfully to punishment, and they respond to the lack of consequences, because of anonymity or immunity. I think the biggest problem here is that the roles shift in Frankenstein in a way that they don't in ordinary cyberbullying: the monster, who is persecuted, becomes the persecutor, more protected from harm (but also from love!) than Victor ever was. I think to make this really work as a whole, you need to figure out how the end of the novel - especially the monster's anonymous destruction of, well, everything - fits in with your argument. What you need is to show why we should make the connection you're making - addressing the complexities of the novel, especially of the monster, is a way to get there.