Thursday, January 23, 2014

Frankenstein's Argument

                The main argument Victor Frankenstein makes in the beginning of Frankenstein to Captain Robert Walton is that the pursuit of knowledge is dangerous and not worth the immense sacrifices it involves. However, by the end of the novel, Victor’s argument changes. This change is because of Victor’s inability to assume responsibility for his actions.

                The majority of Frankenstein is Victor’s retelling of his tale to Robert. This occurs when Robert discloses to Victor the purpose of his journey. He is traveling north in order to “discover the power of the needle.” (Shelley 2), and he is subsequently willing to “sacrifice [his] fortune, [his] existence, [his] every hope, to the furtherance of [his] enterprise.” (Shelley 17). Upon hearing this, Victor grows angry with Robert and says, “Let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!” (Shelley 17). Thus, the entire purpose of Victor’s narration is an attempt to dissuade Robert from making the same mistakes that he did in his pursuit for knowledge.

                Victor goes on to reiterate his stance at various points throughout the tale. While describing the moment upon which he discovers the secret to life, he acknowledges Robert saying that he can “see by [his] eagerness” (Shelley 48) that “[Robert] expects to be informed of the secret with which [he is] acquainted.” (Shelley 48). Victor refuses to disclose this knowledge to Robert, however, and instead urges him to, “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” (Shelley 48). Furthermore, Victor reflects that he does “not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule.” (Shelley 51). The rule being “a human being… ought always preserve a calm and peaceful mind.” (Shelley 51) – something Victor did not do in his pursuit for the secret of life. After Victor completes his tale to Robert, Robert “endeavored to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation.” (Shelley 243). To which Victor scolds him saying, “Are you mad?” (Shelley 243), and that Robert should “learn [Victor’s] miseries, and do not seek to increase [his] own.” (Shelley 243).

                At this point, it appears that Victor is adamant in his argument. He has plainly repeatedly warned Robert of the dangers of the pursuit of knowledge and has even gone through the trouble of telling his entire story. Despite all this, Victor changes his argument at the very end of the novel. Near the conclusion, Robert’s crew give him an ultimatum—either they abandon the voyage or there will be a mutiny. In response to this, Victor reproaches the crew. He tells them that their expedition was glorious “not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terrors.” (Shelley 248).  He goes on to say that they were “hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of [their] species;” (Shelley 248) and that their names would be adored because they “encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind.” (Shelley 248).  Victor said this in an attempt to convince the men to “be steady to [their] purposes and be firm as a rock.” (Shelley 248). Admittedly, when I read this part, I had to wonder if Victor was being serious. He had just spent around two hundred pages trying to convince Robert to give up his voyage. Now with the prospect of abandonment imminent, Victor changes his mind and urges them to continue forward. Ultimately, the reason Victor contradicts his initial argument is because he, himself, has not learned the lesson he was trying to impress upon Robert.

Victor outlines many of his mistakes throughout his account. The problem is that in many cases Victor fails to take responsibility for said mistakes. Therefore, he doesn't learn from them. For instance, instead of dealing with the fact he just created an abomination, he “rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing [his] bedchamber.” (Shelley 54). This ultimately results in the death of his youngest brother and in the conviction of Justine. In regard to Justine, he is again faced with a situation in which he should take responsibility for his actions (or rather, inaction). Instead, he does little to save Justine. He reasons that his “tale is not one to announce publicly” (Shelley 81), because it “would be looked upon as madness” (Shelley 81). He further makes excuses for himself saying, “a thousand times rather would I have confessed myself” (Shelley 83) but that “such a declaration would have been considered as ravings of a madman.” (Shelley 83). Rather than assume responsibility and attempt to save Justine’s life, Victor is more concerned with how he will be perceived by others.

                Later on in his narrative, Victor seems to demonstrate that he is ready to assume some sort of responsibility when he destroys the female monster he was creating. However, he does not totally presume accountability for attempting to create the second monster in the first place. He claims that he “had been struck senseless by [the monster’s] fiendish threats” (Shelley 189) and that he “shuddered to think that future ages might curse me.” (Shelley 189). Again, Victor appears to be more concerned with the fact his actions will lead to him being perceived negatively by others. Immediately following the destruction of the monster’s companion, Victor does nothing to stop the monster after it threatens him. Victor even admits to Robert, “Why had I not followed him?” (Shelley 192) and that he “shuddered to think who might be the next victim.” (Shelley 192). Instead of immediately pursuing the monster, Victor waits two days. Finally, the monster’s threats culminate in Elizabeth’s murder. One which Victor claims he could not stop because “the monster had blinded [Victor] to his real intentions.” (Shelley 220).

                After examining Victor’s continuing failure to assume accountability coupled with his inaction and excuse-making, it is no surprise he reverses his argument. In the end, it is obvious that Victor was unable to learn from his mistakes. His inability to head his own lessons ultimately costs him his life. 


 Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.


Becca Garges said...


I like the argument you chose to analyze in your essay. I think it is an important part of the novel. You do a good job of examining the changes in Victor's argument in your first several paragraphs. However, your last two paragraphs stray a bit. Perhaps if you illustrate how Victor's inability to take responsibility relates to the change in his argument to Walton, warning him about the dangers of the pursuit of knowledge, it would help your essay flow better. Otherwise, I really liked your writing.


Adam said...

This essay is clear, straightforward, well argued and uses the text effectively. Hence, my main comments will be short. I don't think you do anything wrong that I can easily identify. I also thing that your effective use of one of Victor's asides to Walton was a very nice touch, and shows (in case it wasn't already clear) that you're paying great attention to details. So the fundamentals are all good.

I'm not going to say that you're *wrong* to say that the meaning of the contradiction is that Victor refuses to take responsibility. This is a perfectly reasonable approach, which addresses the specific question while keeping his character throughout the novel clearly in mind.

The think here that's really incomplete - and could use detailed attention if you revise - is the *specifics* of his refusal to take responsibility. If he refuses to take responsibility here, we should get some detailed evidence of that refusal not only in his earlier life but in his last few months.

My suggestion (if your revise) is to pay detailed attention to the post-Elizabeth section of the novel. Does he continue to show his earlier refusal to take responsibility in this material? Or is something else going on? Consider his fantasies of the presence of Elizabeth and Clerval; consider also his refusal to understand that the Monster, not "good spirits" are helping him across the arctic.

This is quite good, but the topic of responsibility, especially in the later parts of the novel, is only really started here - that part of the essay is more of a beginning than an ending (which is a good thing!).