Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Contemplation of Guilt in Frankenstein

Despite centuries of judicial practice and reform, guilt remains a vague and obscure concept. The definition and source of guilt are two major themes that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein contemplates. The character of Victor Frankenstein embodies the deliberation of guilt and innocence.
            Victor did not create his monster with malicious intent; he explains to Captain Walton, “Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in the process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (49). Frankenstein was chasing immortality for the sake of his family or perhaps to resurrect his late mother. Frankenstein is not plagued with guilt upon the animation of the creature; he was merely appalled at his realization of power. He says that in the moment of animation a “breathless horror and disgust filled [his] heart” (54). Victor was disappointed and agitated by his creation but he was not guilty or remorseful. It was not until Victor realized the creature was responsible for William’s murder that he first becomes engrossed with guilt. After witnessing the creature at the site of William’s murder he laments, “Alas, I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery; had he not murdered my brother?” (77). Victor maintains this guilt during Justine’s trial and conviction. “From the tortures of my own heart, I turned to contemplate the deep and voiceless grief of my Elizabeth. This also was my doing! And my father’s woe, and the desolation of that so smiling home – all was the work of my thrice-accursed hands” (92).  On multiple occasions Victor even refers to himself as the “true murderer” (98).
            Victor’s assumption of guilt is reversed when he meets his creation in the Montanvert valley. Suddenly he casts all the blame upon his creation exclaiming, “Begone, vile insect! or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! and, oh! that I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!” (106). As the confrontation between man and creator goes on it becomes somewhat ambiguous as to whether or not Victor maintains his guilt. He retorts to the monster, “Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you” (108). It is interesting that Victor doesn’t say “curse my hands”. He is physically separating himself into two personas – one that is guilty and one that is innocent. He briefly becomes compassionate towards his creation and for the first time realizes his father-like responsibility to his creation. Even after Victor hears the creature’s story he never speculates that society at large is to blame for the monster’s bestowed evil. At times the burden of guilt seems to snowball into collective guilt, but it is only shared between Victor and the monster. Victor does not return to his assumption of full guilt until he decides that he will not be responsible for further havoc and therefore destroys his female creation. Following the death of Henry Clerval and Elizabeth, Victor reflects on all his past misfortunes. He says, “I began to reflect on their cause – the monster whom I created, the miserable daemon whom I sent abroad into the world for my destruction” (229). Victor completely submits himself to his guilt, vowing to spend the remainder of his life chasing and destroying his creation.
            The ambiguity of Victor Frankenstein’s argument points to a larger question in the novel; this question has implications in society at large. Who is to blame for the monster’s guilt? Did Frankenstein create a monster or did human society create a monster? This question requires a complex, nuanced answer although this is perhaps impossible. Upon his animation the creature was seemingly harmless and ignorant to evil. It is not until after the creature goes abroad and is rejected by several individuals and the DeLacey family that he turns to murder and maliciousness to appease his sense of loneliness and rejection. Victor Frankenstein is not present for the events that directly cause the creature’s evilness. It seems to come down to a nature vs nurture question – was the creature born evil or did he learn evil? If the creature was born evil then Frankenstein is guilty of the murders of his family and friends, but if the creature was born innocent and learned evil, then human society is to blame.
            I began looking for an answer in the words of the creature himself. Who does the monster blame? This is unclear. He tells Victor, “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind… Shall I respect man when he contemns me?” (163). The creature refuses to remain submissive to society’s rejection but he only seeks revenge by killing Victor’s family. He warns Victor, “I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. Have a care: I will work at your destruction” (163). Unfortunately, the creature offers no concrete answer and perhaps we are not meant to find a concrete answer in the novel. I think Shelley dances around the conflict of guilt and innocence to heed warning to the novel’s readers: our actions and pursuits – whether these are individual or societal quests – have consequences and we have a responsibility to own these consequences.


Works Cited:

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert      Haas, 1934. Print.


Brendan Demich said...

You make an excellent argument about a major theme of the book. I found myself thinking that this was the type of guilt a neglecting father would have. I appreciate that you emphasize that a "grey area" exists around Frankenstein's guilt.
One thing that I am hesitant about is that you seem to shy away from making a specific argument. I see that your essay follows your thesis well. But maybe making an argument for Frankenstein's guilt or innocent would be a stronger answer to the prompt. You say that determining the guilt of the monster's evil, "requires a complex and nuanced answer althought his is perhaps impossible." I think you might have been better to attempt to make an answer for it.
Small side note: be sure to put a comma after the prepositional phrase if you begin your sentence with one. Ex. "Even after Victor hears the monster's story,"

Adam said...

Your introduction is provocative and interesting - I'm very curious to see where you go with it.

You do a very good job compactly presenting Victor Frankenstein's twists and turns on the topic of guilt, although I think there might be a missing analysis of some of the material surrounding the creation here. Are you comfortable arguing that his dream (of Elizabeth transforming into the corpse of his dead mother) doesn't have anything to do with your argument? In particular, you trace the transition from his interest in immortality to repugnance to guilt - but I'd argue that his dream already covers all of this territory. At the least, I think it's something you'd want to address in a revision.

I love how you catch Victor's hints about his own duality. One way of expanding this essay would be to change the focus to being about Victor's fractured identity more explicitly.

You do a very good job exploring the vagueness surrounding ultimate guilt in the novel. I'd argue that you need to explore at least one more dimension here - while we could point to Victor, or the monster, or to society at large as "the" guilty party, you're missing another obvious candidate. Victor's parents are another possible guilty party - after all, they brought Victor up (and there are a number of details on this subject) with a very particular idea of his rights, his position in society, etc. In an electronic text you might search for the words "plaything" and "idol" and also for the passage about Frankenstein's total lack of superstitious dread (this is in the buildup to the monster's creation).

You end vaguely. That's ok in a short draft - you've already done a lot. But what I'm most interested in, ultimately, is what *you* have to say about guilt and innocence after having done some serious thinking about it. Was there a crime? Are there criminals? Or is *Frankenstein* all about unlucky people and bad circumstances? At the end of the day if you're going to perform a sophisticated reading of the novel around issues of guilt and innocence, you want to be able to say something much more precise (and directed toward future thinking) than you manage to at the end of this draft.