Thursday, January 23, 2014

Victor-y At Last: a Limited Liability Partnership

Dennis Madden: Prompt 1

Victor spends the majority of the novel lamenting the atrocities that he believes he has committed through means of the Creature.  He relentlessly insists that he is solely responsible for the murder of William, the execution of Justine, and even the death of his father by proxy. After Clerval’s murder by the Creature, Victor would go as far as to exclaim “Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry, of life? Two I have already destroyed; other victims await their destiny…”(Shelly 201).  Victor’s conviction that he is responsible for the Creature’s crimes is a distorted claim, and one that is the root of his misery. Upon his deathbed, however, Victor grasps the truth: it was not his fault: “During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery” (Shelly 251).  Victor had at first argued himself as responsible for the Creatures murders, but subsequently rescinded this as a function of the utility of his actions.
Victor’s argument raises a fundamental question: is a scientist liable for another’s destructive use of his technologies? To answer this, we must make a distinction between a ‘technology’ and a ‘user’ of said technology. Take for example the nuclear reaction: it has potential for destruction, but also for great benefit to humanity. In order to assign a moral valence to this technology, a ‘user’ must be employed. Positive utility can be achieved if the user is an engineer sustaining a power plant, while negative utility is exemplified in nuclear weaponry: the ‘user’ being the bomber. It can be conjectured that the moral significance of a technology, and therefore the liability assumed through its implementation, is a function of the user and not of the creator. 

When Victor initially expressed dismay over the Creature, he had assumed himself to be a user. “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet” (Shelly 53). To him, it seemed as if the Creature was only existent as a result of his own work: he had gathered the materials and the research and used it to instill life into a previously lifeless being. This accumulated notion of responsibility haunted him to the extent that he saw himself accountable for the Creature’s actions. Surely Victor was responsible for the design of the Creature’s physical being, but he was not in any way responsible for the development of its sense of self. I propose that the Creature was instead the user of it’s own constituent technology: just as a man grown of age is a user of his own cognitive facilities (and is thus responsible for his own actions). Victor had absolutely no say in the Creature’s actions: the Creature had free will.

As the story progresses and the Creature increases its malice, it becomes apparent that the horrors committed by the Creature are far more terrible than any that Victor could conceive or commit himself. At this point the Creature had enslaved the creator. When the Creature exclaims, “You are my creator, but I am your Master!” (Shelly 191), it confesses itself as the commanding user of Victor’s technology. Victor nobly retorts, “The hour of my irresolution is past, and the period of your power is arrived. Your threats cannot move me to do an act of wickedness; but they confirm in me a determination of not creating you a companion in vice”(Shelly 191).  Here, the groundwork was laid for Victor’s redemption.

As Victor tirelessly pursued the Creature further north, the Creature’s cruelty was unbound, often taunting his pursuer with words such as “Prepare! Your toils only begin: wrap yourself in furs and provide food; for we shall soon enter upon a journey where your sufferings will satisfy my everlasting hatred” (Shelly 237). Victor, who lacked inherent malevolence, had taken up moral ground above the Creature: he had never willingly tormented the Creature, but now the Creature clearly sought nothing less than his agony. When it was clear that Creature’s nature was more capable of evil than the nature of its creator, Victor relinquished the blame he had held for so long. Victor died in peace after finally realizing that he had maintained his morality while the Creature had given into malice.  The Creature, abuser of Victor’s gift of life, suffered in his final moments, lamenting “I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames” (Shelly 259).  Thus, Victor was reprieved, and the so-called ‘limited liability partnership’ between the scientist and his Creature was forever terminated.


Shelly, M. (2009). Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Dover: Dover Publications.


Jessica Craig said...

I think your essay is very strong; you bring attention to an interesting contradiction in the novel and do a good job of providing your application of this contradiction to the larger world (a scientist’s liability for its creations and the scientist’s intentions). I think your argument would be strengthened by a more cohesive structure, perhaps presenting the evidence from the book and then explaining its wider applications. I found I had to return to paragraph two after I read paragraphs three and four. Finally, while I realize these are short essays, I think further elaboration on both the scientist’s liability and further textual evidence of the contradiction would provide an outlet to flesh out your argument as it is one of the major themes of the novel.

Adam said...

The argument is fun - it's rare to see people take Victor's side - so I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out. Your focus on utility, in particular, is interesting - I hope you follow through with it.

"It can be conjectured that the moral significance of a technology, and therefore the liability assumed through its implementation, is a function of the user and not of the creator." - Avoid the passive construction - "it can be conjectured." If this is your argument, take clear ownership of it! Heidegger, of course, has a different point of view - if you revise, it would be interesting to see you address it (I find Heidegger's take interesting in part because a utilitarian take on technology, along the lines of what you offer, is so widely assumed that opposition to it is inherently interesting).

I do like the notion that the monster both *is* technology and is the *user* of that technology. The idea is good, but you have a lot more work to do with it to really make it compelling. For instance, both the monster (strongly) and Victor (much more weakly) have things to say about Victor's obligations as a parent. In other words, simply because the monster has (or develops) free will, does that mean by definition that Victor has no responsibilities to him? In fact, the notion that we do, in fact, have responsibilities to each other is foundational to any kind of structured society.

The last couple paragraphs do some interesting work by drawing boundaries around Victor's sins (he is not malicious), and making a case for his redemption. But while your approach is quite interesting, it also ignores the elephant in the room: do you really feel comfortable arguing that Victor was, in no sense, responsible as a parent or God to the monster? Because Victor and the monster are both acutely aware of those responsibilities, you really *needed* to address that enormous problem in some way. If you revise, the premise is good, but you can't just ignore the huge, glaring problems with it that need to be addressed.