Saturday, February 15, 2014

Frankenstein Casting Himself as a Tragic Hero

The purpose of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is often described as being a cautionary tale. However, a close reading of Victor Frankenstein's messages show that he is most concerned with the legacy that he will leave after his death. Throughout the novel, Victor shows himself to be egotistical and at times obsessively concerned with his public appearance. Victor, through his narration to Walton, wants to be remembered as a tragic figure in the Aristotelian sense. In Poetics, Aristotle describes the core of "tragedy" as perpitia, or a reversal of fortunes (87). Frankenstein's selfish desire to be immortalized shapes the narrative that Walton records into a tale of Victor Frankenstein, the tragic hero.
It is clear the Frankenstein's concern throughout the novel is to bring himself fame. Even before Frankenstein creates his creature he is focused on his legacy, passionately pursuing because "what glory would attend the discovery" of a cure to all disease (Shelley 32). He even cites the praise he would receive for being the creator of an entire race as a reason to make the creature, hoping "a new species would bless me as its creator and source" (Shelley 49). Beyond his simple appreciation of recognition, Victor is so protective of his social appearance that he is incapable of admitting the creation of his monster, even when doing so sentences Justine to death. He defends this choice because his tale "was not one to announce publicly; its astonishing horror would be looked upon as madness" (Shelley 81). Frankenstein's obsession with how he will be remembered motivates him on his deathbed to create a legacy through Walton.
Frankenstein's choice of Walton as his biographer seems to be a deliberate one. When Victor meets Walton, he is acutely aware of his own mortality, and would know that if he is going to be remembered by anyone Walton may be his last chance of leaving his legacy. Although Walton seems like a biographer of convenience, Victor clearly knows that through Walton, he will be able to achieve his goal of appearing tragic. Victor sympathizes with Walton and provides him with the camaraderie that Walton is looking for (Shelley 16). Additionally, Victor makes an effort to impress Walton with his intellect during their discussions, which he does so well that Walton describes him "He is so gentle, yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated; and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence". By making himself a sympathetic, admirable figure in Walton's life, Frankenstein is hoping that Walton will reciprocate the sympathy by preserving his legacy as he wishes.
Walton appears to be a malleable biographer for Frankenstein, a trait that Frankenstein uses to subtly shape Walton's perceptions of his tale. Frankenstein applies didactic rhetoric in many of his asides to Walton. After narrating his frenetic process of creating the creature, Frankenstein explains to Walton that looking back on this time in his life, he now believes "a human being in perfection ought always preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb this tranquility" (Shelley 51). In this passage, Frankenstein uses didactic phrasing like "ought" and "never" (Shelley 51). This rhetorical choice is Victor's attempt to teach a lesson to his audience, speaking as one who has more knowledge from experience. By taking this position, he is subtly reinforcing Walton's perception of him as a wise person, lending more credence to the rest of his statements. This interjection is one of many moralizing statements that Frankenstein makes to Walton throughout his narration in an attempt to moderate the portrayal of his character.
When Victor breaks from the narration of his story to make an aside to Walton, he takes a moment to make sure that the event in the story he just told is being interpreted as he desires. When recollecting his creation of the monster, Victor editorializes "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquisition of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow." (Shelley 48). This instance shows Victor manipulating Walton's perceptions of his message. Beyond subtle verbal corrections to Walton's recording, Victor goes so far as to edit Walton's written record, because he says "I would not that a mutilated [narration] should go down to posterity" (Shelley 243). Victor's need to control the narrative that Walton records is indicative of his narcissism and his deep desire to be immortalized as a legend.
Frankenstein goes to great efforts to shape his own history, and he does so with a very specific goal in mind. Frankenstein, at the time of his narration to Walton, has chosen to cast himself as the tragic hero. This role was not Frankenstein's first choice however, it is simply the result of his failure to attain fame as a powerful god through the creation of an entire race. This inability for a tragic hero to achieve godhood is clearly paralleled in the Satan of Paradise Lost, which Frankenstein explicitly references when describing himself "like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in eternal hell" (Shelley 244). This comparison shows that Frankenstein perceives his own fall to be as great as that of Satan's, exhibiting Frankenstein's egotism as well as his identification with classically tragic figures.
As Victor recites his story, he often emphasizes to Walton how tragic his condition is. Victor draws attention to his passion and skill concerning the natural sciences to illustrate how great he was in his prime, and he juxtaposes these moments with asides about his misery or how he now regrets those feelings. He first describes his own "imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense" (Shelley 244), but then admits to his current state as unrecognizably despondent and fallen compared to his former glory (Shelley 245). Ruminations such as these are some of the clearest examples of Frankenstein attempting to emphasize his nature as a fallen genius.
After Frankenstein narrating his extensive and painful failure to Walton, it can be reasonably assumed that Victor has learned restraint in the sciences, but this is not the case. When Walton describes the dire condition of the ship. They are stuck in the ice with unrest growing among the crew. The crew demands that Walton promise to return southward if they are lucky enough to be unfrozen, giving up their goal of reaching the North Pole. When Frankenstein hears this, he makes an impassioned speech to the crew urging them to seize the glory of their voyage and continue, no matter the risk. He reminds them that they signed up for a journey that would bring them glory because "it was full of dangers and terror; because at every new incident [their] fortitude was to be called forth and [their] courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded it, and these [they] were to brave and overcome" (Shelley 248). Victor is encouraging these sailors to consume themselves in their voyage using impassioned rhetoric, calling upon their honor and families to drive them to action (Shelley 248). This shows that for all of his moralizing, Victor does not actually feel that his tale is a cautionary one. Instead, he is only focused on it as a vehicle for his own legacy.
By controlling his own narrative, Frankenstein selfishly shapes Walton's perceptions of him, casting himself in Walton's recordings as the brilliant but doomed tragic hero.

Works Cited
Aristotle, George Whalley, John Baxter, and Patrick Atherton. Aristotle's Poetics. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1997. Ebrary. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.

1 comment:

Adam said...

The distinction between Frankenstein *being* a tragic hero and wanting to *seem* like one is extremely interesting. I hope that you persist in being clear with that distinction. Your thesis statement is good & memorable: "Frankenstein's selfish desire to be immortalized shapes the narrative that Walton records into a tale of Victor Frankenstein, the tragic hero."

One curiosity here is that Frankenstein's desire for a legacy exists in contrast with his refusal to admit *anything* that he has done - and we should note that tragic heroes typically do terrible things at some point or another. So does his silence about his deeds until the end go along with your argument?

Your discussion of Victor's tone with Walton is good, but it raises questions for me. Has Victor's desire to be portrayed as a tragic hero risen recently, maybe even in response to Walton, or has it always been there? That's a complex question but an interesting one, and ultimately important to your argument. In other words, is Walton the vessel of a preexisting desire, or does his desire for this particular type of fame arise in response to Walton?

Your discussion of Victor's portrayal of himself as a tragic genius is good, but to be fully convincing it would really need to be integrated with a discussion of how Paradise Lost works through the novel.

Overall: The idea that Victor wants to portray himself as a tragic hero is good, but I really wanted some sort of attention to how this question impacts the novel as a whole. Myself, I'd probably want to think through the question of whether he *is* a tragic hero together with his attempt to *portray* himself as one - as a way of getting at the gap between appearance or rhetoric and reality. Similarly, I'm very curious about why you think he doesn't begin to market himself as a tragic hero earlier - this is a substantial problem for what is fundamentally an interesting approach. And if this is fundamentally an argument (as I suspect it is) that Victor falsely markets himself as a tragic hero, I'd really like to understand where this then takes you - how does that impact our reading of the rest of the novel?

Note: an introductory citation to Aristotle's poetics is fine - but counting it as academic research is a big stretch.