In every book we read, there are multiple points that a reader is looking for. The standard list is; who is the protagonist, who is the antagonist, what is the overall theme, and sometimes the question of ‘what is the motive’ comes into consideration. In many cases there is an underlying motivation for a character or characters, an over arcing objective. However, there are not always such grand expectations and hopes had by the protagonist. In Mary Shelley’s horror gothic, Frankenstein, the reader is exposed to a unique protagonist. Victor Frankenstein is not like the heroic characters we have grown to love; Victor’s only motivation is himself. This type of motive can be classified as psychological egoism. Due to Victor’s desire to only protect himself, he inevitably caused four deaths that can directly be contributed to his selfish nature. With the help of Herbert Marcuse, C.D. Broad, and psychological studies on egoism, the egotistic protagonist Victor can be analyzed to assess the selfish decisions he makes in Frankenstein.
Before completely analyzing the character of Victor Frankenstein, it is important to get a true sense of what psychological egoism is. The psychological field has a wide array of definitions, synonyms and theories to describe and classify the different types of egoism. Psychologist W.D. Glasgow delves deep into the different types and varieties of egoism in his article to American Philosophical Quarterly. Glasgow defines psychological egoism as a “doctrine of motivation, to the effect that human beings are so constituted that each seeks, and can only seek, how own welfare” (Glasgow 75). With this general definition of the term, we can appropriately apply it to Victor.
In Hubert Marcuse’s first chapter of his revolutionary novel, One-Dimensional Man, he discusses a series of topics that directly relate to the egoism seen by Victor Frankenstein. Marcuse takes on the controversial topic of what ‘true needs’ and ‘false needs’ are. He defines needs as something that “depends on whether or not it can be seen as desirable and necessary for the prevailing societal institutions and interests” (Marcuse 4). True needs are described as things that are vital to our lives, something we require in order to stay alive. On the contrary, false needs have a wider observation; Marcuse directs his definition of false needs as essentially anything that is not directly required to survive or satisfy societal needs. He considers “needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate” to be considered false needs (Marcuse 5). From these definitions provided by Marcuse, we can evaluate Victor’s decisions. Victor’s biggest display of his egoism can be seen in his dismissal of the Monster as soon as it comes to life. Victor spent nearly two years on this creature, something that Marcuse would consider to be a ‘false need’, and as soon as the Monster comes to fruition, Victor is immediately let down. Following Victor’s selfish decision to abandon his creation, his egotistic reign continues through the death of his loved ones. The Monster’s path of death begins with Victor’s youngest brother, William. After Victor abandoned his hideous creature, the Monster felt pain and despair. Due to Victor’s self-centered way of thinking, he brought demise to his family. From William’s death also came Justine’s death, potentially the most tragic of all the deaths in the story. Among all the characters in Mary Shelley’s novel, besides the young William, Justine may have been the most innocent to die. She wasn’t technically related to the Frankenstein family, but was convicted for the murder of William. It was in Justine’s last moment where we see the painful egoism of Victor. As Justine exclaimed her innocence to Victor and Elizabeth, Victor selfishly “retired to the corner” where he did nothing but think about the Monster was his creation. His initial response can be perceived as guilt, but with further reading, it’ is obvious that his only concern with her death is how it is directly impacting his life. This directly reflects Glasgow’s definition of a principle egoist; one who thinks of what he ought to do for his own personal welfare (Glasgow). The deaths of William and Justine are just the tip of the iceberg that plagued the life of Victor Frankenstein as caused by his poor navigation of life.
From what can be perceived through the story, Elizabeth is Victor’s true love. Throughout the story, Elizabeth waits for Victor’s attention and love. She waits patiently on the side while he goes off to school and even when he is creating his masterpiece, the Monster. It is not until after the Monster has begun its rampage that Victor shows Elizabeth the attention she deserved. The moments are very brief when Victor is not solely concerned about himself; the night of their honeymoon, Victor leaves Elizabeth to search for the Monster. Instead of spending the first night of being a newlywed with his bride, Victor’s suspicion and ego take him away from his wife as he goes to hunt for his abandoned creation. Instead of showing care and protection over Elizabeth, Victor separates himself leaving her stranded. This separation can be seen as his little care for Elizabeth. She waited for him her entire life; while he just married her out of what seems to be boredom. The death of Elizabeth, like the death of Justine doesn’t seem to impact Victor on a deep level like normal familial deaths, but more of a strike against his ego and his abilities. Even after facing death on four accounts, Victor still finds his own personal welfare to be of the utmost importance.
In comparison, moral philosopher C.D. Broad brings an alternate meaning and light to the meaning of psychological egoism. In his 1950’s submission to The Hibbert Journal, Broad looks at multiple different ways at which egoism can be observed. One of his points seems to almost be made specifically towards Victor Frankenstein. Broad describes one point of egoism as “a special desire for the continued existence of himself in his present bodily life, and a special dread of his own death” (Broad). This directly correlates to Frankenstein’s entire reason behind creating his monster. Frankenstein was so egotistical that he saw himself as God; creating a new race, a new kind, creating a life. He thought so highly of himself, the ability to bring life into this world without the period of pregnancy, without requiring two consenting parties. Frankenstein’s reason behind creating the monster was not to better mankind but to satisfy is selfish needs of becoming a God, something he was far from being. Continuing his case of egoism, Frankenstein’s abandonment of his creation further supports the case against him. When he realized that his creation is not of beauty but of ghastly appearance his ego was shattered and he fled from his two-year long project. Broad describes this type of embodiment as “desire for self-preservation” (Broad).
Another aspect of Frankenstein’s egoism is his attempt at expanding the technological world he lives in. Marcuse discusses technological advancements in the sense that it “reveals its political character as it becomes the great vehicle of better domination” (Marcuse 18). Not only is Frankenstein using his creation as playing the role of a God, but he is attempting to dominate the technological field and show off his great skills. With Marcuse in mind, can Frankenstein’s technological advancement be considered a “true need”? With the carnage and pure destruction that was a direct result of his creation, the short answer is no. Frankenstein got greedy and over excited with his intelligence and power. Frankenstein’s creation is a direct correlation with Marcuse’s opinion stating that his technological advancement was not used to better anything, but merely suppress.
Had Victor Frankenstein gotten over the unsettling physicality of his creation, the uses and benefits of his work could have been endless. But like many other disaster stories, one man’s greed ruined the field for potential success.
The parallels between Marcuse and Victor Frankenstein’s life and creation seem endless. In the sixth chapter of his novel, Marcuse discusses the fact that scientists often go without questioning because the things that they are doing are often confusing and most people would not understand exactly what said scientist is doing/talking about. This is present with Frankenstein’s whole reason for not claiming ownership over the monster. After the Monster took a life, Frankenstein was unable to claim ownership of the creature because it would directly blame him. In the setting of the story, who would believe that a scientist had the power to create life? In Marcuse’s final chapter, he praises the creativity of the mind. In some sense, ignoring the extreme egoism that Frankenstein exudes, Marcuse can be seen as praising the innovative aspect of the ‘mad’ scientist for this self-confident creation.
After analyzing the life of Victor Frankenstein as written by Shelley, it can be seen that the only sole desire in Frankenstein’s life is his welfare. Death after death, Frankenstein only relied on himself and ensured his own safety. After the death of his brother, William, Victor knew that the Monster was going to try and make his life a living hell. Killing off Victor would have been too easy for the Monster. Had Victor taken a step back from his egotistic perspective on life and looked at the grand scheme of the Monster, he could have better protected his loved ones.
With great understanding of Shelley’s epic novel, Victor Frankenstein’s egoism is blatant and at sometimes screaming at the reader. With a further examination of the motives had by Victor, would anyone else act or do things differently had they been in his place? Ignoring the fantasy aspect of this story, the creation of a life form, Victor has a very uncommon, wild life. The view of psychological egoism is often speculated and sometimes battled.
According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the definition of egoism is “a doctrine that individual self-interest is the actual motive of all conscious action”. With this black and white definition and the vast evidence previously presented, it is painfully evident that Victor Frankenstein is indeed an example of psychological egoism. With his lack of concern for others and growing concern for himself, Victor almost becomes a poster child for the definition of egoism. Starting with abandoning his creation followed by causing multiple deaths and ending with his own death, Victor Frankenstein’s only desire is to save himself and his name.
Broad, C.D. "Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives.”. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2014.
"Egoism." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
Glasgow, W. D. "Psychological Egoism." JSTOR. University of Illinois Press, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
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