Contradictions abound in Frankenstein

“That is also my victim!…in his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable series of my being is wound to its close! Oh, Frankenstein! Generous and self-devoted being! What does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me?” (emphasis mine, p. 240)

I think this line encapsulates much of the contradictory emotions propelling the novel. First, it acknowledges the competing motives driving Frankenstein’s actions. And second, it shows that Frankenstein’s demon is also conflicted by feelings that are at odds with each other. He is grief stricken at the sight of his dead creator, after all but ensuring it in the most painful way. I’ll briefly expand on these two observations.

Generous and self-devoted? Will the real Frankenstein please stand up?

Yes, it appears that Frankenstein was capable of both generosity and self-devotion. Leading up to the moment of creation, Frankenstein had been consumed by obsession and devoted all his energy into achieving his goal at the expense of all that was dear to him–his beloved family, best friend, appreciation of nature, and health. Clearly he was self-devoted, but he was generous, too. Even the monster thought so. I assume that Frankenstein’s creation felt that his creator was generous by virtue of the fact that he bestowed him with life. However, he shows generosity in other ways, especially through his concern for humanity. Soon after he begins work on Adam’s Eve he abandons the project, even if it meant incurring the demon’s wrath:

“I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race” (p. 190).

He showed this concern earlier in the novel as well, when he withheld the secret to life from Walton: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement 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” (p. 81).

Yet on his deathbed he gives a rousing speech to Walton’s exasperated crew, extolling the virtues of their “glorious expedition”: “You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your name adored, as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind” (p. 236). These were doubtless some of the things he had in mind when he decided to give life what he now admits was a grave mistake.

How do we reconcile these contradictory statements?

I’m not sure, but Victor’s not the only one who can’t seem to make up his mind. The monster, too, is divided by loyalties to competing emotions. He swore bloody revenge on his creator yet, after successfully doing so, asks for repentance. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, except to say that Shelley went to great lengths to complicate the characters and that their internal drama makes a simple reading of this story very difficult.

One Response to “Contradictions abound in Frankenstein”

  1. youngpark wrote::

    To answer my own question, I think Frankenstein is compulsively ambitious/obsessive. I believe Shelley uses this character flaw to basically denounce it. After Frankenstein gives his riveting speech to the crew, Shelley has Walton capitulate to the crew and make the decision to turn back, ensuring their safety (although at the expense of a wounded ego). This may be one of the lessons of the book: curb your overzealous ambition; your pride might take a hit but at least you won’t be consumed and, ultimately, destroyed by it.

    Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 2:44 pm #    Reply