Category Archives: Frankenstein

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.

Why is Frankenstein SF?

In class, Professor Sample suggested that science fiction (SF) is often about voyages, both literal and metaphorical. It’s easy to see why this might be the case: if humans possess a primal urge to venture into the unknown, science—and its handmaiden, technology—has been, and is still, essential to fueling that drive. However, the voyage narrative is not exclusive to SF. So if it isn’t just the voyage in Frankenstein that makes it SF, what does? It can’t really be Mary Shelley’s rigorous application of scientific principles to advance her story because she doesn’t. As the editors point out, James Rieger once remarked that “[T]he technological plausibility that is essential to science fiction is not even pretended here” (p. 17). I was especially surprised at how little time Shelley spent on the process of creating the monster. So why do scholars point to this novel as one of the earliest examples of a SF novel?

I think it has to do with one of the central themes in the book, namely, the dangers of unbridled ambition. I haven’t read the whole book yet, but I wonder if Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of scientific progress—a theme that has resurfaced in many SF classics since (esp. dystopian ones). I wish I had more to substantiate that thought, but as I’m only half way through the book, I can’t be sure. What do you think? Why is this novel considered SF?