Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus
All the great themes and values of romanticism are present in this moving, astonishing novel, the masterpiece of Mary Shelley, who wrote it by chance in response to a peculiar bet with her husband Percy Bysshee Shelley and Lord Byron. It was only to be a ghost story to liven the nights up there in Switzerland, but Percy encouraged Mary to develop so interesting a plot.
Technically the novel lacks omniscient narrator and displays little dialogue, linking the structure by means of addressed letters and first-hand narrations where extensive monologues mingle with brief, intense verbal interaction. Thus, the book starts right at the end of the facts with an almost-dying Victor Frankenstein saved from the glacial freezing by a vessel in search of discovery and conquest. Then the events reaching this point are described in several letters by the captain to a beloved sister, reproducing Frankenstein’s narration, which is divided into chapters. Some chapters in turn quote monster’s words or other people’s narrative, so that the same actions are sometimes told from different angles depending on the narrator. All this puzzle of narration within narration weaves a coherent web where the story reveals its main aspects and highlights.
The atmosphere of strength, despair, horror and beauty owes much of its veracity to the spirit of romanticism that impregnates every gust of air throughout the novel. Shelley was strongly influenced by the Romantic Movement. Not in vain Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the ancient mariner is referred to twice. The name of William Wordsworth is also mentioned once, which proved how interested the author was in the spirit of the age.
The story in itself is an inverted journey from desperation to initial happiness led to final misfortune. It has also to do with nature, ambition, solitude, suffering, frustration, family, vengeance, violence and guilt. Victor Frankenstein is a young student educated in a wealthy and happy family, with an ambitious desire for knowledge sharpened by the premature death of his blissful mother. From this moment, victory upon death is the only obsession of Frankenstein and, prompted by an excessive eagerness for wisdom, exceeds every legal and moral limit. Feeling predestined to overpass the natural flow of death, Victor embarks himself in the search of restoration of life, defying natural laws and the designs of God. From the very moment he succeeds things start going wrong, and they gradually only change to worse.
The doom of Frankenstein is based on two unique but decisive mistaken actions. The first wrong decision, and the origin of all wretchedness is the creation of the monster and his subsequent “birth”. The second mistake doesn’t happen far in time since occurs just after the awakening of the giant. And the point is that, right after seeing his task accomplished, Victor feels a profound repulsion towards his creature and escapes from him, leaving a potential superhuman alone, with no moral values, no family, no world knowledge, no past and no future at all, just disconcerting present. The scientist fails because his fears and displeasures beat him, and he doesn’t act in line with his principles. He does something wrong first, and doesn’t come to terms with it later.
From this chapter on the narration is full of guilt and some demonstrations of nature broken in its most violent expression, which symbolizes the wrath of God at the daring of man. A parallelism may be established between God, who creates Nature, and Frankenstein, who creates evil. The creation of man acts badly, and so does nature in response during the break of the storm.
The account of the monster constitutes a genuine treaty of acquisition of a language by means of direct observation and no interaction at all. From this learning it also appears education of values, feelings and behaviour, again from the distance, only in theory. This (and his detestable physical look, of course) is the cause of his social failure. The acquisition of knowledge is an unhappy one since the monster discovers the beautiful aspects of life just by omission, longing them in his peeping of the happy neighbour family who share companion, conversation, food and affection. Once the wretch is aware of his situation another romantic theme arouses within his soul: frustration. An utter feeling of incapability to fulfil any pleasant wish apart from primary necessities such as food, rest, shelter. Therefore the creature turns to be the naive lament of a generation of discontent and disappointed intellectuals against progress, cold rationalism and mechanization, in constant search of beauty, passion, fulfilment and other lost higher feelings. It’s not strange that the monster is vegetarian and lives in a rather naturist way.
During his stay at the hovel, his feelings are noble and he behaves with kindness and good will. He provides wood for the family and receives unnoticed instruction in turn. But another dramatic decision, this time on the giant account, spoils everything again. The monster, now capable of deep rationalism and high emotions and full of kindness and good actions, tries to interact with the family, hoping that interior beauty will surpass external appearance. How mistaken! The reaction of the De Lacey family constitutes again a fierce criticism against the superfluous moral of the time and the bitter victory of social conventions upon deeper thinking and feeling.
From this time on the destiny of creator and monster begins to be alike. Deprived of his apparent family, who deject him, the wretch tries to deprive Victor of his own. His frustration leads to hatred, especially over that who created him and then escaped from his abhorrent creation.
The pilgrimage of the giant from Germany to Geneve is full of contradictory feelings. Frustration and compensation are mixed with hatred and vengeance, but all the sensations of the monster are covered with a mantle of despair. He commits another irreversible act - killing William – and makes things worse, although his dark side enjoys producing pain. The monster now takes refuge into the wild and snowy mountains of Switzerland, establishing a peculiar relation with them, especially with the coldness. And physically the monster, so many times described as strong but clumsy through biased horror films, is full of agility and superhuman capabilities. Wild nature constitutes the reign of the gigantic figure sharing all its features: solitude, wilderness, inhospitality, calm but with strokes of unbound violence. The great contrast appears with regard to beauty. Creation of man spoils creation of God when the monster breaks the beauty of the scenery by walking on it. He later on will perverted himself with the unfair use of manlike tools, like fire, the sledge or specially the gun and pistols with which he threatens poor country people.
When the wretched thing finds Victor both share grief and curse. The giant asks the doctor a half-satisfactory wish, to have a female companion who won’t deject him. Up to this point the creature shows resignation as he understands man will never accept him. But the request turns in menace just in case this will not fulfilled. And no matter what Victor makes, he will be forever doomed with a sense of inextinguishable guilt. Both man and creature start to infect each other with his personal sorrow: Victor suffers solitude and the giant undergoes the same culpability.
Three more relevant encounters are produced between creator and creation. The second happens when Frankenstein destroys the limbs of the potential female monster. Although the decision is correct it is too late and the monster curses him and his family. He doesn’t waste time and slaughters Clerval hastily. In the next meeting the wretch accomplishes his revenge murdering Elizabeth on their wedding-night. The last encounter is marked by the sorrow of the monster and the eternal rest of the daring creator.
The parallelism between the two main characters is complete at the end, when both look for the death of his antagonist, although Victor still searches to prevent mankind from that devil. He will fail, but the monster will die in proper time by his own determination without spreading more havoc. The roles of creator and creature are sometimes inverted. Frankenstein gave life to the monster but during the novel it is the wretch who controls life and death like an impassive God. He is omnipresent and appears always in the right moment. He has a supernatural supremacy of time and space. And the doctor becomes the punished son who has committed an abhorrent error. The giant represents both the imperfection and evil of man and the anger of a defied Lord.
Mary Shelley titled her work as Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus because she resumed the myth of the titan that created man and challenged Zeus by stealing the Fire of the Gods as a present for mankind. He was punished and chained to a Caucasus mountain where an eagle ate his liver everyday inflicting him an unbearable agony. Fire represented supreme intelligence and wisdom, that is why Doctor Victor Frankenstein shares with the titan the absolute knowledge to give life. In the Greek tradition Prometheus was liberated by Heracles and in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein it is the wretched giant who frees Victor not from chains, but from painful life.
The myth of Prometheus is also renewed in Prometheus unbound, by Percy Bysshee Shelley, husband of Mary, who obviously highly influenced the creation of this novel of predestination, ambition, wilderness, solitude, guilt, nature and beautiful horror.