Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 22; 15 September 2021

Creature and creator in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

“Did I solicit thee | From darkness to promote me?”

Of course, “Frankenstein” is the name of the scientist, the human being. Funny how we seem to need repeatedly to be reminded of that. Frankenstein’s creature doesn’t have a name so far as we know. Frankenstein doesn’t stop to bestow one on him, but finds “Devil” (79) and “fiend” (80) adequate terms with which to address or describe his creation. The creature apparently doesn’t think to adopt a name for himself. He has very little social interaction, so arguably he doesn’t need one. He might even be better off without. But if he were to have a name, it’s obvious what it would be, isn’t it? What else could it be but “Frankenstein”? It’s usual for offspring to be given the surname of their progenitor.

(Page references are to an edition published by MIT press, 2017.)

But, you may object, Victor Frankenstein was not the creature’s father in any meaningful sense. The latter was not begotten, but made. Is that a significant difference? Not to the creature, I’d suggest. There is nobody else apart from Victor Frankenstein that he can look to as the being who gave him life, the cause of his existence. At one point, he even describes him as “my father” (114). Because of this, I’m going to use “Frankenstein” on its own to designate the creature. I’ll refer to his creator as “Victor Frankenstein”.

What Frankenstein believes he is owed by his creator is what any child deserves from his or her parents: love, protection, shelter, education, food. Time and opportunity to find his or her bearings in a confusing world. Frankenstein is left to fend for himself, by a “father” who tries to forget his existence.

Throughout the story, Victor Frankenstein is tormented by feelings of guilt. Again and again, he asserts his own responsibility for the murders of Henry Clerval, his young brother William and his bride Elizabeth, as well as the execution of Justine, wrongly blamed for William’s death. But he doesn’t have a clear, accurate idea of what it is he’s done wrong. Shortly before his death, he sums up his life for Walton, whom he tells that he is no longer driven by a desire for revenge for the murders of Elizabeth and the others. Rather, he feels a responsibility to destroy the life he created, to prevent if from causing even more destruction.

During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature. (181)

He passes over his initial repulsion from the creature, and the fact that, because of that repulsion, he did precisely nothing “to assure … his happiness and well-being”. Nor does he mention the fact that his eventual refusal to create a companion was a breach of his undertaking to his creature. In short, while Victor Frankenstein feels a sense of obligation to his fellow-humans, to destroy the threat posed by his creation, he recognizes no duty to that creation itself, whether to keep his promises or to meet its needs. Victor Frankenstein seems to assume (perhaps without thinking about it very much) that a creator’s obligations towards his/her creation are of a lesser order than those towards the members of our own species.

This reflects seventeenth-century (and earlier) arguments among religious thinkers as to whether God was bound by promises he might make to humankind. The commonly accepted answer was “No”: it was not possible for us to have rights enforceable against God. In practice, this oughtn’t to matter very much because God was benevolent, merciful and all-powerful, not to mention omniscient. It was unthinkable, therefore, that circumstances could arise in which God might find it necessary or expedient to break his promises. We don’t actually need rights against God, the question is moot. It’s just another of those pointless, theoretical debates that philosophers and theologians enjoy so much. But …

How do we actually know that God really is all those omni-things, as well as being benevolent and merciful? In an essay on William Empson’s poetry, I cited a passage from Faustus and the Censor (1987) in which Empson suggests that “mortal” and “immortal” are relative terms, depending on the point of view of the speaker, and that “immortality has its limits” (Faustus and the Censor, 99). There may not be any true immortals, just beings who are very long-lived. In the same way, there’s good reason to apply the term “omnipotent” to something that is enormously more powerful and capable than you are, even while you suspect that there must be some theoretical, unimaginable limit to its powers.

Thomas Hobbes suggested that, if you’re at the mercy of and dependent on a deity that has in effect absolute power over you, it’s prudent to praise and venerate, indeed worship, that deity, especially if you know very little about its nature. Words like “omniscient” and “merciful” are perfect for this purpose. You don’t actually have to believe them.

In Victor Frankenstein, we have a creator who is conspicuously not omniscient, or omnipotent, or benevolent towards his creation. Rather, he is negligent, changeable, at the mercy of his passions, guilt-ridden and deluded. So much the worse for his creature, who lives a tormented and ultimately pointless existence. Frankenstein does not long survive his creator. Immediately after Victor’s death, and before going to set a funeral pyre for himself, Frankenstein addresses Walton:

Fear not that I shall be the instrument of future mischief. My work is nearly complete. Neither your’s nor any man’s death is needed to consummate the series of my being, and accomplish that which must be done; but it requires my own. (184)

His murderous actions have been motivated entirely by his need for revenge against Victor Frankenstein and have come to an end with that man’s death. So, Victor was wrong in believing that he had failed in his quest to bring the creature’s destructive rampage to an end. He achieved his aim with his own death and presumably could have done so earlier.

Left to his own devices, Frankenstein educated himself using three books which he had found, including Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s from this epic poem that Mary Shelley took her novel’s epigraph (part of which I’ve used as the subtitle for this issue). In it, Adam reproaches God for having brought him into existence, though God could easily have managed without humankind, and (given his omniscience) must surely have foreseen that his creation would inevitably result in sin and torment.

At this point, Adam’s judgment and perception have been clouded by sin, so Milton’s readers would understand that it was wrong of Adam to reproach God, to criticize his creator. But (no doubt as a reminder that our own perception and judgment are equally clouded by sin) Milton has given his human protagonist an argument that, purely on its merits, isn’t easy to dismiss.

We know that Adam’s reproach is wicked and sinful, because we know that God is good and just and cares for us. But this knowledge depends on things we can’t see for ourselves, things we accept (if at all) only because they have been revealed. Looked at in independently of what we know through revelation, Adam’s point is a good one. Isn’t it possible that the creation of humankind was a careless, irresponsible act, one taken without regard to the consequences, or the feelings of the created?

Would Adam have been better off if he had not been promoted from darkness? The question is impossible to answer — he wouldn’t have existed, so he could have been neither better nor worse off. What is clear, at least, is that he wouldn’t have been in a position to regret his nonbeing.

Frankenstein is a novel that countenances, at least by implication, the possibility that human beings are not the creation of an all-powerful, all-knowing, providential, just and caring supreme being. That’s not necessarily to imply that we were created by some being like Victor Frankenstein, whom I’ve described above as negligent, changeable and deluded. It’s surely at least as likely that the reason our creator isn’t omnipotent and impeccably virtuous is simply that he or it doesn’t exist.

Frankenstein sometimes likens himself to Adam in Paradise Lost and sometimes to Satan:

Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. (80)

There is one important respect in which he distinguishes himself from the fallen angel. He tells Walton “I seek not a fellow-feeling in my misery”. In that respect, he is nobler than the personage who has seemed to many the romantic hero of Milton’s epic.

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Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 15-Sep-2021.