Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus contains many conventions found in Science Fiction and Horror. Much of the text questions the power and limits of science, the figure of the solitary genius, and the terror of inevitable destruction and isolation. The creation of Victor Frankenstein’s monster in particular has become an incredibly iconic and influential scenario in these genres. Many even conflate the two characters, calling the creation “Frankenstein”, even though he has no formal name in the novel. This misnaming demonstrates how Victor and his monster share such a strong bond, both in the novel and in popular memory, that they might be considered a sort of unnatural family. The two characters, however, despise and actively harm each other. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creates an atmosphere of horror and motivates the violent behavior of the creation through the dissolution of family ties.
Victor Frankenstein’s intellectual pursuits drive him away from his biological family and further into a self-imposed isolation. His studies take him out of his homeland of Geneva, Switzerland to Ingolstadt, Bavaria, creating a great geographic divide between him and his family for his time period. Once he arrives, he throws himself into his studies. He spends his days almost in complete solitude, refusing friendship or “the company of strangers” (Frankenstein, 34). After Victor decides on pursuing his project to essentially create life, he becomes obsessed by the idea and his research. “Animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm,” his devotion to studies intensifies and, as a result, his separation from his peers and professors only deepens (38). He becomes so utterly consumed by his work that he not only loses touch with other people but also with time. Whole “summer months” pass by almost without Victor’s notice as he forgets himself, his friends, and family in the haze of research (41). Victor’s solitude becomes so extreme both in scope and in duration that others begin to take notice and worry. At one point, Victor’s father even sends some correspondences to his son, apologizing for the interruptions to his studies and more importantly asking to “hear more regularly from [Victor]” (41). It is in this secluded state that Victor finally manages to reach his goal and form his infamous creation.
In fulfilling his ambition, Victor essentially takes on the role of a mother and, in a way, gives birth to the creature. The passages detailing the conception of Victor’s monster is riddled with language often devoted to pregnancy. Even his original pursuit of the knowledge of creation is full of sexually charged phrases. Victor listens to a lecture about how philosophers like himself, “penetrate into the recess of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places” (36). The very act of research transforms into one of sexual dominance. This speech invigorates and inspires Victor, who soon after applies himself fully to his project. The long months of seclusion and research that follows afterwards acts as a gestation period, wherein he patiently cultivates and waits for the fruits of his labors. Caught up in his obsession, Victor deprives himself of adequate rest and nutrition. The creation takes a physical toll on him, so much so that when other characters finally see Victor again, they remark on how “ill…thin and pale” he appears (45). Much like an actual baby might from a mother, the creation of the monster has used up a lot of Victor’s vitality and health, especially after its birth. These costs of the metaphorical pregnancy are only made more apparent and even compounded into a kind of horror by Victor’s male gender. This switch in gender roles, putting a male in the position of mother and child-bearer, emphasizes the unnatural circumstances surrounding the creation of the monster. Victor’s “midnight labors” finally result in the monster’s birth late at night (40). Afterwards, he almost immediately recognizes the horrific implications of his actions and flees from his progeny.
The abnormality of the monster’s existence and his circumstances only deepen when Victor, as a pseudo-mother, rejects the creation, or his child. Despite Victor’s initial fascination with his research and the idea of reanimating flesh, the physical reality horrifies and disgusts him. Almost immediately after the creation scene, Victor abandons the new life. He realizes that he, “had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (42). Victor, as a mother figure, cannot connect with his child and fails to care for his new family. Even when he approaches some sense of compassion after hearing about the creation’s struggles, Victor still feels “his heart sicken” and turns to “horror and hatred” after looking at his monster-child (108). The disgust may come in part from the physical deformities. However, the monster also “is repellent because he is the nightmare image of perverse relationship, of relationship that comes into being as a function of solitary, illegitimate self-assertion” (Hall, 180). Regardless of whether this extreme repulsion stems from the appearance of the monster or from what it represents, Victor completely deserts him and denies any sort of responsibility for him. This lack of affection in turn drives the creation to desperation and increasingly poor choices in pursuit of the family he was denied from birth.
The monster’s desire for familial affection somewhat echo those of the eponymous Mathilda in Mary Shelley’s Mathilda. Even though Mathilda was born naturally by two parents, her mother dies due to the birth and her father leaves soon after. Already abandoned by her biological parents, Mathilda is placed in the care of her Aunt who, like Victor, has an almost nonexistent relationship with her foster child. The Aunt remains a very distant figure in Mathilda’s life. She, according to Mathilda, has “the coldest [heart] that ever filled a human breast: it was totally incapable of any affection” and that “she took me under her protection because she considered it her duty” (Mathilda, 182). The detachment between the two, the inability for them to form any real bond, causes Mathilda to become attention-starved. She cannot even befriend anyone outside of her small family circle as her aunt forcefully imposes further isolation. She bars Mathilda from any “intercourse between [her] and the peasantry” for fear of acquiring a Scottish accent (183). The extreme loneliness and desire for any human contact causes Mathilda to form unnaturally strong attachments with non-human objects and beings. She grows to have a strong passion for inanimate objects, bears “an individual attachment to every tree,” and loves every animal she came across (183). Similarly, Victor’s creation also finds joy only in nature when family leaves him. He fixes his “eyes on [the moon] with pleasure,” delights in the “sweet and enticing” notes of the birds, and calls the “happy earth … fit habitation for gods” (Frankenstein, 77, 85). Unfortunately, this desperation for both the creation and Mathilda to form bonds with anyone or anything in part causes the tragic horrors of their tales.
Mary Shelly litters the novel Frankenstein with orphans and disrupted families, which the creation tries to identify with and join. The monster, like many other characters in the novel, is an orphan of sorts, cast out from his pseudo-family. Likewise, Victor’s mother, Elizabeth Lavenza, Justine Moritz, and the De Lacey children are all orphaned or come from broken or abusive families (Hall, 181). The creation seeks out such characters, perhaps finding some common ground in their shared pain. Both of the De Lacey children, after all, have no mother, while Safie both lost her mother and suffered from her father’s plots. The creation, likewise, only has one parent, who fears and rejects him. Once he hears of the history of the De Laceys and their continued goodness, he remarks that, “It impressed [him] deeply” (94). He becomes fascinated with their lives, both learning from, identifying with, and idolizing them. The monster longs for friends and relations and laments how, “no father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses” (Frankenstein, 90). His attempts, however, to form these sorts of relationships continually end in disaster.
The monster’s desire for family bonds only intensifies with each rejection and leads to increasingly violent behavior as he continues to intrude upon families and other preexisting networks of relationships. Almost everyone forsakes or abandons him on sight. When he enters a civilization for the first time, for example, “the whole village was roused” either to attack him or flee from him (79).Unable to find acceptance from a large group of people, he tries at a more individual level. He seeks out a child that is supposedly, “unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity” (105). Even a young child like William, however, utters a shriek when he views the creation and heaps verbal abuse on him. The monster reacts much differently to William’s rejection than the previous. Instead of simply leaving as he did with the village, the monster suffocates William out of anger and fear. This violent turn of behavior can be traced back to the creature’s confrontation with the De Laceys. The creation finally chances revealing himself to the father precisely because of his blindness, which he believes will allow the old man to accept him without seeing his horrific visage. When the others enter and Felix attacks him, the monster turns to vicious thoughts of retribution: “I could have torn him limb from limb, as the lion rends the antelope” (100). This escalation of violence from the creation mirrors his increasing hopelessness in finding acceptance or family naturally.
Victor’s creation, as a last resort, forces a terrifying and unnatural relationship on Victor after his desperate attempts to forge bonds with almost anyone utterly fails him. After being rejected by everyone else he encountered, the monster returns to his creator to demand some recompense for the suffering of his existence. He believes that, if no one else, a female creation “of the same nature” as himself will accept him (108). A female companion could be the answer to his problems and would allow him to form a family, even if it is just the two of them. The plea works to an extent, as Victor, “for the first time,” feels the need to fulfill “the duties of a creator towards his creature” (75). Unfortunately, the pity only extends as far as to listen to the creation’s plight and desire for a female companion of equal stature and appearance. Victor, out of fear, refuses to create a female version of the monster, and as a result, makes the creation feel as if he has no other choice. He exclaims, “Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension.... You are my creator, but I am your master; —obey!” (124). The monster completely flips the dynamics between the two of them and tries to gain some modicum of control. He forces a relationship based on power, “the perverse alternative to harmonious parent-child relations” (Hall, 183). This perversion of a parent-child relationship likewise befalls Mathilda. She too, out of desperation, becomes overly attached to her father. At one point, she passionately declares, “I will win him to me; he shall not deny his grief to me and when I know his secret then will I pour a balm into his soul and again I shall enjoy the ravishing delight of beholding his smile” (Mathilda, 197). Unlike the monster, however, Mathilda’s relationship with her father is reciprocal, even if the romantic and platonic affections are one-sided. She experiences no hatred from her father the way the creation endures. These distinctions allow Mathilda to withdraw inwards once disillusioned with her father, rather than turn to vengeance.
The creation greedily guards his only existing relationship by murdering all of Victor’s other relations and completely isolating him. Love has failed, so the creature turns to hatred and vengeance as a tool for forming some sort of bond, even if corrupted. To an extent, the strategy works. While fleeing all his loved ones, Victor’s thoughts only momentarily turn to them before focusing on his creation. His mind becomes consumed by the monster, similar to his earlier obsession to researching its creation. He vows vengeance, “Again do I devote thee, miserable fiend, to torture and death. Never will I omit my search, until he or I perish; and then with what ecstasy shall I join my Elizabeth” (Frankenstein, 151). Not only does Victor pursue his creation, but he devotes himself to him in a way that he had not previously. Only death may part Victor from his new goal. In a way, the monster finally obtains his one wish through the open hostility and reciprocated vengeance. The creation finally gains an equal relationship with his parent-creator, Victor.
The horrific and violent themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein result from the breaking of family ties. Victor purposely isolates himself from his family in his mad quest to reanimate life. During the process, he metaphorically gestates and births his creation, who he almost immediately rejects. The abandonment causes the creation to seek companionship elsewhere, but he finds himself unable form bonds with anyone he comes across. Even his final plea for an equivalent female monster to have as a family is denied. Hopeless and alone, the monster turns to vengeance as a solution. By killing Victor’s loved ones and isolating him, the monster finally gains a corrupt relationship with his father-creator.
Hall, Jean. "Frankenstein: The Horrifying Otherness Of Family." Essays In Literature 17.2 (1990): 179-189. Humanities International Complete. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Betty T. Bennett, and Charles E. Robinson. The Mary Shelley Reader: Containing Frankenstein, Mathilda, Tales and Stories, Essays and Reviews, and Letters. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.
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