The first three parts of this should have been read before perusing this final section (part 4 of 4 parts). Go down the blog page to find older posts.
Although directed through the natural world, Victor’s drive for immortality and the creation for a new life is a wholly unnatural act of egotistical power (Levine 8). It is Frankenstein and not God who takes on the mantel of Creator to eliminate the “ideal bounds” of life and death and to “pour a torrent of light into our dark world”. He is to be the father of this new race that will worship him with blessings and praise, but his dreams are rapidly overthrown into a horrible and bitter nightmarish hell (61-2, 68). Like a “never-dying worm” crawling through the despairing core of his heart there is “a hell within me, which nothing could extinguish” and “no language can describe” (111, 113). According to Sherwin, “Condemned by nature’s gods to limitless suffering, the aspiring hero learns his properly limited human place” (883). Without God, Frankenstein’s rebellion is against nature, but, like God, nature’s lawgiver is an obstinate judge.
In his search to redeem humanity, Frankenstein has brought doom upon himself and those that he loves. For Joyce Carol Oates in “Frankenstein’s Fallen Angel”, he becomes “a demonic parody (or extension) of Milton’s God; he ‘is’ Prometheus plasticator, the creator of mankind; but at the same time, by his own account, he is totally unable to control the behavior of his demon” (545). He becomes like his creation or even Job’s Satan as “Sleep fled from my eyes; I wandered like an evil spirit, for I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible” (113). For Sherwin, he is “By now wholly the Creature’s creature, he must be considered a florid psychotic, pursuing the naked form of his desire in a fantastic nowhere that is his own” and taking “a detour through reality” falls a second time “into the center of the earth” for “a shamanistic descent into chaos, a place of filthy creation” (886, 895). Loosed from the grave, the Creature is “a release of the force of repression over violent and irrational energies that belong to Victor as they do all of mankind in this novel” (Cottom 63-4). Frankenstein is God, Frankenstein is the Creature, Frankenstein is Satan, and Frankenstein is Humanity. He is “a thief of fire” and “the power source he taps is a constituent element in an ongoing process, a continuum of animation and deanimation according to whose subtle rhythm of recurrence we live and die every moment” (Sherwin 897). Frankenstein, reaching for eternity only to fall again, takes on all the meanings that are the Creatures. For the Monster, “the apple was already eaten, and the angel’s arm bared to drive me from all hope” (255). For Sherwin, “The creature…is hell’s bottom” (897). Finally, this is where we all reside.
The Creature is eventually consumed in the self-loathing that is the horrible face of all evil. His plea to Walton is that Frankenstein has not suffered “the ten-thousandth portion of the anguish” that was the Creatures. The Monster eats himself alive in his own vengeful destiny before he is consumed by the flames of his funeral pyre. Finally he relates, “Some years ago, when the images which this world affords first opened upon me, when I felt the cheering warmth of summer, and heard the rustling of the leaves and the warbling of birds, and these were all to me. I should have wept to die, now it is my only consolation. Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death” (302-3). For Frankenstein’s monster, to Oates “is the Word, the secret wish for destruction, made Flesh” (553). This monster of ours is, simply put, our subconscious desires fulfilled – it is our Thanatos or our Id.
Mary Shelley’s tale of “a Modern Prometheus” explores, through a thoroughly secular and modern setting, the most fundamental questions and moral issues that have faced humanity. At the heart of this is the question of “who’s responsible?”. As for Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, the environment that has nurtured the rebel must be accountable for the criminality of its child (Sutherland lec. 29). This is the age old question of evil that civilization has wrestled with, or “if God created all things, then he must have also created evil”. For all the morality of Mary Shelley’s work, as Oates points out, “no one in Frankenstein is evil – the universe is emptied of God and of theistic assumptions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Hence, its modernity” (550). Mary Shelley, through the “spiritualism” of her secular work, though, seems to raise this age-old complaint that the father must be responsible for the sins of the children. For Levine, “the Frankenstein metaphor implies great ambiguity about where the burden of good and evil rests” and the monstrousness of Frankenstein’s creation is really the monstrousness of those that would damn him (12-3). The unresolved problems of orthodoxy raised by the author are likely another reason that the novel is without God. In the end, Frankenstein displaces responsibility to all of us who have created, and who participate in the world that in turn manifests our demons and criminals.
Despite its secularity, then, Mary Shelley’s work is not without moral valuations. The Monster, for Sherwin “a giant form of Solitude, an existence made absolute by its confinement to the hell of being itself” is consumed with a fiery anguish by the novel’s end (890). This “hypostasis of godless presumption, the monstrosity of a godless nature, analytical reasoning, or alienating labor” becomes a sort of Gothic hero entangled in a schizophrenic struggle “between himself and himself” (Sherwin 890, Wilt 39). In this sense, Frankenstein’s monster is a representation of the modern, existential man.
The “insatiable thirst for vengeance” resulting from the Creature’s “impotent envy and bitter indignation” give rise to the most despicable and horrible acts one can imagine (299). By the end of it all, he experiences the lowest point of alienation and psychological disunity – the Monster utterly loathes his own existence. Like humanity abandoned by an apparently disinterested God, the Creature is left to a despair that is, for Sherwin using the words of Kierkegaard, “an impotent self-consumption…whose movement is constantly inward, deeper and deeper” (897). For Mary Shelley, universal laws are at work and all of our actions are not without consequences. As the work of Victor’s own hands is the cause of his downfall, so the Creature suffers the fate he has destined for himself.
Frankenstein, concerned with this “fallen” state of humanity and the desire for some sort of return to grace, ultimately for Lamb quoting Anne Mellor, deals with “’what, finally, is being,’ and how is it constituted?” (305). Creation becomes an act of differentiation or, more precisely, an act of identification. In a Hegelian act of realization, we only understand ourselves by understanding what we are not. All definition is really an explanation of what something is not. For Sherwin, what Frankenstein creates is not only a “distance between his daemonized self and a newly alienated reality”, but a “fantastic medial zone where the boundaries between self and world are impossible to distinguish” and in this “void, between two created ‘nothings’, self consciousness appears” (893). “Reality must yield if the self is to appear” and there is a “rupture” between “what may loosely be termed consciousness (of self, an extravagantly augmented self so full of itself as to allow neither time nor space for self-awareness)” and “all that is not mind” (Sherwin 892). The antithesis of consciousness, or non-consciousness, is necessary for self-awareness to take place, or the act of creation defines the creator by setting the creator apart from what is created.
In the end, creation is “a case of I and the abyss” (Sherwin 896), or something that functions to separate and identify. Within this creation, then, can we discover the mysteries and wonders that are the essence of life or is this something that is only treacherous and absurd? For Milton, the Fall was necessary or was felix culpa, that is, ‘happy sin’ (Sutherland lec. 12). For a like-minded Blake, this might be expressed in his “Proverbs of Hell” that “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”, or without contraries, progress is not possible (Sutherland lec. 24). The “archaic model”, for Sherwin, misrepresents because “transcendence is equivalent to transgression, and the presumptuous deed is invested with the aura of a primal sin against nature that somehow justifies the ensuing retributive bothers” (883). “The Fall” then could hold an important place in what it is to be human. Lows may be necessary for one to appreciate and embrace the highs of life, and innocence lacks a fulfillment that only the wisdom of experience can impart.
As Levine explains, Victor’s revolt causes his isolation while the Monster’s isolation causes his revolt and in the end “the ‘work or agency’ does not rebel against the creator but actually accomplishes what the creator wants” (11-12, 17). In the familiarly modern world that Mary Shelley presents, the hero is one that “recognizes the unbridgeable gap between those things s/he seeks to unify (the finite and the infinite, different aspects of the self, humankind and nature, the arts and sciences) and who continues the Promethean struggle” (Manson and Stewart 240). Existence is then best typified through the contest itself as meaning can only be invented through the heroic struggle. The infinite, a non-existent quality, is simply non-existence.
Sherwin claims that Frankenstein is “uncannily subject to the recurrence of his dread of time, space, and the body of death” (897). For Wilt, the Creature is reenacting the mythological cycle of creation through his shifting identities as Adam – Satan – and then Cain while Victor, “Thinking he has sought life in the embrace of death,…has in fact been seeking death in the embrace of life, seeking death to kill it like a virus. And his creature/son, his hold on immortality, his dilated self, deliberately made (not begotten) too gigantic to be overturned in the going-out of time and matter, has this same nightmare in his makeup” (38-39). In this material world of matter and motion there really is no room for what is infinite or immortal. This “space” or this “infinity” is nothing but nothingness. The most ambitious flights of man – whether it is immortality through art, science or even dreams – can only result in death. This is the reality of the godless world of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and is the inevitability of creating life from death. All things return to form.
Judith Wilt dramatizes the novel’s conclusion and its ambiguity through her characterization of two of the “persons” of the “Holy” and “Unholy trinity” that seek to “materialize” a third person in their long trek to the frozen north. This “third person” may either be the Holy Ghost or the Unholy Ghost. The
serenity and even nobility of the ending of the novel seems to promise the former, the creative spirit, brooding over northern waters and keeping alive in the explorer Walton and his men somehow both prudence and aspiration. Perhaps. But the content of the wish, the word’s word at the end seems unequivocally Decreation, the invoking of the reign of Night and Chaos. On his self-made funeral pyre the creature expects ‘light, feeling, and sense will pass away…my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds…the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish’. (41)
For this reader, the novel’s conclusions leave little question. A godless world, the world that Mary Shelley has created, is a frozen wasteland in which we have been utterly abandoned by our “creator” into the bleak despair of loneliness and complete isolation. Like for our monster, our only comfort in this world is the promise of death and the oblivion of a dreamless sleep.
Frankenstein is truly a tale for modernity. Set after the “second fall”, we “can create worse monsters” than even Mary Shelley’s novel has (142). As Levine points out, “The uncontrolled technological creation is particularly frightening and obsessively attractive to modern consciousness because it forces a confrontation with our buried selves. It promises to reveal to us our deepest and most powerful desires, and enact them” (17). Our modern monsters, for Oates, “‘are’ ourselves as we cannot hope to see ourselves – incomplete, blind, blighted, and, most of all, self-destructive. For it is the forbidden wish for death that dominates” (550). All of the characters within the central narrative face the inevitability of death that permeates the novel. The void that results from this literary holocaust is absolute. Only Walton, like a Fortinbras, is left in the end to limp home to his sister and the “comforts” of “domestic affections”, or to the promise that some alternate balance of home and the Promethean Struggle can indeed offer him something greater. Frankenstein, more like the modern myth of Sisyphus, offers very little hope that there is redemption. As the fog of ambiguity lifts, Mary Shelley’s novel seems clear – without God, the image in the mirror really is a monster.
Cottom, Daniel. “Frankenstein and the Monster of Representation.” SubStance, Vol. 9, No. 3, Issue 28. 1980. pp. 60-71. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3683905>.
Ellis, Kate. “Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family.” The Endurance –of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1982. pp. 123-142.
Lamb, John B. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Milton’s Monstrous Myth.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 47, No. 3. Dec. 1992. pp. 303-319. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2933709>.
Levine, George. “The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein.” The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1982. pp. 3-30.
Levine, George and U.C. Knoepflmacher. Preface. The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1982. xi-xvi.
Manson, Michael and Robert Scott Stewart. “Heroes and Hideousness: ‘Frankenstein’ and Failed Unity.” SubStance, Vol. 22, No. 2/3, Issue 71/72. 1993. pp. 228-242. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3685283>.
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Woodward, Charles R. “The Archetype of the Fall.” College English, Vol. 28, No. 8. May 1967, pp. 576-580. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/374719>.