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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a novel synonymous with the beginning of sci-fi, the high fothic novel, the beginning of the modern novel and even the start of the modern world. Written in 1818 and revised for over a decade after, Mary Shelley's novel was first published as a part of a competition set by the poet Lord Byron. The competition was that they had to write a frightening story and the winner would get funded for publication.
Mary Shelley's book was initially published anonymously and, after her death, had her name printed on to it and has since become the possibly the most recognised, adapted and copied gothic novel of all time. Yet, when asked what it is actually about, very few would be able to tell you. A cultural phenomenon, yet many people who know the Monster as "Frankenstein" either haven't read the book, or have read the book too many times.
Let's go through the actual premise of the novel, bit by bit and then, we'll use this to decipher the personality, or lack of, when it comes to the scientist and Protagonist, Victor Frankenstein.
The first part of the story is written in four letters from an explorer named Robert Walton, to his sister, Mrs. Saville. Robert Walton explains his expedition to the North Pole through its heights and pitfalls and, when his ship is stuck in ice—a wanderer comes on to the boat nearly dying. Enthralled, Robert Walton asks for his story and his name is Victor Frankenstein.
Victor's story begins with him reciting his family history, from his grandparents to a girl his family adopted, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is being raised in preparation to marry Victor and both are absolutely obsessed with each other.
Victor moves on to the creation of the Monster, stating it was a mistake he couldn't undo. He turned the Monster away and went home. When he got back, he found his brother was murdered and his maid was hanged for it. He had no choice but to assume the worst. He goes to look for the Monster.
When found, the Monster commenced his story to Victor, next to a fire. Chapter 11 to 16 explains the first dwelling of the Monster with the family; Felix, Agatha, Safie and De Lacey. Felix kicks him out by beating him, the Monster roams around and, when insulted by the boy William, breaks his neck, frames Justine (the maid) and runs away.
We return to Victor who states the Monster wants a bride, like Victor and Elizabeth are. Victor begins work in the Orkney's with Henry, his friend, in Scotland waiting for him. Victor realises it can't be, dumps the half-made Monster in the water and sails to Scotland. He is immediately arrested when a body washes up on the Scottish Shore. It is Henry.
The Monster has killed Henry and Victor is imprisoned. When he is let out over a dispute of evidence, Alphonse, his father, takes him home to marry Elizabeth. Victor is very sick and knows the Monster is following him. When he returns to Geneva, he marries Elizabeth—on their wedding night, the Monster comes in through the window and rips Elizabeth apart. He kills her. Alphonse dies of a broken heart from learning of this and Victor hunts down the Monster one last time.
We return to Walton's narrative and Victor has told him to kill the Monster if Walton should see him. Victor retires to a room aboard ship and dies. Walton encounters the Monster crying at the feet of Victor Frankenstein's corpse, leaving it at peace to go where it chooses.
The majority of the novel is narrated by Victor, with Chapters one through ten and 17-24 being entirely his. This is both a good perspective and a bad idea because the images we get of Victor from the two other narrators are quite different to his own image of himself. There are two sides here, the idealist—how Victor sees himself. And the egotist—how other narrators see Victor.
The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein gives a good, balanced argument of how this works in the novel. It states:
"Victor Frankenstein should be seen as an idealist who searches for ways to overcome death, only to create a creature that kills. Victor's narrative may seem to act as a precautionary warning to Robert Walton about the dangers of surrendering to egotism—which tarnishes idealism."
Therefore, Victor has not only a different image of himself that others see, but also a part of himself that he doesn't realise until it is too late. His creation of the Monster is directly compared with Walton's expedition to the North Pole as both include putting other people in danger and both include extreme circumstances. The only difference is, Walton is the "before" and Victor is the "after."
Victor's personality is mostly made up of his "genius" and "intellect—"something that catalyses his egotistical ways in the novel. He states in chapter two:
“Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate…”
The "regulation" of Victor's fate is said to be a result of his studies. This not only foreshadows how the Monster will change Victor, but also leads the reader to believe that studies matter a lot more to Victor than actual people do. His ability to control himself here is not only very poor, but his ability to win over the reader as a likeable and relatable character is also poor, making him the perfect tragic hero.
There are various statements in which Victor knows his studies are dangerous. These are flashbacks from Victor afterwards, which suggest that Victor knew far before creating the Monster that it was the wrong thing to do and could lead to great harm. Therefore, he is solely pushed along by his egotism and his want to control things. This is not necessarily nature, but it is the control and respect of others. He states this very clearly in chapter three:
“The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded.”
Victor's egotism and want for control builds the most through Chapter 3 in which he denounces the modern men he has studied from. He then goes on to talk about the elixir of life, which imitates his former egotism in the fact that he knows what he wants and he knows that he is much better than other people at being able to get that. Even those that are more qualified and older than he is, he believes he knows better.
His statement in chapter three is:
“The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera…”
His egotism and want for control peaks in the further chapters, with this final quotation being not only the most important, but the most self-explanatory to what he wants. He wants to be God. The quotation is:
“This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it.”
We can see quite clearly that Victor's egotism is made up of the following things:
Contextually, Victor is still a man of his time when it comes to the control he has over his own social life. It is well known that, in the space of the novel, Victor is not a very sociable person—talking to himself most of the time. This is something of a "type" in Romanticism, the "solitary hero" type which encourages the tragic hero to be anti-social in the sense that they aren't sociable at all and even when they are, they tend to mess it up. Victor Frankenstein heavily controls what the reader sees of him by telling bits and pieces of his story—he then takes out all of the instances in which people don't believe in him and replaces them with a small, and slightly strange conversation with them.
The fact the Elizabeth sends him letters on the fact that she doesn't believe he loves her is the reason Victor returns to Geneva, but he seems to have left out most conversation with her once he gets there—therefore, there's no follow up to this conversation at all. It doesn't really end, it's an on-going thing.
Henry asks Victor what's taking so long in the Orkneys, Victor sends a letter, not really telling us what is on each. But, the cost of sending a letter that far must've meant there was more on it than "what's taking you so long?" The tone of voice from Henry only makes the reader think about what his true intentions were and how much we really saw of the whole thing.
Victor is, at most, concerned with his own existence. He believes he is the pinnacle of humanity and answers to nobody. He believes he is the greatest and yet, most tormented artist in the world. This is a brief taken from Rousseauvian philosophy and it goes as stated:
“Here I am then, alone on the earth, having neither brother, neighbour, friend, or society but myself. The most sociable and the friendliest of mankind is proscribed from the rest by universal consent. They have sought in the refinements of their malice to find out that torment which could most afflict my tender heart; they have violently broken every tie which held me to them: I had loved mankind in spite of themselves.”
(The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, 1793)
This sounds a lot like what Victor thinks of himself. He feels sorry for himself for the fact that he has created something so great and it went so wrong, even though he knew full well of how dangerous it was. When it comes to Victor's egotism surrounding the Monster, it is clear it is based on appearances.
Throughout the entire novel there is one thing Victor never tells the reader. His appearance. We have no idea what he looks like and we also have no idea why. But, when it comes to the Monster, the only thing Victor talks about in chapter five is his appearance. This suggests that the most important thing about the Monster is the way he looks. A kind of physiognomy for the fact that others believe that the Monster has no humanity.
“His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.”
But, most of the time we read this in a way that it represents the Monster's lack of humanity to others. In fact, it is the physical representation of Victor's unethical practices and, in some cases, his own soul.
This is the time in which all of Victor's egotism, all of his idealism is purged out of him. He had chosen everything to be beautiful, and yet turned out with something perfectly horrid. This represents everything about Victor, he had always expected the best without taking good care and, was still surprised when it turned out absolutely horrible. This undertaking has backfired spectacularly and yet, as always - Victor misjudges the entire situation and abandons it. Just as he abandoned Elizabeth, and Henry, and William, and his Father and Justine at the trial, standing quiet when he knew her innocence - all of these people die as a result of Victor's misdeeds.
Victor is fully aware of this connection as it is a flashback, but at the time - he simply states the appearance of the Monster as being tantamount to horror:
"Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived."
What we know about Victor Frankenstein is fairly limited to his own views, but from the way he reacts to the sight of the Monster we can see very clearly what his own ambition and egotism is when made flesh. It is quite extraordinary how this anthropomorphization takes place. This is supported by the fact that Frankenstein states himself that he abandons “the delicacy of emotions” in favour of science in chapter ten.
The main question is, Victor believes that he is God because of his egotism towards his ambitions—and he created the Monster. He was then disgusted by the Monster's horrid appearance. Then how did God create Adam in his own image? Is it true that this Monster represents Victor's soul-like Dorian Gray and his painting, something that nurtures a kind of multiplicity? It is the physical appearance of something either suppressed or hidden purposefully by the character.
The next thing to cover about Victor's character is his unreliability when it comes to the display of emotion. As we've discussed, he's tamed his emotions in order to focus further on his endeavours regarding science and the Monster. Victor only shows real emotion when he is approaching the sublime states so frequently associated with the irrationality of Romanticism. But, if Victor is an Enlightenment philosopher, then why would this make him overwhelmed? The only explanation is that he cannot actually suppress these emotions and thus, he has lied to the reader.