Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/01/2010

Victor Frankenstein Is NOT Bipolar

On Facebook, a bunch of, I suppose, high school students have created a group called, “Frankenstein is bipolar.” When I first saw it, I thought, what a kick! Of course Frankenstein is bipolar. I will join. But I thought for two more seconds.

Victor Frankenstein is not bipolar.

the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart

the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart

The narrator of the story of the monster he created is simply, does one dare say it? evil. The monster, grotesque and murderous as he is, does not do evil. He is a horror, of course. Murder is murder. But Frankenstein sets in motion a course of events that must, inexorably, end in grief and tragedy; he calls into being a creature that can do nothing other than murder. Frankenstein creates a living being with no possibility of morality or of responsibility for itself. Frankenstein, however, has the human capacity for guilt, for remorse, for accepting responsibility for his own actions. And all he can muster is a kind of self pity that is more monstrous than the monster he created.

Nothing is more painful to the human mind than, after the feelings have been worked up by a quick succession of events, the dead calmness of inaction and certainty which follows and deprives the soul both of hope and fear. Justine died, she rested, and I was alive. The blood flowed freely in my veins, but a weight of despair and remorse pressed on my heart which nothing could remove. . . . I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description, horrible, and more, much more (I persuaded myself) was yet behind. Yet my heart overflowed with kindness and the love of virtue. I had begun life with benevolent intentions and thirsted for the moment when I should put them in practice and make myself useful to my fellow beings. Now all was blasted; instead of that serenity of conscience which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe.

My response to this ranting of Frankenstein is, “Get a grip, man.” It’s impossible to know exactly how Mary Shelley intended the reader to view Frankenstein. She was, after all, only eighteen years old when she created him. “. . . I had committed deeds of mischief?” He might have said, “I had played God, using my superior mental faculties and my knowledge of both Medieval alchemy and modern science. I deciphered the secret of creating life, and did so. I did so with no thought of what that life might become or how I might take responsibility for my action.”

Instead, he ran away and left the monster he had created to fend for himself. Frankenstein is not bipolar. He is cowardly and selfish.

The monster managed rather well. In a few years he learned to speak and read. By himself he learned the rudiments of human society—enough so he knew that what he wanted was companionship and love. When he was refused love and companionship, he killed. He killed because he was a monster. He did not become monstrous because he killed.

Victor Frankenstein became monstrous because he was in reality responsible for the murders his monster committed. In the beginning, he could not face his own creation and left the monster alone, unsupervised, un-cared-for. “My heart overflowed with kindness and the love of virtue,” the un-principled scientist says. It would be an interesting exercise to find one passage in the novel in which one could say that Frankenstein’s heart actually overflowed with virtue. His heart overflowed with a kind of self-centered sentimentality that he thought passed as virtue. Sentimentality is not virtuous. It is not evil, either. It is not a matter of morality one way or the other. It is.

Sentimentality is Frankenstein’s primary affect. And it is sentimentality born of narcissism. “I will create life,” he declares. And he forsakes family, friends, and even professional colleagues in order to do what he has discovered how to do. But his purpose is not clear. His purpose is to make himself famous. His purpose is to be known for creating life. His purpose is self-satisfaction. And, because he has no moral compass, his pride has left him “scattered. . .in the imagination of [his] heart” (Luke 2:51).

He can stand idly by while a beloved cousin wrongly hangs for the murder of his brother. Her only wrong was caring enough to spend a night looking for the lost boy. The monster, of course, murdered both of them. Frankenstein could have, at the moment of the court’s guilty verdict for the innocent Justine, stepped forward and confessed his crime—the crime of creating a monster for whom he refused to take responsibility.  Ultimately, Frankenstein’s most telling narcissism is, of course, allowing his beloved intended wife Elizabeth to die.

After the hanging of Justine, Elizabeth says to Victor, “Victor, when falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?” Indeed, when Victor can allow his own falsehood to look so much like the truth, how can he assure himself of happiness? He, in telling the story to Walton says, “Thus not the tenderness of friendship, nor the beauty of earth, nor of heaven, could redeem my soul from woe; the very accents of love were ineffectual. I was encompassed by a cloud which no beneficial influence could penetrate.” When Victor’s falsehood has become too great a burden to bear, what is his response? To expect friendship or the beauty of the earth or heaven, or even the love of Elizabeth to “redeem [his] soul from woe.”

A bit of remorse, admission of guilt, confession, and a lifetime of reparations might have helped. But to expect some outside force to redeem his soul from the woe of his guilt is monstrous.

Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed?

Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed?

Meanwhile, the monster is repenting for, and ready to do what he has to do—disappear into the Arctic and freeze at the North Pole—in order to redeem the suffering he has caused. He makes a complete confession, explaining his actions but not excusing himself, and preparing to do the only thing he possibly can to achieve justice. He must die.

To call Frankenstein bipolar is to do violence twice.

The first is in regards to the novel itself. An evil force and fear in light of it comprises one of the requirements of a Gothic novel. The monster is not evil; therefore, the evil force lies elsewhere. In this novel it is the creator of the monster not the monster who, by all normal literary standards, should be the evil one.

The second is—and here I must leave whatever objectivity of analysis I have been trying to maintain (uncharacteristically for me, I will admit)—a belittlement of persons with Bipolar Disorder. Guilt may well be a catalyst for a depressive period for someone suffering from Bipolar Disorder. “I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe.” But his remorse is crocodile tears. The depression of Bipolar Disorder comes not from feelings of remorse (especially not those of self-pity like Frankenstein’s), but from inexplicable neurological realities—possibly triggered by, among other causes, remorse. I know whereof I write.

Forming a Facebook Group “Frankenstein Is Bipolar” is probably entertaining. And it is possibly a way to induce high school students to engage in close reading of a great literary text. But it has the possibilities of misreading the text and helping to further misunderstanding of a serious medical/emotional condition.

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Responses

  1. […] here before) as the centerpiece of my first-year Written English course. Everyone knows the story: mad scientist creates living being from scraps of dead people, and creature wreaks mayhem. Misconceptions abound […]

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