Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/07/2011

Are you a creature or a madman? or has Ayn Rand won?

Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley

Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley

These days a student has to say something pretty outrageous to shock me. That’s not true. Rather, what students say about, for example, “the meaning of life” used to shock me, but—having reached an advanced age—I (more or less) expect them to propose ideas as a matter of course that shock me. I have learned to thicken my intellectual skin and let them say their worst.

I’m using the novel Frankenstein in my classes and Frankenstein and his creature have taken up residence in my mind. Frankenstein is, as my college Shakespeare professor used to say of The Bard’s work, “the happy hunting ground of the insane.” If you want to know about the scientific and industrial revolutions of the early 19th century, read Frankenstein. If you want to know about the feminist critique of male hubris, read Frankenstein. If you want to know about “the sanctity of life,” read Frankenstein. If you want to know about “nanoethics” (whatever that is), read Frankenstein. If you want to know about technology and impotence, read Frankenstein.

Literary scholar I am not. I know enough about scholarly writing in literature to know its purpose is to ferret out “truths” in fiction, to explain literary work (to explain it to other literary scholars, not to ordinary folks like you and me), to find connections and relevancies to real life in fiction. But I also know that Frankenstein inspires an inordinate number of bizarre theories (that’s my unscholarly opinion).

One of the strangest ideas about Frankenstein has nothing to do with scholarship and results from assumptions made by people who know of the work only through the movies. One of my students asked during a quiz if the creature’s name is Victor. Like so many of his contemporaries, he thought (he hadn’t read the assigned work) that Frankenstein is the monster based on the misconception that, because the movie(s) are about the monster, Frankenstein must be his name. Perhaps that’s true.

Everyone knows the basic story. Victor Frankenstein in his hubris (madness?) researches dead human bodies until he discovers the secret of making the dead live. Unfortunately, the living being he creates turns out to be an eight-foot monster with yellow skin and a penchant for killing people. Of course, that’s not quite true. He only develops his penchant for murder after people treat him like, well, like a monster.

The first person the (nameless) creature kills is Victor Frankenstein’s little brother. Frankenstein knows right off that his creature is the murderer. However, the creature cleverly frames the lovely Justine (a servant/member of the Frankenstein household) for the murder. Justine is convicted of the murder. Only one person can save her from the gallows—Victor Frankenstein. He keeps mum about it because, of course, he doesn’t want anyone to know that he is the madman who has unleashed this horror on the world. Poor guy. What might happen to him if he saves the girl whose death he has set up? Victor says,

Justine was condemned. . . I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt. . .  words cannot convey an idea of the heart-sickening despair that I then endured. . . was I really as mad as the whole world would believe me to be, if I disclosed the object of my suspicions?. . . [I must] conceal the horrid anguish that possessed me. Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony (1).

Indeed, “The poor victim. . . felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony.”

A conception of the Creature

A conception of the Creature

One of the questions I raised with my students was whether or not Victor’s refusal to come forward to save Justine from the gallows is grotesque. How is it that Frankenstein thinks his agony is worse than Justine’s? I understand that scholars see an almost infinite variety of reasons (meanings) for this refusal. All of the theories and speculation aside, all of the analysis of the story showing that science is playing God, all of the writing about Mary Shelley’s feminist project (all of which I find fascinating and valid) aside, I simply wanted my students to begin their deliberation by asking and answering the question: is Frankenstein’s action in this instance grotesque? Is it moral? Is it defensible?

Call me old fashioned, but it seems to me whatever truth or idea or meaning one finds in the novel, one must deal with that question. Not only is it simply a basic question, but it informs all other interpretations. I am inclined these days to think of Frankenstein and his creature as each other’s “double”—that is, they are the opposite manifestations of Frankenstein’s ego and id (to put upon the story Freudian language Shelley would wonder at). Frankenstein understands the creature is 

. . . the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me (2).

If Frankenstein and the creature are each other’s “double,” if the creature is Frankenstein’s “own spirit let loose from the grave,” the question of morality, of grotesquery is even more important than if this is all simply an allegory about science playing God or some such treatise in the form of a novel. Frankenstein, in rejecting the monster, rejects himself.

When duty clearly calls on him to testify as to his creation and save the falsely condemned Justine Marie . . .  Frankenstein cannot act: “my purpose of avowal died away on my lips” (73). When confronted with another being in dire need he again freezes. The paralysis derives directly from repression: unless the [good double] acknowledges the forces of the [dark double], the [dark double] will rule—and so the monster does (3).

(OK, I’m off on one of those “analyses.”) Frankenstein’s rejection of his creature leads to mayhem, and Frankenstein is the only one who can stop it. Whether it’s just a good story or it’s a psychological study, Frankenstein’s refusal to take responsibility for the horror he “had cast among mankind” has moral implications.

One group of my students, during a presentation during which I asked them to deal specifically with the question of the grotesquery (the morality) of Frankenstein’s action in letting Justine die answered, “It’s not grotesque; it’s what anyone would do.”

These days a student has to say something pretty outrageous to shock me, but I have learned to thicken my intellectual skin and let them say their worst. My intellectual skin, however, does not want to believe that my concept of the moral, of right and wrong, of the grotesque has moved so far from a twenty-year-old’s. Surely this group is an anomaly. Or should the individual “exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself” (4)?
(1) Shelly, Mary. Frankenstein. Intro. Diane Johnson. New York: Bantam Classic, 1981 (74).  
(2) Ibid. 64. 
(3) Vargish, Thomas. “Technology and Impotence in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities 21.1/2 (2009): 322-337.
(4) Rand, Ayn. “Introducing Objectivism.” The Voice of Reason. Ed. Leonard Peikoff. New York: New American Library, 1989 (3).


  1. Nice, thoughtful post. I hope your student’s apathy over Justine’s fate is from not reading and experiencing the book than from actual persuasion…


  2. Wow. All I can say is that I’m adding that question to my curriculum next year. Since I teach economically disadvantaged students at risk of not graduating high school, we might even have the basis of a study.



%d bloggers like this: