A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Frankenstein" Continued

Having gone through the plot of Frankenstein, I now intend to cherry pick some passages from the text that illustrate several deeper themes of the novel, most of them having to do with the question, What gives meaning to life? But before I do so, a couple of preliminary clarifications are in order.

First, notice that the full title of the novel is Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. We might wonder what the significance is of this subtitle. Prometheus was a Greek god, and there are two traditions surrounding him, which later became fused into one. The first tradition says that Prometheus gave fire to man, against the will of Zeus, who chained him to a rock, where an eagle would peck out his liver, which every day would grow back. In the second tradition, Prometheus made man from clay. In the fused version, Prometheus made man from clay and then stole the sacred fire to infuse life into his creation.

The parallels with Victor Frankenstein are obvious. Less obvious is the fact that Prometheus was also a god whose name in Greek means “forethought”. This is ironic, as there didn’t seem to be much forethought going on when Victor created his Monster.

Next, on the title page, Shelley provides a quote from John Milton’s great epic poem Paradise Lost, the subject matter of which is Adam and Eve and the Fall. The quote she chose occurs after Adam has eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He’s bewailing his fate, because God is going to find out what he’s done, and He won’t be happy. Adam is cursing his own existence. But at the same time he’s blaming God for his predicament: after all, he didn’t ask to be made the way he is, weak and given to temptation. If God doesn’t like him the way he is, then God shouldn’t have made him that way, only to blame him later.

Again, there’s an obvious parallel here with Frankenstein. Victor made his creature, and then, in a sense, he punished him for being the way he is. After all, the Monster couldn’t help being ugly. On this interpretation, Victor can be equated with God. At the very least, he’s been playing God.

Another parallel with Paradise Lost and the Fall is this: For his sin, Victor has his own Garden of Eden — his idyllic upbringing and family life — taken from him. Now he must wander until death. On this interpretation, Victor can be equated with Adam.

Here’s another parallel: In Paradise Lost, Satan is kicked out of Heaven for wanting to take over and be God. Similarly, in the novel Victor Frankenstein has usurped God’s power and is punished for it. On this interpretation, Victor can be equated with Satan.

Now onto the deeper themes of the story, of which I will pick out six.

I. “Thrownness”

At pages102-103 the Monster narrates his birth. He is bewildered by new sensations. He has no idea who he is or where he came from. He feels the pains of cold and hunger. Think of a new baby, just born. Now ask yourself the following question: Why do babies always wail when they’re born? We are tossed kicking and screaming into this breathing world.

The Monster naturally wonders who he is and what is his purpose (p. 128). The Monster also has abandonment issues (p.131). Deserted by his creator, his situation is actually worse than Adam’s. With some justification, the Monster curses his creator and wonders why he continues to live (p. 135).

The general idea here is that we are all the Monster, in that none of us has any choice in whether or not we are born. We are created out of the actions and motives of others, with no say in the matter. We are thrown into this life.

II. Science Can’t Give us the Meaning of Life

Victor Frankenstein has discovered the “ultimate principle of generation and of life”, and he has created a human being. And yet, although he can create life, he can’t seem to create meaningful life.

At page 40, Victor refers to “final causes”, of which the scientist is ignorant. A thing’s final cause is, roughly, the reason or purpose for that thing’s being. Victor is what philosophers would call the Monster’s “efficient cause”, much as the baseball bat is the efficient cause of the ball’s being driven out of the ballpark. But Victor can never be the Monster’s final cause. So, what is the Monster’s final cause? We do not know; he must find out for himself, and in a sense we are all in the same predicament.

III. The Will of Another Can’t Give Us the Meaning of Life

Victor created a new species, much as God is claimed to have done. We are supposed to bless God for this. What reason does Victor’s new species have to bless him? Victor created life with the goal of fame in mind. Why should Victor’s fame be of any concern to his creatures? Victor created the Monster for his own selfish purposes. Those purposes cannot become the Monster’s reason for living. Think in the previous post of some of the possible reasons I gave for your parents’ conceiving you: can any of those reasons give your life meaning?

The Monster wanted Victor to make him happy by creating a wife for him. Assuming Victor had carried through on this, would this goal of making the Monster happy have given any meaning to the Monster Bride’s life? Should she be satisfied with being told that her purpose for living is to make the Monster happy?

Whatever gives my life meaning, it must be my meaning. Somebody or something else cannot give my life meaning. A life must be lived from the inside.

This poses a difficulty for those who would explain the meaning of life by appealing to the plan of a Deity. What if God’s plan is not my plan? It’s perfectly conceivable that God could see some meaning in my life (or have some plan for my life), while I do not, because:

· I don’t identify with God’s plan, or
· I don’t have knowledge or access to that plan.

Again, the Monster is all of us: Your parents’ plans and goals for your life might not be your plans, in which case, becoming a doctor because your parents want you to become one won’t provide meaning to your life unless you too identify with the role of doctor.

IV. Relationship with Others, and with Community

We gain much of our identity and meaning for our lives by reference to those around us, to our relationships with family, friends, and community. In his Politics, Aristotle rightly said something to the effect that he who can live a life of solitude, apart from his fellow human beings, is either an animal or a god.

In the beginning, Victor’s family life is idyllic (pp. 33-34). He is happy because he has others. It’s interesting that, as he starts keeping secrets from them, he becomes estranged and alienated from them, and his life becomes progressively more miserable. It is tempting to wonder whether much of Victor’s misery is a result of having no one he can share the true nature of his secret to? His integrity is eaten away by shame.

Victor describes the birth of his creature in the following terms (p. 58): “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?... but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” Imagine that this was your parents' attitude to your birth and existence. Could you live a decent life if you knew that your parents hated you and wished you had never been born? (Incidentally, compare the Monster’s situation with Justine’s: the latter’s mother hated her, but she at least found happiness with the Frankensteins. No such luck for the Monster.)

Victor’s idyllic family life was ripped apart by his mother’s death (p. 43). She played the role in his life that he should have played for his own “offspring”. Instead, all Victor succeeded in giving his creature was bare life, a life whose meaning is difficult enough to divine from our perspective, let alone the Monster’s.

What’s worse, the Monster is able to discern the value of relationship, and he can feel its lack in his life (p. 121). Human beings are naturally social. In this light, we can begin to understand the Monster’s reasons for wanting a companion, a wife (p. 147). With a companion, the Monster believes he can have a meaningful life, can “become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded” (p. 147). This latter observation of the Monster’s brings us to the next theme.

V. We Need to be Respected as Persons

Victor seems to have trouble respecting others as persons. He even speaks of loved ones as if they were mere possessions. For example, at page 36, Elizabeth is spoken of as if she were a pet or a possession.

And as for the Monster, Victor never treats him with the respect of a person. He always refers to him as “it”, “the thing”, “the monster”, the “filthy wretch”, etc. He never gives it a name, and he never uses the pronoun “he” to refer to it. Such impersonal and objectifying language is de-humanizing. Imagine what effect it would have on you if your parents referred to you in such terms.

VI. A Meaningful Life Must Contain a Sense of Purpose

By the end of the novel, with all his loved ones gone, and all the things that gave his life meaning destroyed, the only thing keeping Victor going is his thirst for revenge. Now, only his need to hunt down and destroy the Monster can give his life any semblance of meaning (p. 201). With this minimal purpose accomplished, Victor will resign from life. His previous ambitions have come to naught. All he has left is revenge (p. 212).

Ironically, this desire for revenge is remarkably like the one that the Monster expressed earlier on: to destroy everything that means anything to Victor. Now, in a way, the Monster has succeeded in bestowing a kind of life on Victor: a melancholy life devoid of community, of relationship. They have traded places, and Victor has become his Monster.

Thus, it is only at the end of the story that Victor and the Monster have a kind of “relationship”: Each lives to destroy the other, and thus their lives have become intertwined. They prop each other up like ivy propping up a ruined edifice whilst it eats away the very stone.

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