“Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley
In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein reanimates a creature from dead flesh into life. Throughout the novel Mary Shelley, a writer from the romantic era, poses questions to the reader regarding the relationship between man and nature. For writers of the romantic era, nature, or God, is an unknowable and unconquerable force man will never fully understand or comprehend. Victor’s ambition to be a creator, falsely believing himself to be able to conquer nature, results in consequences that lead him to devalue life in general, the life of his creation, and his own life.
As the novel progresses, it becomes evident that Victor’s ambition to leave his mark on history by unraveling the nature’s secrets blinds him to his fallibility as a human. This blinding belief that he can replace nature and God as a creator reveals that Victor as devalued life in general. In other words, the entire concept of life and its secrets are beneath him who believes his intelligence is capable of unearthing those secrets, that it is possible for him to create life out of death where no others are capable. Additionally, Victor’s ambition makes him believe that he is not only able to replace nature and God as a creator, but that he will be a great creator of a new race of beings. For a moment, when he witnesses the lightning strike the tree, he realizes that the laws of nature are beyond his control or understanding, but his ambition overcomes his sense and he dedicates himself to reveal “to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley 34). By revealing these mysteries that normal men are not intended to discover, Victor believes he will be helping society, devaluing the natural order of life. This ambition blinds him to any consequences of his actions. One action that reflects the devaluing of life by Victor is when he abandons the creature, setting it loose into the world with complete disregard for the consequences it may pose for the human race to have a new being with free will amongst them. Victor thusly devalues the lives of any human whom the creature may encounter. Unfortunately, the worst possible consequences occurred when the creature learns his hate and anger for the human race from the prejudice and fear he experiences and he wreaks havoc on the other characters in the novel.
Victor’s blinding ambition additionally leads him to devalue the life of his own creation. As previously mentioned, Victor not only believes himself to be capable of understanding nature’s secrets and becoming the creator of a new race of beings. He also believes himself capable of being an excellent creator, better than nature or God. However, Victor does not understand all of nature’s secrets, as no man can. When the creature comes to life from the dead, his appearance horrifies Victor and he runs from the room believing the creature to be evil. He rejects his creation a second time when he awakes to find the creature reaching out to him, his creator, by Victor’s bed and runs from it again. Victor, a flawed man blinded to his flaws by his ambition, creates life and when it is not perfect, he rejects it. His failure to take responsibility for his creation reflects that he devalues life even when it is a life he has created. Victor does not give the monster guidance that he had been reaching out for. Instead the monster is banished and learns from the prejudice and fear of humans he encounters, becoming a true monster, albeit a victim of his nurturing, or lack thereof. Further proof of Victor devaluing the life of his creation occurs when the creature demands that Victor create a mate for him. The creature argues that he deserves to be happy and content with another that only Victor can create rather than alone, miserable and full of hatred. The monster begs, “Oh! My creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit!” (Shelley 127). Victor promises to create the mate for the monster, who in turn promises that together the monster and his mate will leave Europe and live solitary lives of contentment in South America having another to love and sympathize with him. However, Victor’s cannot overcome his newfound value towards the life of the human race and destroys the mate before it is reanimated for fear that they would together propagate a new race that would threaten humanity. Victor values human life over his own ambitions for once, but he has devalued the life of his own creation, not caring that the monster is alone in the world to be forever unhappy.
A third level of life devalued by Victor is the devaluation of his own life. As a human being, Victor is fallible. His very ambitions to be a creator, fueled by desires for infamy, glory and power, reflect this fallibility of human nature. His own fallibility is in turn ignored, blinded by the grandeur of his ambitions. Victor not only wants to act as God through the creation of a being, he wants to create perfection and bases the creature on his own likeness. In other words, Victor believes himself to be perfect. However, the monstrosity rather than perfection of his creation is a reflection of Victor’s own fallibility. He further fails as a creator by not taking responsibility for his creation and abandoning it rather than guiding it. Victor’s realization that he has failed as a creator, his life’s ambition, leads him to devalue his own life. The only time that Victor realizes “what the duties of a creator towards his creature were, and that [he] ought to render him happy” (Shelley 86), occurs after the creature implores Victor to listen to his tale before destroying him, to which Victor consents. Even so, the creature’s tale only confirms Victor’s failure as a creator. When Victor destroys the mate that he promises to create for his creature, it further reflects that Victor has devalued his life to the point of putting himself in harm’s way of the creature’s wrath and total revenge. After the monster murders Elizabeth, Victor’s former ambitions to be a creator are entirely replaced by his ambition to destroy that which he has created, and thus destroy his life’s work, devaluing that life as a creator completely.
Lars Lunsford, in his essay, “The Devaluing of Life in Shelley’s Frankenstein”, also argues that Victor devalues life, which results in his own downfall as a creator and person as well as resulting in the monster wreaking havoc in the world. Where Lars Lunsford argues, “it is Dr. Frankenstein’s devaluing of life for the sake of social standing” (1), the argument of this paper takes a slightly different approach. Rather than ambition for social standing, this paper argues that it is Frankenstein’s ambition to be a creator, with complete disregard of his fallibility as a human, that results in consequences leading him to devalue life on many levels. His ambitious side existed even during his childhood with Elizabeth prior to any desire to work his way up the social ladder and join the intellectual elite. Instead, Victor from an early age desired to unravel the hidden laws of nature and leave his mark on history, a desire he shared with his best friend Clerval. Additionally, rather than join the highest ranks of society, as Lars Lunsford believes, I would argue that Victor wants to rise above society entirely rather than be apart of it. Victor succeeds in this endeavor to be a God among men and expresses his delight at being superior to all others, that “among so many men of genius… [he] alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret” (Shelley 38). In the end, however, both Lunsford’s argument and the arguments of this paper conclude that Victor devalues life. Where Lunsford cites Victor’s ambition for social status as being the cause for him to devalue life, it is my opinion that it is his ambition to be a creator, a God among men that blinds him to his fallibility and causes him to devalue life.
Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, raises many philosophical questions for readers regarding the consequences of man attempting to conquer the unconquerable, the secrets of nature. As Victor attempts to do just that, his blinding ambition results in his devaluation of life in general by believing he can replace God and nature as a creator. Victor then devalues the life of his own creation, abandoning it rather than guiding it because of the monstrosity of the being, and further devalues the life of his creation by not giving it the mate it desires, ensuring its fate of being forever alone in the world. As Victor’s ambitions as a creator are replaced by the ambition to destroy his creation, he devalues his life’s work and thereby devalues his own life.
Lunsford, Lars. “The Devaluing of Life in Shelley’s Frankenstein.” The Explicator, Vol. 68, №3 (2010): 174–176. PDF.
Picture By Theodore Von Holst (1810–1844) — Tate Britain. Frontispiece of the 1831 edition. Private collection, Bath., Public Domain