The problem in "Frankenstein" is Frankenstein -- the alchemist, not his creation. Frankenstein, as Stephen King notes in "Danse Macabre," is continuously misapplied as the name for both creator and creature, but the real problem of Mary Shelley's novel is not identity theft, but irresponsibility: Victor Frankenstein commits numerous acts of God-defying hubris that destroy him, his family and his created being.
God-Defying Monstrous Science
Victor Frankenstein, as the novel's early chapters make clear, is none too responsible to begin with; he devours deadly ideas about galvanism and alchemy from his professors at Ingolstadt, and winds up committing acts no self-respecting scientist would dream of: "I disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame ... I kept my workshop of filthy creation." In an antithesis of human reproduction, Victor endows organic life into a patchwork monstrosity. His hubris defies godly natural order as he tries to take on the Almighty's mantle of creative impulse, and produces a nightmare.
"Adam" Deserted by "God"
Once he is confronted with this being, Victor abrogates all responsibility for his creative actions: "I beheld the wretch ... he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks." Victor runs screaming from the apparition, thus destroying all bonds between creature and creator; in a sense, as Shelley's Bible-centered prose makes clear, the creature Adam is deserted by his Lord, and is left not in Eden but in despair and ignorance of the human condition. Victor doubles his problematic guilt at this point: His agnostic defiance has created a monster for which he takes no responsibility.
Abandonment and Revenge Killing
At this point, Shelley compares Victor to God creating Satan, and the creature lives up to this. He turns from an Adam, achieving knowledge on his own in the Ingolstadt forests, to a satanic beast murdering Victor's cousin William: "I, like the archfiend, bore a hell within me." Unlike Satan, however, the monster gains our sympathy; when he asks Victor for a bride, the alchemist, fearful of producing a monster race, first makes but then destroys the female. "Adam" kills Victor's bride Elizabeth; Mary Shelley presents this not as motiveless murder but as revenge killing.
The Death of "God"
Frankenstein the alchemist stands as a wavering figure both of defiance and irresponsibility. His selfishness and lack of scientific experience make him, in some critics' eyes, a reprehensible being, worse than his monster. His death occurs in a closed circle: The rejected creature gazes at Frankenstein's bedded corpse, exactly duplicating their first meeting. Then the monster is the one to depart, casting itself into the hell of the frozen North; in both instances, Adam finds that his God lacks basic humanity.
- Danse Macabre; Stephen King (Berkley edition)
- The Victorian Web: Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818) A Summary of Modern Criticism
- Mount Holyoke College: A Cultural History of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.