Morbid Thoughts in the Dark of the Night: Life, Death, and Frankenstein

Tina Bounds

Since I spent last weekend in Vancouver attending the funeral of a beloved aunt who died on Good Friday, you could say that I've been pondering a lot about death and dying lately. It didn't help either that I chose to bring my copy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with me to read on the plane rides there and back, seeing as this story deals with the creation of a new form of life and the deaths that result from it. Being in this rather morbid frame of mind, I decided for this commentary just to take a closer examination of life and death as contained within the kind of gothic narrative of this early science-fiction horror story. It's almost like a Yin-Yang pairing between the two: Victor controls the ability to create Life (an ability that is usually looked on as being feminine) through his scientific and medical knowledge, and the Creature controls the ability to create Death (an ability usually looked on as being masculine) through his incredible strength and physical abilities. But although the Yin-Yang of Taoist thought brings harmony to the universe, this pairing of light and dark brings nothing but destruction to those it touches.

So, in Frankenstein, I suppose you could divide the death into two different categories, both centered around Victor: Life from Death, and Death from Life. "To examine the causes of life," Victor tells us through Captain Walton, "we must first have recourse to death." And so he does. After Victor discovers the secret to creating life (what it is we are never told, but if you're inclined to believe the various cinematic treatments of the story, it seems to involve lightening storms and complicated machines), he decides to put this to use and see if he can play God. To do this he needs the one thing that he can't create himself: "materials" in the form of human body parts. In his quest to cheat the inevitable end to life to fulfill his purpose of "bestow[ing] animation upon lifeless matter" he visits charnel houses to steal the 'materials' in order to create this new life: he raids the remains of the dead in dissection rooms and slaughter houses to put together what he believes will be his crowning achievement, an eight-foot tall man of incredible strength. He carries through his well-known experiment in few details, and the experiment is a success, but not what he hoped for. The pieces that he had assembled and carefully stitched together "as beautiful" (34) are horrifying with life infused into them.

His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips. (34)

Terrified by the life he has created out of the remains of death, Victor flees and leaves his 'child' to fend for himself. His secret of life seems to have been effective, for his creation is an intelligent creature capable of surviving in wild regions that would be inhospitable to most humans, and learning through watching others being taught. However, he's also lonely at being the only undead creature of his kind and demands that Victor create another Life from Death being so that he won't be lonely and can "live in the interchange of sympathies necessary for [his] being" (98). Victor is originally sympathetic to the Creature's story, and agrees to his demands, but stops upon thinking about what two living beings created from death would be able to do if one can already terrorize him so much. Looking upon the half assembled collection of female body parts, he reflects on how the female of this undead species might be more deadly than the male. He also worries that by playing God, his undead Adam and Eve might procreate to gave monstrous children, "and a race of devils would be propagated upon the Earth, who would make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror" (114). In declining this request he also completes the ripple effect started with his making a new being: Death from Life.

And then out of this scenario comes the other half of the equation: Death from Life. The art of inflicting death is much easier to accomplish, and while Victor is the one who is able to create life in the story, it is mainly his opposite, the Creature made by his own hands, who creates death. While the Creature starts off innocent and naive to the world, because Victor has left him to be raised on his own he is rejected and scorned by all he meets. The Creature becomes hardened by these experiences and determines that the best way to solve its pain is to take it out on his creator. The Creature claims that if Victor had stayed around to raise him properly like a good mother should, than he wouldn't have become the murdering monster that he is today. Incidentally, Victor's own mother, Caroline Frankenstein is the only character in the novel to die of natural causes, and her absence in his life leaves him with little experience in how to mother his own "child". The first character to die indirectly because of him is William, his youngest brother. The Creature returns to Geneva to wreak vengeance upon his creator, and strangles William to death with his horrible strength. This throws the whole family into disarray when a jury convicts poor loyal family servant Justine to death, proof that average people as well as monsters are capable of murdering their fellow creatures. Shortly after, the Creature reveals himself to Victor and asks for him to create another being like him. When Victor eventually refuses and destroys the half-finished female he had been working on, the Creature's heart hardens and he warns him that if he cannot have a bride, neither shall his opposite; "I shall be with you on your wedding night" (116). To prove just how serious he is about the matter he creates another death in the world of the living; he kills Henry Clerval, Victor's best friend since childhood, and a crime for which the scientist is almost found guilty. But the greatest attack of all comes near the end of the narrative. Victor misinterprets the Creature's warnings and spends his honeymoon night believing that his monster will come back to finish him off. But he's miscalculated the Creature's intention; it's not Victor himself he wants, but Victor's beloved cousin Elizabeth. With her death, his elderly father passes away out of grief, leaving him no one but his creation. And yet, at the very end it is only these victims of Death from Life who have any existence left. Victor all but abandons society to chase down his creature, while his friends and family live on within his dreams providing them with Life from Death in a much different way than his experiments.

Although the Creature is never named within the narrative, it has come to be so closely associated with Victor that both are commonly called Frankenstein - indeed a trip to any well-stocked grocery store will have boxes of Frankenberry Cereal available for sale, with cartoonish pictures of Boris Karloff smiling on the front. While they may hold opposing powers of Life and Death respectively, in the end, it is as though neither of these two characters is left with any life between them. Everyone Victor has loved is dead because of the attacks inflicted by his creation. The Creature is not accepted by society because of the appearance given to him by his creator. Neither of them having anything left to live for; they engage in a chase up to the high Arctic where the Creature and the body of his creator disappear into the night. With each of them trying to out-manoeuvre the other, each destroys what his opposite desires the most. In this Life from Death, nothing can lead a true existence.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (1818 ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.