Frankenstein: A Warning Against Masculine Individualistic Freedom

Renate Kahlke

In this commentary, I wanted to examine a little further the implications of a point brought up by Matt, Ainsley and Heather in their presentation on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. They briefly suggested that Victor might occupy a space of idealised masculine freedom; given Victor's less than ideal fate and Mary Shelley's Feminism, such a masculine idealisation becomes highly problematic. Victor holds a privileged social position that allows him a financial and social freedom through which he can choose his occupations at will. In choosing Science, Victor's freedom to experiment holds potential benefit, both for him and for Others. However, I'd suggest that it's Victor's overdetermined sense of individualistic Self that results in a misuse of his freedom and the destruction of his social sphere. Victor's specific type of unfettered individualism results in the ultimate danger of individualism: he shakes off the shackles of social responsibility both literally, in his solitude, and metaphorically, in his failure to acknowledge the possibility that his actions might have some social impact. His ultimate and most dangerous freedom lies in that he is free to consider only his own ambition.

In creating the monster, Victor is, in both of these senses, outside the range of society. Quite literally, he moves away from his family (and his social background) to an unfamiliar space; he achieves an extra measure of freedom in his solitude in Ingolstadt. It is through this solitude that he is able to immerse himself in Science. Even as Victor leaves Geneva for Ingolstadt he believes himself "totally unfitted for the company of strangers" (38) but in Ingolstadt he becomes even more secluded, relating that "Study had secluded me from the intercourse of my fellow-creatures, and rendered me unsocial" (55). This type of apparently unhealthy solitude has a reciprocal relationship with Victor's lack of social responsibility. He corrupts the noble pursuit of science that can "banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to death" (33) by focusing on "what glory would attend the discovery" (33) instead of on the social good. Thus, when he finally achieves this early aim of bringing dead tissue back to life, his achievement is entirely narcissistic, excluding social considerations from his personal ambition. Victor's individualistic freedom becomes reckless; he ultimately places neither science nor the social and moral good over his overdetermined sense of Self.

This exaggerated 'Selfness' ultimately leads Victor to 'play God' in creating life but refuse responsibility for that creation. On meeting, his creature begs him: "oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed" (77-78). However, Victor largely ignores his responsibility, at least to his creation, if not to society. True, he battles with his social responsibilities for some time, but ultimately he refuses any responsibility by choosing inaction. Initially, though, he agrees to create the creature's mate on the grounds that "the justice due both to him and [Victor's] fellow-creatures demanded of [him] that he should comply" (113). However, I think Victor's claim that his thoughts are of the happiness of his creation and the safety of his "fellow-creatures" might also be based on a fear for his own safety and personal freedom, though I'm sure his inner-turmoil over his social responsibilities is at least somewhat legitimate. He admits this selfish motive later in the story, fearing that "future ages might curse [him] as their pest, whose selfishness [in agreeing to create the Monster's mate] had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race" (127).

Victor is thus embroiled in a sort of battle between selfishness and selflessness, though he never quite alligns whether the making of the second monster is noble or selfish. I'd conclude that selfishness is the victor because Victor refuses to definitively choose a moral course. After nominally deciding to bow to the "justice due to" both the monster and all of humanity by creating the monster's mate, Victor defers action. Instead of fulfilling what he has called his duty, he allows himself to be "transported to Fairyland" (119) in an attempt to "cheat [himself] into a transitory peace" (121). Even after commencing work on the second monster, Victor proceeds only reluctantly; he is, again, blinded to his surroundings be fear. He relates that: "every moment I feared to meet my persecutor" (126). This fear, I think, heavily informs his final decision, in favour of inaction, not creating the Monster's mate. Victor tries to justify this decision -- much like he justified his initial decision to comply -- on moral grounds. He states: "I had resolved in my own mind, that to create another like the fiend I had first made would be an act of the basest and most atrocious selfishness" (131). His intense fear prior to this decision suggests that perhaps his new 'moral motives' are just another attempt to buy his "own peace at any price".

Moreover, it's a little suspicious that Victor's negative speculations on what he assumes to be the inevitably evil character of both the Monster and his as yet uncreated mate don't appear to be firmly founded. He argues unconvincingly in favour of a sort of Hobbesian 'monster-nature' that is essentially evil. This argument opposes the evidence of the Monster's narrative of his own 'monster-nature' that aligns with a Rousseau-esque vision of human nature which natural man and monster are essentially good; in this narrative, the evil actions of the Monster are the result of a hostile environment. Thus, Victor's 'moral' conviction that he ought not to create another 'fiend' is far less convincing than his argument in favour of creation. So, I'd maintain that final decision is largely selfish, based on his own fear and the absence of the motivating 'glory' that drove his first act of creation. Instead of choosing a moral road, Victor chooses inaction; he neither creates the monster's mate nor does he attempt to destroy that which he has already created. In fact, he - subconsciously, I think - refuses to acknowledge any consequences for his inaction, either for himself or for society. He suspiciously misunderstands the monster's threat: "I will be with you on you wedding night" (129). Victor convinces himself that the Monster's threat extends only to his own person, ignoring the murder of William that should have appeared to him as evidence to the contrary. Instead, Victor proceeds with his wedding, relatively unhindered.

Not only, though, does Victor refuse to believe in the consequences of what I would call his selfish inaction; he also (initially, anyway) refuses any responsibility for his actions. He claims (again unconvincingly): "I was guiltless, but I had indeed drawn down a horrible curse upon my head, as mortal as that of crime" (124). Though this self exoneration sometimes lapses - as it probably should, though I'm not here to judge -- into feelings of guilt, I think it's significant that Victor's refusal triggers the Monster's murder of Clerval. If, as the presentation suggested, Clerval represents the 'ideal poet', then his death seems to represent a death of discourse. In their youth, while Victor pursues science, Clerval is occupied "with the moral relations of things", centering around what might be called social or religious contracts rather than Victor's pure individualism. So, if Clerval's poetry and moral occupations invite a social responsibility, then his death represents the end of these ideals. Hence, though he sometimes proclaims his guilt in moments of remorse, Victor, even on his deathbed, claims his own innocence. Just before he dies, he tells Walton: "during these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable" (165). Instead, he tends to blame the Monster's "unparalleled malignity and selfishness, in evil" (165) as though his creation's actions were no fault of his.

Thus, Victor's actions add up to a refusal of consequences, of responsibility and, as a result, of remorse. I admit that his words sometimes betray a sense of remorse, those moments are drowned by the selfish and self-exonerating voice of Victor's denial of blame. He, remains, to the last, free from feelings of social responsibility. This, I think, is the foundation of Mary Shelley's condemnation of masculine individualistic freedom. The ending of Frankenstein reveals that this criticism exists predominantly in relation to Victor's individualism because it lacks this sort of remorse that seems to imply a level of social responsiveness, if not social responsibility. This ending, creates an interesting reversal between Victor and the Monster. The Monster repeatedly aligns himself with Satan, loosely quoting the powerful lines of Milton's Lucifer, "evil thenceforth became my good" (Shelley 168) at the same time that he contradicts the principle behind Lucifer's proclamation. Lucifer's words are (these, I think, are some of the greatest lines ever written): "So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, / Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; / Evil be thou my good (my italics)" (IV. 108-110). Thus Lucifer's vow in favour of the forces of evil is based on a loss of hope, fear and -- most importantly -- remorse; Frankenstein's Monster does abandon both hope and fear but his remorse is intense. Paradoxically, it is the Monster who is torn by "the bitterest remorse" (170) while Victor refuses it. In the end, Victor's freedom to create in league with his believed freedom from social responsibility makes him not the 'ideal scientist' but a destructive force towards himself, his creation, and his society. Perhaps, as critics have suggested, it is Victor who is the real 'monster' in Mary Shelley's story.

Works cited

Milton, John. "Paradise Lost." John Milton: The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 355-618.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Chatham: Wordsworth Classics, 1999.