Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cast as both Victim and Villian: A Tragic Hero

                If we are to examine whether the monster of Frankenstein is a hero or a villain we need a working definition of both.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines hero as, “a name given (as in Homer) to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; at a later time regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal.  A man distinguished by extraordinary valour and martial achievements.  OED defines villain as, “Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crime.”  Looking to the actions of the monster throughout the novel from his moment of conception to the declaration of his own demise we see the monster become the hero of the novel.
            The monster, at numerous points in the text, demonstrates his “superhuman strength, courage, or ability” through his regular feats of strength and dexterity.  The first meeting of Frankenstein and his monster after the brief moment during his “birth” begins as Frankenstein, “beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed.  He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution” (Shelley 105).  Much later in the text after the monster had rescued a small girl from drowning, her father came up and took the child from the monster and, “hastened towards the deeper parts of the wood.  I followed speedily, I hardly knew why; but when the man saw me draw near, he aimed a gun, which he carried, at my body, and fired” (Shelley 158).  So here we have two feats, being able to move at inhuman speeds with precision beyond human and brute strength of fighting his way into the river to rescue a child.  While being shot does slow the monster down, he recovers in a matter of weeks which isn’t abnormal by human standards but he does not seem to suffer for the injury.  The bullet tears through flesh and muscle and destroys the bone underneath and without proper medical attention one would assume that under normal circumstances a wound of this type would become infected.  Furthermore, we would assume there would at least be some loss of function to the arm even if he had avoided infection and yet the creature can continue using the appendage unimpeded.  As early as the opening of the text we know the monster to be moving across the ice shelves of the North Atlantic towards the pole to lead Frankenstein to greater suffering so this creature can withstand conditions beyond normal tolerance of any human.
            While the monster exhibits all the traits of a hero by contrast Frankenstein exhibits the traits of the true villain.  Working off the later use of the world villain, “unprincipled or depraved scoundrel,” we have a young man who makes the early endeavors of his vast education the desire to create life from death.  Already this desire to bring life into death would upset the “natural order of things,” God intended for us to live and die and stay dead not come back as some creature.  The way Frankenstein goes about “procuring” his parts speaks to his depravity,” I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame…The dissecting-room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials” (Shelley 46).  Not only do we have a collection of bits and pieces of people from the dissecting-room but a collection of parts that isn’t even human.  The desecration of either human or animal remains has, especially in modern times, become a very serious crime; by even normal standards many would take exception to his actions and decry them as damning.  The obvious rebuttal to these claims would be the monsters proclivity for murder but I would argue that these acts come not from some inborn evil but rather the consequence of the monsters situation.  Simply put all of these murders were done out of vengeance and what better way to become the hero then by repaying the one who has caused you the most pain in kind.
OED defines revenge as “The action of hurting, harming, or otherwise obtaining satisfaction from someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at his or her hand,” and our monster hero turns his pain into Frankenstein’s pain.  Learning from the De Lacey family of human compassion and sympathy, the monster hopes to find the same feelings directed towards him but after making his case to the elder De Lacey he is beaten and flees from the cottage.  This drives the monster to anger and desperation; he was rejected by the people he sought to join and rejection by the one who created him.  Returning to Frankenstein’s homeland he murders his younger brother then when Frankenstein finally returns home the monster confronts him explaining all that has transpired since his creation and asks for a companion.  When Frankenstein aborts the early work of the monster’s “bride” he vows to see Frankenstein on “his wedding night” and we see the final act of revenge as he murders Frankenstein’s wife.  In the end the monster mourns Frankenstein’s passing vowing to sacrifice himself on his own funeral pyre to end this struggle for good.
Hero and villain, the monster and his maker, both characters as people are more shades of grey then black and white each one performing some deplorable act at one time or another.  Looking to their intentions at the beginning of their stories we see a scientist using corpses to create new life and we see that new life trying to understand its place in the world and find acceptance there.  In the end we see a scientist hell bent on destroying this “evil” he has made and has made to suffer, and we see this monster mourning at the hopelessness of his situation and ending it all.  The hero always makes the sacrifice in the end.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Dover, 2009.


  1. I thought the way that you introduced the concept of "hero" in the first paragraph was very interesting in the way that it suggested a link between being a man and being immortal. I think it would be valuable if you were to expand this paper to perhaps go more in depth into the idea of being a god, hero or superhuman in looking at the monster and even Frankenstein. You may be able to cut out some of the things that you say about the physical strength of the monster as it may be a little repetitive or add something about his psychological and intellectual capacities - as the monster is a two year old quoting the bible.

    Additionally you may want to bring up the fact that you were going to argue that Victor is a villian earlier in the introduction. Again this is another place you could take your paper if you were to expand it by comparing how the monster is a hero and Victor a villian - or how they both are change roles like we discussed in class.
    Your third paragraph on revenge you may want to be a bit more concise with the summary and or connect your theory back to the idea of hero/villian. Do you think that the fact that the way the monster was acting out of revenge because he wanted compassion a heroic justification? Is intention what defines a person as good or bad?
    Also I think that your conclusion specifically the concluding sentence was a bit confusing. The monster said he would end his life at the end but Victor also sacrificed the rest of his life to catch the monster and ended up dying in the end - so are they both heros?

    In summary, I think that you have a lot of great ideas here for a longer paper that you can definitely expand upon. You can go in a lot of different directions and definitely find more support from the book.

  2. I love the OED deeply – but is this kind of historicizing, contextualizing definition of value here? Maybe it is – but I don’t quite get why simpler (less historicizing) definitions aren’t preferable here. Certainly it helps us to understand how the monster might be akin in some ways to figures, e.g, out of Greek mythology – but in that case you might want to say a little more about why the “Homeric” definition of hero is useful or relevant here.

    Regarding your discussion of Frankenstein’s villainy, you don’t pay much attention to the monster’s crimes (dismissing rather than arguing them away), and you also don’t pay any mind to Frankenstein’s own beliefs or motives – in other words, from the point of view of a progress-oriented scientists, what’s wrong with learning from graves? This isn’t to say that you’re wrong – just maybe that you’re oversimplifying a little, by not going into any *depth* where the moral problems of the novel are concerned.

    The last couple paragraphs seem to me to be increasingly conventional – a third lengthy definition was hardly necessary, and you’re mostly just summarizing the plot here.

    The main thing I want to emphasize here is that I *do* think there is merit in looking at the novel through a Homeric (or Latin, or whatever) understanding of what heroes and villains are. You do a fine job of explaining some reasons to understand the monster as a hero in that sense. What’s lacking for me is any sense of why this is important – what does it *mean* to define the monster’s heroism in terms of his capabilities rather in terms of morality? You confuse the issue further by talking about V’s villainy in moral (if rather conventional) terms. This seems to me almost like a contradiction – are we using two different yardsticks here? If so, why? Or do you just want to re-examine Frankenstein through a different understanding of what heroes are – in which case, what do we get out of doing so?

    I think Colleen’s reading supports the idea that the discussion of the monster-as-hero is the thing really worth pursing here.