Part of what makes Frankenstein both critically significant and a mainstay of gothic imagery in pop culture nearly two hundred years after its publication is the fact that it features characters whose motives and actions blur the lines between the classic archetypes characters traditionally fulfill in literature. No more is this more relevant than with the monster. While it would be contrived to attempt to categorize a figure as complicated as the monster into a single archetype, the argument can be made that while the monster does not clearly fall into the realm of either a hero or a villain, he can be labeled as the story’s central antagonist. Evidence for this assertion is heavily connected to Victor Frankenstein’s role in the novel.
To understand the monster’s role in Frankenstein, the role of Victor Frankenstein must also be solidified. Although it is instinct to label central characters in a book as either heroes or a villains, in the case of Frankenstein the morality of what can be quantified as good and what can be quantified as evil (which is an essential aspect of heroes and villains), is a line as blurred as the intentions of the characters in the book. Because of this, Frankenstein’s monster cannot be defined as the villain because the novel does not have a real hero, and visa versa. Although some may argue that Victor Frankenstein is the hero of the book, this would be a serious misunderstanding of what the term hero means. While there are obvious variations of the concept of a hero throughout different eras of literature and story, including culturally and geographically, the resounding commonality of the hero concept is a character that embodies goodness of some kind. Traditionally this is defined by courage, fortitude, and strength, but distinctions have been made from character to character. In the case of Victor Frankenstein, the text provides ample support to the notion that he does not embody goodness in his motives or actions. In fact, Victor’s flaws are so evident in the book that the monster himself expounds upon them stating that Victor is his “tyrant and tormentor” and that Victor “shall repent of the injuries you inflict” (Shelley 192). Thus, the character of Victor Frankenstein is the protagonist of Frankenstein, not the hero. In turn, Frankenstein’s monster is not a hero because of his ability to murder William, Elizabeth, and Henry Clerval, which by the standards established eliminate him from being able to embody that role.
Moreover, if Victor Frankenstein is the novel’s protagonist, the monster cannot be a villain, as the presence of a hero is vital to the establishment of a villain. Therefore, Frankenstein’s monster is the antagonist to Victor Frankenstein. This can be argued further because of the fact that protagonists and antagonists do not require moral or ethical stances on good and evil as found with heroes and villains. Conversely, instead of asking, “Who is the good guy in this story”, the role of the protagonist answers the question, “Who is this story about”. With this in mind the character of Victor Frankenstein is clearly the protagonist of Frankenstein and not just because he is the titular character, but also because he is the person by which the storyline is both centered on and moves accordingly to.
This qualification of Victor being the protagonist and the monster being the antagonist is displayed by the fact that Frankenstein’s monster continually creates obstacles and hindrances for Victor. For example, the monster physically inhibits Victor through the fact that his reactions to hearing news or having interactions with the monster result in Victor being overcome by illness. This includes seeing the body of one of the monster’s victims, Clerval, which Victor responds to by becoming sick with a fever for two months, which pushes him to “the point of death” (Shelley 202). He is also directly responsible for the volatile state of Victor’s emotional state, including the death of Elizabeth, before which Victor declares, “were the last moments of my life that I enjoyed the feeling of happiness” (Shelley 221). Hence, the character of the monster antagonizes Victor’s physical and mental wellbeing, and is thus the antagonist of Frankenstein.
To summarize, because of the dense question of the quantification of right and wrong in the novel Frankenstein, the only way to clearly identify which archetype the monster, or any character, in Frankenstein adheres is to remove the complications of morality. By instead using the more general concepts of protagonist and antagonist both Victor Frankenstein and his monster more easily fit into these types of characters. In terms of what this does for the reader in relation to the novel as a whole, this interpretation allows the reader to view the book in a new way. While heroes are traditionally considered superior in some way to their villains, in the case of Frankenstein there is textual evidence to support either side of a debate on whose actions are more justified and understandable: Victor’s or the monster’s. Thus, by establishing Victor and the monster simply as protagonist and antagonist apposed to hero and villain (or villain and hero), the reader can interpret and understand the book without the attachment of assumed stereotypes as to how Victor and the monster fail or excel at assuming hero and villain archetypes, and instead read the novel less in terms of how it fits into the traditional structures of literature, and more in terms of how it does not. This notion also solidifies the argument that Frankenstein, although suffused with supernatural events and themes, embodies the notion that in real life there are rarely clear-cut heroes and villains.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publication, Inc, 2009. Print.