Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Frankenstein and The Monster, Protagonist and Antagonist

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.


  1. This paper is successful in that by the end of it, I more or less believe in your argument. What I would like to see (and you almost start to give it in one or two places) is the definition of "hero" that you're working with. Such a clarification wouldn't always be necessary on this topic, however, as your approach is basically to logically construct from the ground up an argument, the basis of which is that some sense of "good" is traditionally incorporated into the concept of hero, I find myself wanting to know more. At the surface, there are points in the essay that read to be a bit over-simplified, even though I can tell you have put careful thought into this. So let us see a bit more of it. There are so many different definitions of the "hero" and "villain" concepts, and you seem to be operating under the assumption that there is only one clear-cut version of the terms.
    For example, here are some definitions that I can find that contradict a couple points in your paper:
    Hero -"The principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic presentation," "a man who is idealized for possessing superior qualities in any field"
    Villain -"A wicked or evil person; a scoundrel," "Something said to be the cause of particular trouble or an evil" Etc.
    The point is: obviously you could not address all possible definitions of these words (and you are right to hone in on specifically literary uses of the terms) but it would be helpful for readers to know exactly what perspective you're coming from. Also - have you considered the more complex idea of a "tragic hero"? Or "anti-villain" (which might be appropriate to the monster)? It's a good, thoughtful essay, and it is indeed a relatively persuasive argument, but try and dig a little deeper into these complex ideas - it was very good that you did acknowledge the complexity of the moral issues in the novel. A very good start.

  2. Ashli's response covers a lot of material I could say - so while I agree with at least most of what she says, I won't repeat her. What follows is at least kind of a continuation of that line of thought, though.

    Here's the thing that interests me: without really being terribly explicit or clear about it, as Ashli point out, you're defining hero/villain as moral categories, and protagonist/antagonist as amoral or non-moral categories. That's fine, but you're skipping over what are, to me, the most interesting questions.

    If we assume, as you do, that we cannot evaluate the characters in terms of conventional morality (although I don't think that's terribly obvious - we can read Victor as an image of a brutal, tyrannical God, for instance), and chose to strip our categories of moral content, what does that *mean*? What does it mean, in other words, to think of the novel's structure without moral categories?

    The novel so insistently repeats moral claims (in the mouths of various characters, of course) that to ignore morality in favor of other categories is a bold step, not an obvious one. How does that impact our reading? And why is it Victor who gets to be protagonist, and the monster to be antagonist? Is it simply because Victor gets more "screen time"? Or are there other reasons? Through its use of layered narration, the novel asks us to consider its structure and the implications of that structure (that is, the novel is both giving Victor a structural advantage, and pointing out that it's doing so). How does that relate to the choice, or argument, that we should see the novel in non-moral terms, with a protagonist and antagonist rather than a hero and a villain?

    To boil it all down: what does this reading *mean*? How might it effect our reading of individual passages, or of the whole? I want to see implications, not just the (true) observation that we can focus on protagonist/antagonist rather than hero/villain.

    Keep in mind, as Ashli points out, that hero (especially) and villain (kind of) can be more technical terms - heroes need not be good, especially when you add "tragic" "anti-" etc to them.