Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Frankenstein and Responsibility

            A tale of horror and blind ambition, danger, love, and loneliness, Frankenstein proposes theories on a number of things, but readers hear the ring of commentaries on responsibility loudly and ever-presently throughout the narrative. From chapter one, responsibility to one’s creation is explored through Victor’s recollection of the ways his parents doted upon him, saying that in raising him well and with affection they had “fulfilled their duties towards [him]” (24), and as the story unfolds – or, rather, fatally unravels – the reader is left questioning where blame and responsibility fall as the characters tug at the threads of the very same question.
            Shelley uses the novel’s exposition to – not uselessly – provide her audience with some sense of how different people who Fankenstein has encountered take care of their children. Already mentioned is the close affection and care Victor received from his own parents, but we also see a picture of Elizabeth’s foster parents who, unable to take care of the lovely child, forfeited her custody to Victor’s parents. Not only is that an action that shows sacrifices and examination of the child’s needs on behalf of her parents, it shows the Frankenstiens’ magnificent ability to extend their responsibility from that which is rightfully owed to their own child outward to include fostering community and love between others who need it. This little narrative quietly becomes the “ideal” and the backdrop against which the tale of horrible and fatal neglect is set.
            After spending much time toiling obsessively over a horribly prideful endeavor, Dr. Frankenstein at last succeeds at doing the unthinkable: from dead bodies, he revives a larger-than-life entity, something not quite human, but certainly made from human parts and based on the human model, and capable of human cognition and emotion. Though the boundaries between this ambiguous creature and the term “monster” may be unclear, it is pushed well away from any human territory arguably as a direct result of Frankenstein’s irresponsible neglect.
            It is strange that, after spending such time feeling almost as a god to the being which he was in the process of creating, Victor would immediately flee from it upon its first breaths. This was perhaps seemingly a fair reaction, if one considers only the fear and astonishment which Dr. Frankenstein must have felt upon seeing the tall, yellowed, glassy-eyed “deformity” assume life. However, his immediate vacancy of the apartment and neglect of the being was arguably more horrible than even the arrogant act of its creation, because no being with such emotional capacity should be left without any knowledge of its origin or any source of love at what was, essentially, birth. In its tale when at last meeting again with its creator, the monster painfully relays the following: “I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I saw down and wept” (111). Worse still would be his ventures through a forest in which he discovered no man knew how to love him or to be his friend.
            Throughout the novel, Shelley provides multiple anecdotes detailing relatives or dear friends nursing the ill or the handicapped at the expense of personal well-being and happiness. But who is to tend to the misunderstood monster even as it experiences great anguish if its own creator has abandoned it? A being for which no responsibility is assumed is left in misery, and Victor’s true ugliness is exposed at the idea that he would, with great sense of pride, unnecessarily bring to life an innocent creature, which he would then never give any chance for a life detached from great sadness.
            Victor, as of yet, is not fully in recognition of where his responsibility for the horrible acts which his monster committed as a result of his neglect lies. His misery over his “thrice accursed hands” stems from the notion that he created a terrible monster, and any wreckage caused my that monster is as good as blood on his hands. He has not yet realized that he did not in fact create a terrible monster; he created an innocent being which, neglected by his master and abhorred by those around him, has turned to misery, anger, and violence. 


  1. I was very interested in the concept of parenting and responsibility towards a child or in the case of Victor, a monster. It is interesting to note that the doctor abandons his creation not only after putting so much work into it but also with his family's successful history of adoption. And this helps support how you explain that Victor feels so guilty not just for the actions of the monster but for abandoning him in the first place. I think in a revision that maybe you could push further though as speculating more into the original reason as to why Victor left and how that possible reason for leaving effects his later guilt. I mean you definitely suggest it with how scary the monster is but is it a matter of fear that Victor leaves or is it a matter of physical beauty? Elizabeth was an easy child but what about the monster? Also you can probably look into the idea of a parental responsibility and what Victor abandoning implies in terms of a theory. Does this suggest something about being a parent to a difficult child - it may be a stretch but you may want to bring out a broad theory more explicit if you were to revise. Other than that, I think you do a strong job of supporting your opinions with evidence from the book and it is well written.

  2. I think it's important to note that the Frankenstein's relationship with their adopted and biological children is deeply rooted in material privilege, as the novel makes clear. This doesn't make your initial approach wrong - but it's an important context to keep in mind.

    After this point, you make the fairly conventional claim (which is not all bad, although certainly not all good) that we need to understand Victor as the neglectful creator of a innocent, not the unwitting (or evil!) creator of a monster. That approach seems fairly obvious.

    But there is something less obvious at play here. You begin with the claim that the Frankensteins are good, even exemplary parents. Then you jump to Victor as neglectful parent. The weird thing, the not-obvious thing worth exploring (and the potential raw material for a true argument, more ambitious and less obvious than we see here) is one of the novel's mysteryies: why did Victor, raised with such good models, do so horribly?

    If there's a theory of responsibility or of parenthood here, we need to somehow wrestle with how and why Victory was willing and able to behave as he did - without doing so, we're dealing with relatively more obvious, and relatively less interesting questions - but also with a huge, unresolved contradiction.

    Colleen's last couple sentences about parenting difficult children (e.g., disabled/autistic, or perhaps even demanding/brilliant) might provide a strong way to begin addressing this dilemma - it's at least an interesting approach.