Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Theories of Blame and Guilt

Frankenstein presents the theories of guilt and blame as interconnecting and interdependent theories. How one feels about guilt is deeply connected to how one feels about blame. From what we have read so far, the characters are quick to attribute guilt to themselves, but unwilling to place blame. The language used to blame one’s self, to take on guilt, is very direct.

When Elizabeth realizes that William has been murdered presumably for an expensive accessory that she allowed him to wear, she says, “O God! I have murdered my darling child!” (72). She directly brings blame upon herself, not blaming, instead, the person or thing which actually committed the murder. Her guilt is causal, not actual. She herself did not strangle William, but she blames an action she performed, or allowed, as it were, as the cause, or impetus of the murderous deed.

When Victor discusses the fate of Justine at the trial, Shelley writes “now all was to be obliterated in an ignominious fate; and I the cause!” (83). Victor presumes that his monster is the one who has committed the murder and thus framed Justine, but he calls himself guilty. He does not blame the monster, but himself, although he says that he had “endowed [the monster] with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done” (77). So, by this admission, should not the blame be on the monster himself, not the one who created him?

This, then, leads to the theory of misplaced guilt and blame. If guilt and blame are two sides of one coin, the misplacing of guilt or blame results in the misplacing of the other. When Justine is falsely blamed for murdering William, she falsely places blame on herself by confessing. Elizabeth and Victor visit the condemned in jail and while she proclaims that she is ready to die in her innocence, Victor thinks “I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation” (91-92). All of this, both guilt and blame, is misplaced, for it should all be upon the monster himself. Once Frankenstein bestowed life upon the creature, and left him to his own devices, he became guiltless of any crimes committed by the latter.

At the beginning of the monster’s tale, does he not give an account of his ignorance of life and speech and morals? Does this not, then, absolve Frankenstein of any responsibility for the monster’s presumed crimes?

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publication, Inc, 2009. Print.


  1. Hi Erika, I'm sorry I thought I had posted a comment on your blog yesterday, so I apologize for the delay in feedback! Regardless, I find that the subject matter, the connects between guilt and blame, was an interesting angle to take. I myself never noticed the subtleties of the characters language when they were referring to their own guilt/blame or lackthereof, so I found that very interesting.
    If I were to improve anything, I think I would expand a little bit more on the opening paragraph, I was a little puzzled when I read through it at first, so if you could go into a little more detail with the theory and how it works before you provide the evidence, I think that would be very helpful in making it easier to understand.
    Also, in the first paragraph you say that the theory states that characters are quick to feel guilt, but are not quick to place the blame on any one person; however, in the fourth paragraph, you state that Victor does place blame on himself. This may be my inability to understand what you're saying, or you might want to go back and perhaps revise your theory or alter your argument.
    Also, I really enjoyed the ideas you proposed in the last paragraph; I think that has a lot of potential, and perhaps if you were to do a revision, you should explore that topic a little more heavily. That's it! I hope that was helpful!

  2. I very much like the distinction between blame and guilt here, and I think that the "causal vs. actual" distinction is perceptive and important. Those are the strengths that I see here, along with an eye for important details.

    And yet, there is a substantial problem, too. The claim that Victor (the creator and abandoner of a "monster") bears no responsibility for its behavior or actions, is assuredly your own theory, although it's related to things that Victor says about himself. Also, the question of the nature of Victor's guilt is at the heart of the novel.

    At the end, you basically absolve Victor of all guilt, which is a bold move. But rather than doing that (or prior to doing that), I'd like you return to the idea of causal vs. actual guilt. If you can make a sustained argument that causal "guilt" should never be called guilt, and that it belongs to an entirely different category than "actual" guilt, you should do so - and explain either why you think that the characters in the novel are wrong, or that Shelley herself is wrong on this subject, where so many voices in the novel vehemently agree.

    One thing I'd suggest that you consider is that there is a theory of parenthood, or of origins, tangled up with the theory of guilt and crime here. When, if ever, should we hold the parent at least somewhat accountable for the actions of the child? You seem to suggest that the correct answer is "never", but this is such a bold and (it seems to me) unusual claim that I'd like to see you make it clearly and explicitly, especially given that both Victor and the monster frame these questions in terms of parenthood.