Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Monster - Villain or Antagonist

            The beauty of the writing in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the intricacy of the main characters. Victor and his monster both lie in ambiguous grounds between hero and villain, and it is up to the reader to decide that individually. The monster is obviously a very deep character, constantly seeking acceptance and increased knowledge. It is hard to describe its exact place in the novel in such black and white terms as hero or villain. The novel itself is not a tale of a hero conquering a villain. It is about a quest for knowledge and the dangers that can be associated with that. The monster becomes more dangerous as he acquires more knowledge and grows, and Victor creates the monster in his search. The film Frankenstein takes this novel and depicts the monster as a purely evil villain with no human compassion or emotion. Painting the monster in that light makes this a very simplistic story and removes all of Shelley’s careful character development.
            The first thing that needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about this dichotomy is the narrative structure of the novel. Walton has a very clear affinity for Victor Frankenstein, and it shows through the narration at different points. It would make much more sense to consider the monster a villain from Walton’s standpoint, as he is hearing the story directly from Victor and considers him an honorable man. The monster is definitely placed under a considerably different microscope when Walton narrates. The monster still certainly commits many heinous acts that could be considered villainous. It murders several people throughout the course of the story to get back at Victor or even get his attention. However, the Dictionary defines a villain as “a cruelly malicious person.” The monster does not fall under that description. It is clear throughout the novel that the monster shows growth and positive human emotions. It constantly attempts to find friendship and desires a life companion from Victor. These are not traits or desires of a strictly villainous creature. When the monster finally gets to speak with De Lacey, it is accosted by Felix who fears his appearance as a threat to his family. As he is attacking the monster, it knows, “I could have torn him limb from limb, as the lion rends the antelope. But my heart sunk within me as with bitter sickness, and I refrained” (Shelley 151). If it was truly a “cruelly malicious person,” it would have been very simple for the monster to perceive Felix’s attack as a threat to itself and fight back. Instead, it was more heartbroken at the fact these people could not accept it because of its horrific physical form. When the monster is narrating the story, it is much easier to sympathize with it as the reader can see how it is able to grow and absorb knowledge. It also sees itself as a friendly creature and “an outcast in the world forever” (149). The narration returns to Walton and Victor shortly after this, and the monster returns to his role of antagonist to Victor. The antagonist of a novel is one who is opposed to the main character. That does not necessarily make that being a villain. After reading the whole novel, including the monster’s narration, it feels like much more a simple antagonist to Victor instead of a fully evil being. Most of the narrative is told from Victor’s side of the novel so it is hard to dispute that he comes off as the protagonist despite the fact he is not inherently a great man. Victor is also aware of how completely superior the monster is to him, and this fear places him in a submissive position. After Victor destroys the mate that he was creating for the monster, they engage in a heated exchange where they each perceive the other as the villain in this situation. The monster sees the scenario as Victor intentionally denying him happiness, and Victor believes that he cannot risk creating another monster for the fear that something terrible can happen if there are suddenly two of these superior beings. From the reader’s standpoint, it seems they are both in the wrong as the monster is alone and Victor is threatened by death. However, neither of the characters were doing anything particularly villainous in their acts. Even the monster’s threat of violence was based in his passion for companionship that it makes clear to the reader. Victor and the monster both commit terrible acts and have detrimental flaws, but they should not be described in terms of villains as it would be known in a normal sense. They are two beings that are in opposition, and they both desire personal happiness and transcendence. The monster is just an antagonist to Victor, not a villain.


  1. Working to tighten up your thesis can help you focus your paper. I like where you are going not attempting to side with one character as a true hero or true villain and that the characters seem to operate in more fields of grey. I would drop the mention of the film Frankenstein/monster since you aren't doing a comparison piece between those two depictions but rather a character study. When you bring up the master/slave dom/sub relationship between Frankenstein and his monster I think that presents a really good point that you can expand upon. The transmission of knowledge in the text through the various levels of narration and retelling is an interesting direction to take your paper. You have a lot of different ideas running through this paper that you could pin down to one really solid argument. Once you can tighten up your thesis it will make the rest of the paper much easier to write.

  2. Thanks for the advice. I've always had a tendency to get a little unorganized in papers. I'll need to work on that a bit more.

  3. I see two main things going on here. First, I see an essay which is arguing that the monster is an antagonist, not a villain. This is a perfectly reasonable argument, albeit a rather straightforward and unambitious one. It works fine, but could benefit from more attention to details of the text (maybe focusing especially on moments which raise possible problems for your argument – e.g., the actual moment of abandonment, which arguably makes Victor into the villain himself, or the monster’s most brutal moments, e.g., the murder of Elizabeth, or of William. In other words, this is a reasonable, perhaps somewhat easy essay which could benefit from focusing on the hard parts more than the easy parts.

    There’s also a possible essay here. You begin by talking about heroes in terms of a *quest*, and you argue that the monster is seeking/questing for knowledge, understanding, etc. This revisionary reading of the novel would make the monster (or perhaps *both* the monster and Frankenstein) heroes in a technical rather than moral sense, as individuals seeking after difficult, evasive, and clearly defined goals.

    I like this second approach a lot, but really, you’re only gesturing at that argument, rather than doing it.

    So I see two things here: a decent and somewhat underdeveloped essay, and a potentially outstanding essay which exists only in its outlines, not at all in its details.