Thursday, February 16, 2012

Who's the real hero?

            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. While anybody would admit that these two main characters are not flawless, it is possible to say that they are both heroes in this novel as they pursue the common goal of knowledge and understanding.
            When beginning to debate if these characters are heroes, it must first be defined what a hero is from a very basic sense. The hero does not necessarily have to be somebody who is fighting off a monster in order to save a princess. Many people proclaim they have a hero based on the accomplishments of that person that came from their pursuit of an ultimate goal. This pursuit of a clearly defined goal and the rigors involved in the path to obtain it can describe a hero as much as any other definition. In this case, aren’t Victor and the monster both heroes? These are two characters are constantly at odds from the moment the monster is conceived. It is very easy to cast either of them in a villainous role for some of their appalling actions towards each other. However, that would only occur if this novel was viewed from a more fairy tale viewpoint. This is an older novel made during a time when many intellectuals were seeking new knowledge on a journey to self fulfillment, and there was a great deal of emphasis on the individual. If this man and monster were able to achieve their goals, they could, in theory, be considered heroes for their accomplishments.
If one were to view the monster and Victor through E.O. Wilson’s eyes, he might see that Wilson would see these people as heroes as well. These two characters both cannot accept normal human biological limitation that is placed before them, and they strive to reach new goals for mankind. Jim R. Coleman discusses “Shelley's emphasis on several similar psychological experiences of Victor and the monster, at times described by repeated metaphors, words, and phrases.” In this discussion, he specifically discusses the similarities between the “illumination” of Victor and the monster. He says that Shelley uses the metaphor of light to represent knowledge, and they both use this metaphor when they are describing their heroic moments of intellectual enlightenment. Victor attempts to conquer death by reanimating that which is already dead, and the monster embarks on a quest to seek an incredible amount of knowledge and understanding. Wilson states, “Thus the danger implicit in the first dilemma is the rapid dissolution of transcendental goals towards which societies can organize their energies. Those goals, the true moral equivalents of war, have faded; they went one by one, like mirages, as we drew closer” (Wilson 4). Wilson recognizes that human beings have become complacent in their quest for more knowledge and growth. These “transcendental goals” are very important for the further advancement of the human race, but they have been largely abandoned over time. Part of this is a moral dilemma. Victor is able to overcome this dilemma without much difficulty. “I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit … A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility … If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed” (Shelley 50-51). Victor is able to recognize that some things must be ignored in order to reach new heights. These classical models are used as examples to show that people of the past accomplished these transcendental goals of mankind by going against society and aiming for higher goals. Victor is simply doing the same thing as all these famous men of the past by trying to conquer death. His eventual conquering of death by the creation of the monster from pieces of dead flesh is his transcendental moment where he overcomes moral and physiological boundaries to accomplish a goal that no one else in the world could. It is a heroic moment for him in a more technical sense of the word, and this moment is what defines Victor for the remainder of his life.
            While it is true that the monster commits several unforgivable acts, it is only due to the fact that Victor is standing in its way on the quest for more power and knowledge. From the monster’s point of view, Victor becomes the enemy over time and vice versa for Victor. However, it is important for the reader not to cast either of these characters as the villain. The monster is much more of a hero than Victor in the classical sense of which it is normally thought. The Dictionary defines a hero as “a man of distinguished courage or ability” and “a being of godlike prowess and beneficence.” The monster is certainly a fit for both of these definitions of the word. It is a being of extremely distinguished, and unparalleled, ability, and possesses “godlike prowess and beneficence.” Shelley does not try to make the monster seem like an average person at any point. It is able to learn and gain strength at a speed that a human could never fathom, and it reaches levels of these things that no human ever could. It would not be a stretch to say that it has godlike prowess compared to humans. The monster’s interactions with the De Lacey family also show that it is capable of beneficence. It gains a strong affinity for the family and gathers firewood for them in the nights so they can remain warm. The monster undoubtedly lives up to traditional definitions of the word hero.
In general, it is on a search for knowledge and acceptance into the general community. It begins the novel as a solitary character when Victor runs away from it at its conception, and it ends alone in the world after Victor passes. Due to the monster’s solitude, its only real option is to live alone and attempt to gain knowledge on a search for acceptance. When the monster’s narration first begins, it recalls some of its early life to quickly make it a sympathetic figure to the reader. “I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept” (Shelley 111). The monster originally is cast as a tragic figure with no knowledge or understanding of the natural world, or itself for that matter. Literary heroes often begin their journeys in a down-and-out kind of state. The monster is able to ascend from this incredibly quickly, but the reader’s sympathy allows the monster to come from a place of fright and confusion and rise towards greater understanding. The monster comes upon the De Lacey family shortly after this, and his quest truly begins then. He is so taken with the family structure and the emotions involved. This interest could be perceived because of abandonment by his father as well. It feels the emotions that the family feels and connects with them, “I saw no cause for their unhappiness; but I was deeply affected by it. (Shelley 120). After it begins to develop emotionally, it quickly acquires a taste for intellectual knowledge. It first wants to understand speech after it hears them communicating with each other, “I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds … This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it” (Shelley 121-122). The monster genuinely wants to learn speech so that he can communicate his emotions to others, whoever those others may be. Its journey towards his goal of knowledge continues to move along, and it seems more heroic as its narration continues. One moment of the narration that is incredibly interesting is when the monster begins to learn of human history from readings of Ruins of Empires. It learns of the historical values of human nature and some of the more intriguing cases. The monster states that “Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious appeared the lowest degradation” (Shelley 131). After reading this, it is very difficult not to think of the monster itself by the end of the novel. It can easily be described by all of the terms it sets forth here. However, the monster specifies that being base and vicious is “the lowest degradation.” At that point, it becomes known that the monster is not a despicable being that would intentionally harm someone out of malice. It is simply a creature that desires companionship and commits some terrible acts in the pursuit of that. These positive features of human’s that it describes such as “powerful, virtuous, and magnificent” are traits that the monster aspires for in the novel. It wants to be held in a high regard intellectually and socially, similar to the heroes that are written in the human history books. To obtain this high regard, it must obtain greater understanding of human nature and higher intelligence. When the monster finds the bag of books, it reaches another level of thinking. It relates to all the books it reads, especially Paradise Lost, and gains a great deal of knowledge from these. By this point, the monster has grown so far intellectually it is obvious that it has a much higher capacity for knowledge than any human. The monster never reaches its heroic goal of being understood by humans, and it wanders alone in the Arctic at the end of the novel. This fact in no way diminishes the monster’s life long quest for acceptance. It does, however, accomplish its goal of gaining an enormous amount of eloquence and knowledge in this pursuit.
            From a more technical definition of the word hero, it can be applied to both Victor Frankenstein and his creation. They both have a great deal of parallels in their stories and their quests to obtain a tremendous amount of knowledge. It is difficult to understand either of these men as heroes, but once morals are put aside, they can be seen as heroic figures attempting to accomplish a defined, transcendental goal.
Works Cited
Coleman, Jim R. “Shelley’s Frankenstein.” The Explicator 63.1 (2004): 21. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publication, Inc, 2009. Print.
Wilson, Edward. On Human Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.

1 comment:

  1. I like the approach. I'd like it a little better (at the start), if you pushed yourself farther. Why does it *matter* that the monster and Victor are similar in this way? I think it matters a lot, and that it's an interesting insight, but it would be great if you were explicit about it.

    The following couple paragraphs are interesting but not terribly well organized. The theme of transcendental knowledge is, of course, extremely important in Frankenstein. You are presenting an interesting take on that them, by 1) involving Wilson, and 2) arguing that the monster himself is more involved in a quest for transcendental knowledge than we might immediately understand. Both of these are very good insights, but you mix them up with one another without really explaining why, and you include fairly uninteresting dictionary definitions in the mix, which offer far less insight than you own reading.

    Amidst this so-so structure (in pursuit of good ideas) you lose sight of the text itself. For instance: "it is only due to the fact that Victor is standing in its way on the quest for more power and knowledge." This is something to be proved, not assumed! Moreover, what you're doing relates directly to the most obvious reading of the novel as a critique of masculine/imperial/scientific power - your novelty is that you're implicating the monster in it, but you don't prove that he's implicated!

    You indicate the importance of knowledge at the start, of course, and you do it well. But proving that the monster learns, and that knowledge is important to him, is not the same as to prove that he should be primarily understood as being on a heroic quest for knowledge (like Walton, or Victor Frankenstein). To be clear - I think the approach is great, but it needs to push beyond his relationship with the first round of books for it to work.

    You are making a bold move, by understanding the monster's quest in terms of knowledge rather than acceptance or companionship. But you need to actually *do* more than you do. You spend too much time and effort defining what a hero is, etc., and not enough working through the text to demonstrate your particular claim.

    Your research is uninspired - better research might have helped you focus a little more.