Monday, March 26, 2012


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A literary hero may indeed be defined as “a figure noble in personality, who has a tragic character flaw which ultimately causes his downfall.” Victor Frankenstein, however, cannot accurately be defined as a literary hero. I take no issue with Frankenstein’s possession of tragic character flaws; I concede that he has many. Nor do I argue that his downfall was the result of anything but hamartia. Victor Frankenstein’s sole virtue lies in his truthful relation of the sordid story; he describes with grim accuracy his betrayal of Justine, the conscious endangerment of his darling Elizabeth, his craven attempts to flee the consequences of his youthful indiscretion, and the horrifying egotism which led the young Frankenstein to give life to a monster that would eventually destroy him. The willful selfishness Victor Frankenstein displays throughout the novel reveals his personality to be decidedly ignoble.

There are certainly a number of ways in which Victor Frankenstein’s scientific techniques could have been put to innocuous, if not noble, use. Were Frankenstein interested simply in furthering scientific research and contributing to the knowledge of the time, he could easily have chosen to create an animal, rather than an eight-foot-tall humanoid monstrosity with human emotions. His motive for tampering with the natural boundaries between life and death is simple Frankenstein wishes to be a god.

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.

Frankenstein assumes that he will possess the absolute loyalty of his creations, regardless of how he treats them. He wishes to conquer the “ideal bounds” of life and death, but only for the sake of the notoriety and admiration such a feat is sure to bring. He wishes to rule over a kingdom of beings created by his own hand, but does not trouble himself over their happiness or quality of life. In essence, he aspires only to conquer. Fortunately, the day has passed when blunt ambition and thirst for power could be viewed as admirable qualities. We now demand that our conquerors display certain redeeming qualities, such as affection for their troops, bravery, mercy, love of country, or selflessness. Victor Frankenstein is devoid of such redeeming qualities, demonstrating in their place a grotesquely bloated ego that prevents him from thinking rationally, ethically, and nobly about the rights of his hideous creation and the consequences his experiment will have on the human race.

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Just as daydreaming about becoming a doctor will not earn one a license to practice medicine, merely agonizing over one’s moral transgressions will not grant one a heroic character or a noble spirit. Though Victor Frankenstein readily admits to his anguish, his guilt, and his impossible wretchedness, he does not consider admitting his sins to the court that tries Justine for a murder his monster committed. Both his reluctance to take responsibility for the role he played in Justine’s wrongful conviction and his refusal to confess his crimes to either the authorities or his loved ones indicate that he values the public’s favorable perception of his sanity and rectitude above Justine’s life. He bemoans the “timorousness” of the character witnesses called upon in Justine’s defense, but makes no effort to follow Elizabeth’s example, and testify on her behalf. Indeed, Frankenstein’s only physical response to his cousin’s unjust conviction is to excuse himself from the situation

…I rushed out of the court in agony. The tortures of the accused did not equal mine; she was sustained by innocence, but the fangs of remorse tore my bosom, and would not forego their hold.

Though Justine is the subject of the prosecution’s condemnation and bears the resulting punishment, it is Frankenstein’s personality which is truly on trial. We consider Frankenstein’s unspoken defense of his own inaction, and find him guilty of the cowardice and ignobility of character that allows him to observe Justine’s misfortune but dismiss it, in favor of the self-indulgent contemplation of own victim status. It may be that no effort on Frankenstein’s part would have been sufficient to influence the jury or console Justine. But literary heroes are notorious for fighting impossible fights, driven by an innate sense of morality. Frankenstein’s self-pity in the face of Justine’s imminent execution is behavior better suited to a literary villain, not the hero.

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