Victor Frankenstein: An Absent Parent

 
 
 

By Jessica M. Natale
 

    Mary Shelley‚s Frankenstein, is a story of dual themes: Faustian behavior and nineteenth century parenting techniques, the theories of Rousseau, and other Romantics. However, this novel focuses on the outcome of one man‚s, namely Victor Frankenstein‚s Faustian motives and desires of dabbling with nature, which result in the creation of his offspring or creature. Unlike Fautsus, Victor was not doomed to failure from his initial desire to overstep the natural bounds of human knowledge. Rather, it was his poor "parenting" of his progeny, that lead to his creation‚s thirst for the vindication of his unjust life. His failure in the creation of his "child," is specifically the creature‚s monster-like persona and Victor‚s own tragic life and end. His creature was not raised and nurtured by himself. The views of Rousseau, Locke, Montaigne and indeed Mary Shelley‚s personal child rearing experiences, concerning the practice of parenting, enrich the reader‚s perception of the parent/child relationship between Frankenstein and his creature. As a "hero," Victor is a hero related to Prometheus Satan and Faustus; they were all heroic in their revolutions yet pathetic in their destinies. However, Frankenstein rebelled but failed in the full execution of that rebellion by failing to follow through, i.e. failing to parent his creation, the goal and direct result of such a rebellion; thus he created a "monster" through his absence of nurturing and love for his progeny.

    In order to investigate Frankenstein‚s thirst for knowledge and motives for the creation of his child, we must turn to the character of Faustus. They both search for the secrets of life. Indeed, Fautsus searches for its very cause and the knowledge how to manipulate it. The protagonist embarks on a classic Romantic Quest, the tenets of which are expressed in the Faust legend, i.e., the consummate desire for knowledge and the tragedies that can arise from desires. Frankenstein states: The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they are unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensation I can remember (Shelley, p. 22).
 

    Frankenstein states that he is not satisfied with previous knowledge. He looks to the past and builds upon it, with his own research and experimentation. He is not interested in the usual subjects of study, in accordance with the same dissatisfaction Faustus expressed in the areas of theology, medicine, law, etc. Both characters look to magic and activities which negate God, as Frankenstein states, "The raising of ghosts or devils, . . . the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought (Shelley, p. 26)."
 

    Other parallels between the protagonist and the Faust legend include their desire to embark upon a new science. They jointly desire real knowledge; as asserted by Frankenstein:

    I at once gave up my former occupations, set down natural history . . . as a deformed and abortive creation, and entertained the greatest disdain for a would-be-science which could never step within the threshold of real knowledge (Shelley, p. 27).
 

    Their fates seem to be fixed from their initial decision to launch into their quests; Shelley writes, "Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction
(Shelley, p. 27)." They both embarked upon their journeys of discovery with no regard for anyone or anything but themselves. Originally, Frankenstein had planned to use the results of his investigations to help mankind; but this focus soon transmuted into an all-encompassing obsession to perform the impossible for its own sake. Therefore, Frankenstien did not take into account that he would be responsible for the goal of his studies, namely the rearing, protection and care of the creation. He certainly did not adequately prepare himself for parenthood. One can infer from the above-mentioned motives of discovery both of Faustus and Frankenstein, they were very self-serving and selfish. They were only concerned with the means rather than the ends of their ambitious adventures of knowledge and discovery.
 

    The creature that Victor created resembles Adam in that they were unique, alone and individual. Indeed, to expand and contrast upon this biblical parallelism, the situation in which Victor‚s creature finds himself, is analogous to predicament of the Biblical character of Adam, the first human being. However there are dissimilarities between the creature and Adam: Adam was given a companion, he was created so there would be an "Adam" and not merely as the fulfillment of an experiment, he received nurtured care and had the presence of a father figure, namely God. Adam was ejected from the garden of Eden, yet he was never deserted by God and heard these words which Victor shouted at his creation: "abhorred monster! Fiend that thou art." Adam is created with benevolent intentions, and is not punished by God until he had violated a law. The creature is not responsible for his abandonment; he is unloved and rejected from the moment of his creation. In addition, Frankenstein never entertained pre-conception loving feelings about his creation. Indeed, the creature never has a place in his creator‚s heart. However, God took responsibility for his creation, nurtured him and never fully abandoned him. Whether God is culpable for Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge is not to be debated; the point of this issue is that God parented his creations and did not wholly desert them as Frankenstein had done with his creation. The creature is created solely from self-serving motivations. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Adam was created in the image of love or something greater than selfishness. God wanted to make Adam and was prepared to act as a responsible parent, namely to raise him. In contrast, Victor never even fathomed the actual existence of the creature, much like resembling an unplanned pregnancy that was never emotionally and rationally dealt with even after the actual birth of the child. One example of this complete disregard, is demonstrated by Victor‚s absolute inattention to the creature‚s physical appearance. He gives the creature an enormous frame and grotesque appearance. He never considered how such a creature would be able to coexist with human beings or live normally.
 

    The creature does not receive love. Despite these unfortunate beginnings, the creature asserts that he was good, despite the absence of parenting and guidance until he encountered society. Rousseau would agree with the creature‚s reasoning and add that moral failings are also due to the lack of a parent‚s love. Shelley alludes to this theory of Rousseau‚s concept of the natural man as a noble savage, born free but in chains created by society which will eventually corrupt. The creature represents Rousseau‚s natural man. He responds to natural needs like any other animal. When he encounters the De Laceys or society, he develops the faculty of rational thought, a consciousness and realizes that he is an outcast. Shelley refers to Locke‚s theories for the creature‚s education. Locke argued that man is neither innately good or evil, but rather a blank slate upon which sensations create impressions which create conscious experience. This "tabula rasa" idea was certainly a commonly accepted Romantic concept of infancy and childhood. The creature first encounters physical sensations such as hot, cold, dark, hunger, etc. I assert that this period is the creature‚s infancy state. He later learns through experience to distinguish, understand and manipulate these physical sensations. His sensative experiences enable him to learn to care and sustain his being.
 

    The creature learns how to speak and the tenets of morality and virtue through observation of the De Lacey family. This acquisition of language enlarges his intellectual capacities. He also reads their library which includes both classical and modern works. However, this education only brings woe to the creature as he states, ". . . sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood (Shelley, p. 105)." To return to Rousseau‚s theory of the corrupting influence of society, the creature did receive an excellent education which only served to alienate him from his state as a "natural man." His other theory concerning the negative impact from the absence of motherly love is demonstrated through the creature‚s eventual destructive and resentful mentality. Montaigne, like Rousseau, advocates a nurturing upbringing. Montaigne, however, investigates specifically a father‚s duty to his child. He writes, " A true and regular affection should spring up and increase with our growing knowledge of them (Montaigne, Book II, Ch. 8., Essay On the affection of fathers for their children, p.139)." In fact, one could presume that Shelley is commenting upon parenting, as I feel that she makes numerous references to the pressures and realities of being a parent. It is ironic to note that it took Victor nine months to create his monster. To return to a biblical reference, Frankenstein resembles Eve through the creation of the monster. Discovering knowledge, as Eve does by eating the apple or Frankenstein‚s pursuing "nature to her hiding places," they both enter into their enterprises
without prior knowledge of what their actions may entail, Victor knows not "eating death."

    This theme of parenting and motherly love emulates Shelley‚s own tragedies, fears and joys with birthing children and their subsequent upbringing. Frankenstein is a tale with Faustian characteristics but it is also a tale of man trying to create a child without a woman. Throughout the novel, in the development and education of Frankenstein‚s creation, she discusses the parallel development and education an abandoned or neglected child experiences, in closely following the nurturing theories of Montaigne. Shelley certainly asserts that the role of parenting is extremely important for the healthy and happy growth and subsequent maturation of a child. Mary Shelley‚s young adult life was besieged by pregnancies, childbirth, miscarriages and death. She bore four children of which only one child survived to adulthood. She additionally experienced a miscarriage which almost killed her. Thus at the time she conceived the novel‚s storyline, at the tender age of nineteen, her first child Claire, had died and her second child, William, was only 6 months old. (Shelley, p. viii). There is no doubt that Mary expected to have more children. Therefore, the issues of pregnancy and child development were the pivotal issues in her own, solitary life (Percy was not very supportive). Thus in Frankenstein, Shelley examines her own trepidation and philosophy about childbirth and child maturation.
 

    The topics of parenting and childbirth had been previously avoided by male authors, as it was
regarded as a taboo subject. Mary‚s explores parent‚s questions through Victor. His actions and
consequently his creation‚s actions answer the parental queries: What if I do not love my child? What if my child is deformed? Could I wish my own child to die? They surface from her and any parent‚s natural fears, concerning possible physical handicaps, a bad tempered child, etc. These questions and fears that Mary felt, are expressed through Victor‚s complete failure as a parent and namely, as a mother.
Upon the "birth" of his creation, Frankenstein does not rejoice or reach out to his "child," but instead rushes out of the room incredibly repulsed by the disgusting and abnormal physical appearance of his creation. The birth itself is unlovingly described, " I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open: it breathed hard and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs (Shelley, p. 42)." When the creature attempts to follow him, Victor continues his escape thus abandoning his child, his newborn. The amount of Frankenstein‚s lack of attention to his creature‚s outward appearance is disturbing. He knew of the creature‚s gigantic proportions. He never considered what would be the results of his actions, i.e, how could the creation coexist with other beings.
 

    Frankenstein admits that the creation of his "child" was an accident or mistake (Shelley, p. 42).
Unlike a parent who would care equally for a deformed child, Frankstein abandons his "child" and all of his parental responsibility. Victor commits the ultimate act of hatred towards his creation, by his outright disavowal and renunciation of all parental ties. Victor is an abuser, who mistreats the abused, namely the monster, who becomes an abuser himself. Indeed, many parents follow this same pattern of neglect and abuse, sadly as Victor does. Here, we can assume as the reader that Mary is commenting upon appropriate parenting techniques and their subsequent importance. Ironically, the creature‚s first murder victim is a small girl which he wishes to adopt. Indeed, Victor wishes that his creation die: "I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed (Shelley, p.76). Towards the end of the novel, the creature has feelings of vengeance and resentment towards his "father," because of Frankenstein‚s lack of parental care. Ironically and interestingly enough, Montaigne states, "If we wish to be beloved by our children, if we wish to take from them all reason to desire our death - let us supply their lives with everything in our power (Montaigne, Ibid, p.142)." Here, one can observe that Shelley explores the plight of the abandoned child, the direct result of faulty parenting.
 

    The creature is fully aware of the absence of a parental figure in his life. His encounter with the De Laceys, displaces him from his "natural state," displays to him the family unit, exposes him to
education, and to the laws and customs of society. The creature understands his alienation from
society. This embitters him and causes his subsequent vindictiveness towards society and Victor. The creature, himself, eloquently describes his plight:
. . . I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome. . . .I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; (Shelley, p. 105)
 

    The absence of love and understanding in the creature‚s life, implies that he would have profited from the additional absence of his formed consciousness. Frankenstein‚s son would have benefited by remaining in an animal-like state in the wilderness. Certainly, Rousseau would be in concord with this statement. The creature‚s greatest and most painful rite of passage was his realization that he was all alone, again referring back to the Adam motif. His father, Frankstein, mimics the behavior of a typical abuser by his total blindness realizing what he has done to his child. My supposition is that if Victor had felt remorse for the trespasses he has committed against his son and loved him, the creature would not have become a killer. The creature would have been able to overcome his other shortcomings if he had someone to love and nurture him.
 

    Faustus and Frankenstein both never contemplated the results of their probing actions into the deep crevices of the secrets of nature. They could only see the excitement and challenge to their ultimate goals. Frankenstein should have paid more attention to his decisions. However, one could assert that Frankenstein, himself, was trying to create a substitute for his own deceased mother. Indeed, Victor was deeply adversely affected by the premature and untimely death of his vivacious and nurturing mother. Perhaps Victor was not in an emotionally healthy state when he made the decision to create his child. Here, Shelley is discussing the pros and cons of contemplation before conceiving a child. It is interesting to think that Shelley, herself, probably never had the luxury of the choice, whether it was due to the lack of family planning technology or her own emotional obstacles.
 

    The journey from Frankenstein‚s Faustian beginnings to his role as a neglectful parent, is a deeply interconnected and richly developed expedition within the novel. My assertion is that the greater part of this work is an articulation of one woman‚s fears or to expand to a greater spectrum, the fears of most parents. Mary Shelley, as a parent, asks the question which all of society and psychology poses: Can an "un-mothered" child who experiences more pain than pleasure, ever be able to develop into a moral, considerate and functional member of society?"
 

    "You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been"
-Victor Frankenstein


© Copyright 1998-1999 Jessica M. Natale
na609@aol.com
Last Modified: July 9, 1998

 

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