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Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's Black Theodicy

Milton A. Mays

In The Southern Humanities Review 3 (1964): 146-53.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a very bookish book, permeated with literary allusions, quotations, references, and parallels. From what might have been a literary olla podrida of Romantic themes and types, however, the firm mind of the author has finally drawn a coherent thematic pattern worthy of serious regard. Two great literary sources stand behind this pattern, it seems to me, the Faust-myth and Milton's Paradise Lost. These principal Einflüsse intermingle to the extent that the various actions of the romance -- those involving Frankenstein and Walton, on the one hand, and that of the Monster on the other -- can all be said to raise questions of the relationship of man to God, or nature, or, more narrowly, of universal law or justice.

One of the more interesting of contemporary reviews, that in the Edinburgh Magazine for March of 18181 while admiring Frankenstein, expressed a certain uneasiness as to its import: "It might, indeed, have been the author's view to show that the powers of man have been wisely limited, and that misery can follow their extension." Yet there is something disturbing to the reviewer in the use of the expression "Creator" "applied to a mere human being," and in general something "bordering too closely on impiety" about the work. This writer is very close: there can be said to be two themes to Frankenstein, an "outer," or more obvious, and an "inner," the latter of which the following comments will suggest is indeed impious.

These two themes take their source from the Faust-myth and Paradise Lost, respectively. Frankenstein is more of a chastened Faust, in my opinion, than a Prometheus; the "moral" of his story to Walton, whom he sees as infected with his own obsession, is "Learn from me . . . how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge." Frankenstein is Faustian in his meddling in a bastardized mixture of alchemy and empirical science, out of pride and intellect and desire for glory; but, unlike Goethe's more ambiguous Faust, he is not saved by striving. He admits on his deathbed, after a life of horror, that his studies have been "unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind." {147} Frankenstein has offended against "law" (whether of nature or God -- Mary Shelley does not put Frankenstein in a theological frame of reference); and thus his story implies a just universe, against which he has offended.

Far different, and darker, is the story of the Monster; he is, rather, the victim of universal injustice -- from man, and from his "God," Frankenstein, a god who, after casting him botched into a world in which he inspires horror, abandons him. If behind Frankenstein stands the Faust-type, the Monster's story gains its peculiar resonance from Paradise Lost. The epigraph chosen by Mary Shelley indicates the relation of the romance to Milton's epic:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mold me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

(Paradise Lost X, 743-745)

It should also indicate the priority of the Monster in this work -- for the point of view of the rebellious Adam in no way pertains to Frankenstein.

The inner story of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a kind of "black theodicy"; its secret hero, the Monster, a great Romantic rebel who reflects many Romantic archetypes, but finally stands in most interesting relationship to Adam and Lucifer. The sore Adam who speaks the lines of the epigraph goes on to say, "inexplicable / Thy justice seems . . ." (X, 754-755). Yet Milton's Adam has had a contract with God, as he admits; has "enjoyed the good" provided by this God; is indeed made in God's image, beautiful, happy, and companioned. Such is Milton's "justification of God's ways to man"; Adam's outburst is a temporary one, which must give way to a broader view of the fortune even of his fall.

But the Monster's condition is far worse than, if parallel to Adam's. That amazing autodidact has read Paradise Lost "as a true history," and seen his situation vicariously in Adam's (Mrs. Shelley places her literary sources squarely before us). Adam's state, says the Monster, "was far different from mine . . ." in that "he had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone . . ." This above all: "No Eve soothed my sorrows, nor shared my thoughts; I was alone." (The poignance {148} of this aspect of the Monster's fate reveals the personal emotion of his author, who records "spasms of anguish" at a solitude "no other human being ever before, I believe, endured -- except Robinson Crusoe."2 -- and not only after PBS's death, it would seem.)

The Monster's description of his dawning consciousness might almost parody Adam's in Book VIII of Paradise Lost. "For man to tell how human life began / Is hard . . ." says Adam (11. 250-251); "It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being . . ." begins the Monster in Chapter XI. Adam and the Monster share early sensations of light and dark, sleep and waking, appetency and satisfaction, the awareness of other creatures, such as the birds. But whereas for Adam "all things smiled; / With fragrance and with joy my heart o'erflowed" (11. 265-266) the hapless Monster, born not to Paradise but at Ingolstadt in November feels "pain invade me on all sides" and weeps. The rationality of one creation is further illustrated by Adam's facility: "To speak I tried, and forthwith spake; / My tongue obeyed, and readily could name / Whate'er I saw" (ll. 271-273). The Monster (whose innate aesthetic response to Nature is one of the details which make him such a touching if ludicrous creature) tries to "imitate the pleasant songs of the birds, but was unable." And "sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again." Adam's satisfaction in "perusing" himself as creature contrasts with the Monster's "terror" in seeing himself in a pool: "I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am" and "was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification." Both creatures ask the immemorial questions: "Who I was, or where, or from what cause, / Knew not" says Adam (l1. 270-271), but the Monster's "What was I?" can be "answered only with groans." Little wonder that Adam's "how came I thus, how here" he answers "by some great Maker then, / In goodness and in power pre-eminent," a Maker he desires only to "adore" (11. 278-279, 280). The Monster has access to Frankenstein's journal of his creation, and so knowledge of his creator's purpose and attitudes granted to no other creature, but its effect is to sicken him, and he curses his creator. The Monster's is knowledge with a vengeance: his "god" has been revulsed by him, and has abandoned him. Finally, his condition is rendered absolutely unendurable by his loneliness: "I remembered Adam's supplication to his Creator [for a mate]. But where was mine? He had abandoned me: and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him."

But this true prototype, the Monster sees, is not Adam, but Satan; and if he has less reason than Adam to adore, he is even justified as the devil. "I am thy creature," he says to Frankenstein in that first dramatic confrontation on the glacier above Chamonix. "I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed." Satan, then, is "the fitter emblem of my condition" -- the Satan of Romanticism, proud sufferer of Divine injustice, and rebel against God's power. And, at a level of abstraction beyond this, Mary Shelley's Monster is a type of the Romantic hero-villain, the ambivalent man of "archangelic grandeur" (as Melville describes Ahab) who may be poet, or genius, but is always of different stature from other men, and an "isolato." The Monster suffers "for no misdeed"; his "evil" is the fruit of his suffering, rather than the reverse.

Even if the Monster did not know Milton so well, even if he did not make the analogies of his fate and Adam's, or Satan's, so explicitly, so habitually salt his narrative with literary allusion (e.g., the shepherd's hut appears to the suffering Monster "as exquisite and divine a retreat as Pandemonium appeared to the demons of hell"), Mary Shelley's debt to Milton would be evident in the Monster's character, action, and situation. The "heroic villain" stance of the Monster derives in varying degrees from Lucifer's envy, pride, disdain, and from his central motive of revenge.

Envy is less developed in Frankenstein than in Paradise Lost, which differs from Frankenstein in that the central action is the onslaught of the evil principle on innocence; whereas for the Monster hatred of the "Creator" is kept central. But Frankenstein's Monster does at one point feel "the bitter gall of envy" rise at the happiness of mankind around him; and when his overtures to them are repulsed in horror he recoils from thwarted love into a possession of "rage and revenge" in which he could "with pleasure have destroyed the cottage and its inhabitants," the idyllic family he has come to love in secret. But, as it happens, the Monster does violence to no one not intimately connected with Frankenstein, and, as we shall see, is even in so doing tortured with a self-hatred completely foreign to Milton's Satan. Envy, the base passion, is not so characteristic of the Monster as of Satan. The Monster's revenge is essentially motivated by his sense of injustice, rather than springing from wounded pride; and is directed at the source, rather than diverted in impotent meanness at the Creator's new favorite:

Revenge, at first though sweet
Bitter ere long back on itself recoils;
Let it; I reck not, so it light well aimed,
Since higher I fall short, on him who next
Provokes my envy, this new favorite
Of heaven, this man of clay^nbsp;. . .

(PL IX, 171-176)

But Lucifer-derived is the Monster's "mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery," comparable to Satan's "Who can think submission? War then, war / Open or understood must be resolved" (I, 661-662). The Monster's "proud villain" attributes, his "disdain and malignity," are the more remarkable considering that he shares none of Satan's awful grandeur of person, even thunder-scarred and darkened in Hell; the Monster is created of an "unearthly ugliness . . . almost too horrible for human eyes." Yet if the Monster is not an operatic evil hero, he has a doubleness that is very characteristic of the Romantic protagonist. The Monster's "difference" from most men is to the last degree ambivalent -- to himself, as well as to others. Is he grander, or more despicable? The basest of all, or a superman? Frankenstein's Monster literally walks two feet taller than most, and if he is horrified at himself, he is far from abject: "I was . . . endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they, and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me." I think the Monster indisputably more complex than Frankenstein. By the end of his story we may feel him to have achieved an ambiguous grandeur all his own.

A bitter sense of exclusion from all pleasure, and in particular the sensuous beauties of nature characterizes both the Monster and Milton's Satan. As Satan walks among Eden's woods and rivers he thinks "With what delight could I have walked thee round, / If I could joy in aught . . ." (IX 114-115); now "the more I see / Pleasures about me, so much more I feel / Torment within me . . ." (119-121). The Monster has an inborn sense of beauty; yet it is mocked by the pain he has felt from his first miserable moments, alone, cold, and hungry in the woods; just as his innate benevolence is mocked by man's cruelty at their every encounter. After the Monster has received a painful gunshot wound from a "rustic" whose child he has rescued from drowning, the "bright sun or gentle breezes" no longer alleviate his condition: "All joy was but a mockery . . . I was not made for the enjoyment of pleasure." (Here, as so often, Herman Melville has given supreme statement in modern prose romance to {151} this interesting Romantic theme of the "enjoying power": as Ahab watches the sunset over the Pacific he says "Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne'er enjoy.") Perhaps we can say that this "loss of pleasure," the sense of being excluded from the healthy range of sensuous response is the counterpart of some "cosmic" disorder, perceived by both Ahab and Frankenstein's Monster.

But the more poignant exclusion occurs where the sensuous shades into the human experience: here the Monster's plight far surpasses Satan's: "the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone." Satan is capable of envying the embraces of Adam and Eve (". . . half her swelling breast / Naked met his under the flowing gold / Of her loose tresses hid . . ."), but his attraction remains at the sexual, rather than the social level; Milton's, like Goethe's, is a lubricious devil.

Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these two
Imparadised in one another's arms,
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines . . .

(IV, 505-511)

The Monster's loneliness, on the other hand, is absolute, and his desire for a mate is couched in social rather than animal terms (the popular notion of the Monster as a sexual fiend has no foundation in Mary Shelley's creature). The being for which he petitions his "god," Frankenstein, is one "with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being." Paradoxically, the Monster's very departure on a career of crime -- his murder of Frankenstein's small brother -- springs from agonized loneliness. Seeing the child in the forest, following his experiences of rejection everywhere, the Monster thinks "that this little creature was unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity. If, therefore, I could seize him, and educate him as my companion and friend, I should not be so desolate in this peopled earth." But, after struggling and reviling the Monster, the child is killed when he reveals that he is a Frankenstein. Where Satan's approach to Adam and Eve is with malice aforethought, as creatures weaker and more exposed than God, their creator, and in whose torment he can "interrupt [God's] joy," the rather similar exultation of the Monster on {152} killing William Frankenstein is after the fact: feeling "exultation and hellish triumph" he cries "I too can create desolation; my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him . . ."

The significant feature of contrast between Milton's Satan, who, orthodoxly understood, does his part in justifying God's ways to man, and Mary Shelley's Monster, is that Satan's misery springs from his crime, the Monster's crime from his misery. At point after point the monster offers benevolence and love, is rejected, and recoils into violence: at the house of the blind man, on rescuing the child from drowning, or in his dealings with his creator, whom he acknowledges (with what we may think an excess of fairmindedness) as "worthy of love and admiration." At any point up to the crime with which, the Monster claims, he crossed irretrievably into "insatiable" evil -- the murder of Frankenstein's bride -- he could have been reclaimed by one act of love, one experience of mere justice. Yet even this crime, according to the Monster, occurred only because of the cruel disparity between "haves" and one absolute "have not." After the murder of Frankenstein's friend Clerval in his rage at the destruction of his mate, the Monster abhors himself, and pities Frankenstein. But when Frankenstein marries, the Monster is again overcome with rage: "When I discovered that he, the author at once of my existence and of its unspeakable torments, dared to hope for happiness; that while he accumulated wretchedness and despair upon me he sought his own enjoyment in feelings and passions from the indulgence of which I was forever barred, then impotent envy and bitter indignation filled me with an insatiable thirst for vengeance." Frankenstein's marriage seems a taunt to his loneliness, the insult added to the injury of the destruction of his mate-to-be. This is the superficial parallel of Satan's destructive envy of Adam and Eve's felicity, but with how great a difference in significance! With the death of Frankenstein's bride the Monster seems to cross a watershed, abandoning conflict with his better self to embrace evil as a principle: "Evil thenceforth became my good." The Monster speaks here with the very voice of his great literary ancestor. But the verbal echo of Satan's "Evil be thou my good" serves to underline the difference between Mary Shelley's Monster, outcast from life's feast, and Milton's Satan, who rejects repentance out of pride and ambition.

The concluding episodes of Frankenstein are among the most impressive. We have a pursuit and a revenge, as in Moby Dick, and it is a revenge effected by pursued on pursuer. Paradoxically, the hatred of the Monster, born of thwarted love and abused affection, in the {153} end forms a kind of relationship in itself with Frankenstein, the sole being to whom he can claim a tie. Only a remarkable intelligence in the service of an immense force of poisoned emotion could be capable of the exquisite refinements of torture the Monster exacts from his pursuer. As they move across the face of the globe toward the polar fastnesses of the north, the Monster leaves clues by which he can be followed, taunting messages, even food, and advice as to equipment. Like Hawthorne's Chillingworth, resolved to preserve his enemy Dimmesdale so as to wring from him every ounce of suffering, the Monster draws out his revenge until Frankenstein dies of exhaustion on the polar icecap. Only Frankenstein's obsessive force could keep him following, only the Monster's malignant ingenuity motivate his pursuer: "Come on, my enemy . . ."

It is indeed a relationship to the death, of a kind Hawthorne has acutely characterized in The Scarlet Letter: "It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his subject . . ." So in Frankenstein's death the Monster finds him "worthy of love," and saying "my crimes are consummated" he mounts his funeral pyre triumphantly, to achieve the death wherein "must I find my happiness."

But even in his last moments the Monster does not let us forget that the issue is justice -- a word Godwin's daughter has run through every portion of this work. With scathing irony the Monster defends himself to Walton. All his antagonists, "all human kind" are "virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice." If, as God pronounces in Paradise Lost, III, Satan's fate, and man's fall, but ultimate achievement of grace, all proclaim his "mercy and justice" throughout heaven and earth, Mary Shelley's world in Frankenstein is a dark one in which fundamental injustice prevails among men, and, in the allegory of the Monster and his Creator, between man and God.


1 As quoted in R. Glynn Grylls, Mary Shelley (London, 1938), Appendix E, p. 317.

2 Muriel Spark, Child of Light (Hadleigh, Essex, 1951), p. 5.