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Victor Frankenstein and Owen Warland: The Artist as Satan and as God

Paul Lewis

Studies in Short Fiction, 14 (1977), 279-82

{279} By the time Nathaniel Hawthorne began writing short stories, Gothic fiction was a well established, self-conscious, if not moribund, form of writing. Even forty years earlier, Charles Brockden Brown was able to use and in some measure explode the conventions of Ann Radcliffe's safe method of the explained supernatural tale. As G. R. Thompson's recent book on Poe1 suggests, even Poe (traditionally seen as being most mired in "shabby Gothicism") almost always manipulates and burlesques the stock sensationalism of the horror Gothic tale. Recent studies of nineteenth-century American Gothicism concentrate not on the use of established plotlines and gimmicks but on the ways in which American writers changed the all too backneyed conventions. An interesting example of this redireeting of an established Gothic theme is "The Artist of the Beautiful," Hawthorne's retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus.

{280} There are obvious similarities between these two works. In both, a man sets out to create life, and, in so doing, to perform a godlike deed. In both, the creators succeed: Frankenstein creates his all too rational monster; Owen Warland creates his fragile butterfly. Both Owen and Frankenstein are forced by their desire to create life to abandon worldly happiness. Both lose the women they love and with them all hope of comfortable family life. But, in spite of these similarities, the differences between these two works are profound. For, Frankenstein is inadvertently but inevitably an artist of the ugly, a man justly punished for his hubristic pride; while Owen is rescued from final failure by his author's faith in the existence of an Emersonian God-in-man.

The Gothic novel traditionally placed its evil and courageous acts within a conventional Christian frame of values. This is probably why Mary Shelley, no traditional Christian herself, was willing to use a heavy Miltonic moral scheme in writing Frankenstein. Frankenstein's obsession with the "new and almost unlimited powers" of science pushes him more like a slave than an artist to create a gigantic but morally neutral being. Frankenstein fails as a God when he creates a deformed monster; he fails as a man when he abandons his creation at the instant of its vivification.

Frankenstein's monster is careful in his discussion of his reaction to Paradise Lost to accuse Frankenstein of being the inadequate creator of a failed Adam. The monster, as he himself admits after Frankenstein dies in the frozen North, has been cruel. But the monster's transformation from fated Adam to fallen angel to malignant devil is the result of the neglect of his all too ungodly creator. The real villain of Mary Shelley's novel is the doomed young student who sacrifices his own life and the lives of his loved ones to his lust for knowledge and power. Victor Frankenstein functions in a Miltonic world; he tastes Eve's fruit and instead of acquiring "transcendent vision," he feels the gates of Hell swing wide below him. He becomes a fiend by trying to be God.

From the start Hawthorne's protagonist is concerned not with the creation of mere life, but with beautiful life. Owen Warland fails repeatedly, but his failures are not grotesque. Owen's intuitive distaste for large machines is a sign of Hawthorne's reinterpretation of Mary Shelley's story. Frankenstein's powerful monster is the antithesis of Owen's creation; just as Owen's efforts to "spiritualize matter" are the opposite of Frankenstein's studies in brute chemistry and galvanism.

As Millicent Bell points out,2 Owen's creation of an organic creature associates him with the Romantic worldview; while Peter Hovenden's interest in watches associates him with the eighteenth-century "view of the universe as a logical system of parts." According to eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, the artist is a calculating manipulator of his audience's responses. In this view, the artist is seen as exercising power over people through his art. So, Frankenstein is only pushing an established view of the artist to a dangerous extreme. Owen Warland, on the other hand, is drawn {281} by an intangible idea of the beautiful. His years of toil are an attempt to express in the material world the pure vision of his mind. As such, he is the Emersonian artist par excellence. His final creation is anticlimactic because in order to create the butterfly he had first to achieve a perfect vision of Beauty. To do this, Owen had to become the God that the Emerson of the late 1830's saw in all men.

The one critical debate that has arisen over this too infrequently discussed story concerns Hawthorne's use of irony. Millicent Bell argues that Hawthorne undercuts the apparently pro-Transcendentalist message of the tale by reducing Owen's transcendence through art to the act of creating what is, after all, only a mechanical butterfly. Owen becomes a great artist, but who really cares? Has he not simply given away his life for a bauble? Edwin Cady, on the other hand, sees "The Artist of the Beautiful" as a rare moment in Hawthorne's work of the full advocacy of Emerson's notion of the vision of great men.3 Hawthorne's more characteristic artist is the too analytic Coverdale or the immoral Rappaccini. But in this story, as Cady points out, the irony breaks over the heads of the great mass of men.

This central critical dispute concerning the thrust of the irony in the tale can be resolved by seeing the story as a reaction to Frankenstein. Owen's creation is not pathetic, as Bell suggests, because it is small and insignificant. Rather, it gains in beauty and in excellence when contrasted with Mary Shelley's creature or with the gigantic machines that make Owen sick. Hawthorne's story suggests that by looking for God in a machine, by approaching creation with a slide rule and a test tube, Frankenstein (in the terms Emerson borrowed from Kant) used mere understanding to approach what only Reason and Imagination could make clear. In seeking a vision of the beautiful, Owen comes to recognize the God within himself, and when he smiles at the destruction of his creation it is because the God-in-man is indifferent to the "useful" and even the beautiful things of this world.

Emersonian optimism is not the stuff of Gothic Fiction. Mary Shelley's novel needs its grim, Puritan theology to reach its tragic climax of death and doom. We need not accept the moral that man's efforts to know more are often sinful (although much in the twentieth century supports this thesis) to enjoy the blood curdling horror of the book. Hawthorne's story is not, basically, Gothic; and it is not discussed as such by Hawthorne's critics. Rather, it is a reworking of a Gothic plot to defend a Romantic view of the artist and an Emersonian view of the God-in-man. Of course, Hawthorne and Mary Shelley had much in common. As Howell's famous comment on the real and the ideal butterfly and Crane's social treatment of the Frankenstein story in "The Monster" suggest, the next generation of fiction writers {282} in America spent their energies looking at the surface of life in an effort to see below the social mask not God, but, perhaps an even rarer thing, a morally conscious man.


1. Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.)

2. Hawthorne's View of the Artist (Now York: Dell Publishing Co,, 1965), p. 13.

3. The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1971), pp. 28-31. For a discussion of this story that arrives by way of different evidence at a view similar to mino, seo Mary Sue Schriber's "Emerson, Hawthorne, and 'Tho Artist of the Beautiful,'" Studies in Short Fiction, 8 (1971), 607-616