Contents Index

Will and Fate in Frankenstein

John R. Reed

Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 8 (1980), 319-38

{319} When Captain Walton, asserting his confidence that he will succeed in discovering the North Pole, exclaims in Frankenstein, "What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?" his optimism, strongly resembling Victor Frankenstein's youthful assurance, must be measured against Frankenstein's final estimate of his own career: "Nothing can alter my destiny: listen to my history, and you will perceive how irrevocably it is determined."1 Thus, in the first pages of Mary Shelley's novel, two basic human attitudes oppose one another; Walton asserts a belief in free will and the power of man to impose his will upon nature, while Frankenstein suggests that human life is determined by circumstance and therefore follows a necessary and irreversible pattern. Ironically, it is the man who has succeeded in demonstrating an entirely unique power who feels destined, while Walton, who has as yet achieved nothing, is convinced of man's limitless freedom. In a tale which seems to describe the triumph of human will, the true theme is self-enslavement. While its ostensible subject is the pursuit of knowledge, its real concern is human ignorance and folly. Those with the vastest plans lack breadth of vision and are victims of unforeseen events. More painfully, it is those who express their ambitions who suffer the deepest agony of unfulfillment.2

Each of the narrators in Mary Shelley's novel -- Walton, Victor, and the Creature -- is a self-enslaver and victim of impulse who rivets his chains through his own blindness. Mary Shelley may have meant to emphasize the importance of this theme of self-enslavement by mentioning Count de Volney's famous Les Ruines; ou, Méditation sur les révolutions des empires (1791) as a prominent part of the Creature's education. Volney's work took up the grand subject of mankind's struggle for improvement against the limitations of his own nature. Self-love, he says, is the source of happiness. and perfection when it is equivalent to self-respect, but, when disordered, it is the source of all sorrow as well. Impetuous self-love strives against other men; legislation and social laws act to restrain that wildness. Whereas ancient societies cohered and survived through principles of necessary equality, it was egotism that brought the collapse of later empires. Volney concluded that the primordial basis of all law was in the natural truth that all men are equal, free, and independent and that therefore liberty and equality are the foundations of happiness in society. While convinced that man was improving and could achieve a better world, he believed that man was inveterately his own enslaver because he could not control his impulses. Using the example of religion, Volney showed how man relinquished authority to a force beyond himself, thereby assuring the servile condition his impulsiveness engendered.

But such is the human heart. A little success intoxicates man with confidence; a reverse overturns and confounds him. Always given up to the sensation of the moment, he seldom judges things from their nature, but from the impulse of his passion.3
These words could easily be taken to describe Victor Frankenstein. But all three narrators of Frankenstein are self-involved, ambitious, and beset by illusions. The foundation of their ambitions and illusions is self-love. All three are egoists who, in varying degrees, ignore the truths of natural law. It was man's waywardness that brought him to grief, the failure to accept a steady and patient improvement of human circumstances, Volney argued. Freedom came with the recognition of equality. This steady but constant change is the immutable law that Elizabeth comprehends. The craving to exceed that law is the rudimentary sin which leads to sorrow. The aspiring will is its own jailer. {321} Ambitious self-love was a familiar characteristic of the Romantic hero. This wilfulness had its sober critics, among them Mary Shelley's father. In Thoughts on Man (1831), William Godwin condemned the irrational selfishness of undisciplined humanity.
The original impulse of man is uncontrolableness. When the spirit of life first descends upon us, we desire and attempt to be as free as air. We are impatient of restraint. This is the period of the empire of will. There is a power within us that wars against the restraint of another. We are eager to follow our own impulses and caprices, and are with difficulty subjected to those who believe they best know how to control inexperienced youth in a way that shall tend to his ultimate advantage.4
Godwin felt that man's native wildness arose from his restless sense of the incompatibility of mind and body. "The human mind," he wrote, "is a creature of celestial origin, shut up and confined in a wall of flesh. We feel a kind of proud impatience of the degradation to which we are condemned" (Godwin 99).5 This proud impatience, he added, might lead to revery, castle-building, and pursuits of hidden knowledge, including "necromancy, sorcery and magic" (Godwin 104). It was the business of education to tame man's recklessness.

The three narrators of Frankenstein are all impatient, self-willed, and eager for knowledge. As we meet them, they are progressively outlandish. Walton is the first and most nearly normal. His aims are humanly approachable, though eccentric. He admits to his sister that "there is a love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects" (21-22), which he himself describes as "day dreams" (15, 19), admitting that they lack discipline. With little reasoned evidence, he assumes that the North Pole will be a region of "beauty and delight," not the "seat of frost and desolation" (15), and imagines that its wonders will be as splendid "as the phenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes" (16). Undoubtedly, {322} Walton says, thereby revealing that his anticipations are certainly projections of desire, not conclusions based on examination of facts. He has no way of determining the state of the heavenly bodies; no more can he predict a world of beauty at the North Pole.6

Walton's quest for the Pole is largely an arbitrary choice and resembles his earlier ambitions. "I also became a poet," he says, "and for one year lived in a Paradise of my own creation . . ." (17).7 Disillusioned at the end of that year, he abandoned his aim to find a place among the Homers and Shakespeares of the past. In truth, Walton has no genuine aim, but is driven by a vague but impulsive will to excel, to make his mark in the world, to signify. While cataloguing the jumbled motives for undertaking his journey -- the discovery of new knowledge, the satisfaction of curiosity, the glory of being the first to tread the hidden world, the desire to benefit mankind -- he incidentally states what is perhaps the most significant reason when he says, "nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose -- a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye" (16).

Walton is instinctively aware that his day dreams require regulation. His perception is correct; it is his aim that is outrageous. There is a dark but unperceived caveat in his declaration that his resolutions to discover the Pole are "as fixed as fate" (21). By binding his will in this manner he creates his fate. Fate is fixed because men of inflexible intent make it so. But Walton is not so committed as he seems. He fondly remembers the domestic comforts of home and regrets the absence of a friend, some sympathetic mind, who might understand his yearning. And, just as Mephistopheles promptly attends Faust when that heartsick mage expresses his desire for release from the triviality of his world, so Walton's alter ego miraculously responds to his summons amidst the wastelands of the Northern Sea.8 Unlike Mephistopheles, Walton's companion comes not to encourage him in his quest, but to warn him against it, using his own history of "occurrences which are usually deemed marvellous" (30), to provide Walton with an apt cautionary tale. His has become that fixed fate that Walton only contemplates.

Victor Frankenstein is far more exceptional in his gifts and his ambitions than Walton. He is more forceful and more profound. Though he can forewarn Walton, he has been the victim of the same wilfulness and egotism that he wishes to correct in his naïve companion. Walton has not deeply pondered his contest with Nature; Frankenstein has eagerly examined his. While his childhood companion, Elizabeth, was content with the appearances of things, he precociously delighted "in investigating their causes," desiring "to learn the hidden laws of nature . . . " (36). But his "bright visions of extensive usefulness," prompted by a sense of man's dominating will, were gradually transformed "into gloomy and narrow reflections upon self," until now Frankenstein regrets "the birth of that passion, which afterwards ruled my destiny" (38). Frankenstein's "passion" was, of course, his desire to discover the secret of life, a project immeasurably greater than Walton's and on an entirely different scale. Walton's is geographical, Frankenstein's metaphysical. Walton seeks an answer in the world of matter; Frankenstein aims to penetrate beyond matter to its animating source. Both men, by creating specific goals to which they dedicate themselves, fix their own fates.

Frankenstein claims that he made the choices which set him in his course, but at the {324} same time implies that that course was unavoidable. This apparent contradiction concerning free will and fate is partly resolved by a passage in chapter ten which summarizes Frankenstein's dismay. Torn by remorse, he finds relief in contemplating the magnificent scenes of nature near the glacier of Chamonix. His pride chastened and his grief temporarily subdued, he reflects upon the unique character of man.

Alas! why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows, and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us. (97)
At first Victor's conclusion seems paradoxical, making reasoning man less free than unreflecting animals; but certain Necessarian arguments that William Godwin put forth in his Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793), which Mary had read in the fall of 1814 and again in April 1817 when she was revising her novel, make Victor's assessment more intelligible. Godwin assumed an absolute rigor in the law of cause and effect, but distinguished between the operation of that law in physical nature and in the human mind.9 His reasoning is in some ways peculiar, for while he argues that "the actions and dispositions of mankind are the offspring of circumstances and events, and not of any original determination that they bring into the world," he also insists that "the great stream of voluntary actions essentially depends, not upon the direct and immediate impulses of sense, but upon the decisions of understanding."10 All of nature is governed by a law of necessity, but this law has more than one manifestation, since actions can be both voluntary and involuntary. Unreflective life is driven by impulse alone; its actions are involuntary. Only man is capable of voluntary actions because these actions depend upon choice, a determination of the intellect. And yet, being the results of preceding acts, the voluntary actions prompted by thought are themselves necessary. Hence, while material nature is determined by material causes only, man, who is both mind and body, is determined by mental as well as physical causes. He is {325} therefore less free because subject to a greater number of determining forces. An animal's necessity follows from its physical impulses, but a man can create a destiny from his own mind. It is in the complex irony that the mind which creates the illusion of freedom is at the same time the source of man's most acute agony through its ability to perceive a bondage that it has itself begotten that the true dilemma of Mary Shelley's novel resides.11

But it is in the human imagination as well that the cure for that agony can be found. It is no accident that Victor Frankenstein has his vision of human frustration at Chamonix, for Percy Shelley had offered a speculation -- not unlike Godwin's, though in poetic terms -- that might have ameliorated Frankenstein's suffering.12 In "Mont Blanc," Shelley pictured the great power of human imagination. "The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind," much as the forces of nature flow through the Ravine of Arve (lines 1-2). He states the resemblance overtly, noting that in the ravine his mind "passively / Now renders and receives fast influencings, / Holding an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around . . ." (37-40). The waterfall in the ravine seems to veil "some unsculptured image" (27) but when the poet looks upward to the snowy peak of Mont Blanc, the veil of life and death seems to be drawn aside and he sees in the mountain rising above the turmoil where he stands a symbol of power and serenity "which teaches awful doubt, or faith {326} so mild, / So solemn, so serene, that man may be, / But for such faith, with nature reconciled . . ." (76-79). This power dwells apart "in its tranquillity, / Remote, serene, and inaccessible . . ." (96-97). Not only can the human mind imitate this grandeur, the grandeur itself does not exist without the power of imagination to figure it.

The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy? (139-44)13
Victor Frankenstein's great error is that, though he can feel the force of life raging through the world below, he never lifts his eyes aloft to learn the lesson waiting there for men. Bitterly aware of his contributions to his dreadful destiny, he never fully comprehends his own failings. Near the end of his life, he says to Walton: "From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition. . . . Despondency rarely visited my heart; a high destiny seemed to bear me on, until I fell, never, never again to rise" (211). There was no more reason for him to have believed in that high destiny than later to believe in an evil one, just as, at a more immediate level, there is no more reason for Walton to believe in an edenic North Pole than to assume that the stars are filled with wonders. Both men, out of their unrestrained imaginations, have concocted dangerous illusions. Both have been driven by an intellectual impulse, but neither has considered the simple fact that mental as well as physical actions have their inevitable consequences. They have not realized that their imaginings beget acts and that their acts beget results which they name fate. This is the immutable law.

Frankenstein desired to search out the "secrets of heaven and earth" in "the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of {327} man . . ." (37).14 While he succeeded in understanding the one, he never fathomed the other. It is the soul of man that he cannot comprehend, as his account of his own life shows. Frankenstein is never certain where choice and chance separate. As his story continues, he more frequently and overtly pictures external influences guiding his destiny.15 At one point, he suggests that his ideas might "never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin" (29), if his father had explained that Cornelius Agrippa's occult writings, by which young Victor was fascinated, were obsolete. Missing the important lesson that he has pursued with feverish sincerity secrets that men have found false, he responds with anger, not humility. He is not chastened to recognize the limits upon men's minds and the dangers of the unregulated imagination.

Later, Victor seems almost perverse in resisting the invitation to a kinder fate. Witnessing a tree shattered by a thunderbolt, itself almost a providential sign, Victor experiences a temporary revulsion from occult interests, turning instead to mathematics, which gives him a sense of "tranquillity and gladness of soul" that should indicate the correctness of this new choice.16 Frankenstein describes this event as the last effort by the "spirit of preservation" to avert the impending evil. But, he adds, "Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction" (42). There is no spirit of preservation nor any destiny, but Victor has now come to locate the forces driving him entirely outside himself. He declares that when he went to Ingolstadt to continue his studies, "Chance -- or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction," held sway over his life and led him to M. Krempe (45). But Professor Krempe merely corrected Victor's impressions about the out-dated writers in whom he had been so interested. Next Frankenstein claims that it was Professor Waldman who spoke "the words of fate" inimical to him, and which "decided my future destiny" (48-49). In fact, Victor has no clear perception of the causes of his fate, which are mainly within himself, not in external things. He himself has said that his "temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement" and given to caprice (37). He is as changeable as Walton till he strikes on his dominating scheme.

{328} It is ironic that Frankenstein, often taken as the archetypal scientist, should destroy himself by ignoring the principle of cause and effect, which is the very basis of scientific method. We need not fear that we are imputing to Mary Shelley an outlook available only to our own times, for Richard Hengist Horne wrote of Frankenstein in 1844:

The Monster created by Frankenstein is also an illustration of the embodied consequences of our actions. As he, when formed and endowed with life, became to his imaginary creator an everlasting, ever-present curse, so may one single action, nay a word, or it may be a thought, thrown upon the tide of tune, become to its originator a curse, never to be recovered, never to be shaken off.17
By failing to recognize the elementary reality of consequences, Frankenstein blinds himself to the inevitable pattern of cause and effect within himself and to relations in the external world as well. Of simple necessity he fabricates a malign fate. Looking back, he can instruct Walton that 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 tranquillity," and claims that if man never allowed his pursuits to interfere with tranquillity, Greece would not have been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, and the Americas would not have been discovered so violently (55-56). But, though he can give this advice, he remains incapable of abiding by it himself. Though he can recognize the law of being, he does not submit to it.

In An Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793) and in Thoughts on Man (1831), Godwin argued that man's true freedom lies in his ability to achieve a condition of equality and equability among his kind. His daughter seems to have agreed with this view, and her novel demonstrates the folly of those who do not.18 Frankenstein had every opportunity to succeed in this way. By his own testimony, he enjoyed a perfect childhood and was surrounded by models of benevolence in his generous and thoughtful parents. It was through no rejection of or by his family that he turned to arcane researches, but solely through the impulse of his imagination. Provided with the intelligence, abilities, and resources to contribute to the welfare of his kind, Frankenstein is impelled instead to go beyond the normal channels of improvement which attract his sensible counterpart, Clerval. It is with this break from the normative human community that Frankenstein begins to fashion his destiny, for the act of separation is itself alien to the natural laws that govern man.19

{329} Frankenstein violates the principles of useful behavior set down by Volney and Godwin, for though he declares that his ambitions will benefit mankind, it is clear that what he craves is selfish gratification. In an early experiment, he sets out to discover the philosopher's stone (capable of transmuting lead to gold) and the elixir of life, but quickly abandons the first in favor of the second. "Wealth," he explains, "was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" (40).20 Lust for fame drives Victor Frankenstein just as it drives the inferior Walton. It is the source as well of Victor's subsequent desire to control the forces of life and death. "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" (54). In fact, Victor's relationship with his gruesome offspring is a perversion of parenthood.

Mary Shelley's novel offers several models to encourage the renunciation of extraordinary ambition in favor of communality. Clerval, Victor's level-headed friend, is one spokesman, but it is Elizabeth, the novel's central representative of placidity, who provides Victor with an image that could save him. In a letter urging Victor to return home, Elizabeth recounts the promising history of Justine Moritz -- an ominous note, since Justine's fate will soon demonstrate the injustice and sorrow that are a part of man's condition. Elizabeth's letter also contains a significant testament to the proper order of society. "The blue lake, and snow clad mountains, they never change; -- and I think our placid home, and our contented hearts are regulated by the same immutable laws" (64). In "Mont Blanc" the snow-clad mountain symbolized the power of intellectual and emotional serenity above the ruck of the world. On a more modest level, similar images from nature provide Elizabeth with models for regulation extending from the individual and family to society at large. "The republican institutions of our county have produced simpler and happier manners than the great monarchies that surround it," Elizabeth writes, adding that the elimination of severe class distinctions has refined the manners and morals of the common people (65).21 She implies that the Swiss suffer no great pains and injustices because they have governed their ambitions and aspirations and determined to live in reasoned restraint with one another. {330} An immutable model of tranquillity: the peaks of Mont Blanc as seen from Chamonix, in a lithograph by Jules L. F. Villeneuve, from Lettres sur la Suisse by M. Raoul-Rochette and G. Engelmann (Paris: Engelmann 1826) I plate 15 -- Prints Division, The New York Public Library

The day of Frankenstein's marriage, which he says "was to fulfill my wishes and my destiny" (192), provides another emblem of the proper course for men and nations. Again it is presented in terms of Switzerland's natural setting, and its placid, egalitarian principles. Looking across Lake Geneva, the newlyweds "saw the mighty Jura opposing its dark side to the ambition that would quit its native country, and an almost insurmountable barrier to the invader who should wish to enslave it" (193). The caution to restrain undue ambition is clearly written in nature. But very shortly Elizabeth will be dead and Victor's "enslavement" complete, the outcome of his {331} overweening ambition, the result of his inability to read the signs of nature and of man correctly. Victor has looked into nature, but not at it. When possessed by his experiment, Victor's "eyes were insensible to the charms of nature" (55), and he became indifferent to his closest friends and relatives. All the horror that followed stemmed from that ignorance of natural law. Frankenstein's mighty act of will, because it opposes him to the natural course of things, inevitably leads to frustration and enslavement. In a more destructive version of Walton's pattern, he flees from domestic communality to the icy wastelands of human emptiness and sterility.

Having set out to be master of nature, Frankenstein becomes the vassal of his ambition, embodied in the Creature who is the product of his successful experiment.22 Through his intellect, Frankenstein sought to subdue nature; but now his mind is fettered by the material consequences of its own imaginative effort.23 The Creature is the necessary effect of that mental act. It is literally the fate that Victor has made for himself. Victor had begun life with ostensibly benevolent intentions and felt that a "high destiny seemed to bear" him on (211).24 Now the exorbitance of his ambition makes his failure signally degrading. "All my speculations and hopes," he laments, "are as nothing; and, like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell" (211). The high destiny he once imagined for himself, the benevolent and positive act of creating life, has turned into its opposite. Whereas he once sought to create life, he now is determined to destroy it. Whereas the distant goal that led him on contained the promise of improvement, affection, and fulfillment, it now promises only annihilation. Frankenstein's single purpose becomes the need to cancel out his lone achievement: "I must pursue and destroy the being to whom I gave existence; then my lot on earth will be fulfilled, and I may die" (212).

Like Frankenstein, Walton and the Creature have models of tranquillity. Walton respects his sister Margaret's domesticity, and the Creature cannot forget the idyllic contentment of the DeLaceys, which he was instrumental in destroying. But none of these three adventurers can rest in tranquillity. Walton rejects a life of comfort and luxury for a material quest. Frankenstein, turning from his best influences, seeks a {332} metaphysical adventure. The Creature, eager to rest in calm and peace with DeLaceys, ends in a pursuit of his own origins. It is longing that makes him approach the DeLaceys, thereby ending his secret happiness among them, and longing that impels him to seek out his creator. Different as their individual circumstances may be, each of these figures turns most decidedly from tranquillity toward the turmoil of a quest, and in doing so calls in question the nature of the human will.

Frankenstein ends as the slave of his creation, impelled toward utter negation, but the Creature is no more free than his doomed creator. Walton was an example of an ordinary man possessed by a humanly extreme objective; Frankenstein exemplified a superhuman craving for transcendental knowledge and power; but the Creature is almost allegorical abstraction. He may be seen as a pure experiment to test Godwin's theory that men are fashioned by circumstance.25 The Creature begins as neither monster nor man and he remains appropriately unnamed. He is brute creation forced to an ontological pursuit. He is as much grander and more vicious than Frankenstein as Frankenstein was more brilliant and unwise than Walton. More obviously than Walton or Frankenstein, the Creature has been open equally to free choice and to determining circumstance. After an initial apprenticeship of the senses, the Creature enjoys a crude type of education by observing the DeLaceys. While the Creature is free to elect the conditions of his education, he passively accepts the information available. Walton and Frankenstein, more subject to the advice and guidance of others, wilfully choose their own ways, but encounter their determining ideas in an equally haphazard fashion. "My education was neglected," Walton declares, explaining that he came upon histories of voyages that enchanted him by accident in his uncle's library (16). Frankenstein "chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa" at an Inn where his family was detained by bad weather. His father "was not scientific," and left his son to educate himself in the studies that interested him most (39-40).

The Creature actually enjoys the most organized education of the three. Like Frankenstein and Walton, he develops "dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment" (221). When he attempts to take control of his life, however, he discovers the elementary human fact that individual men do not control their destinies. The Creature can never join the human community because of what he is. What Walton and Frankenstein have consciously rejected, he could never have had. He is born outcast, no {333} matter how much he yearns for the sympathy of fellow beings. Denied this sympathy, he turns his considerable powers to destruction. He is the living lesson to correct the fundamental error of his creator and Walton. This is what existence is outside the human community. Walton clings by a thread of correspondence to his beloved sister. Frankenstein has his family, Clerval, and Elizabeth. The Creature makes the final point of absolute isolation. He is identified with mountain and arctic waste and sterility because he represents the power and distance associated with these symbols, but he is the reverse of what Mont Blanc should be. He is Mont Blanc conceived by a madman.

But at what point has the Creature determined his own fate? In a review of his wife's novel published posthumously in 1832, Shelley pictured the Creature's crimes as "the children, as it were, of Necessity and Human Nature," and described the Creature himself as "an abortion and an anomaly," with a mind early framed for affection and moral sensibility, and a character capable of benefitting society. Shelley concluded that the Creature's "original goodness was gradually turned into inextinguishable misanthropy and revenge."26 Beginning in what appears to be utter freedom, the Creature soon demonstrates how iron those frequently mentioned immutable laws of nature are. Like Frankenstein, he recognizes moral rule, but he does not act by it. Like Frankenstein, he directs his powerful energies not to creation, but to destruction. Like Frankenstein, he is forced to admit that despite his superb intelligence, he "was the slave, not the master, of an impulse, which [he] detested, yet could not disobey" (220). And like Frankenstein, he compares himself to Milton's fallen creatures (221, 129)

The misfortunes of Lucifer and Adam, which Mary Shelley made a significant part of her story, are aptly analogous to the fates of Frankenstein and his Creature, for they are the results of unwise ambition.27 Unsatisfied with God's order, Lucifer aspired beyond his station and was cast into Hell, being doomed thereafter to work only through negation, knowing that his destructive acts would always serve the ends of {334} Providence. Like Lucifer, Adam fell by presuming to a power forbidden him by God. Raphael specifically tells Adam that God has left him the power of perseverance in good, "ordained thy will / By nature free, not over-ruled by fate / Inextricable, or strict necessity. . . ."28 Through his free will, Adam opposes his will to God's rule. In doing so he begets his fate. Once made, Adam's choice engenders a necessity unalterable except by divine intervention. In Frankenstein, there is no divine intervention. Because Frankenstein seeks knowledge beyond the range of his tranquil and domestic Eden, he destroys that Eden and himself. The Creature, a victim of disrupted order, begins his career after the Fall. In other respects, his history resembles his creator's and is a comment upon it.

The pathos of these similar careers lies in the fact that Victor and his Creature believe that their destinies should have been other than they are. "I was formed for peaceful happiness," Frankenstein says at the same time that he declares "I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul. . . ."29 The foreshadowed doom has come to pass and a high destiny has been replaced by grief. The Creature also laments: "My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change, without torture such as you cannot even imagine" (219-20). Both believe that there were other careers that they could have followed, thus assuming that their free wills could have transformed their lives. At the same time, both believe that their fates are determined conclusively.

Is there a resolution for these incompatible views? I think there is. Several characters in Frankenstein demonstrate an ability to choose courses that are beneficial to others. Elizabeth is one. Clerval is another. And the master on Walton's ship, who sacrifices his personal desires and wealth to the happiness of others, is one more. Man can exercise choice freely within the limits of natural and social law, for then his actions accord with the regular and orderly process of things. His acts are responsible and based upon a clear perception of the relationships of cause and effect. Man abandons freedom when he exerts his will against the law of nature, when he sets his own desires above the welfare of mankind and therefore acts irresponsibly. Self-love, not resignation, is then his driving force.30

For Mary Shelley, extreme self-assertion leads to inevitable dismay, since man's condition does not permit the operation of will against the natural order. Her attitude is made clear in a later novel, The Last Man (1826). She describes the character Raymond, based upon her picture of Byron, in terms equally applicable to Victor Frankenstein.

Thus, while Raymond had been wrapt in visions of power and fame, while he looked forward to entire dominion over the elements and the mind of man, the territory of his own heart escaped his notice; and from that un-thought of source arose the mighty torrent that overwhelmed his will, and carried to the oblivious sea, fame, hope, and happiness.31
Like Frankenstein, Raymond feels hounded by an inescapable fate or destiny once he realizes that his fortunes have turned. What he does not realize is that the source of his destiny is in his own mind, the one province that he has not mastered.

Later in this novel, the narrator Verney reflects upon the meaning of existence as he and a small band of survivors are fleeing the ravages of a plague. Man's grand aspirations contrast sadly with his present fate. Verney is overwhelmed by the discovery that man's existence is perilously fragile. Grimly he realizes that human destiny has never really been in doubt.

Sudden an internal voice, articulate and clear, seemed to say: -- Thus from eternity, it was decreed: the steeds that bear Time onwards had this hour and this fulfilment enchained to them, since the void brought forth its burthen. Would you read backwards the unchangeable laws of Necessity?

Mother of the world! Servant of the Omnipotent! eternal, changeless Necessity! who with busy fingers sittest ever weaving the indissoluble chain of events! -- I will not murmur at thy acts. If my human mind cannot acknowledge that all that is, is right; yet since what is, must be, I will sit; amidst the ruins and smile. Truly we were not born to enjoy, but to submit, and to hope. (The Last Man 290-91)32

Although man is bound by Necessity, he is not therefore helpless; he has only to put himself at one with the great Power existing in nature whose "immutable laws" are beneficial when properly perceived. To do this, he must free himself from the self-imposed enslavements of what Shelley in "Mont Blanc" called "large codes of from and woe."33

In his note to Queen Mab, which Mary Shelley had read as early as 1814, Shelley argued the doctrine of Necessity, asserting that "every human being is irresistibly impelled to act precisely as he does act: in the eternity which preceded his birth a chain of causes was generated which, operating under the name of motives, makes it impossible that any thought of his mind, or any action of his life, should be other than it is."34 Free will he called a delusion, a position similar to Godwin's. Mary Shelley, the lover of one and daughter of the other, was probably influenced by them. Even so, when commenting on Queen Mab years later, Mary Shelley was reluctant to endorse Shelley's notes, which she reprinted "not because they are models of reasoning or lessons of truth, but because Shelley wrote them . . ." (Poetical Works 338).

Shelley, like Godwin, concluded that the doctrine of Necessity would spare men the follies of religion and the schemes of retribution and the wasteful and destructive passions of hatred and contempt religion engendered. In short, it would result in a thorough-going humanism through the recognition that "there is neither good nor evil in in the universe, otherwise than as the events to which we apply these epithets have relation to our own peculiar mode of being" (Poetical Works 309). But Frankenstein is not a tale of hope, nor does it end with suggestions of improvement in man's state. Percy Shelley and Godwin urged that man could still shape his course by choices that were consistent with natural laws working toward equality and hence good, but Mary Shelley emphasized man's failure to recognize the nature of the laws to which all men must ultimately conform. For her, no dominion over the elements and over men could succeed if the heart of man remained unexamined and undisciplined. She showed that man's highest aspirations, viewed in the long perspective of time, were folly. One doom awaits them all. And she displayed the agony of minds capable of envisioning the highest ends, but cast down to the greatest misery, all the more acute because these sufferers were aware that the very powers of intellect that rendered their visions possible made their slavery lucidly evident to them. Frankenstein is a picture of the human intellect tortured by the Nessus shirt of its own highest power, the imagination.

Since Mary Shelley referred directly to Prometheus in the title of her novel, it is important to consider the significance of that mythological figure. Heroically against the forces of the gods, he brought fire and life to mankind. But mankind might have responded to this gift in the words of Milton Adam, which Mary quoted immediately following the title of her novel:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?--
[Paradise Lost X.743-45]
In his notes to Queen Mab, Shelley had pictured Prometheus as a figure who had destroyed man's healthy innocence with his doubtful gift, which brought disease and to suffering, not joy. "All vice rose from the ruin of healthful innocence. Tyranny superstition, commerce, and inequality were then first known, when reason vainly attempted to guide the wanderings of exacerbated passion" (Poetical Works 327).35

In Frankenstein, the gift of life is a dubious gift. Certainly it brings only pain and sorrow to Frankenstein's Creature, who must long for that which he can never have and who is evil against his own will. In this he reflects the case of mankind in general, who, as Godwin pointed out, is characterized by a restless craving for something beyond his mortal condition. This craving, often taking the form of a pursuit of occult knowledge, can lead only to disaster. In Thoughts on Man, Godwin reasserted his belief that man is entirely subject to Necessity, but altered his opinion concerning free will. In An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, he described free will as an illusion; in the later work, he admitted that this illusion might nonetheless be useful in that it gave rise to moral energies and enthusiasms and hence created for man a mood of hope and conceptions of nobility and greatness. Frankenstein is a history of the loss of that illusion.

Frankenstein, Walton, and the Creature all assert the superiority of man, but Percy Shelley had offered a sobering view of that superiority in his notes to Queen Mab.

The supereminence of man is like Satan's, a supereminence of pain; and the majority of his species, doomed to penury, disease, and crime, have reason to curse the untoward event that, by enabling him to communicate his sensations, raised him above the level of his fellow-animals. But the steps that have been taken are irrevocable. The whole of human science is comprised in one question: -- How can the advantages of intellect and civilization be reconciled with the liberty and pure pleasures of natural life? How can we take the benefits and reject the evils of the system, which is now, interwoven with all the fibres of our being?

(Poetical Works 328)
Shelley recommended vegetarianism as a first step in the right direction, but Mary {338} Shelley had no such remedies. Despite the benevolence of the best men and the benevolent wishes of the most energetic, the world is not a province of joy. In creating life out of an uncontrolled egoistic impulse, a gesture of rebellion against natural law, Frankenstein replicates the conditions brought about by the original Prometheus. He leaves his Creature alone in a frustrating world where his pre-eminence can lead only to annihilation, and he destroys the healthful innocence represented by Elizabeth, William, and Justine. To the very end, Frankenstein, while seeing his error, cannot act differently. "Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition," he cries, and then immediately relapses into his old illusion, speculating that "another may succeed" where he has failed (217-18).

Mary Shelley suggests that like Justine, who accepts her unjust fate, and like Elizabeth, who acknowledges Nature as a model for behavior, and like Clerval, whose reasonable aspirations coincide with the expanding activities of society, all men would be happiest if they conformed their wills to the laws of nature. Although she does not directly state a doctrine of Necessity, she depicts the failure of schemes based upon the dangerous illusion that men have the freedom to govern their own destinies. And yet there is a contradiction in this moving and troubling story which makes it more moving and troubling still, for while the exercise of man's will is defeated by the forces of circumstance, it is nonetheless true that man has proved capable of challenging those laws that bind unthinking nature. Perhaps this novel was Mary's answer to "Mont Blanc." There Shelley pictured a serene and tranquil strength for the imagination to emulate. Mary Shelley showed the results of diseased, fevered imagination. In her story that very power to conceive an action that subdues or alters natural law is also the source of man's greatest agony. Frankenstein's tragedy is a magnified version of the dilemma facing any man, but perhaps chiefly the poet. The imagination that has made him singular draws its power from his emotions which are expressed in the egoistic self-assertion of his will that sets him at odds with the equalizing laws of nature. He has the genius to imagine a fate other than the one he lives, but though he may seem to alter the course of events, he cannot control that fate. He can forever picture a destiny which he knows he cannot achieve, and as the consequences of his acts move further and further from his ideal, it becomes a horrid, mocking phantom that haunts him, spoiling all happiness, peace, and love.

Wayne State University


1 All quotations are from M. K. Joseph's edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Oxford Univ Press 1971) 23. All subsequent page references will be included in the text.

2 Percy Shelley touched upon the theme of the self-enslavement of man through the failure of will in "Julian Maddalo" and "Prometheus Unbound." I have discussed this subject in the work mentioned below. Michael G. Cooke has examined certain features of the subject of will in The Romantic Will (New Haven and London: Yale Univ Press 1976). His emphasis is more esthetic than philosophical and he gives only slight attention to Shelley, but he makes abundantly clear the Romantic fascination with the theme of the will, especially as manifested in "the will to art" which he defines as "the deliberate fabrication of a world over against the world, the deliberate pursuit of the sort of sway over an audience which later gives rise to the Paterian axiom that all art aspires to the condition of music, autonomy, and irresistibility . . ." (143-44). My own "Inherited Characteristics: Romantic to Victorian Will" (Studies in Romanticism 7 iii [Summer 1978] 335-66) takes a more historical approach, but again demonstrates how widespread the concern for the issue of freedom and necessity was among Romantic writers.

In the present essay terms such as fate, destiny, and necessity, which, in a philosophical discussion would require close definition, are used mainly as Shelley perceived them.

3 Constantine François Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney Les Ruines; ou, Méditation sur les révolutions des empires (Paris: Parmentier 1826) 77. The passage reads as follows in the original: "Mais tel est le coeur humain; un succès l'enivre de confiance, un revers l'abat et le consterne: toujours entier à la sensation du moment, il ne juge point des choses par leur nature, mais par l'élan de sa passion."

4 William Godwin Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions, and Discoveries (London: E. Wilson 1831) 105. Christopher Small, in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth (Pittsburgh: Univ of Pittsburgh Press 1973), explores at length many influences he sees influencing the novel. He deals with personal and literary influences. For example, when discussing Godwin he emphasizes Mary's emotional dependency upon her father and considered his fiction far more elaborately than the philosophical writings. Much of Small's book is more occupied with Percy rather than with Mary Shelley and the influences he traces from the former to the latter are often general and not entirely convincing. Oddly enough, Small does not take up sources that Mary Shelley herself named, such as Volney's Ruins or Goethe's Werther. I believe that it is significant that the revised version of Frankenstein, clearly reinforcing the theme of fate, appeared in the same year as her father's Thoughts on Man, which took up the issue of necessity and free will anew.

5 This was a commonplace sentiment throughout nineteenth-century literature.

6 Interest in the arctic regions had revived after the War of 1812. In that year a four-ship squadron of the Royal Navy was despatched to the polar reaches with little success. Among the men involved in this expedition were figures like John Franklin, William Edward Parry, and others who would make important contributions to arctic exploration later (Farley Mowat The Polar Passion: The Quest for the North Pole [Boston and Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1967] 46). In 1815, Lieutenant Kotzebue made a voyage in search of a Northwest Passage. Sir John Barrow, in his A Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions (London: J. Murray 1818), mentions this expedition and those of the Englishmen Ross, Buchan, Parry, and Franklin of 1818. Walton's quest is not original, then, but fashionable for the time that Mary Shelley was writing. However, even if she intended him to be original -- the novel is supposedly set in the 1700s, presumably the late 1700s -- his notions about the polar regions are outdated. Daines Barrington had published well-known tracts on the subject as early as 1775-76 and reprinted them later in his Miscellanies (London: J. Nichols 1781) and, with additions, in The Possibility of Approaching the North Pole Asserted (London: T. and J. Allman 1818). In these papers, Barrington insisted upon the practicability of traversing the polar regions and was unaffected by suppositions that those regions would be anything but wintry. Nonetheless among exploiters of the interest in polar exploration, the notion of a unique arctic climate persisted. Leonard Wolf has interesting notes on this arctic theme in The Annotated Frankenstein (NY: C. N. Potter 1977). As late as 1901, M. P. Shiel was still exploiting exotic expectations about the arctic in his sensation novel The Purple Cloud.

Mary Shelley mentions "The Ancient Mariner" anachronistically, but there is an interesting connection here, for Coleridge had apparently drawn upon August von Kotzebue's Memoirs and Travels of Mauritius Augustus. Count de Benyowski, translated from the French in 1790, for his arctic settings. J. Livingston Lowes traces this and other sources for Coleridge's poem in The Road to Xanadu (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1964) 124ff. It so happens that Percy and Mary had read The Most Remarkable Year in the Life of Kotzebue, Containing His Exile into Siberia by Himself tr B. Beresford (London: R. Phillips 1806) in 1815 (Mary Shelley's Journal ed Frederick L. Jones [Norman: Univ of Oklahoma Press 1947] 48).

7 Here, perhaps, is the first clear warning that links the theme of the novel to the hazardous condition of the aspiring artist.

8 Walton's alter ego, Frankenstein, has his own counterpart as well. The view that the Creature is Frankenstein's double has become a commonplace and has appeared in many critical studies, among them Muriel Spark's Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Hadleigh: Tower Bridge 1951), Masao Miyoshi's The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians (NY: New York Univ Press 1969), and more recently Irving Massey's The Gaping Pig: Literature and Metamorphosis (Berkeley: Univ of California Press 1976).

9 F. E. L. Priestley draws attention to this distinction in his edition of Godwin's Enquiry concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness (Toronto: Univ of Toronto Press 1946) 3 vols. See esp III 7. Muriel Spark has argued that Mary was reacting against her father's rigid logic and that her novels Frankenstein and The Last Man "are unconscious satires of Godwin's brand of humanism', ("Mary Shelley: a Prophetic Novelist" The Listener [Feb 22 1951] 305-06).

10 Enquiry concerning Political Justice, I: 26. John P. Clark lucidly examines Godwin's philosophy in The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin (Princeton Princeton Univ Press 1977), especially, for my purposes, the relationship of necessity and free will, and Godwin's categorization of voluntary, involuntary, and imperfectly voluntary acts. Clark also notes that Godwin failed to explain why mental processes should be subject to the same laws as physical nature (51).

11 There is a relationship here with Shelley's thought, particularly in Prometheus Unbound. Earl R. Wasserman points our that Jupiter's tyranny is made possible through Prometheus' own abdicated mental powers; his overthrow is made possible by Prometheus' refusing to abandon all power over his own will (Shelley: A Critical Reading [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ Press 1971] 258, 288). Christopher Small draws extensive comparisons between the works of the two Shelleys, saying of Prometheus Unbound that it deals powerfully "with the capacity of human thought to transcend itself . . ." (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein 224). James Rieger has shown how greatly Shelley participated in the composition of the novel (see his edition of Frankenstein [NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974]). But Mary Shelley's revisions for the 1831 edition indicate her desire to emphasize references to fate, destiny, and freedom, and show, to my satisfaction, that the scheme of the novel was hers.

12 Frankenstein's ascent toward Mont Blanc may have another significance, reinforcing the parallel with Walton's polar quest. The summit of Mont Blanc had not been scaled until Horace-Benedict de Saussure managed it in the summer of 1787. His victory was widely advertised. Much wrangling among men eager for fame had preceded Saussure's achievement. (See Claire Éliane Engel Mountaineering in the Alps: An Historical Survey [London: George Allen & Unwin 1950] ch 4.) If one accepts the novel's internal dating, Frankenstein could have been in this setting at a time when the mountain symbolized human aspiration. Mont Blanc was still a lively subject of interest for mountaineers at the time Mary Shelley was writing her novel.

Martin Tropp has demonstrated another connection between polar and alpine settings in his examination of water and ice imagery in the novel (Mary Shelley's Monster [Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1976] 41ff).

Quotations from Shelley's poetry are from Shelley's Poetry and Prose eds Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: W. W. Norton 1977). Line numbers appear in the text.

13 Donald H. Reiman has indicated the manner in which Shelley associated moral qualities with heavenly and terrestrial features such as stars, mountains, and seas, thereby subtly integrating his philosophical beliefs and his imagery in Shelley's "The Triumph of Life": A Critical Study (Urbana: Univ of Illinois Press 1965) 12ff.

There is a strong resemblance between Shelley's vision of Mont Blanc and Wordsworth's vision upon Mount Snowdon which 'appeared to me the type / Of a majestic intellect, its acts / And its possessions, what it has and craves, / What in itself it is, and would become. / There I beheld the emblem of a mind / That feeds upon infinity, that broods / Over the dark abyss, intent to hear / Its voices issuing forth to silent light / In one continuous stream; a mind sustained / By recognitions of transcendent power, / In sense conducting to ideal form, / In soul of more than mortal privilege" (The Prelude XIV.66-76).

See also the discussion of "Mont Blanc" in Roland A. Duerksen "The Thematic Unity in the New Shelley Notebook" Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 83 (Summer 1980) 203-15.

14 Gerhard Joseph's "Frankenstein's Dream: The Child Father of the Monster" Hartford Studies in Literature 7 (1975) 97-115, examines Victor's aspirations in terms of his working out of repressed infantile fantasies, thus giving the novel a more modern psychological cast, in keeping with recent criticism.

15 L. J. Swingle in "Frankenstein's Monster and Its Relatives: Problems of Knowledge in English Romanticism" Texas Studies in Literature and Language 15 (1973) 51-65 discusses how doubtful much of the evidence presented to the reader, particularly by the Creature, really is. If Frankenstein does not think clearly about choice and chance, it is partly because there is an atmosphere of obscure meaning in the novel as a whole.

16 Wordsworth also comments upon the calming effect of mathematics in The Prelude VI 115-87.

17 Richard Hengist Horne A New Spirit of the Age (London: H. Frowde 1907) 410.

18 George Levine examines Frankenstein's sin "against himself and the human community" thoroughly in "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism" Novel 7 (1973) 14-30.

19 Richard J. Dunn in "Narrative Distance in Frankenstein" Studies in the Novel 6 (1974) 408-17 describes the failure to achieve the ideal of community through a failure in communication among the characters in Frankenstein.

20 The danger of pursuing both the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life was indicated by Godwin in his novel St. Leon (1799).

21 Throughout his Enquiry and Thoughts, Godwin argued that reason leads to equality and tried to demonstrate the need for subordination of individual liberty to the larger requirements of society.

22 There are specific references to Frankenstein's slave relationship to his Creature on p 153 and 167 of the novel.

23 Muriel Spark (Child of Light 137) and R. H. Horne (410) specifically call attention to the enslavement of Frankenstein's mind or imagination.

24 Godwin had clearly warned that men may miscalculate, and that their good acts could lead to evil consequences: "actions in the highest degree injurious to the public, have often proceeded from motives uncommonly conscientious." (Enquiry I 153).

25 This topic has been taken up by various critics. M. K. Joseph deals with it in the introduction to the Oxford edition; George Levine touches upon it, and B. R. Pollin offers additional possibilities for philosophical sources in "Philosophical and Literary Sources of Frankenstein" Comparative Literature 17 (1965) 97-108.

26 "Review of Frankenstein" Shelley's Critical Prose ed Bruce R. McElderry, Jr (Lincoln: Univ of Nebraska Press 1967) 107.

27 Mary had read Paradise Lost the year before writing Frankenstein, and Percy was reading the work, sometimes aloud to Mary, soon after she had begun her story (Mary Shelley's Journal 48, 68ff.). Although Leslie Brisman's Milton's Poetry of Choice and Its Romantic Heirs (Ithaca: Cornell Univ Press 1973) deals mainly with technical rather than philosophical matters, it indicates throughout the sensitivity Romantic writers seem to have had for the implications of Milton's poetry. Chapter 5, entitled "A Second Will," discusses the Romantic treatment of the theme of will, touching upon Adam's and hence man's generative responsibilities and the relationship of moral to imaginative will, especially as it appears in Wordsworth, notably in the "Ode to Duty."

For Christopher Small, the Miltonic allusions signify the rebelliousness of the Creature (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein 58ff).

28 John Milton Paradise Lost see V. lines 526-28; V.234-38; X.8-11; X.40-47.

29 Martin Tropp offers an interesting perception of the tree image in Mary Shelley's Monster 60-61.

30 In Goethe's Werther, one of the first books the Creature reads, Lotte's calm, orderly values are contrasted with the passionately destructive urges of Werther himself. The brilliant and emotional young Werther may be admired and pitied, but clearly not imitated.

31 Mary Shelley The Last Man ed Hugh J. Lukes, Jr (Lincoln Univ of Nebraska Press 1965) 84.

32 Earl K. Wasserman offers a thorough examination of Shelley's views on Necessity in Shelley: A Critical Reading.

33 Wasserman examines Shelley's plea for the need to abandon these "codes" (236). He also explains that submission to necessity and refusal to yield utterly to the will of Jupiter are central ideas in Prometheus Unbound (p. 288, 318).

34 The Complete Poetical Works or Percy Bysshe Shelley ed Neville Rogers (Oxford: Clarendon 1972) I 306. Christopher Small presents a lengthy argument for Shelley's influence on Mary's novel. See my "Inherited Characteristics" for a summary of Shelley's views on free will and how they were modified through his career.

35 Shelley was here mounting an argument for vegetarianism.