Mary Shelley uses a subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, for her classic novel of Gothic fiction, Frankenstein. Prometheus derives from Greek mythos, the story of a titan punished for defying the gods for giving fire to man. Through his actions, Prometheus reveals his compassion and pity for a race (humans) created by the gods and left to abandonment, as well as his belief in the notion of the “creator’s responsibility” to his or her progeny (Hustis 848). Readers can see a direct parallel between the mythos of Prometheus and that of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, who, in a sense, defies the “gods” of natural order by giving life to the “monster” of his creation. Unlike Prometheus, though, Frankenstein fails to take the “creator’s responsibility” for his action, dooming the monster to a solitary life of separation and exile. This can lead one to believe that Victor Frankenstein is separate from nature and the true monster of the tale. However, this is an overly simplistic reading of the text. Using psychoanalytic theory and Sigmund Freud’s work on the nature of the human psyche, this paper posits that, even though Frankenstein fails to honor his “creator’s responsibility,” he is still a mortal agent of nature and a victim of man’s inherent duplicity, as the monster and he are doubles of the same psyche.
In the introduction to Mary Shelley’s classic text, Diane Johnson observes the Freudian connection between Frankenstein and his monster as the superego and the id respectively. She writes, “The doubling is one of the most familiar ways of dramatizing two aspects of the same character, usually his good and bad selves, as with Frankenstein and his monster” (xvi-xvii). In many ways, Frankenstein is an enabler of his monster because he is part of his creation as much as his creation is part of he. We see the symbiosis in their relationship at the novel’s conclusion, as the ship captain Robert Walton sees the monster weeping at the end for his creator in a classic scene, as shown here:
As [the monster] hung over the coffin, his face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair; but one vast hand was extended, in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy. When he heard the sound of my approach, he ceased to utter exclamations of grief and horror, and sprung towards the window. (Shelley 201)
The agony Frankenstein’s monster feels at the end, as he mourns his creator, reveals the interconnected relationship between the pair, who, as Johnson suggests, are two parts of the same psyche. Neither character is a true monster, though they both possess qualities of brutality and sadism. Readers who want to make Frankenstein’s monster into a tragic hero and Frankenstein out to be the true villain, must consider the fact that Frankenstein’s monster several times murders innocent victims to seek revenge on his creator for spurning him and refusing to create a female mate to bear the loneliness. Does murder justify one lack of “creator’s responsibility? It would seem that the answer is “no.” The monster is not somehow a tragic hero, and neither is Frankenstein a true monster.
Furthermore, readers can find further evidence that supports the case that Frankenstein and his monster are binary parts of the same psyche in Frankenstein’s odd actions toward his creation. Clearly, Frankenstein is a remarkably intelligent individual, one who achieves advances in science of which others merely dream. Nevertheless, he acts with extreme ignorance and lack of forethought at times, first by allowing Justine Moritz to be executed for the killing of Frankenstein’s brother William, rather than implicate his creation as the likely perpetrator of the deed. Frankenstein refuses to reveal what he knows about the true perpetrator of the crime because to implicate his creation would be to implicate himself, as the monster is an extension of his own psyche. Frankenstein willingly sacrifices an innocent woman to “save” his creation from likely execution, were Frankenstein to reveal what he knows.
In addition, though the monster vows to take revenge on Frankenstein when he marries Elizabeth— “I shall be with you on your wedding-night” (Shelley 153)—he does nothing to prevent the inevitable and allows the monster to dictate the terms and execution of his vengeance. To this point, Johnson notes, “psychological explanations work better than others to account for what would otherwise seem to be defects in the plot … How else explain … [Frankenstein’s] unbelievable stupidity in not protecting Elizabeth on the wedding he had been so explicitly warned about, except as the author’s complicity in his own crimes?” (xvii). From this reading, one can see that Frankenstein does not act outside of nature and become a monster by vilifying his own creation, but acts inside of human nature by revealing the duplicity between the id and the superego in the human psyche, represented by the monster and its creator respectively.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the creator Frankenstein is guilty of many things, i.e., pride, self-indulgence, refusing his “creator’s responsibility,” etc., but he is not an unnatural character nor a true monster. Instead, he his one part of two divergent impulses, the superego trying to rationalize the primal and chaotic urges of the id. Frankenstein is not exactly an admirable character, but he is tragically and mortally human, which makes his basic connection to nature one of implicit association.
- Hustis, Harriet. “Responsible Creativity and the ‘Modernity’ of Mary Shelley’s Prometheus.”
Studies in English Literature, 1500 – 1900, vol. 43, no. 4, 2003, pp. 845-858, http://my.fit.edu/~lperdiga/HUM%203905–Junior%20Seminar–Responsible%20Creativity.pdf.
- Johnson, Diane. “Introduction.” Frankenstein. Bantam Books, 1981, pp. vii-xix.
- Shelley, Mary. (1818). Frankenstein. Bantam Books, 1981.