Moral Values in Frankenstein
It is said that every story has a moral, or sometimes if you look hard enough, there are many different morals within one story. In the well-written novel Frankenstein, the teenage author, Mary Shelley, teaches us about moral values. In most cases, moral values result in a positive way, but if there is an obsession for wanting something too much, it could turn into a negative situation. Shelley makes it evident that in most situations, too much desire for a moral value such as knowledge, love or ambition can result in suffering and agony for the characters in the novel.
The first moral value that leads to suffering for the characters of the novel is knowledge. At the beginning of the story, Victor thrives on learning about natural sciences. When he is thirteen, Victor comes upon a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. After he studies the whole works of Agrippa, he moves on to Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus:
But here were books, and here were men who had penetrated deeper and knew more. I took their word for all that they averred, and I became their disciple. It may appear strange that such should arise in the eighteenth century; but while I followed the routine of education in the schools of Geneva, I was, to a great degree, self-taught with regard to my favorite studies. My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with a child’s blindness, added to a student’s thirst for knowledge. Under the guidance of my new preceptors I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention. Wealth 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! (pp. 39-40)
It is evident that this is the point in Victor’s life that his knowledge about natural sciences helps him first develop his crazy idea to create life. When Victor is seventeen, he becomes a student at the University of Ingolstadt to study modern natural philosophy. It is there that Victor learns everything he needs to know to make his creation, and eventually turn his life into pure misery. M. Waldman is one of the professors that really enhances Victor’s knowledge and inspires him to go on in his experimentations:
Such were the professors words-rather let me say such the words of fate-enounced to destroy me. As he went on I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being; chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. So much had been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein-more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marled, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. (p. 47)
Victor’s studies become his soul occupation and he soon forgets the wonderful world that surrounds him: “Winter, spring, and summer passed away during my labours; but I did not watch the blossom or the expanding leaves-sights which before always yielded me supreme delight-so deeply was I engrossed in my occupation” (p. 54). Victor forgets his loved ones, which cause them great sorrow and pain, and although he does not realize it, he is also causing himself deep suffering. Victor thrives for knowledge so much that he suffers and experiences agony throughout the story. Another character in the novel whose thirst for knowledge causes pain and suffering is the creature that Victor creates. The creature’s stay with the cottagers’ makes him learn too much about life, especially family and responsibility. Through the lessons to the Arabian girl, the creature learns the English language. He then starts to understand their conversations, and he starts to wonder who he really is. These discoveries of knowledge cause severe pain to the creature: “‘I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!’” (p. 115) The creature also comes upon some books that also enhance his knowledge of life. As the creature reads the Sorrows of Werter, he learns about death and suicide, which begin to fill him with wonder. He also applies much of the book to his own feelings and conditions, which leads him to the questions of who he is: “‘My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?’” (p. 123) The creature becomes aware that he knows nothing of his background, and is unable to find out. The volume of Plutarch’s Lives contains the histories of the first founders of the ancient republics and it “‘taught high thoughts; he elevated me above the wretched fear of my own reflections, to admire and love the heroes of past ages’” (p. 123). This book teaches the creature about more than just the human nature that he observes at the cottage of his protectors: “‘I felt the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the signification of those terms, relative as they were, as I applied them to pleasure and pain alone’” (pp.123-124). The last book that the creature reads also has a big effect on his understanding of life. Paradise Lost “‘excited different and far deeper emotions’” (p. 124). As he reads this final book, the idea of God being creator makes the creature wonder about his creator, and why he is here: “‘I often referred to the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence’” (p. 124). This book makes the creature want to find out who his creator is, and why he made him to be such a miserable wretch, then abandon him. This search to find his creator causes him a lot of agony and suffering. Throughout his quest, he becomes very miserable and depressed. The creature’s actions of murder to get revenge on his creator Frankenstein causes sorrow to Victor and his family. The obvious desire for knowledge throughout the novel causes a lot of agony and pain to those who are involved with the obsession for this moral value.
Along with too much desire for knowledge in the novel, the moral value of love is also shown with results in pain and suffering. Love for one another is a very important and special thing to have, but when someone becomes obsessed with being loved or loving someone, it usually turns out for the worse. Since the moment Victor and Elizabeth first met, their bond is very strong. Victor’s mother becomes quite fond of the sweet orphan, and takes Elizabeth on as her own. Victor also takes her on to protect and love, which is exactly what he does:
And when, on the morrow, she presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift, I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally and looked upon Elizabeth as mine-mine to protect, love and cherish. All praises bestowed on her I received as made to a possession of my own. We called each other familiarly by the name of cousin. No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me-my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only. (p. 35)
Even from the beginning of their relationship, there are signs of Victor’s obsession with loving Elizabeth. When Victor becomes indulged in his experiments, he almost forgets about his loved ones. Victor tries so hard to protect Elizabeth, that he ends up hurting her in the process. He does not tell her about his creation until it is too late. Also, he makes her think that she is causing him suffering as shown in the letter that she writes to him while he is in Ingolstadt:
You have traveled; you have spent several years in Ingolstadt; and I confess to you, my friend, that when I saw you last autumn so unhappy, flying to solitude from the society of every creature, I could not help supposing that you might regret our connection and believe yourself bound in honour to fulfill the wishes of your parents, although they opposed themselves to your inclinations. (pp. 178-179)
Victor’s silence towards Elizabeth causes her to think that he is miserable because of their upcoming union. Although this is not true, Victor’s effort to protect Elizabeth inflicts pain on both himself and the one he loves dearly. Victor’s father also loves his family so much that he becomes ill and weak due to the grief that he has for the deaths and misery of his beloved. He is always looking out for the well being of his children, including Elizabeth, and when he knows that Victor is suffering, he too feels the anguish. When Elizabeth dies, Victor’s father suffers greatly:
His eyes wandered in vacancy, for they had lost their charm and their delight-his Elizabeth, his more than daughter, whom he doted on with all that affection which a man feels, who in the decline of life, having few affections, clings more earnestly to those that remain. (p. 189)
Victor’s father died of grief. He could not live with the horrors that accumulate around him in the last couple of days of his life: “He was unable to rise from his bed, and in a few days he died in my arms” (p.189). His love for his family becomes all that he cares about, which in turn causes him and Victor severe pain and suffering. The creature is another character that suffers from the desire to be loved. The creature wants to be loved so much that he digs himself deeper and deeper into his obsession, which causes him great heartache. He first learns about love when he stays with the family of cottagers’ in the first part of his life:
“Their happiness was not decreased by the absence of summer. They loved and sympathized with one another; and their joys, depending on each other, were not interrupted by the casualties that took place around them. The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved my these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition.” (p. 126)
The creature’s suffering first starts when he realizes that it is not normal to have no one in your life to love you. He has no family like the cottagers’, nor can he remember ever having someone to look after him: “‘But where were my friends and relation? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing’” (p. 115). This realization soon makes him want revenge on his creator for not taking responsibility for him, or showing any kind of love and affection for him. His quest to make Frankenstein’s life miserable is based on the suffering he experiences because he does not have anyone to show benevolence towards him. The creature’s desire to be loved causes a lot of anguish to many of the characters in the novel, including himself; Victor and all of Frankenstein’s loved ones. Although wanting to be loved, or having deep love for someone else is an ethical and noble moral, in some cases if there is too much hunger for love, it can cause suffering and misery.
The obsession for knowledge and love in the novel are not the only morals that result in agony and heartache for the characters. The most important moral value that is demonstrated to have too much desire for is ambition. Shelley portrays many of the characters in her novel to be driven towards their goals by extreme ambition, but has them all meet with failure which they can not cope with. Used as an introduction to the novel, it is apparent from the beginning that Robert Walton is an extremely ambitious and persevering individual. In his first letter to his sister, Margaret Saville, Robert writes:
I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has traveled from regions towards which I am advancing gives me a foretaste of those icy climbs. (p. 15)
In this statement it is extremely clear that Robert is filled with anticipation of his forthcoming journey. In Robert’s case, his failure is the fault of two things–the weather and his crew. During his journey to the North Pole, Robert encounters frigid weather, which causes ice to form around his vessel. Although he is not willing to give up, and wants to wait out the cold, he is forced to allow his crew to return to England. As if to show his bitter disappointment in his crew, the weather, and even himself he writes: “The die is cast; I have consented to return if we are not destroyed. Thus are my hopes blasted by cowardice and indecision; I come back ignorant and disappointed. It requires more philosophy than I possess to bear this injustice with patience” (p. 204). These few sentences are the writings of a man broken by defeat. Robert suffers extremely for he feels as though he has failed. His ambitious attitude towards his journey makes it even harder for him to turn back, resulting in agony and misery. The creature is another character that experiences great agony due to his strong ambition to be accepted. The newborn creature spends countless days observing the family while trying to learn rudimentary words and actions. The creature obviously has a great thirst for knowledge, although it is most likely for the use of destroying his mortal enemy and his creator; Victor Frankenstein. That is, actually, partly inaccurate because the monster himself states “‘If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them a hundred and a hundredfold’” (p.139). It is also true that the monster starts out with perfectly good intentions, and gives the human race a more than fair chance for salvation. As all of the characters in this book have one major goal that they attempt to accomplish, the monster’s goal is a simple one: acceptance. He searches for refuge anywhere he can find it. He comes to Victor in the hour of his birth, but is brutally rejected; he later attempts to seek solace with an old blind man, but is soon discovered, and cast away again. After many other attempts to become friends with a human, he finally gives up and vows to get vengeance on Victor, but not before he gives him one more chance to make him happy. He proposes to Victor: “‘You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being’” (p. 138). The creature is very ambitious once he becomes educated about responsibility and love. Although he has a good reason to seek revenge on Victor, he makes himself miserable in the process. The creature is so determined to follow through with his quest, he does not realize that his ambitious ways are causing him severe pain. Victor Frankenstein is the character that suffers the most from his ambitious desire to succeed, and be looked up to. It is true that Victor’s life revolves around discovery, or the effects of his discovery, and he makes it clear in his first few pages of dialogue with Robert Walton that he wishes to stretch the boundaries of science. At first thought, it seems that Victor wants to discover something for the benefit of mankind, more specifically to bestow life on the dead, but with further understanding, it is apparent that Victor yearns to achieve something much more simple. All that Victor ever wants is to be accepted, envied, and looked up to. He states this himself while creating the monster:
Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me 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. (p. 52)
From this it is obvious that Victor begins with only the best intentions for his creation. He appears to have plans of raising his creation as if it is his own child. The story takes a strange and unexpected twist when the monster comes to life, because suddenly Victor wants only to quit himself of the monster’s presence. His values are suddenly reversed, and from that point on he has a new goal. His new goal is a fairly brutal one, but Victor sticks with it until his dying day, and that is to rid the world of this foul creature. Victor is very determined and ambitious from the time he is introduced to Agrippa, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. In the beginning, it is only for the good, but as the experiments start to take shape, he becomes enveloped with his success that causes suffering and despair to Victor and his loved ones:
Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellow creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime. Sometimes I grew alarmed at the wreck I perceived that I had become; the energy of my purpose alone sustained me: my labours would soon end, and I believe that exercise and amusement would then drive away incipient disease; and I promised my self both of these when my creation should be complete. (p. 55)
Victor goes far past the point of ambition, he enters the realm of utter obsession. To be determined to reach your goals is one thing, but when a person becomes so ambitious that they think only of what more they can do to succeed, it turns into an obsession that results in severe pain and suffering.
There are three different moral values presented by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein that result in pain and failure. Although knowledge, love and ambition are all good moral values to have, if there is too much desire for them, it can result in agony and suffering for the characters. To want something so bad that it turns into an obsession is not the right way to go about achieving your goals. Everyone has to be aware of what is happening around them before they get so caught up in their goals that they cannot see the anguish and pain that they are causing to themselves and others.