Study Guide

Frankenstein Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Mary Shelley

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

Letter 1
Victor Frankenstein

The innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me. (1.6)

When Victor talks about his childhood, he suggests that parents play a big role in how their kids turn out, either "to happiness or misery." Sure, blame it on your folks. Everyone else does.

Chapter 15
The Monster

Sometimes I allowed my thoughts, unchecked by reason, to ramble in the fields of Paradise, and dared to fancy amiable and lovely creatures sympathizing with my feelings and cheering my gloom; their angelic countenances breathed smiles of consolation. But it was all a dream; no Eve soothed my sorrows nor shared my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam's supplication to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him. (15.11)

The monster may have learned a lot about making fire, but all he knows about human society he's gotten from books. This is kind of like watching a bunch of romantic comedies and then being sad because you keep passing by that cute bakery without running into a quirkily adorable girl.

I was dependent on none and related to none. The path of my departure was free, and there was none to lament my annihilation. 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? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them. (15.5)

You and us both, monster.

Chapter 16
The Monster

"Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed? I know not; despair had not yet taken possession of me; my feelings were those of rage and revenge. I could with pleasure have destroyed the cottage and its inhabitants and have glutted myself with their shrieks and misery." (16.1)

So, fun fact: in 1798, this guy Thomas Malthus warned people that overpopulation was going to destroy the planet, and that one solution was to get people (especially poor people) to stop having so many babies through family planning which, in the early nineteenth century, meant "stop having sex." Guess who wasn't a fan? William Godwin, Mary Shelley's dad, who thought that we could all just get along if we'd just try harder. (A lot of the Big Six felt this way, too.) What did Mary Shelley think? We're not sure. But that phrase "the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed" sounds a lot like a condemnation of people having babies willy-nilly—especially considering that "wanton" is a word used a lot for excessive sexual activity, which, before our own age of family planning, tended to mean excessive babies.

One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race. (Letter 4.21)

Uh-oh. It's never a good sign when you start telling your sister that it's not a big deal if someone dies, as long as you fulfill your scientific goal. Walton is about two and a half steps away from full-on mad scientist, here.

The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows." (3.14)

M. Waldman claims that modern scientists have pretty tame goals compared to the ancient alchemists, but to Victor this is staggering stuff: they're unlocking the secrets of existence. (Can you imagine what he'd do with an iPad?)

"It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses. By degrees, I remember, a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. (11.1)

This is Mary Shelley giving us her version of what it's like to be an infant: surrounded by sensations, overwhelmed by sights, sounds, and smells, and not too happy about any of it. Judging by how most babies react to being born, we'd say she might be on to something.

When night came again I found, with pleasure, that the fire gave light as well as heat and that the discovery of this element was useful to me in my food, for I found some of the offals that the travellers had left had been roasted, and tasted much more savoury than the berries I gathered from the trees. I tried, therefore, to dress my food in the same manner, placing it on the live embers. I found that the berries were spoiled by this operation, and the nuts and roots much improved. (11.7)

The monster is a little (okay, big) scientist: like Frankenstein, he's trying to understand existence by trial and error. Luckily, his "errors" are more like, "oops, I burned my berries" than, "oops, I created a monster."

"Everything is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin; the whole detail of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced it is set in view; the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person is given, in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible. I sickened as I read. `Hateful day when I received life!' I exclaimed in agony. `Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust?" (15.8)

Ouch. This is not a birth story any kid wants to read. The monster found Frankenstein's diary and learned first-hand just how much his creator hates him. What kind of life can you have if you know that your parent(s) wish you'd never been born?

"I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?" (17.5)

Poor monster. This seems like pretty clear proof for the idea that our personalities are created, not born—unless, like Frankenstein, he's just making excuses for himself.

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