Study Guide

Frankenstein Sacrifice

By Mary Shelley

Sacrifice

Chapter 20
Victor Frankenstein

Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations? I had before been moved by the sophisms of the being I had created; I had been struck senseless by his fiendish threats; but now, for the first time, the wickedness of my promise burst upon me; I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race. (20.1)

We're not Frankenstein's biggest fans, but we have to admit that, from his perspective, this is a major sacrifice. Too bad we're not sure if it was (1) necessary, or (2) worth it.

The Monster

"Shall each man," cried he, "find a wife for his bosom, and each beast have his mate, and I be alone? I had feelings of affection, and they were requited by detestation and scorn. Man! You may hate, but beware! Your hours will pass in dread and misery, and soon the bolt will fall which must ravish from you your happiness forever. Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness? You can blast my other passions, but revenge remains -- revenge, henceforth dearer than light or food! I may die, but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery. Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict." (20.11)

The monster expresses to Victor that he could lose everything if he goes against the monster’s wishes. But Victor remains steadfastly self-sacrificing, realizing that the danger to the world is larger than the danger to himself. He is forced to self-sacrifice to account for his hasty rush into scientific inquiry.

I was easily led by the sympathy which he evinced to use the language of my heart, to give utterance to the burning ardour of my soul and to say, with all the fervour that warmed me, how gladly I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. (Letter 4.21)

Here's our first clue that "sacrifice" might not be all its cracked up to be: when you think about someone giving up everything to get to the North Pole, it sounds a lot more like insanity than a noble pursuit.

The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it. Hence there is less distinction between the several classes of its inhabitants; and the lower orders, being neither so poor nor so despised, their manners are more refined and moral. A servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England. Justine, thus received in our family, learned the duties of a servant, a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being. (6.5)

This is a weird little PSA to drop in the middle of a novel about the dangers of scientific absorption—especially considering that Shelley was an English writer. What does "dignity" mean in this context? And doesn't Justine just end up sacrificed anyway?

We passed a considerable period at Oxford, rambling among its environs and endeavouring to identify every spot which might relate to the most animating epoch of English history. Our little voyages of discovery were often prolonged by the successive objects that presented themselves. We visited the tomb of the illustrious Hampden and the field on which that patriot fell. For a moment my soul was elevated from its debasing and miserable fears to contemplate the divine ideas of liberty and self sacrifice of which these sights were the monuments and the remembrancers. For an instant I dared to shake off my chains and look around me with a free and lofty spirit, but the iron had eaten into my flesh, and I sank again, trembling and hopeless, into my miserable self. (19.8)

Frankenstein and Clerval get all fired up about the "self sacrifice" of English heroes—but it's too late for Frankenstein, who's so bummed out about the monster that he doesn't even feel "free." This gives us some context for his alleged self sacrifice later, but we're not sure that it counts if you create the problem in the first place, right? Are they really going to put up a tombstone that says, "Here lies Frankenstein. He unleashed a horrible monster, let it kill all his friends, and then died"? Yeah. It's not very inspiring.

"Man! You may hate, but beware! Your hours will pass in dread and misery, and soon the bolt will fall which must ravish from you your happiness forever. Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness? You can blast my other passions, but revenge remains — revenge, henceforth dearer than light or food! I may die, but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery. Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict." (20.11)

Huh. If you look at it a certain way, the monster is actually making a sacrifice here: he's giving up his life to pursue Victor. (Not that he had much to give up.)

All was again silent, but his words rang in my ears. I burned with rage to pursue the murderer of my peace and precipitate him into the ocean. I walked up and down my room hastily and perturbed, while my imagination conjured up a thousand images to torment and sting me. Why had I not followed him and closed with him in mortal strife? But I had suffered him to depart, and he had directed his course towards the mainland. I shuddered to think who might be the next victim sacrificed to his insatiate revenge. (20.16)

Too bad Victor isn't the next sacrifice—but then, the book would be even shorter than it already is. We're still not getting the feeling that Victor understands what's going on, since the word "sacrifice" seems to absolve him of any responsibility.

I desired that I might pass my life on that barren rock, wearily, it is true, but uninterrupted by any sudden shock of misery. If I returned, it was to be sacrificed or to see those whom I most loved die under the grasp of a daemon whom I had myself created. (20.18)

Wouldn't living alone on a barren rock be a kind of sacrifice, too? (And maybe worse than being killed by the monster?) Victor really is in a tricky position, here.

"I am not mad," I cried energetically; "the sun and the heavens, who have viewed my operations, can bear witness of my truth. I am the assassin of those most innocent victims; they died by my machinations. A thousand times would I have shed my own blood, drop by drop, to have saved their lives; but I could not, my father, indeed I could not sacrifice the whole human race." (22.6)

Let's work through this logic: Victor is sacrificing his family by refusing to make Mrs. Monster, because he can't bear to sacrifice the whole human race by not making her. Of course, he could just try being a dad to his creation—but apparently that's out of the question.

"Fear not that I shall be the instrument of future mischief. My work is nearly complete. Neither yours nor any man's death is needed to consummate the series of my being and accomplish that which must be done, but it requires my own. Do not think that I shall be slow to perform this sacrifice. I shall quit your vessel on the ice raft which brought me thither and shall seek the most northern extremity of the globe; I shall collect my funeral pile and consume to ashes this miserable frame, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch who would create such another as I have been. I shall die. (24.67)

Call us crazy, but this sounds a lot more like self-sacrifice than Victor's half-cocked delusions of grandeur. The monster is even building himself a funeral pyre—just like the Indian custom of sati in which a wife burned herself after her husband's death. Does that sound crazy? We're not the only ones to think it (source).

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