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What Mary Shelley Told Us About Free Will: A Frankenstein Analysis

IDW100890 · entertainment · opinion · 10/29/2020

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I’ve never killed someone. More importantly, I’ve never had the urge to kill someone. A murderous inclination has never even graced my consciousness once. To those who have committed homicide, the idea had to have, at the very least, popped into their head at some point. Regardless of the thought processes that occurred after the initial urge, something about their situation is already different than mine. What their poor genetics, family, circumstances are, I don’t know. What I do know is I am lucky to not share their thoughts. 

In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the evil seen in the monster stems from his life's circumstances beyond his control, and therefore it would be unfair to hold him accountable for his crimes. The novel carries the overarching message that people and their actions, even those considered evil, are a product of their nature and environment; therefore, we ought to operate as if free will does not truly exist, and those we consider villains ought to be granted empathy.

The creature’s physical body serves as a symbol to represent and foreshadow the outcome of his mental state. While Victor Frankenstein’s research was the spark that ignited the fire of life within his creation, dismembered body parts of cadavers were the kindling. As both the architect and executioner of his project’s creation, Frankenstein had control of how his creation would look, pointedly deciding early on in the process that the creature would be “of a gigantic stature,” “about eight feet in height” and “proportionably large” (Shelley 48). Once he decided to create life in his image, Frankenstein “collected bones from the charnel-houses” to “assemble his creation” (Shelley 49). Of these details regarding his creation, the creature had no say; his physical appearance is a product of society’s dead parts and Frankenstein’s actions. However, he is immediately judged for it anyway, first by his creator who calls him “a catastrophe” (Shelley 49) before running away, and then by nearly everyone else he meets, except for a blind man. A change in perspective even shows us that the creature “fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am” (Shelley 99). “Here we want to cry: No, no! Reality was only appearance” (Sage). When reading about the monster’s hideous crime of being ugly, the reader can easily determine that he is not at fault because his appearance is a direct effect of the societal input, in the form of body parts, into his creation along with Victor’s actions, and the reader can absolve him of guilt. Why then, when the mental state that influenced his actions was just as much of a direct cause of society’s input and Victor’s actions as his physical state, is any blame placed on “the monster” for his actions?

To understand the effect that Frankenstein, and secondarily, the rest of society, had on the outcome of the monster, we must first examine what they put the creature through, and the change in the creature’s character before and after the offending behaviors. His first moment after his birth was a meet-cute with his father, who, in disgust, ran away. To illustrate Frankenstein’s dissatisfaction with his monster, Shelley paints the creation scene through the scientist’s point of view, allowing her to use overwhelming hatefully-critical diction to describe him. His first impression illustrates his disgust at the monster’s “dull yellow eye,” “his yellow skin,” and the “horrid contrast with his watery eyes” within his “shrivelled complexion” (Shelley 51). In sight of “the wretch,” Frankenstein’s heart is filled with “breathless horror and disgust,” forcing him to have himself “rushed out of the room,” (Shelley 51). From there, the evolution of Frankenstein’s actions towards his child demonstrates his “total failure at parenting” (Mellor). While he begins their relationship by insulting his creation and abandoning it, his inability to do right by it evolves, and “Frankenstein's inability to sympathize with his child, to care for or even to comprehend its basic needs, soon takes the extreme form of putative infanticide” (Mellor); the apex of Frankenstein’s emotions on the monster he created is found in his confession that he wishes to “extinguish [the creation’s] life” (Shelley 81). Not exactly father of the year.

Now that we understand how Frankenstein felt about the child, we can examine the effect these emotions had on his creation. Again, Shelley’s use of point of view is instrumental in our examination, and, in this case, it allows us to view her indirect characterization of the creature both before and after he is changed by his father’s treatment of him. Early on in his tale, the creature is shown to be a kind-hearted and compassionate soul, indistinguishable from humanity, demonstrated by Shelley through describing sensations familiar to the reader. Upon waking up, he immediately enjoys the “pleasant songs of the birds” and receives “a sensation of pleasure” from the “gentle light [that] stole from the heavens” (Shelley 92, 93). The familiar auditory and visual imagery of the birds and moon that the reader experiences through the creation’s eyes help him to understand that the creature has a great deal of humanity at his birth. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the monster “is that he is a character whose appearance is not an index of his inner self” (Wang).

To further demonstrate the creature’s character at inception, Shelley employs an example of the creature’s inherent morality. In search of someone to fill the familial void left by his creator, he stumbles upon three cottagers in the same family: a father named De Lacey and his son and daughter, Felix and Agatha. Before learning that they are impoverished, he would occasionally steal from them as they seemed to have all that they needed. However, after finding out that they were struggling to make ends meet he “abstained and satisfied [himself] with berries, nuts, and roots” (Shelley 100). The empathy he exhibits for the family is a defining moment for the character. Shelley’s indirect characterization here is “the best argument for the original goodness of the monster” (O’Rourke). Despite what his brand as a “monster” might indicate, the creature “chooses to exercise compassion even as it conflicts with his own self-preservation” (O’Rourke). It seems clear that before the disastrous effects of Frankenstein’s treatment of the creature fully unravel, it can be confidently established through Shelley’s characterization that the creature is not monstrous.

Later on, Shelley makes use of the creature’s interaction with the De Lacey family as a parallel between his relationship with his creator to further emphasize the effect of Dr. Frankenstein’s failure to provide for the creature, as well as to be a representation of how the society the creature appreciates rejects him. Rejected by his father because of his appearance, which, as we established prior, is no fault of his own, the creature is forced to search for familial fulfillment elsewhere, leading him to discover the De Lacey family. Though fascinated by the family elements of love and acceptance he never had, he doesn’t dare approach them yet for fear they too will run away in fear at his physical appearance.

In the meantime, the creature discovers letters by Victor describing the scientist’s overwhelmingly negative opinion of the monster, further solidifying his feelings of abandonment, prompting him to regret the “Hateful day when I received life!” (Shelley 116). Solidifying the feelings of rejection and abandonment brought upon by his own father, the monster is forced further into his search for approval elsewhere, bringing us back to his fascination with the De Lacey family.

Hate from his father reinforced, it is clear the creature projects his sadness at his father’s denial unto the family as he imagines that when he introduces himself to the family “they would be disgusted” as Frankenstein was, but he holds on to hope that this reaction would only last “until, by my gentle demeanor and conciliating words, I should first win their favour and afterwards their love” (Shelley 103).

The creature decides to approach the father, De Lacey. Shelley uses De Lacey’s character and reaction to the creature as a juxtaposition to Frankenstein and his reaction to the monster. Whereas Frankenstein judged the monster only by what he could see, De Lacey can’t as he is blind, so it makes sense that he is the first person he turns to after his rejection. The father “responds compassionately to Frankenstein's child because he is blind and therefore not prejudiced by appearances” (Claridge). For the first time in his infant life, the ostracized bastard is not judged but accepted, which is perhaps why it broke the creature’s heart when the children return home, have a violent reaction to his physical appearance, chase him away from the house, away from acceptance and “the old man excludes the monster from a chance of kinship” (Claridge).

The aforementioned tragedy of the monster, that his physical self is not indicative of his inner self, is realized here. It is only when “his children enable their father to ‘“see through their eyes’,” (Claridge) that he too discounts the monster. Based on the contrast in the reactions before and after the father has this “sight” that Shelley offers the reader, we can be even more sure that the creature is not treated like a monster because he acts like one, but because he looks like one, which, again, is out of his control.

For the first time since his creation, the creature expresses monstrous sentiments due to how he has been treated. The juxtaposition of his feelings before and after these particular events showcase his descent into monsterhood. Shortly after his birth, he felt “poor, helpless, [and] miserable” (Shelley 92) due to his loneliness. After verbal abuse from his father's abandonment and notes and physical abuse from Felix beating him “violently with a stick,” the monster feels consumed by “rage and revenge” (Shelley 120,121). This clear turning point in the monster’s mental state is also characterized by hateful rhetoric that the readers haven’t heard previously. The monster expresses he could “with pleasure” destroy the cottage and the De Laceys as he revels in their “shrieks and misery” (Shelley 121). The blank slate of innocence we met at the beginning of his journey has been corrupted into a monster that has “declared everlasting war against [humans]” (Shelley 121). With the overwhelming wealth of positive characterization of the being by Shelley up to this point, only without context can the reader truly hold the monster responsible for his change in attitude.

If the reader needed any more evidence of the monster’s good nature, one last test is presented after the incident at the De Laceys and after his inner declaration of war. As he is hiding from people in the wilderness with him, the creature sees a young girl drowning and he “rushed from [his] hiding-place and with extreme labour . . . saved her and dragged her to shore” (Shelley 125). Once again, the creature passes a test of character by sacrificing his own well-being to help an innocent stranger. Shelley has a second purpose for this moment though, and, as expected, society failed its moral test. After he saves the girl’s life, the creature is shot by a man who sees the monster near the girl. In this instance and many others, humanity unloaded the first shot in the creature’s “everlasting war.”

“Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked,” (P. Shelley). It’s unfortunate that beyond this point, the inevitable effect of the monster’s tragedy comes true. Due to his treatment by society and Frankenstein, all of which can be traced to the latter, the corruption of his inner self has transformed it to be a reflection of his outer self.

The revenge murders immediately begin, each a direct reaction to something his creator has done. It starts with a chance encounter with Victor’s youngest brother, William. Enraged at hearing William share Victor’s last name, he strangles the boy. To the monster, the boy represented a member of Victor’s family that, as evidenced by the last name, was accepted into the family and society, and the contempt the monster had at his father’s hypocrisy was enough to spark his first immoral act.

From this moment, the corruption of the monster only becomes worse. Upon finding Victor, the monster begs for his father to create him a bride, offering to flee to the “vast wilds of South America” (Shelley 130) if he would create a companion to fulfill his lifelong unsatiated need for one. Victor agrees and just as his creation is about to get a partner who can empathize with him, Victor murders the bride before her animation. After this one last hideous injustice, Victor has completely shifted the monster’s behavior. The monster continues his revenge homicides, killing both Victor’s best friend and his bride. Shelley’s pacing of events from no murders to two in rapid succession serves to demonstrate to the reader the rapid effect of his corruption. Now the creation’s journey from innocent infant to morbid monster is complete.

In case it isn’t apparent, let’s examine the two reasons the monster made the choices he made: his physical appearance and his feelings. His physical appearance, created by Victor Frankenstein, is what causes him to be abandoned by his father, attacked by the De Lacey’s, and shot by a stranger. These reactions to the monster’s existence led to his feelings of isolation and abandonment, which led him to search for companionship with De Lacey, which caused him to grow angrier at their abandonment. All of these terrible circumstances paved the path the monster would travel on. So the fundamental question in Shelley’s work that determines what we ought to take away from her novel is if the monster could not control everything that led up to his decisions, could he control his decisions at all?

If we knew William Frankenstein, Henry Clerval, or Elizabeth Lavenza before they were murdered by the monster, our inclination would probably be to show no mercy. Even without a personal connection, it’s easy to side against a murderer because, as neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris put it, “what we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm,” (Harris). However, it seems unfair to discount the reality that we aren’t in control of the factors that lead to our decisions. It was mentioned earlier that Shelley used the body parts that Frankenstein stole from graves as a symbol of his monster’s character. Let’s call the arms plucked from the dead bodies the abandonment from his father. We can have the legs represent the De Lacey’s treatment of him. Perhaps his 8-foot body can be representative of all the times that he was so close to acceptance but it ran away, shot him, or was murdered in front of him. When the very brain in his skull was given to him by someone else, how can we possibly in good conscious put blame on the being we knew to be good? When rotting corpses, abandonment, and violence is all he knows, one could make the argument that he doesn’t have the choice to be good; all attempts at human connection and morality were met with nothing but negative reinforcement. Of course, the creature became a monster; if I were in his shoes and traded places with him atom for atom, circumstance for circumstance, “there is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently” (Harris). I would be one too.

After reading my evaluation, it wouldn’t be outlandish for you to have a negative opinion on Victor. However, blaming him instead of his creation would be making the same mistake Shelley was warning against.

Sheley uses elements of the story’s setting and Victor’s characterization to demonstrate that what happens is inevitable rather than the result of free will. Taking place in the 1700s, a scholar like Victor would have been surrounded by enlightenment thought all his life and through his development: a movement heavily focused on the benefits of curiosity, individualism, and scientific pursuit. This explains one of Victor’s primary influences as he tells the reader that his “inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world” (Shelley 33). In his attempt to create life, he did not intend or expect the results to be physically a failure, because he “selected his features as beautiful” (Shelley 51), so that explains his visceral reaction to his creature. Additionally, his obsession with life and death could be explained by the death of his mother, which he described “left a void that presents itself to the soul,” (Shelley 38). It can be inferred that the void left by his mother abandoning him in death may have been the reason he was devoid of paternal instincts when the creature needed him.

Whatever the reasons are for what he did, what’s important is there were factors that Frankenstein had no control over that made him what he became, including his environment, upbringing, genetics, and circumstances.

Shelley makes it obvious that the novel’s problems would be solved if the two main characters would have expressed empathy and forgiveness for each other Had Frankenstein acted with empathy and forgiveness towards the creature for his failures, the conflict of the initial abandonment would have been resolved. Had the creature acted with empathy and forgiveness towards Victor’s shortcomings, he wouldn’t have murdered three of the people close to him.

From the playground bully to the teacher’s pet, the serial killer, and the philanthropist, a plethora of uncontrollable factors mold who we become and what we do. Judging someone by who they are or how they act would be judging someone by these uncontrollable factors. By using context and differing points of view, Shelley uses her novel to assert that we ought to express forgiveness towards one another for our failures. No one is a monster and we are all creations; not molded by a scientist, but by everything that has come before us.


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Harris, Sam. Free Will. New York, Free Press, 2012.

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O'Rourke, James. "Nothing More Unnatural": Mary Shelley's Revision of Rousseau." Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus: The Pennsylvania Electronic Edition, UPenn, 1989, http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/Articles/orourke.html. Accessed 15 Dec. 2019.

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