Kristen has been writing for over 30 years. She graduated from UCF with a B.A. in English-Creative Writing.
“I think hell is something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.”
— Neil Gaiman, "Season of Mists"
History and Themes
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published anonymously in 1818. It would not be until the 1823 edition that she would be credited as its author, or the book gain popularity until the 1831 version. The novel was groundbreaking in its time as both a piece of Gothic horror and science fiction, genres not combined before then. It was also a big leap for feminism, as Mrs. Shelley was writing in what was considered, at the time and for the most part today, boys’ club genres. She herself was the only female author in a group of male writers consisting of husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Dr. Polidori.
The 1831 version is still the preferred choice among the casual reader, though the 1818 version has seen a revival of sorts among the literary purist and the academically inclined. No matter the edition, the novel and its characters have become pop icon staples, appearing in film, television, stage, music and art for nearly 200 years. Yet there are deeper themes at work in the story of the scientist and his creation. “Critical interest in the text… has largely focused on its ethical, moral, and social implications,” whether they be “from a psychoanalytical standpoint, expounding on the creature's conflicting emotions toward his creator,” or calling “into question what it means to be a ‘monster,’ demonstrating Frankenstein's tendency toward destruction and the creature's capacity for compassion.” ("Explanation of: 'Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus' by Mary Shelley.")
There are also the views of “the book's religious undertones, noting parallels between the Christian parable of the prodigal son and the predicament of the creature,” as well as “The motif of the double …with the monster's actions representing the doctor's own repressed desires.” ("Explanation of…”) It is these two interpretations that touch on an overriding theme throughout the work, that of duality leading to the two main characters’ personal hells. But what is the definition of hell? In No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is—other people.” Ludwig Wittgenstein countered that sentiment with, “Hell isn't other people. Hell is yourself.” H. L. Mencken refined the latter statement to, “Every man is his own hell.” In Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Victor’s and his creature’s personal hells are twofold, caused both by themselves and each other.
How Is Hell Defined?
Victor Frankenstein’s hell was first the creation of his creature. Aldous Huxley said, “Hell isn't merely paved with good intentions; it's walled and roofed with them.” This is quite appropriate for Dr. Frankenstein, as he sees the ability to create life as a benefit to mankind, to “pour a torrent of light into our dark world…renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” (Shelley 36) Coming upon the knowledge to give life to that which is lifeless, he becomes obsessed with fulfilling his self assigned task. It consumes him so greatly, his health declines and he neglects those that he loves. It also blinds him to the exact appearance of what he is creating. So invested in his work, he does not see what he has put together out of a hodgepodge of human and animal parts is not a perfect being but something hideous until it is too late. “The problem for Victor Frankenstein, the aspiring "modern Prometheus," is that he apes the ancient Prometheus who disobediently steals the gods' fire and ultimately is punished himself and inspires Zeus to visit upon humanity Pandora and her box. Curiosity--scientific eagerness?--drives her to expose to the light what she had been warned to leave unseen, unleashing all evils…” (Rabkin 48)
The second is brutally losing those that he loves at the hands of his creation, as strangulation is the primary method in which the creature took them. The first victim is Victor’s youngest brother. His father writes, “’William is dead…Victor, he is murdered…stretched on the grass livid and motionless: the print of the murderer’s finger was on his neck.’” (Shelley 52) This is seen again with Henry, as “He had apparently been strangled; for there was no sign of any violence, except the black mark of fingers on his neck.” (147) Lastly, he takes Elizabeth’s life on her wedding night (165). But this is not his only means of murder. Justine’s death comes from his manipulation of the hands of justice. He frames her for the death of William by placing the locket in her pocket while she slept. She only confesses to the crime when she is led to believe her eternal soul is on the line, in hopes for a leniency that never was intended. (59-68) His father also meets his demise due to its machinations. After Victor brings him the news of Elizabeth’s murder, it is the final blow with all the misfortune that had befallen his family starting with his wife’s death. “He could not live under the horrors that were accumulated around him; an apoplectic fit was brought on, and in a few days he died in my arms.” (168) The real hell for Victor in this is it is of his own doing, as he, “betrays communal bonds, by ignoring his own family, by promising to end the creature's loneliness with a bride and then destroying her half made, and by egotistically leaving his own bride to the fatal devices of the desperate creature. The creature is the visible sign of the way in which curiosity unbridled by a recognition of the just claims of society may separate the individual, bring punishment to him, and unleash terror on the world.” (Rabkin 48)
When you're in hell, only a devil can point the way out.”
— Joe Abercrombie, "Half a King"
The Creature’ hell is also twofold. The first is his rejection by humans. Initially, he is rejected by his creator, the reason he even exists, “Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room.” (39) It is later, when he has learned to read, does he truly understand the absolute rejection of Victor. “Every thing 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 ineffaceable.” (105) Then, he is rejected by the De Lacey family, whom he came to love, protect, and provide for. The fact the old man was willing to converse with him before the kids exposed his physical hideousness to him is a bitter pill to swallow. (110) Any other humans he encounters all fear and despise him. When he saves the little girl from drowning, he is not seen as the selfless hero, but as a monster aiming to destroy her. As his reward, he is shot. (115-16) “The more the creature learns about human forms of life, the more conscious he becomes of his difference. His acquisition of language allows him to follow the cottagers' readings of history and discourses on the ‘strange system of human society,’ but his new cultural literacy leads him to understand that he has no such history and belongs to no society.” (Yousef 219)
Then there is his embrace of the baser instincts: hatred, revenge and murder. Thought he engages in them all, he experiences remorse and regret quite often afterwards. When he is confronting Victor for the first time, he describes his circumstance as such, “Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and, instead of injury, I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union.” (119) The creature does not want to commit evil deeds, he wants to be good. This he has demonstrated in the care he showed the De Lacey family. The pain of humanity’s rejection causes him to lose control of his better instincts. In the end, he sees the error of his ways. This is especially true after the death of Victor, when he realizes that all of it has brought to him no peace; “I should have wept to die; now it is my only consolation. Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?” (190)
Hell is just a frame of mind.”
— Christopher Marlowe, "Dr. Faustus"
As we see in the novel, Victor and the creature become the mirror images of each other, as Dellal states, “The Monster's creator, Victor Frankenstein and The Monster himself, in alternating roles of the pursuer and the pursued.” (132) Victor, though ambitious, is naïve when he begins his pursuit of creating life. His creation starts off as an innocent, learning the basics of life and only longing for acceptance. Eventually, loss drives them over the edge of reason and into an all-consuming need for revenge. The final catalyst for this is even a mirror image of the other, the loss of their female companion at the other’s hands. They even talk about themselves in similar terms. The creature states, “I, like the arch fiend, bore a hell within me.” (111) Whereas Frankenstein says, “I was cursed by some devil, and carried about with me my eternal hell.” (173)
Oscar Wilde once said, “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” This is true of the duel leads in Frankenstein. Victor could have prevented much of his suffering. He had moments when he clearly saw his sacrifice and blind ambition. He could have chosen to step back and return to his family. All that followed can be traced back to the moment he chose to continue. All it brought him was regret. The creature had less of a choice, but still could have not succumb to the despair that led to his total descent. The times when he could choose between darkness and the light, he went with the dark. In the end, all it brought him was emptiness. Each one expresses these hard-learned lessons in the end. As Thomas Hobbes expresses in his seminal work Leviathan, “Hell is truth seen too late.”
But she's wrong about hell. You don't have to wait until you're dead to get there.”
— Susan Beth Pfeffer, "Life As We Knew It"
Dellal, Julie. "Frankenstein: symbol and parable." Australian Screen Education, no. 36, 2004, p. 130+. Educators Reference Complete, 18 Apr. 2018. Web.
"Explanation of: 'Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus' by Mary Shelley." LitFinder Contemporary Collection, Gale, 2009. LitFinder, 17 Apr. 2018. Web
Rabkin, Eric S. "Frankenstein, Dracula, and the workings of genre." Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, vol. 2, no. 2, 2008, p. 43+. Fine Arts and Music Collection, 23 Apr. 2018. Web.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Marilyn Butler. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. 1818 text ed., Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Yousef, Nancy. "The monster in a dark room: Frankenstein, feminism, and philosophy." Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 2, 2002, p. 197+. Educators Reference Complete, 18 Apr. 2018. Web.
© 2018 Kristen Willms