Colliding values in Frankenstein

That the monster represents some projected aspect of the good Dr. Frankenstein is clear enough. (And Victor is indeed a good and noble man at bottom, his fall that of a tragic hero.) But what projected aspect? What exactly is it that the doctor sublimates into monstrosity? I’m sure many illuminating answers are possible, but I have one that relates to three value systems operable in the culture and literature of Shelley’s day.

I am grateful to Shelley for giving Victor a pathological work ethic, evidenced by the time he spends in his lab, because I call on the doctor here to perform a double duty. Among the value systems of the day, Victor represents both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic passion to strive beyond all accepted limits. A third value system – let’s call it the Sentimental — was anchored in the kinder, simpler domestic bonding of friendship and companionate marriage as the locus of value, and it would reach from the 18th century Cult of Sensibility (Laurence Sterne, Henry Mackenzie, et al.) toward the novels Dickens would write in the decades after Frankenstein. Even as a teenager, Mary Shelley would be quite aware of these cultural formations, since her parents were famous Enlightenment radicals, her young husband already a famous Romantic poet, and the sentimental novel had been all the craze for some decades.

While Victor epitomizes both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic excess of passion in his pursuits, Elizabeth (and to a lesser extent, Henry) represents the Sentimental, pulling Victor away from strife and excess toward the more domesticated bliss, the sweet contentment of conjugal love and home life. Elizabeth fails, of course, and Victor hurtles to the outer reaches of the earth, following his extravagant aspirations to his own self-destruction. Elizabeth fails to turn the plot, that is. In terms of the moral of the tale, she wins hands down. What did Victor’s relentless Romantic passion to do great things beyond measure, what did his faith in human science get him? How much more fulfilled might he have been if he had settled down with Elizabeth in domestic bliss and spent out his years peacefully “tending his own garden,” as Voltaire had recommended we do? Despite the wild and stormy romanticism of the novel’s setting and plot, despite the fact that Shelley was at the time of writing traveling with two of the greatest Romantic poets of the day – it seems that the novel’s resolution, after all the crash-and-burn of colliding value systems, favors the Sentimental anchor of fulfillment – at least for us mere mortals.

4 thoughts on “Colliding values in Frankenstein

  1. Interesting post, with strong echoes of current collisions. Sentimental fulfillment – is this what many people now deride as selfish individualism? Enlightenment faith in science – this seems hopelessly out of reach in the current political climate. Romantic passion – the modern world seems altogether too cynical for such passions. Our society seems to have rejected all three notions. What is left for us?

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    • I think you’re off on a tangent … but I like your tangent. Yes, I think the Sentimental value system (tend your garden and enjoy simple love and friendships) is rejected by players on all sides of the public sphere as not “political” enough (although, on the street level, I think you’ll find a lot of people who have “dropped out, turned on, and tuned in” to Sentimental values despite the shrieks of the Left and Right chicken wings in charge). Yes, Enlightenment faith in science, although negative in its consequences in the context of Frankenstein, could definitely use a boost today — with the right wing rejecting science on climate change, evolution, etc. and the left wing rejecting Enlightenment values of shared humanness and universal truths accessible to reason in favor of each demographic having their own truth and their own turf to guard. An identity politics liberal cannot judge whether 2+2=4 until they know the demographic identity of the person who said it. On Romantic passion, I’ll depart from your reading slightly and say it’s not gone but has followed Yeats’s prophecy: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

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