Literary Essay · Thematic Essays

Fate vs. Free Will: The Folly of Victor Frankenstein

Everyone knows about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We’re all familiar with the scientist and his creation, the terror the latter inspires and its warnings about the dangers of human overreach. But the book has kind of been lost in the cultural mire through its interpretation in movies and other media. Much of what we commonly believe came from Frankenstein actually came from its countless adaptations.

One thing that remains consistent in any adaption of the story however is the question of fate. Whether it was fated for Frankenstein to create the monster. Whether it was fated that the monster was to be evil from the beginning simply based on how the hubris of its master’s ambitions. Whether or not the it was fated that the population at large rejects the monster and destroy the unnatural blight from existence. These questions are posed in one way or another in most adaptations of the book.

Throughout the story,  Victor Frankenstein discusses his tale in fatalistic terms. He was destined to create the monster and destined to be the most wretched  human being because of it. I would argue however that Frankenstein had more of a say in the destiny he continually bemoans. (Infuriatingly so).

I think it’s important to lay the groundwork for Frankenstein’s earliest acts of agency. He reveals that early in life he was raised outside of superstitious thought.

In my education, my father had taken the greatest precaution that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit (46).

This early education set the foundation for Frankenstein belief system going forward. He prized rationality above all else and it could be said that this supernatural cynicism bolstered the hubris that led to the creation of the monster. He gave no thought to the rightness of his pursuits–less to the morality.

It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world (33).

When he seeks higher education at the University of Ingolstadt, he makes a series of decisions that led him to the creation of the monster. He indulged greatly in the scientific thought of ancient alchemist who, even at this point in history, were majorly debunked by most men of science at the time. He himself had grown disenchanted with these same ancient scientists and when he confesses to Professor M. Krempe that they were the only thing he studied till that point, he tells the young Frankenstein that he has “burdened [his] memory with exploded systems and useless names” (41).

But he didn’t have too much respect for this professor (who he later described as an “uncouth” man) and started to get more acquainted with Professor M. Waldman who rekindled his passion for the ancient science. Or, as Frankenstein relayed in hindsight: “…such the words of fate, enounced to destroy me” (42).  He applied this  knowledge blended with more practical theory at the time to create the monster. Frankenstein wanted to create something no one else had achieved. To do something that only God himself was capable of.

But imperfect hands create an imperfect being. Since the creature was born with the sin of hubris as a primary motivator, the creation becomes intrinsically malicious. Frankenstein’s monster is not born hating man but it grows to hate humanity because he is so despised by them. I personally think he’s a far more compelling character than his creator because though he does bemoan his own wretchedness, he doesn’t sit around and allow himself to be tormented by those who hate him. He takes vengeance on his creator and stubbornly clings to the life he abhors.

But back to the original topic: “fate vs free will.” It could be argued that the only thing Frankenstein does during the entire narrative is create the monster. Due to this one sinful act, he is destined to suffer until his mortal end. At least, this is what Frankenstein would like us to believe.

In truth, I saw a man given ample choices to do something but always ends up making the wrong one. Upon first giving the monster the “spark of life,” he flees in mortal terror of his own creation saying that “the beauty of the dream vanished, and disgust and horror filled my heart” (51). This could be forgiven but the next day, he is taken ill and refuses to go out and search for his creation. He looses a potential malignancy on the world (by his own admission) and refuses to talk about it, no less act upon it. He chooses to do nothing.

When the threat becomes real and hits closer to home with the murder of his little brother and the wrongful conviction of a close family friend, he still does nothing. Instead, he folds in on himself arguing against revealing the presence of the creature because he doesn’t want to be subjected to claims of madness.

I paused when I reflected on the story I had to tell […] I knew well that if any other had communicated such a relation to me, I should have looked upon it as the ravings of insanity. […] These reflections determined me and I resolved to remain silent (69-70).

He chose to let the monster run free. He chose to let the friend take the fall for the monster’s deeds. Once she is executed, he sinks into despair and resigns himself to solicitude and nature. All the while, who knows what horrible crimes the monster is committing in the meantime. He again chooses nothing all the while wallowing in his own misery.

Later in the story, he is given another choice when he’s commissioned by the monster himself to make a bride of equal stature to end the suffering of both. He ponders over this conundrum, shuddering at the thought of consenting but equally moved by the monster’s tale of woe and loneliness.

He’s put into a very tough situation but in the end he does make a choice. As he assembles the pieces to craft the bride with the monster leering at his progress from afar and, perceiving the monster’s grin full of treachery, he rips the half-formed body in front of him. He chooses to renege on his promise because to do so would potentially wreak more devastation  on the world.

He declares to the monster:

The hour of my irresolution is past, and the period of your power is arrived. Your threats cannot move me to do an act of wickedness; but they confirm me in a determination of not creating you a companion in vice. […] Begone! I am firm, and your will only exasperate my rage (149).

But it’s this final choice that proves his ultimate downfall. The monster retaliates in kind–killing the people close to him (first his best friend, Clerval, and then his wife on their wedding day). Frankenstein swears vengeance and starts a chase around the world to bring the creature down.

So, is Frankenstein a victim of fate? I would argue no. He was given multiple choices to curtail the monster’s devastation but he decides to do nothing. Whether from a sense of self-preservation or some (much delayed) moral revelation, he made a choice that further enraged and emboldened the monster. Even if the case could be made for the monster’s action being divine retribution for the sin that brought about its creation, I find it difficult to assign what happens to Frankenstein later in life thus. He stuck to his guns on most of the problems presented to him and for him to continually cry “ill fate” and “twisted destiny” comes off as completely disingenuous.

Editor’s Note: Originally posted on CreativelyAddled WordPress.


One thought on “Fate vs. Free Will: The Folly of Victor Frankenstein

  1. I came across this by accident but I would like to make you aware of another reading of the text.

    Perhaps Frankenstein’s decision to desert his creation is because in it he saw a reflection of himself that was abhorrent to him, and was not as he had conceived of himself. This reaps havoc on Frankenstein’s sense of self-awareness, as he realises his image of self is outside of his control and is now externalised.

    In this sense Shelley is challenging the (very) Romantic conventions of free-will and self determination, showing that conception of a sense of self is dependent upon external objects and that which exists outside of us. In this sense we can never be completely self-determined as we rely upon ‘otherness’ and external reality to conceive of ourselves. Another example of this is when the Creature perceives himself in the reflection in the water, and from that point on his identity assumes that of the monstrosity he sees.


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