A commentary on an extract from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
The extract is from the fifth chapter of ‘Frankenstein’. The fifth chapter depicts the haunting scene in which Victor breathes life into his eight-foot monster, but realizes too late the abomination that he has created. Leading up to the excerpt is Victor Frankenstein’s rapidly growing fascination with reanimation and the possibilities of science, which lead him to discover the method of artificial life. After the scene, Victor shuns his creation and ultimately has his family and him dying at the hands of it.
In this short extract, Shelly sculpts two largely contrasting atmospheres; using pathetic fallacy to reflect not only the change in the mood and situations of the characters involved; but also the pace and direction of the novel. Frankenstein’s monster’s coming to life signifies the full transition of the novel from describing Victor’s carefree childhood to the fantastically gripping tale of woe, fear, and caution. This is change is reflected in the different atmospheres that Shelley paints before and after the rise of the Monster.
The chapter/extract begins on a ‘dreary night of November’ where the rain ‘pattered dismally’ against the windows of Victor Frankenstein’s workshop, barely lit by the ‘glimmer of the half-extinguished light’. A cold, dark, damp night — a perfectly dreary setting for the dreary act that is about to commence. This is not, however, the extent of the purpose of the setting. Apart from being dreary, we can observe the amount of animation that is in the opening paragraph before the wake of the Monster — hardly any. The scene is lifeless and lacklustre, but not without purpose. Firstly, it parallels the Monster — Lifeless, dead. Secondly, it shows how the novel’s true story has not begun, the previous pages and chapters only set the stage for the tale of terror that would succeed it. Most importantly however, is that the use of pathetic fallacy lends an additional degree of chilling fearfulness to the rise of the Monster, a setting that promises ominous consequences to the act of artificial life.
When the monster wakes at the end of the first paragraph, the text seems to leap into a state of action, perhaps even frantic panic. ‘breathed hard’, ‘convulsive motion’, ‘agitated’, the animation of the scene evidences the leap of atmosphere. Additionally, Frankenstein starts to narrate the tale with exclamations ‘Beautiful ‘Great God!’ and adds in the use of a rhetorical question at the start if the second paragraph. The text further describes the rise of the monster as ‘tumult(uous)’. This change in atmosphere acts effectively as a form of pathetic fallacy. The language and setting seem to fly into panic and disorder (in comparison with the previous lifeless situation), paralleling the mind of Frankenstein, who has found himself suddenly revolted at the result of his many months of toil. Unable to comprehend the supposedly abhorrent monster that he has created, bridled with the shocking distortion of his dream (of creating life) — Frankenstein was overwhelmed and made frantic, and the reader is made to sympathise and immerse himself in the terror that Frankenstein felt through the use of pathetic fallacy.
Frankenstein falls into a restless slumber after the terror of the rise of the Monster, where he has a dream. This symbolism-rich dream reflects many aspects of Victor’s character and gives insight into his subconscious opinions, desires, and thoughts.
The first interesting event in the dream is when Elizabeth appears to die after receiving a kiss from Victor. Firstly, from this one could postulate that Victor is afraid his actions will harm Elizabeth. Further on in the novel, the Monster kills Elizabeth as revenge on Victor. Perhaps Victor is pre-cognitively blaming himself for what horrors he may have unleashed by creating the monster and what dire consequences may return to haunt him.
However, when one scrutinizes the text, the dream may reflect something entirely different about Victor. Throughout the book of ‘Frankenstein’, the theme of artificial birth, creating life without a womb, without sexual intercourse with a woman, has been omnipresent. In a way, the achievement Victor has made in creating artificial life has eliminated the role of the female from the creation of life, the death of Elizabeth and the subsequent appearance of Victor’s dead mother — his life-giver may signify the death of the role of women in birth.
Moreover, Victor himself seems to reject the idea of sexual relations with a woman entirely. Victor sees the women in his life — his mother and his sister almost as goddesses. They are fair, perfect and sublime. Unblemished Madonnas. The act of sex with said pure women seems to Victor a sacrilegious act. In the dream, Victor’s kiss is the act that instigates the death of Elizabeth. Even though Victor rejects the idea of female sexuality, he is unable to suppress his own desire for affection, so his subconscious attempts to convince Victor of the supposed aftermaths if he acted upon his desires — the death of Elizabeth. Not her literal death per se but the destruction of the unblemished and pure image of Elizabeth that Victor has adopted throughout his entire life. To Victor, the death of that image would be no different from her literal death as he is in love with her flawless image and not the real, human, Elizabeth.
In Victor’s dream, after Elizabeth dies, ‘her features appeared to change’ into the corpse of Victor’s mother. One might hypothesize that the dead body of Elizabeth morphing into that of Victor’s mother may be because Victor blames Elizabeth for the death of his mother, since his mother died from the scarlet fever that Elizabeth had caught.
On the other hand, we know that Victor sees Elizabeth as an infallible goddess, why would be place blame on her? Victor blames himself for the death of his mother. As we know, Victor sees both his mother and Elizabeth as goddesses, it is entirely possible that Victor subconsciously had sexual attraction for his mother as well. Freud’s Oedipus complex (aptly named after the incestuous Oedipus) states that a son wishes to obtain the full affection (including sexual) of their mother, even seeing their father as an obstacle to that love. Victor may have felt sexually attracted to his mother; however he knows that it is unnatural and wrong. Moreover, he sees his sexualisation of his mother as not only a sin in regard to the incestuous nature of it, but also a desecration of the unsullied goddess that he sees her as. Thus, when Victor’s mother dies, Victor sees his mother’s death as retribution and punishment for his wrongful sexual attraction for her. That is why Elizabeth’s dead body morphs into that of his mother, because Victor believes that he if projected his sexual desires onto Elizabeth, she would be ‘killed’ retributively like Victor’s mother. This is further supported in the later chapter where Elizabeth is killed by the Monster – Elizabeth is killed before the consummation —the sexual union of marriage could take place, prompting Victor to be further convinced that his sexual intentions were being punished by an unseen force.
Finally, Victor startles from his sleep as he sees grave-worms in the dead body. Why would Victor flinch from worms? He had worked with dead bodies extensively during his time researching the method of creating artificial life; he should be no stranger to grave-worms. The shock comes from the fact that the grave-worms are on his mother. Victor cannot accept that worms or even the effects of death should ravage his goddess of a mother. This is further proof that Victor elevates his mother and women to an ethereal level.
The characterization of Victor doesn’t stop at describing his attitude towards women, but shows several of his qualities. Firstly, he is quick to judge. The Monster is in no way inherently evil; in fact he is like a baby. Several allusions to the Monster being the child of Victor are mentioned in the text. For example, in the third paragraph of the extract, the Monster had ‘one hand stretched out’ as though a child reaching out for Victor — his father and creator. Yet Victor sees it as a motion to ‘detain him’, calling the Monster a ‘wretch’ and a ‘miserable monster’ without truly understanding what he had created. Victor also displays signs of this earlier in the novel as he rejected the teaching of M. Krempe as he considered him ‘uncouth’ and unattractive.
One might also name Frankenstein as being unwilling to take responsibility for his own actions. After bestowing life upon the Monster, he elects to sleep to ‘seek a few moments of forgetfulness’. Throughout the novel, Frankenstein constantly refers to ‘fate’ as the reason for his downfall and doom, describing how ‘fate’ had set a course for his ruin when it was his irresponsibility and ineptitude in handling his own creation that had caused the ruin of his own life.
Shelley also uses a large amount of symbolism to the role of the Monster in this story. Firstly, that of the new-born: When the Monster first rises, he is described as having yellow skin in the second paragraph. The yellow skin of the Monster is akin to the new-born Jaundice of babies. By describing the Monster as having jaundiced skin, Shelley is suggesting that the Monster is simply a new-born, innocent, unknowing and requiring protection, like any other new-born. However, when Frankenstein describes his yellow skin, he does so in a tone of horror and disgust. Shelley invites readers to view the Monster in a different light; not as a monster, but as an abandoned child, cast away by his father and creator at the moment of his birth.
Furthermore, by doing this, Shelley suggests to the readers that since Frankenstein sees the yellow skin – a sign of a new-born baby, as a deformed feature, he may not be a reliable narrator to explain the truth of the story. This use of narratorial unreliability prompts the readers to judge the situation for themselves and (since we know that he is a person who is quick to judge based on exterior appearances) invokes thought on how heavily the bias of Frankenstein influences the telling of events in ‘Frankenstein’.
Secondly, Shelley describes the Monster’s eyes as ‘dull’, ‘yellow’, and ‘watery’. The eyes are often regarded as the window to the soul. Shelley describes the Monster’s eyes as dull, yellow and watery firstly because he does not have a proper soul; he is not a creation of God but rather an experiment of man. Also, the Monster has yet to understand the concept of life, of having a soul. The Monster’s eyes are dull and soulless because he is a child. He has yet to learn and fill himself with morals and knowledge. Yet before he could learn, his father and creator and abandons him in terror. Thus Shelley invokes us to pity the Monster and his predicament; after all, how could a child learn what is right or wrong without anyone to teach him?
Thirdly, that of the moon: The Monster slowly becomes associated with the moon. The moon is present at almost all of the encounters between Frankenstein and the Monster and this excerpt is no exception. ‘(B)y the dim and yellow light of the moon’, ‘dim’ and ‘yellow’ describe the moon in the third paragraph of the excerpt while ‘dull’ and ‘yellow’ were used to describe the Monster’s eyes in the first paragraph. This association of the Monster and the moon is used to bring out the fact that the Monster is a creature of the night. The Monster must move about hidden in the night when the moon’s dim light does poorly to reveal his strange appearance. Later, the monster comes to realize this as he finds himself judged by his appearance and thus shunned everywhere he shows his face.
‘Frankenstein’ is a classic example of romantic gothic literature. Hints of the romanticism roots of the writing are littered about the excerpt. In the first paragraph, Victor wishes to infuse a ‘spark’ of life into the Monster, the spark being the lightning of nature. Romanticism writers were fascinated with the powers and wonders of nature, often writing about the sublime aspects of it — including the awesome power of lightning which was also the reason for Frankenstein’s path towards science. The ghoulish and supernatural were also a popular motif within the gothic literature subset of romantic literature. In the last sentence of the excerpt, Frankenstein calls the monster a ‘demoniacal corpse’, calling him a demon; the Monster is also associated with the moon and being a creature of the night — both popular motifs in gothic literature.
The main theme of the novel is perhaps most clearly show here in this excerpt — Man should be wary of human aspiration. Frankenstein is at its core a story of how Victor Frankenstein attempts to bend nature to his will and triumph over the powers of death. However, as we come to see, Frankenstein’s attempts backfire spectacularly as his voyages of conquering life and death result in the death of his entire family and ultimately him. In the excerpt, Frankenstein is shocked at how ugly the Monster looks, claiming that he had ‘selected his features as beautiful’. Victor’s failure to mimic the powers of God and nature are evidenced by the appearance of the Monster. The Monster is described to have ‘lustrous, black and flowing’ hair and ‘pearly white teeth’. Are these not features that are considered beautiful and attractive when on a normal human being? Yet when they appear on the Monster, Victor claims that they work to enhance its deformity and ugliness. Victor’s attempt at recreating the work of nature results only in a perversion of the image of man, and represents Victor’s work as a perversion of the beauty of God’s creation and nature’s process of life-giving.
By showing the inability of man to create artificial life, Shelley is suggesting that it is the divine role of God. Moreover, Frankenstein’s attempt at usurping God’s divine power to create life through man and woman is hubris and his later tragedy the nemesis that resulted from his act. Mary Shelley strongly enforces Romantic themes within this story, namely that of encouraging the release of human restriction and learning to appreciate the beauty of nature that God has created. Frankenstein refuses to simply admire life, he wishes to be the master of it, the master of both life and death and thus he suffers the retribution for his insolence.
This excerpt is an apt representation of the underlying motifs and themes of the story. The issue of Victor’s sexual repression is displayed, the Monster’s ‘monstrosity’ put to question. Shelley pertinently invites the readers to question the basic, and shallow identities of the characters and to delve into the deeper debate of the true nature of their roles in the story. Frankenstein’s failure to create ‘natural’ artificial life is also a testament to the sacred powers of God and nature, and evidences the theme of the need to restrict man’s ambition. Shelley’s masterful use of language and pathetic fallacy also crafts the atmosphere to suit the haunting events of the chapter.