Often times when thinking of heroes, one might imagine a powerful superhero, like Superman, dressed in a tight costume answering the frightened calls of the victim. Or perhaps what comes to mind is the image of a knight on a white horse coming to save the princess, like in in the tales of King Arthur; or a brave warrior wielding a sword like Joan of Arc. By contrast, the villain might be seen as an ugly beast whose only thoughts are to annihilate humankind any way they can. The villain usually loses, and plummets to their death in one fashion or another. But what about the people or characters who don’t really fit these categories? Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is one such story where the heroes and villains belong in an alternate category. Shelley’s novel explores the question of who is the true monster, and who is the hero. Shelley demonstrates the flaws and beauty of all creatures so eloquently, as she follows the stories of Victor, the creature Victor creates, and the people who interact with both of these characters. Perhaps these characters are both heroes and villains; going a step further, perhaps they are also neither. Some may argue Victor is the villain; after all, he not only created the monster, but he completely abandoned him to the cruel outside world. The creature, on the other hand, murdered all those dear to Victor, including an innocent child, so surely he is the villain. The people who encountered the creature might also be the monsters, because of their cruel actions toward him. It seems, however, they were all equally monstrous and heroic. This may seem like a cop-out, but if black and white can create gray, human beings can certainly exhibit complex personalities.
There are two terms that come to mind with the characterization in Frankenstein: the antihero and the anti-villain. According to Merriam Webster, the antihero is “a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities” (Antihero). The anti-villain on the other hand is defined as, “a villain with heroic goals, personality traits, and/or virtues. Their desired ends are mostly good, but their means of getting there are evil” (Anti-Villain). One could see how the lines between these two types of individuals could become blurred. After all, a hero who is selfish and cowardly, and a villain who is selfless and brave, may cause one to question what constitutes heroism.
In Frankenstein, Victor is the protagonist whose intentions may initially be considered good: Victor wanted to see if he could find a way to resurrect the dead, or create life. After the loss of his mother, one can’t really blame him for that. Just think, if he could find a way to reanimate a lifeless body, such findings could mean eternal life for all humankind. One would never have to truly say goodbye to a loved one ever again. For this reason, the means initially justifies the end for Victor, and he has ample reason to begin his creation, which was completed on a dreary night of November (34). The “spark” used while bringing the creature to life is a form of light, which seems to symbolize life in this narrative; but perhaps the spark highlights the light and dark qualities of humanity—much like the villain and the hero being two sides of the same coin.
What follows the metaphorical birth of his “child”, is a very dark time for Victor. As soon as Victor achieves his goal, he lacks the traditional heroic quality of courage, and begins to exhibit monster-like qualities. Victor abandons the infant-like creature by running from him the moment he realizes what he has done. When this “child” tries to speak to his father and physically reach out to him, Victor runs from him again (35). This sets in motion the downfall of not only the creature and his creator, but all that the latter holds dear. Because of Victor’s actions, Victor’s little brother, best friend, wife, and father, all end up dead by quite literally the work of his own hands. Victor did not stop to consider how the creature would be affected if or when he was brought to life, how people might react to him, or how he would take care of him. The theme of blindness comes to mind. Victor is so blinded by his obsession to create life, he fails to think about the possible consequences of his actions. To make matters even worse, once he becomes aware of his mistakes, he fails to take responsibility for his actions. Failing to show love to his son, failing to speak up for a woman falsely accused of murder, and not trying to stop the creature from creating havoc much sooner than he did, puts Victor in a villainous light.
Although it’s fair to view Victor as the villain of Frankenstein, it is also not necessarily accurate. Is Victor at fault? Absolutely. Is he a role model? No. But a villain? Victor’s remorse for his actions is certainly not enough to put him in hero territory. One thing that tips the scale in his favor though is something that Victor failed to do from the start: he finally takes responsibility for his actions. When he goes before the judge in the latter part of the book to tell his tale, Victor openly vows to destroy the murderer he “turned loose on society” (139). He concludes his confession with:
My revenge is of no moment to you; yet, while I allow it to be a vice, I confess that it is the devouring and only passion of my soul. My rage is unspeakable, when I reflect that the murderer, whom I have turned loose on society, still exists. You refuse my just demand: I have but one resource; and I devote myself, either in my life or death, to his destruction. (139)
Admittedly, Victor doesn’t openly admit being at fault here, although most likely the missing dialogue of his narrative may have done just that. He does verbalize his cycle of revenge though, and admits it is his vice.
Victor knows his behavior is wrong, but he pursues it anyway. Once again, this reads as villainous and monstrous; however, one must look at the context. Victor had just lost all the light in his life, and not only is nearly everyone he loves dead, but he also is plagued with guilt over their loss. Now the only passion he has left is his desire for revenge. He does however, display one act of heroism. He is willing to die if it means destroying the monster he created, not only for revenge, but to save humankind. While this still is not typical hero territory, considering his mostly selfish motives, it definitely fits the antihero trope.
By contrast, the creature fits the anti-villain definition brilliantly. Even though he may have become a full blown villain toward the latter part of the novel, the creature still demonstrates many heroic qualities up to that point, including compassion, courage, and intellect. For example, when the creature chops and stacks firewood for the cottagers without taking any credit; when he shovels snow from their pathway; when he eagerly learns to speak and read the cottagers’ language because he wants to be accepted and loved by them. Would a true monster work so tirelessly for love and affection? Society’s often black and white concept of what makes a villain stands in stark contrast to the reality of Frankenstein’s “monster.” The creature starts out as a good man who happens to come in a frightening package. The blind cottager sees the creature for the good man that he is; the cottager’s children only see the creature’s frightening appearance. Upon finding the creature visiting with their blind father, Safie faints, and Felix beats the creature with a stick (91). This violent rejection ends in an abandoned cottage that the creature rebelliously sets fire to. Perhaps this destruction is a metaphor for “I will see you all in hell.” In other words, at this point, the creature lets go of moral inhibitions. He now seeks his revenge on the one man who could have made it all better, his father.
One would think this is where the creature becomes the full blooded monster, but again he surprises us. When he was all alone in a dense forest, sad and dejected, the creature saves a young girl from drowning. When her companion sees him, instead of drawing the conclusion that this amazing creature saved her life, the companion shoots at him, rather than thanking him. Imagine the creature’s feelings at this point, though we don’t really have to imagine, because he puts them into words: “Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind” (96). When the creature approaches Victor’s little brother, William, it is not to kill him, which is ironic because the creature has just vowed vengeance upon all man. Apparently, the creature’s motive is to teach the boy about tolerance and to become his friend (96). Perhaps the creature had the desire to become the father Victor never was. Unfortunately, when William sees the monster, he reacts in fear. Whether William’s reaction is because of society’s conditioning, an innate human reaction to a hideous form, or just from the act of being seized, is uncertain. Either way, it is the final straw for the creature. The moment he chooses to murder an innocent child is the moment the creature dies, and becomes the monster everyone judged him to be. The creature is arguably innocent and blameless until he makes a deliberate choice to kill.
This first murder seems to have a domino effect on the creature. First, he threatens his father with destruction, and to all he holds dear if he refuses to create a wife for him. When Victor goes back on his word regarding said wife, the creature willfully kills Victor’s best friend, Clerval, and then Victor’s own wife Elizabeth in an act of poetic justice. All these actions point to a monstrous murderer. When one thinks about it, however, someone else pointed and loaded the gun: the very man who said, “I, not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer” (61). Yes, Victor Frankenstein is just as guilty of murder as the creature. From the very moment he decides to create the creature, he follows a dangerous path, thereby endangering everyone he loves. When the creature takes his first breath, he has a clean slate, just like we do when we are first born. He starts out the gentle giant, and ends as a monster.
One wonders what kind of amazing man this creature would have become if he had been received differently. After all, we believe this creature is through with the world when he burns down the cottage; but he then goes on to rescue a girl from drowning, which shows him to be a much-layered individual. Imagine if the girl the creature saved had thrown her arms around him and gave him a big hug in thanks. What if the gentleman with her praised him in gratitude? That one moment in time may have swayed the creature from his path of vengeance. Perhaps he would have been accepted by others if these two individuals spoke up for him. He may have gone to his father directly and warmed his heart with his tortured experience, with no murder to water down Victor’s compassion. More realistically, he may have just escaped to the North like he planned, and lived out his days in isolation—all the while knowing that there are good, heroic people out there.
Yes, being kind to a “wretch” like him, would be viewed as heroic in the creature’s eyes. In fact, kindness to anyone is heroic; viciousness, or even blind ignorance, however, is monstrous. That’s why I feel we can relate to the characters with whom the creature comes in contact. The blind elderly cottager symbolizes who we can be: blind to the outer shell of a person, with true sight or insight into the heart of one. The cottagers and the two people the creature met by the river, while gifted with physical sight, are blinded to the beauty of the creature’s heart. These people all have something in common: they are good people who commit monstrous acts. Victor’s monstrous acts creates a domino effect; forcing the abandoned creature to wander out into a world that is monstrous toward him. And in the end, the creature becomes the monster everyone thinks him to be.
Doubtless the creature is heartbroken when he realizes this fact about himself after seeing his father dead from their own cycle of vengeance. The creature then says, “But it is true that I am a wretch. I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept, and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any living thing” (155). While his remorse is no excuse for his actions, it brings to light what all humans are capable of. We are all responsible for our own actions, but we are also responsible to bestow dignity and love upon our fellow creatures. Every person makes a difference. We will never know what would have happened if the creature would have been shown acceptance and love, especially by his father. More than likely, many of these ghastly events would not have occurred.
In any event, even if it hadn’t changed the narrative, each character would be free from guilt, which is something we all long to have—a clear conscience. Because of their actions, so many in Frankenstein cannot be considered guiltless. The cottagers, the girl saved from drowning, and even little William can be seen as anti-heroes, but cannot be justifiably called heroes. This moral ambiguity forces us to ask: Who is the monster? Is it the one who killed, or the ones who led the killer down that path? Will we be the monster or the hero? Perhaps we need to look inside ourselves for the answers. All of us are all capable of being monsters, which is one of Frankenstein’s most potent themes.
“Antihero.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/antihero>.
“Main/Anti-Villain – Television Tropes & Idioms.” Home Page – Television Tropes & Idioms. TV Tropes Foundation, LLC, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Nineteenth-Century Responses, Modern Criticism. Ed. J P. Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, 1996. Print.