Victor Frankenstein is the main character of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. He is a scientist obsessed with the combination of alchemy and chemistry in relation to dead organisms. After trial and error, and quite a bit of grave robbing, Victor manages to animate a creature of his own making. Horrified by the creature, Victor abandons him. In turn, the creature begins murdering the people Victor loves one at a time. When he can finally take no more, Victor pursues the creature to the ends of the Earth. It's possible Victor was modeled and based on the late 17th and early 18th centuries alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel. But this is a subject of great debate.
- 1 Relationships
- 2 Major Themes/Scenes
- 3 Impact in Film
- 4 References
The relationships of Victor Frankenstein are an ongoing juxtaposition with each other throughout the novel. As a child, Victor's relationship to his parents is ideal. He was the eldest of three, and "the destined successor to all his [father's] labors and utility. No creature could have more tender parents . . . [Victor's] improvement and health were their constant care" (Shelley 19). This relationship with his parents is a polar opposite of the parental relationship between Victor and his creature. Rather than being tender and affectionate towards his creature, Victor flees from the his hideousness. Instead of dedicating himself to the improvement and growth of his creation, Victor abandons him in the hopes that he will not survive the world alone.
The introduction of Walton is also striking in relationship to Victor because he is set up to parallel Victor. In Walton's first letter, he describes to his sister his obsession with reaching the arctic. "I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight" (5). Victor had an almost identical obsession when it came to the chemistry and alchemy of bringing life to the dead. Walton also desires an intellectual equal - someone "gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like [his] own, to approve or amend [his] plans" (8). As soon as Walton speaks to Victor for the first time, he is overcome with a sense that, had he met Victor before his experiment, he "should have been happy to have possessed [Victor] as the brother of [his] heart" (14).
Victor also recognizes Walton as a mirror to himself. Victor decides he should warn Walton against a blind pursuit of knowledge and glory by telling his own story. "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at last by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow" (33).
But the relationship between Victor and his creature is the most important relationship in the entire novel. Throughout the novel, the reader follows the creation of a monster. The creature's first interaction in relation to a human being is when he finds a small village, enters a cottage, and eats the owner's food. So, his first act is theft but for understandable reasons. Emboldened by how well this first act went, and still functioning with the mind of a newborn child, the creature breaks into another home for food; but this time, he is chased to the country. Because of the innocence of these acts, the audience still sympathizes with the creature. Later, after the creature saves a small girl and is shot for doing so, due to his appearance, he vows revenge on all humans - especially Victor Frankenstein.
For the rest of the book, the creature is bent on revenge. Allowing the world to destroy the kindness and benevolence in his heart is what leads to the creature becoming the monster. He murders young William Frankenstein, frames innocent Justine, blackmails and threatens Victor, murders Henry Clerval, and then murders Victor's wife which leads to the death of Victor's father. The monster rationalizes that these murders are justified because of the cruelties Victor has done him.
But the monster is figuratively and literally the creation of Victor. Victor created this monster literally, but he is also the reason the creature turned to evil acts. If Frankenstein had not dug up corpses, if he had not cut them up and sewn them together, if he had not animated this creature, if he had not abandoned him and allowed him to run loose in the world, if he had not antagonized the creature, none of this would have happened. Victor is the source of all of this evil. And after the monster exacts its revenge upon his family and friends, Victor finally reveals how alike he is to his monster. He spends the rest of his life hunting his creation.
The real monster, however, is not the monstrosity Frankenstein made. It was himself, who created the monster, and then left the world to fend for itself until it affected his own, personal life.
Nature v. Nurture
One of the main threads of Frankenstein is the question of nature v. nurture. Are people born the way they will be or do their surroundings dictate who they will become? Mary Shelley poses both sides of the argument through her two main characters.
Victor Frankenstein starts his narration to Walton with his childhood. Victor was the eldest of three, and insists "no creature could have more tender parents . . . [Victor’s] improvement and health were their constant care" (19). Victor also describes himself as always curious in regards to the world’s secrets, “which [he] desired to discover" (18). But more important than being curious is the fact that Victor was born this way. He can not change these things; it is part of his nature.
Victor even takes the nature argument a step further by seemingly claiming that everything throughout his entire life was destined to result in creating a monster and having to suffer because of it. When he was a child and first became interested in Agrippa’s chimeric teachings, he claims that if his father had “taken the pains to explain . . . that Agrippa had been entirely exploded . . . the train of [Victor’s] ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to [his] ruin" (22). Victor also attempted to take a natural philosophy class that dealt with the realistic applications of sciences alongside the seemingly chimerical chemistry class, but the professor of natural philosophy was simply dreadful while the professor of chemistry appeared to have “an aspect expressive of the greatest benevolence" (29). None of these things were Victor’s fault. If he had not been born naturally curious, if his father had denounced Agrippa more heartily, and if his professor had not been so impressive then Victor would not have chosen this path; but alas, destiny had it out for him from the beginning.
On the other side of this argument is the creature. After his animation, the creature is abandoned by Victor. With a blank slate for a mind, the creature is left to figure out the world on his own. For a time, the creature is as innocent as a child – he tastes, touches, and tries everything around him. Shortly after his entrance into the outside world, the creature enters a home in hopes of finding food, but his appearance caused some people to flee and some to attack until the creature was forced to escape “to the open country, and fearfully [take] refuge in a low hovel" (78). As the creature hides here, he learns and is able to deduce the real reason for his suffering.
“But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses . . . I had never yet see a being resembling, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? The question again recurred, to be answered only with groans" (91).
A contrasting argument can be found in Nature versus Nurture.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Part of the brilliance of Frankenstein is that it is an adaptation of other works disguised as an original story. One of the works Frankenstein is primarily in conversation with is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
At the beginning of the novel, Walton writes to his sister. In his letters, he rejoices in the great adventure to the North Pole that he is embarking upon and how happy he is to be fulfilling his dreams. In this novel, Walton is the happy wedding guest who is unaware that he's on the wrong path. One morning Walton and his crew awake to find Victor adrift and rescue him.
After saving his life, Victor, like the mariner, is convinced that he must tell his story to Walton to save him from himself. Victor recognizes Walton’s thirst for knowledge as his own and tells Walton that he “ardently hope[s] that the gratification of [his] wishes may not be a serpent to sting [him], as [Victor’s] has been" (16). Victor believes “that the strange incidents connected with [his story] will afford a view of nature, which may enlarge [Walton’s] faculties and understanding" (16).
Paradise Lost and Manfred
Loss of innocence is also a prevalent theme of Frankenstein. On the precipice of manhood, Victor leaves to attend the university of Ingolstadt with lofty hopes and ambitions. With the innocence of a child, Victor believes he can do anything - even create life from the dead. With this same childlike hope, Victor does the unthinkable.
Victor's life was innocent and picture-perfect as a young boy. He claims that "[His] parents were indulgent, and [his] companions amiable" (21). His father also took great care not to subject his son to any "supernatural horrors . . . or superstition" (32). As far as Victor was concerned, "a church-yard was . . . merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life" (32). So,when he comes across the works of Agrippa at a bathhouse, the boy is overrun with "a new light [that] seemed to dawn upon [his] mind" at the thought of eternal life and reanimation (22). This innocent wonder is the beginning of his downfall.
The first loss of innocence Victor encounters is that of his mother. After contracting scarlet fever from his cousin, Caroline Frankenstein dies. While previously interested in Agrippa's claims to eternal life, the death of his mother undoubtedly contributed to a deeper study.
But the moment that Victor's innocence is shattered beyond repair is the moment he creates life. After spending some time at the university studying chemistry and the ways in which it could work with Agrippa's theories from his childhood, Victor "succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life, nay, more; [he] became [himself] capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter" (33). He hoped that his "present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success" (34). But the moment Victor "beheld the wretch - the miserable monster whom [he] had created . . .the demoniacal corpse to which [he] had so miserably given life," Victor realizes that he was wrong (38). Agrippa was wrong. The hope that this form of science would help the world was wrong. The idea that the dead should return to the living was wrong. A creature so hideous can only be that of evil. Everything Victor believed up to this point is now worthless, and his innocence is now irretrievable.
But because of this act, Victor is also the cause of other's loss of innocence as well as the loss of innocents. By abandoning his creature, Victor condemned him almost immediately to a loss of innocence. With no one to care for him or help him learn, the creature becomes a monster. Because Victor neglected this care, he is also responsible for the death of William Frankenstein, Elizabeth Lavenza, Henry Clerval, Alphonse Frankenstein, and Justine. So, not only does he destroy his own innocence and the creature's, but he also destroys the innocent.
Impact in Film
Because Victor Frankenstein is the title character of Mary Shelley's novel, he is the ever-changing face of its adaptations. But in the Universal and Hammer adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel, these themes are simultaneously similar and vastly different.
Nature v. Nurture
In the Universal films that began with the 1931 film Frankenstein , the nature v. nurture argument is different.
The film begins with Victor gathering the body parts for his creature. Because of this, the audience does not know if the childhood of this Victor and that of the novelization were the same. With that being said, Victor is still the son of a baron who cares for him, and he seems to want for nothing.This leads the audience to believe that the nature argument is still there - Victor is creating this creature merely because he was born to do so. But the case for the creature is slightly different than that of the novelization.
The first change to the argument is that the creature is given the brain of a criminal; therefore it is assumed he will act in criminal ways. But since Victor is unaware of this, he continues with the experiment. Once the animation process is finished, instead of abandoning his creation, Victor stays with it. Once the creature fully awakens, Victor even tries to teach it some basic things like sitting and standing. He also introduces the creature to sunlight for the first time. But when Igor taunts the creature with fire, he becomes monstrous and is locked away. While Victor is still ironing out what the best course of action may be, Igor continues to terrify the creature in the dungeon. Finally fed up with the torture, the monster murders Igor and is deemed too dangerous to live.
After the creature escapes, it murders a little girl by drowning her. It is unclear from the film whether this was purposefully done because of his abnormal, criminal brain or if it was merely an accident caused by his lack of understanding. So, even though Victor attempted to stand by his creature this time, the cruel treatment of Igor, the later abandonment of Victor, and the horrific treatment by the townspeople suggests that this version of the creature may still pertain to the nurture argument.
The Hammer Films which began with the 1957 film Curse of Frankenstein  seem to stay somewhat closer to the novelization's argument of nature v. nurture. From the opening of the film it is clear that Victor is a driven young man obsessed with sciences of this sort. It can be argued that he has a natural predilection for sociopathy and ambition.
The creature spends most of the film being shot at, chased, chained up, confined, and treated like an animal. According to Victor, the creature had the potential for great good until it was shot, though the cruel treatment at Victor's hand probably did not help. With these markers, it seems that the creature is still on the nurture side of the argument.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The Universal films seem to relate little to the texts that are represented in Mary Shelley's work besides the Faustian disregard for all in the face of blind ambition. But the Hammer films do touch upon the texts from the novel.
At the beginning of The Curse of Frankenstein, Victor has an overwhelming need to retell his story like that of the mariner. Although he is not doing so to save the priest from a similar fate from himself, he does feel that if he can tell the priest then he may be able to find relief from his literal prison (rather than the mariner's metaphorical prison). Similar to the novelization, the retelling of his story ends shortly before his death sentence.
A sense of lost innocence does survive in the Universal adaptations of Frankenstein. When Victor is creating his creature, he has no idea that what he may be doing is wrong. Yes, plenty of people warn him, but Victor seems to truly believe that he is doing something spectacular that will further the scientific field tremendously. Only after the murder of Igor does Victor seem to truly lose that innocent hope. Although none of Victor's family or friends die (besides his old professor), he is still responsible for the loss of the innocent life of a village girl. He is also still given the blame for the loss of innocence in his creature.
This same lost innocence does not apply in the Hammer films. From the beginning, Victor does not seem to have an innocent bone in his body. He wants to know if he can restore life and he has no qualms about what that process may cost. This Victor even goes so far as to murder a "good friend" so that he may use his brain for the creature. Victor feels he will advance the science community of course, but not in a helpful, innocent way. He's more focused on the glory of the ordeal. This Victor borders on the sociopathic and has very little innocence to lose. Though, he is fully and unequivocally to blame for all of the deaths in the film as well as the stripping of innocence from the creature.
But Frankenstein - and even more specifically Victor - is timeless and fluid. The original novel was written almost 200 years ago, and yet adaptations are still being made; and all of them are vastly different. As the world changes so does Frankenstein because it represents the most terrifying of monsters - the ones in ourselves.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan J. Wolfson. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.
Frankenstein. Dir. James. Whale. Universal, 1931.
The Curse of Frankenstein. Dir. Terence Fisher. Perf. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Clarion Film Productions, Hammer Film Productions, Warner Bros., 1957.