Second Place Arts and Humanities First Year Level
Class of 2016
ENG 212_02 British Literature II
Professor Jen Cadwallader
Over the course of the novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s thoughts
and actions are profoundly influenced by the deaths of his family. Throughout the
course of the novel, it is clear that Victor loves his family, but is too selfish
to warn them about the monster. Worse, he is in denial about his selfishness and
never acknowledges his failings. Mary Shelley portrays Victor’s flaw in a sophisticated
manner, showing several consequences stemming from Victor’s selfishness that influence
the story: his fear of admitting his mistakes to his family, his inability to empathize
with or think like the monster, and his pursuit of the monster without regard for
the safety of those around him.
The death of Caroline, Victor’s mother, marks the beginning of Victor’s troubles.
Before her death, Victor described his life as, “no youth could have passed more
happily than mine” (21). Caroline’s death occurs directly before Victor leaves for
Ingolstadt and affects him deeply. Victor subconsciously acknowledges the influence
of her death on his choice of research topic when he graphically describes the dream
he had after animating the monster: “I thought that I held the corpse of my dead
mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling
in the folds of the flannel” (36). This dream also shows that Victor remembers his
mother’s death more vividly than her life, which is unsurprising since Shelley portrays
Caroline as a very flat character, illustrated by the fact that Caroline has no
quotations in the book before her deathbed speech.
The events surrounding Justine Moritz’s trial for the murder of William Frankenstein
reveal Victor’s self-obsessed nature for the first time. Even when Justine’s life
is at stake, Victor does not tell anyone about the monster. He cites fear that nobody
would believe him, that his recent sickness would “give an air of delirium to a
story so utterly improbable,” and that he would not be believed (51). This is extremely
bad logic on Victor’s part. He fails to consider that if he knows the secret of
life, he could convince the magistrates by animating something nonhuman, for instance,
a dog or cat.
The fact that Victor stands by while Justine is tried and executed, despite the
fact that he knows the real murderer conflicts with Victor’s comment that, “A thousand
times rather would I have confessed myself guilty of the crime ascribed to Justine”
and reveals Victor’s state of denial (54). Victor makes many comments about how
“the poor victim [Justine] felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony,” but he
does not actually take any action to attempt to save Justine (59). He is so selfish
that he fails to admit to anyone that he had created a homicidal monster. His inaction
means that he is as responsible for Justine’s death as the monster was, possibly
more responsible because the monster only wanted to “work mischief” and never knew
that Justine would die because of his mischief, while Victor knows that if he does
not speak up, Justine will die and he still says nothing (101).
The fact that Victor’s perspective is skewed towards himself is further shown in
his reflections before he destroys the female monster. He has valid concerns: what
if the monsters had children and created “a race of devils…propagated upon the earth”
or what if the female rejected the monster (119). However, Victor’s conclusion,
“I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me,” shows that his thoughts
are self-centered and primarily concerned with how such an outcome would affect
Victor’s self-obsession is at its most obvious immediately before his wedding to
Elizabeth. He says that, “death was no evil to me, if the loss of Elizabeth was
balanced with it” (137). This quotation shows that to Victor, his own happiness
counts for more than his concern over the monster’s threat, “Remember, I shall be
with you on your wedding-night” (120-121). Victor is also too self-absorbed to consider
things from the monster’s perspective; since the monster wants revenge for his female
partner, Elizabeth is the logical target.
The death of Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s cousin, adopted sister, and fiancé, is
the factor that tipped Victor over the edge. He appears to be closer to Elizabeth
than any of the other members of his family. One indicator of how close they were
is the fact that she was the only member of Victor’s family whose death Victor foreshadowed:
“If for one instant I had thought what might be the hellish intention of my fiendish
adversary, I would rather have banished myself forever from my native country” (138).
Another indication of how much he trusted her is that Victor had planned to tell
her about the existence of the monster, something that he had not told anyone else.
In addition to being Victor’s friend and fiancé, Elizabeth was a stabilizing influence
on him. After the deaths of Caroline, William, and Justine, she had been instrumental
in cheering Victor up from his bouts of depression. For instance, after Caroline’s
death, “Elizabeth attempted to renew the spirit of cheerfulness in our little society”
(26). Without her, Victor goes temporarily insane.
The final event that led Victor to abandon his native land and attempt to hunt down
the monster is the death of Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor’s father. He was killed
by the news of Elizabeth’s death, but from Victor’s viewpoint, Alphonse was killed
by the monster, evidenced by the fact that at the end of the story when he gives
a list of all those killed by the monster, he includes Alphonse. At that point,
all of the Frankensteins except for Victor and Ernest have been wiped out.
Only after the last two deaths and Victor’s recovery from his insanity did Victor
actually take action and attempt to bring the monster to justice. After his failed
meeting with the magistrate, Victor severs ties with his homeland and his remaining
family and chases the monster, determined to exact vengeance. However, even Victor’s
hunt for the monster appears to be motivated by selfish reasons. He left Geneva
because, “My country, which...was dear to me, now, in my adversity, became hateful”
(145). Because he could not bear to remain in Switzerland, with the memories of
his dead family, Victor instead pursues the monster.
Victor never acknowledges his failings or learns from them. Even when the crew of
Walton’s ship want to turn back, Victor attempts to rally the crew so that the ship
would continue to go north, after the monster. He disregards that fact that continuing
further north would endanger the crew. To Victor, the only thing that matters is
apprehending and killing the monster that had robbed him of his family. However,
Walton, the audience surrogate, does learn from Victor’s tale of obsession and selfishness
and agrees to turn back.
Victor Frankenstein’s selfishness is a major factor contributing to the deaths of
his family. He cares for his family, but he is never willing to warn them about
the monster, an action that might have saved them. His selfishness manifests in
several different ways. His refusal to admit to his family that he had created a
monster left the Frankensteins vulnerable and left Elizabeth ignorant of the monster
that would kill her. Victor’s inability to perceive the monster’s point of view
prevents Victor from thinking clearly about who the monster’s target would be on
Victor’s wedding night. Victor never acknowledges his flaw. Even in the Arctic with
Walton, Victor cares more about continuing the voyage north, after the monster,
than the lives of the men on the ship.