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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


In my previous post, I discussed the correlations between Sartre’s Atheistic Existentialism and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this post, I would like to explore some Sartrean conceits in Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel, Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley 

The novel consists of a frame narrative, whereby one story enfolds another, which enfolds yet another story. The first narrator is Robert Walton who is sailing towards the “northern pole” (Shelley 20).  On his way, he encounters Victor Frankenstein whose sledge is carried to Walton’s ship via an ice fragment.  Frankenstein is carried onto the ship, and after becoming acquainted with the captain of the ship, he begins telling his story in hopes of deterring Walton from his ambitious pursuit of “knowledge” and “dominion,” which he desires to bestow upon humanity (Shelley 24).  Frankenstein comes from a well-to-do family in Geneva. His goal in life is to gain “glory” and recognition that would “attend the discovery” of medical means to “banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death” (Shelley 42).  Victor goes to Ingolstadt for his post-secondary studies, and he is extremely successful in gaining the recognition of his colleagues and professors due to his genius and dedication.  Natural philosophy, Chemistry and Physiology in particular, becomes the object of Victor’s interest. He seeks to create a “new species” that “would bless” him “as its creator and source” (Shelley 61). This new race “would owe” its “being” to Victor, and “no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as” he “should deserve” the gratitude and appreciation of this new and perfect race (Shelley 61).   After spending many sleepless nights in his “secret toil,” disturbing the “unhallowed damps of the grave” and torturing “living animals to animate the lifeless clay,” Victor is successful in constructing a giant human frame and bestowing life on this “lifeless” cadaver (Shelley 62).   Much to Victor’s horror, the creature comes to live, not with the “beautiful” features and proportionate “limbs” with which Victor constructs it, but rather as a “wretch, miserable monster” whose “yellow skin scarcely covered” his “muscles and arteries beneath” (Shelley 66, 67).  Seeing this giant wretch, Victor is incapable of beholding the miserable work of his hands; he flees his house, leaving the monster he has created all alone. 

The monster flees into the woods. Then, he goes into a village where his fearful countenance sparks horror around the villagers who end up chasing him off their village with shovels, stones and other harmful projectiles. Finally, he finds a hovel attached to a cottage where a French family resides. Here is where Sartrean motifs become more pronounced. As of now, it is unclear whether the creature could be considered a human being, a beast or maybe even a combination of both. Despite his humanlike frame, his inner character still has an undefined nature. It is clear that prior to his existence, the beast has no essence or nature. It is only after he comes into the world and begins experiencing reality that he begins to assume some defining attributes that help the reader understand his essence. One night, the creature goes out on a walk and finds a “portmanteau” that contains three books (Shelley 171). John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of them. He reads the book and begins reflecting on some existentialist questions such as “Who was I?” and “What was I?” (Shelley 172). These questions demonstrate that the creature has a rational human soul that is able to reflect on itself, which indicates his humanity. However, when he encounters a savage treatment at the hands of other humans, he goes into the “wood” and gives “vent” to his “anguish” with “fearful howlings” (Shelley 183).  His conduct degenerates into an animal-like behaviour.  Both instances demonstrate that the creature’s nature is defined after his existence and through the experiences he encounters in life.  His “existence precedes” his “essence.” Initially, the monster goes to great extents to win the favour of mankind. His fervent desire to please and satisfy others is an indication of the grave responsibility he feels to project an exemplary behaviour and serve as an example to be followed by others. The attempt to behave in the best manner possible makes the creature experience a great deal of “anguish” and pain, especially when he sees others resolved to mistreat him regardless of his decency. 

The creature has no divine revelation to help him understand a sense of right and wrong. However, he is able to develop a code of ethics simply by watching the behaviour of others. At one point, while he watches the affectionate treatment of the family members, he is greatly moved by their love and kindness towards one another.  Their example inspires him to stop stealing food from their “store” for his own “consumption” because he could see that his action is inflicting pain on others (Shelley 148).  He is able to develop a code of ethics, not by reading a religious book or a divine revelation, but rather through observation and emulation. In this sense, the monster fulfills a Sartrean vision of “abandonment.” The absence of the creator is the epitome of “abandonment” for the creature because he is left all alone to form his own moral code.

In spite of his virtuous behaviour, everyone abhors the monster because of his ugliness. When the monster finally meets his creator, he petitions him to create a female monster whose hideousness is equivalent to his own. At first, Victor consents to this supplication and begins working on it. However, when he is nearly finished with the female monster, he reflects on the consequences of his action and decides it is unethical to proceed with his design. He destroys his work. The monster sees this and is outraged.  Due to the creator’s inaction, the possibilities in the monster’s life become very limited. He is bound to live in reclusion, isolation and loneliness.  There is no prospect of change occurring in his life. For this reason, he falls into “despair.”  Of course, his “despair” makes him go on a rampage that results in the total annihilation of the Frankensteins.

Sartre’s philosophy once more produces a tragic ending that is indicative of the injury and damage his atheistic views inflict on humanity.  Despite the endless effort the monster makes to remain a virtuous creature at first without his creator, he fails miserably in continuing to uphold his noble sentiments.  When faced with injustice, the monster feels justified in inflicting harm on others.  The burning flames of vengeance and retribution devour him simply because there is no loving God who is willing to share in his miseries and afflictions.  There is no compassionate God whose sacrificial love makes Him come down to earth and live the miseries of all humanity. Victor certainly fails in fulfilling his role as a creator. Moreover, the monster’s personal moral code is skewed because it is his own and not something that is given to him by a perfect Being like God.  Both works, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Shelley’s Frankenstein, reveal the darkness that resides inside the human psyche.  They both testify to the fallen nature of humanity and the mortal wound with which human beings are born.  Sartre’s atheistic views emanate from the same fallen nature as Macbeth’s lust for power and Victor’s desire for glory, which produce a monster with a burning desire for revenge. This only proves that human beings need an exterior force to heal their fallen nature. It is only through God the Creator, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit that humanity will be healed.


Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Atheistic Humanism.” Issues in Religion 2. Ed. Allie Frazier. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, 1975. 388-394. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. Manila: Lampara Publishing House, 2011. Print.


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