Agency in Frankenstein
By Lauren Newman
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, much like the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, serves as a warning on the dangerous nature of man's pursuit of knowledge. This desire to fulfill curiosity propels Shelley's entire plot. It is Frankenstein's unyielding quest for knowledge--his “longing to penetrate the secrets of nature” (Shelley 41)--that leads directly to the creation of the monster. Of course, once Frankenstein's creation comes to life, the scientist is haunted by what he has created: “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled [Frankenstein's] heart” (Shelley 67). Frankenstein's pursuit of knowledge results in the murders of his young brother, his best friend, and ultimately his wife. For the vast majority of the novel, Frankenstein devotes his life to hunting down his abhorred creation and cursing his own unfortunate fate. Ostensibly, Frankenstein's downfall is a result of his original sin--his desire to fulfill an insatiable curiosity, his constant yearning to achieve “more, far more” (Shelley 53), his quest to “unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley 53). However, these aspirations, though sinful, are Frankenstein's secondary flaws. His true sin lies in his lack of responsibility for his actions. When Frankenstein believes himself to be the creator of something magnificent and beautiful, he acclaims his own agency, proclaiming that “[a] new species would bless [him] as its creator and source” (Shelley 61). Upon realizing his catastrophic mistake, Frankenstein, now a destroyer, places the blame on destiny, on fate, on “some power of which [he] was unconscious” (Shelley 277). It is this inability to accept agency, not any natural inclination to satiate curiosity, that renders Frankenstein a truly sinful character.
To create is to act as the ultimate agent. Shelley, of course, understood this, likening the creation of her novel to “[her] hideous progeny” (Shelley xxx), her “offspring” (Shelley xxx). Frankenstein recognizes this agency, as well, and becomes obsessed with his power as a creator. Even as a storyteller, Frankenstein treats his story--his creation--as if it were his baby and it were his duty to protect it. When Frankenstein learns that Walton has been taking notes on his story, “he asked to see them, and then himself corrected and augmented them in many places” (Shelley 285). Frankenstein explains: “'Since you have preserved my narration […] I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity'” (Shelley 285). Initially, Frankenstein sees his physical creation in much the same way as he sees his story. He is protective of it in its earliest stages, focusing on making it the best it can possibly be and taking tremendous pride in his work. Even before Frankenstein begins to work on his monster, he reflects on what it means to be parent and offspring. About his own mother and father, Frankenstein recalls that “[he] was their plaything and their idol, and something better-their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven” (Shelley 32). Upon the “birth” of his own child and the swift realization that he has created a monster, Frankenstein recoils from his once-glorified position of agency and parenthood. He surrenders his control to a higher power in order to placate his guilt and lessen his responsibility.
Swept up in the fantasy of creating a being that “would bless [him] as its creator and source” (Shelley 61), Frankenstein evades both the matter of unnatural, unethical behavior and the concept that, with every creation, comes destruction. Interestingly, Frankenstein understands that he must “observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body [as] to examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death” (Shelley 58). Frankenstein chooses to diminish the significance of this inherent destruction. After a brief description of how he “collected bones from charnel-houses” (Shelley 62) to make the body, Frankenstein reminds the reader of his agency as a creator. In the following two sentences alone, he speaks of “my workshop,” “my eyeballs,” “my materials,” “my human nature,” “my occupation,” “my work” (Shelley 63). As the creator, Frankenstein accepts full agency. It is not until he realizes his mistake (and becomes a destroyer) that Frankenstein turns to fate.
Looking back on his decision to create, Frankenstein contends that his professor's directions were “words of fate, enounced to destroy [him]” (Shelley 53). Waldman's instructions, according to Frankenstein, “decided [his] future destiny” (Shelley 55). Not only does Frankenstein displace his responsibility on fate, but he implies professor Waldman's influence over his young, impressionable mind. Throughout the novel, there are certainly moments in which Frankenstein seems to confess to his wrongdoings. These instances, however, are either internal or the result of a fever: “my ravings, as I afterwards heard, were frightful; I called myself the murderer of William, of Justine, and of Clerval” (Shelley 237). Frankenstein never truly comes clean; he masks his apologies with stints of feverish insanity, and he spends the remainder of the novel blaming outside sources not only for his prior actions, but for his current and future decisions as well. In desperate attempts to track down his monster, Frankenstein “pursued [his] path towards the destruction of the daemon more as a task enjoined by heaven, as the mechanical impulse of some power of which [he] was unconscious, than as the ardent desire of [his] soul” (Shelley 277). Frankenstein later explains to Walton that he cannot give up his purpose, for it “is assigned to [him] by heaven [and that] surely the spirits who assist [his] vengeance will endow [him] with sufficient strength” (Shelley 294). The main fault in all of this is not that Frankenstein turns to fate or destiny. Like his insatiable curiosity, it is only natural for man to look to a higher power. Frankenstein's initial (and acted upon) desire to be that higher power--to play God--leads to his downfall. A mere mortal, Frankenstein could not possibly accept the agency that comes with such a role.
Like Frankenstein, the monster diminishes his own accountability by blaming Frankenstein, his creator, for his unbearable loneliness. The monster curses Frankenstein and seeks revenge by murdering his brother, his best friend, and his wife (and indirectly Justine and his father). In an attempt to rid himself of agency, the monster contends that “[he] was the slave, not the master, of an impulse which [he] detested, yet could not disobey” (Shelley 299). The monster then refers to his insatiable passion to ruin Frankenstein as a “demoniacal design” (Shelley 299), highlighting, once again, an outside force's influence in the matter. The monster's submission to his fate, though perhaps an easy alibi for bad behavior, does not compare to Frankenstein's denial of his own accountability. As opposed to the monster, Frankenstein initially seeks out agency, actively playing the role of a higher power.
The relinquishment of agency in Frankenstein can be seen as arguably a masculine downfall. Unlike Shelley's male protagonists, Frankenstein and the monster, the women of the novel accept full responsibility for their actions. In fact, these women go so far as to accept responsibility for what they have not done. With William's death, Justine confesses to a crime she did not commit and is consequently killed. Frankenstein's mother takes responsibility for a child that is not even her own. When Elizabeth falls ill with scarlet fever, her adoptive mother selflessly cares for her until she becomes sick herself. On her deathbed, Frankenstein's mother contends: “I will endeavor to resign myself cheerfully to death, and will indulge a hope of meeting you in another world” (Shelley 46). Although unaware of her own immediate danger, Elizabeth chooses to marry Frankenstein, wholly aware of his unsteady emotional state and her responsibility to care for her husband. Shelley's women, though seemingly passive, are more accepting of their agency-more active, more responsible-than their male counterparts. Unlike Frankenstein and the monster, Frankenstein's mother, Justine, and Elizabeth take control; they do not feel sorry for themselves and they do not relinquish their agency.
Throughout Frankenstein, the reader is constantly urged to consider one important question: who is the real monster of the novel? It is often argued that both Frankenstein and his creation are the monsters. Frankenstein's self-absorption and destructive, obsessive curiosity induces tragedy. And his creation's murderous measures render him an obvious monster. Yet the reader sympathizes with the creation significantly more than with the creator. As a creation, the monster exudes a sort of innocence--a childlike naïveté and genuine lonesomeness--that lends itself to compassion. Shelley's epigraph, an excerpt from Milton's Paradise Lost, underscores the presumption that the reader will (or should) side with the creation: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man, Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” Frankenstein, of course, has done wrong. He has given in to his original sin and, worse, he has refused to claim his agency upon realizing his horrible mistake. But as sympathetic as the reader can begin to feel towards the creation, he must always remember that, above else, he is a human being and therefore granted-for better or worse-free will. To blame his creator, to relinquish his own agency, is simply not an option.
© Lauren Newman