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Fictional Representations of Romantics and Romanticism

A Thread from NASSR-L, continuing discussion of Frankenstein

But doesn't she kill herself because she's so ugly? (Maybe I've been misreading that scene.) I'm always a bit dubious about the suicide as empowerment theory.--Kim Wheatley

Last night I happened to see a Mitsubishi commercial on TV that posed the (rhetorical) question, "What if the creature had been beautiful instead of ugly? Would the villagers still have attacked him? Or would they have introduced him to their daughters?" This may not add much to the current discussion (beyond revealing my own bad habits), but it does show how thoroughly the Frankenstein myth has permeated our culture.--Jennifer Michael

Isn't aesthetics one of the reasons why the monster was rejected by Victor and society? Aesthetically, he does not match our impression of what a human should look like. Appearance seems to bear the burden of proof when we humans determine whether a being or group is "human." While acknowledging the use of tools, language, reason, or the ability to cook, a great deal of the 18th and 19th century's discourse defining what it is to be human revolved around aesthetics. Obviously, the belief that being created in the image of God helped shape Christian discussions of humanity and human variation. God, being all powerful, would probably be "a looker," and humanity should aesthetically reflect its paternity. I'm convinced that this is partly the reason why the Comte de Buffon, in his A Natural History, General and Particular, based his claims for the Ur-form of humanity on aesthetics: "The most temperate climate lies between the 40th and 50th degree of lattitude, and it produces the most handsome and beautiful men. It is from this climate the ideas of the genuine colour of mankind, and of the various degrees of beauty, ought to be derived. The two extremes are equally remote from truth and from beauty." Other natural historians, philosophers and writers have echoed these sentiments--up to the present (the commercial being a case in point). In The Elephant Man, would John Merrick have needed to say, "I am not an animal," if he looked like [insert name of attractive human here]? Physiognomy and anthropometry frequently linked "vices" or a lower rung on the biological ladder to those who possessed aesthetically displeasing physical attributes--largely based on cultural, ethnic or racial prejudice. Rather than see the suicide in the movie as an act of vanity, I would argue that it is in keeping with a number of the themes running throughout the novel.--Jeff Ritchie

Jeff Ritchie wrote, "Isn't aesthetics one of the reasons why the monster was rejected by Victor and society?" Absolutely: in fact, it's the primary reason, before he's committed any crime. Your post leads me to a couple of questions, which I'm sure have been addressed somewhere before: 1. If Victor is the creature's God, does the creature then reflect Victor's image? not on the superficial physical level, but in some Dorian Gray fashion? 2. Is it a stretch to apply Burke's theory of the sublime to the creature, given his size, strength, and the terror his appearance inspires? (again, this is apart from anything the creature does)--Jennifer Michael

Victor describes the creature as "my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me." Is this the kind of thing you had in mind?--Atara Stein

Yes, I'd forgotten that reference. This is closer to my question than the comments on whether Victor performs his duty as God, which is a separate issue and seems to me to be a circular question because Victor is himself a fallen creature, not God at all.--Jennifer Michael

Hmmm. Forgot the "vampire" reference. Interesting that Harriet Westbrook Shelley called her husband a vampire, too--and there was also the sense of doubling. For HS, the Shelley who had loved her was dead, replaced by a doppelganger of sorts who abandoned her.--Darby Lewes

If Victor is the Creature's god, he does not play his role properly for he does not grant the Creature's request. Whereas the Bible says "For every Creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving" (Timothy 4:4), Victor considers the Creature to be evil and denies him a companion.--Michael Eberle-Sinatra

The applicability of Timothy 4:4 here is highly dubious. The context of the passage is that at some future date people will turn from the true faith, and one of the signs of their error is that they will refuse to eat meat, or specific meats (it is unclear which). "For every creature of God is good" does not refer to moral goodness but to edibility. One could argue that this is a thinly veiled slap at Jewish dietary laws, but I fail to see how it bears any relevance to Victor's creature. I think that any story of creation is likely to draw more on the Old Testament YHVH than the New Testament Father. A good analogy for Victor's relationship to the creature seems to me to be YHVH to Cain, who is denied God's favor even before the fratricide. YHVH rejects Cain's sacrifice for reasons that biblical scholars still can't agree on. Is it because He sees the potential for violence in Cain (as one would presume He must)? If so, the analogy gains weight.--Richard A. Nanian

Although Jennifer Michael wishes to reject the comparisons of Victor and the Old Testament God, Shelley herself invites them by citing Adam's lament to God in PL. The creature certainly sees Victor the Creator as something of a god. And Victor exhibits some of the capricious aspects of the OT God. On the question of responsibility, we can set aside the question of godhood and simply address his responsibilities as a scientist and physician (he has remarkable surgical skills) to care for and nurture the creature as a moral and ethical imperative. As others have said, Victor is but the first of a list of 19C obsessed scientists whose monomaniacal quests result in disaster.--Avery Gaskins

I think it is important to recognize that since the novel's epigraph comes from PL and not the OT, it complicates any attempt to make the leap from the novel to the OT God.--Rob Anderson

I certainly don't mean to defend Victor's abdication of responsibility: he's a bad parent as well as an unethical scientist. But I think we can make a distinction between the Creature's perspective, to whom Victor is God, and the reader's, who sees Victor often in a helpless position (notice, for instance, how often he gets sick and has to be tended by others). (Yes, I find this pretty amusing. Shelley seems to be casting Victor into the position of the heroine of Gothic novels who's always fainting and getting sick in a crisis.--Atara Stein) I also agree with Rob Anderson that the capricious OT God is filtered through Milton here. In any case, the comparison may say more about God than it does about Victor: that is, we might excuse Victor, but we expect more from God. I can't help thinking, too, of Blake's "Tyger": "Did he smile his work to see?" That question, spoken in horror, seems to expect a positive answer, but in Frankenstein the answer, of course, is No. Then there's Los forging Urizen's body: "He became what he was doing he was himself transformed." Perhaps the creator is remade in the creature's image as a result of his deformed, misguided effort?--Jennifer Michael

I realize now that in my post on the OT God, I ignored the stronger hint that Shelley gave to us in her subtitle "A Modern Prometheus." Both gods are creators of humans and neither abandons his creations. Indeed, Prometheus was punished for trying to help the humans he created in bringing them fire. Jennifer Michael has a good point in asking how we could expect the performance of a flawed human being to equal that of a god. But, I still want to hold Victor accountable for his actions as a scientist and physician.--Avery Gaskins

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August 2002