In this essay I aim to discuss and analyze the concept of heroism in Mary Shelley’s gothic novel ‘Frankenstein’. I will also discuss the way in which both Frankenstein and his monster are heroes. Furthermore, I will explore the different archetypes of heroes, e.g., the romantic hero, the tragic hero, the Byronic hero and the anti-hero. Additionally, I will discuss the features of romanticism Shelly uses throughout the novel. To conclude, I will evaluate whether Frankenstein or his monster is more heroic.
By its very definition from the Cambridge dictionary, heroism is great bravery. In a simple sense, Frankenstein’s creation does fit the mold of what a hero is. He is chivalrous and loyal. He displays these heroic qualities through helping a family in need. Through helping others when he receives nothing in return.
“Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet, when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures” (Shelly, p.32). One of romanticisms most vital features is its celebration of nature. This is clearly expressed through the lexical field of nature: starry sky, sea, earth. Shelley depicts Frankenstein’s monster as deep, there is an irony that even though he isn’t human, his emotions are such. Whereas Victor Frankenstein, his creator, doesn’t possess this profound human disposition. Even if Victor Frankenstein comes to terms with the natural world with a disconnected, quantifiable view on which the new science depends, he is still only human. Time and time again, the beauty of nature moves Victor. For example, when he finds himself in Geneva his home, encircled by the mountainous Alps. Through this, Shelley echoes the Romantics' adoration of nature, and the impressive power of her beauty. Only at Victor’s lowest, nature is his only comfort. And at his most miserable, horrified by his own creation and trepidatious at the thought of his monster seeking revenge on him. Victor finds solace in the enduring stability of the mountains and the restful quiet of Lake Geneva. This puts his suffering into perspective and reminds him that while suffering is temporary, the natural world is eternal. Victor does find consolation in the persistent solidity of the mountains and the soothing tranquility of Lake Geneva.
A feature of romantic writing is having a fixation on protagonists and their emotions. Shelley cleverly displays this throughout the novel. A romantic hero is a character who discards the established conventions and norms in society. They are typically dark, brooding and self-centered. Heroism even comes down to double meaning Frankenstein’s name, Victor. Which is a person who has defeated their enemy or opponent in a battle. He even goes as for to declare himself victorious over the creature’s death. The monster refers to himself as the ‘Adam of all labors’. This allusion to Catholicism is very compelling. A common message of Frankenstein is not to play God, and that backfires tremendously on Victor Frankenstein. Adam was God’s first human creation. Frankenstein’s monster was the first reanimation of a corpse. Religion also links to features of romanticism. Frankenstein’s monster is also given monstrous insults all throughout the novel: the fiend, the wretch, the daemon. These epithets can be linked to him being a misunderstood outcast, a common trope with a romantic hero.
A different type of hero is the tragic hero. A what makes a tragic hero tragic is their fatal flaw. In ‘Frankenstein’, Victor Frankenstein’s flaw is his quest for ultimate knowledge. It is his hubristic ego and lack of empathy that also leads to his downfall. As Shelley writes: “So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve, treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world he deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley, p.86). Victor, referring to himself in third person, portrays how egotistical he is. This assertive statement also forebodes that Victor’s desire won’t be shifted by any of the horrendous ramifications of his pursuit for boundless knowledge, thus exemplifying his tragic flaw as the protagonist. “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn […] still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the word” (Shelley, p.60). In this quote Victor Frankenstein’s true needs is revealed. Success to Victor is gaining knowledge that no other human being has ever possessed. Heroic qualities of being strong-willed and driven lead him to a doomed fate. This is because his overpowering desire to take on this ‘godly’ role won’t be repressed. Frankenstein’s quest for discovery past the physical realm solidifies him as a heroic figure. Through trying to transcend the limitations of the natural world he can be seen a daring, bold and fearless.
Another important factor to Frankenstein is its inspiration, Prometheus. Even the full title of the novel being ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’. Based on the Greek mythology, Prometheus, the titular titan was known for being a cunning trickster. He was prominently known for defying the gods by bestowing the element of fire onto the human race. As a result of this he was cruelly punished by the gods through being chained down and having his liver ate by an eagle every day. There are echoes parallel to the character of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. The ultimate fates of these protagonists are the same. Both are penalized for the pursuit of revolutionary ideas that are considered profane or unorthodox. In the end, it is at the hands of their own creatures, whether directly or indirectly, that they are tortured.
Another novel which has parallels to Frankenstein is ‘Heroism and Paradise Lost’. Lucifer/Satan, ubiquitously known for being the prince of evil and suffering, has his side of the story told. Both Frankenstein and Lucifer/Satan are doomed by the same factor. The unjustness of their creators. Through ‘Heroism and Paradise Lost’, William R. Herman specifies: “The Hellenic hero we associate those qualities of individuality, self-determination, and physical courage that endure alone against what seems to be ineluctable odds” (Herman, p.13). The qualities stream echoes in Frankenstein, both characters try to endure a world that does not accept them for who they are. They can be seen as heroes for this determination and willpower.
Another hero archetype is the Byronic hero. Typically, this is the architype Victor Frankenstein would fall into. Victor Frankenstein’s intense drive and strong-wiled nature to live out his philosophy without the regard for other characters philosophies produce immense conflict. As a result of this, the outcome is tragic. Because of this, he is very defiant, having a disgust for social institutions and norms, and is disrespectful of rank and privilege, though he often has said rank and privilege himself. This rebellion often leads to social isolation, rejection or exile, or to being treated as an outlaw, but he won't compromise, being unavoidably self-destructive.
Further, in his article titled ‘Perfecting Monstrosity: Frankenstein and the Enlightenment Debate on Perfectibility’ Alexander Cook states: “If we want to use the sometimes-obfuscating terminology of Enlightenment and Romanticism, the longing for an alignment with, rather than a transcendence of, nature was at least as much an ‘Enlightenment’ ideal as a ‘Romantic’ one – arguably more so. While this might not be the most heroic path towards human emancipation or happiness it is not a denial of their possibility” (Cook, p.251). Through this reading it is clear that reaching the pinnacle of something controversial isn’t so much heroic, but the claim isn’t denied of its reach.
Furthermore, appearance plays a significant role to a character being heroic. Do they wear light colors? A cape? Are they good-looking? Or do they just have a look of determination on their face? Shelley subverts these expectations. In ‘Frankenstein’, the monster’s appearance is hideous, but his heart is in the right place. Characters such as Elizabeth, Justine and Henry are described as attractive and in this they are ‘good’. Elizabeth is described as “lively and animated”. In a way, this opposes Victor’s pale and sickly appearance and stoic nature. She is also described as “the most fragile creature in the world” (Shelley, p.20). The adjective ‘fragile’ makes Elizabeth’s character seem very acquiescent, the superlative in ‘in the world’ further exemplifies this quality of being dutiful. A notable feature of being a hero is making a sacrifice for the greater good. Elizabeth is selfless in the ways she devotes to her life to helping the Frankenstein family.
“I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch enemy, because my creator, do swear inextinguishable hatred” (Shelley, p.336). Frankenstein, referring to his creator as his ‘arch enemy’, puts himself in the position of being heroic by opposing him. The quote also exemplifies the justifiable hatred the creature feels. His revenge can be seen as justice and putting an end to Victor Frankenstein’s controversial discovery. Furthermore, this quote exemplifies the suffering Victor Frankenstein has bestowed onto his creation, in doing this it makes his creature heroic as he is trying to overturn an evil dead.
Another way Victor Frankenstein can be perceived is an anti-hero. The ‘spark’, which is used while bringing his creation to life, is a form of light that may seem to symbolize life in this narrative. On the over hand, the spark can highlight the light and dark qualities of humanity—much like an anti-hero being two sides of the same coin. While on the surface he may appear to be a decent individual, Frankenstein is motivated by ambition rather than morals and ethics. Indulging in the literature of ancient magicians, he plots to assemble and bring to life a human being, ignoring the dangerous costs of such a task, if executed successfully, may unleash upon the world. And when that task is executed successfully, he runs from his creation in fear, leaving it to fend for itself. He then goes on to whine about all his misfortunes without even considering the misfortunes of others.
In conclusion, Victor Frankenstein and his monster both heroic in different ways. When each of the pair come of controversial, it makes the other look more heroic.