Volume I: Victor Frankenstein's Perspective

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| I. Narratology: What does it mean? | II. Narrator Reliability and Characterization of the Wretch | III. Meaning of the word "Wretch" and Why the Wretch is So Large: | IV. Victor and Walton as Foils | | | V. Influences on Victor: Why Did He Pursue Science? Why Did He Create the Wretch? | VI. The Role of Nature: Reflecting Victor's Moods, Desires, and Warning the Ambitions Scientist | VII. Parenting and Responsibility | VIII. Role of Justine At the End of Volume I: Is She Just a Murderer?

I. Narratology: What does it mean?

Frankenstein Narratology table:
First Audience
Second Audience
Third Audience
Robert Walton
Walton's Sister Margaret

Victor Frankenstein
Robert Walton
  • Frankenstein is told in the epistolary, or letter form. This basically means that each chapter is told as a series of letters, allowing us as readers to detect the authentic voice of the narrator: we are exposed to their every thought and whim, since they spill their emotions out in their letters.
    • Part I of Volume I: Volume I starts off with captain Robert Walton writing letters to his sister Margaret. Throughout this discourse, we learn that Walton has endeavored to explore the North Pole, for the sake of adventure and to become "the benefactor of [his] species" Victor later describes this undertaking as "...the first terrific trial of your courage." Since we are reading the letters, we are the second audience.
    • Part II of Volume I: Starting on page 33, Victor Frankenstein, a man whom Walton met during his expedition, takes over the narration. Victor is then orating his tale to Walton, who is transcribing the story in a letter to Margaret. Since the letters are to Margaret, she is the second audience, and we readers are the third audience.
    • This type of narration continues into the second and third Volumes, but is particularly important in Volume I, since Victor's personal experiences--or, his bias--colors our interpretation of novels' events and forces a certain characterization of the Wretch upon the reader. More about Victor's narration is described below:

II. Narrator Reliability and Characterization of the Wretch

“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (59)

  • We are first introduced to the wretch through Victor’s perspective. Once the creation comes to life, Victor is overcome with fear of the large beast. In chapter 5, he goes on to physically describe the wretch:
    • “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.” (page 58)
  • The fear becomes prevalent in Victor when the wretch tries to reach out to Victor but he flees away. After staying away from his house from a while, Victor comes back home to find that the wretch is no longer there. This makes it easier for Victor to push the tragic event that just occurred out of his mind.
  • After the creation of the wretch, Victor had a sudden hatred towards science. Just the thought of it made him sick. With this in mind, it is hard for the reader to rely on him as the narrator for he has become mad and is obsessed with the downward spiral of his existence. He talks about the first signs of his insanity in a dream he had:
    • "…I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms…” (page 59)

III. Meaning of the word "Wretch" and Why the Wretch is So Large:

All men hate the wretched; how then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, they creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. (102)

One motif permeating Volume I, and omnipresent throughout the entire novel, is the constant repetiion of the word "wretch." This apt use of diction on Shelley's part is effective in capturing the dichotomy of the Wretch's personality: the dual meaning of the word leaves the true character of the wretch up to the interpretation of the reader. In other words, the repeated use of the word, coupled with its multiple meanings, forces the reader to choose which character traits to ascribe to the wretch. We can illustrate the dual meaning of the word with the following Merriam Webster dictionary definitions:
  1. wretch noun \rech\
    1. A miserable person : one who is profoundly unhappy or in great misfortune
    2. A base, despicable, or vile person
  2. wretched adj \re-ched\
    1. deeply afflicted, dejected, or distressed in body or mind
    2. extremely or deplorably bad or distressing
    3. being or appearing mean, miserable, or contemptible
    4. very poor in quality or ability
So, keeping these definitions in mind, how is the manifold characterization of the monster accomplished by the frequent use of the word wretch? The concept is simple:
  • Notice that "wretch," as a noun, has two seemingly similar but in actuality, very contrasting definitions.
    • The first definition of "wretch" implies that the individual in question is emotionally afflicted: someone described using this context of the word would elicit our deepest sympathy, since they are so emotionally distraught and miserable. This use of the word makes the subject the victim, not the perpetrator or the cause, of emotional suffering. If one chooses to read the novel with this conception of "wretch" in mind, then they will most likely sympathize for the monster and blame his emotional suffering on society, rather than blame society's suffering on his mere existence. To put it simply, this form of "wretchedness" deserve our love and admiration, not our scorn and enmity.
    • The second definition of "wretch" is essentially, in terms of characterization and the emotion it evokes from the reader, the exact opposite of the first. When described as a wretch used in this context, an individual most likely has some inherent, detestable personality flaw that makes him/her deserving of our utmost contempt, and removes him/her permanently from the realm of sympathy. An individual with this characterization does not suffer at the hands of anyone, and is most likely not even emotionally afflicted in any way shape or form: rather, in this context, the word implies that the character in question has made others suffer by his/her hands, and derives some sort of pleasure from the emotional or physical languish of others. In we choose to read the novel in this frame of reference, the wretch will more than likely be the object of our scorn, and we will never sympathize for him.

Why Not a Small Wretch?

This leads us to our next question: if tese are the two possible characterizations of the wretch, why did Shelley have to make him such a gargantuan? Would not a small, or at least human-sized, Wretch have sufficed? To answer this question, we must be familiar with the concepts of Romantic Idealism. Here's a quick recap:
  • Romantic Idealism, a philosophy frequently spurned by Mary Shelley yet advocated by Percy Shelley, basically says that human beings are ideal in that they could and should leave their ambition unchecked and unbridled: by doing this, we could hope to make limitless contributions to the world and unlock every mystery of nature and creation there is.
    • We could merge the worlds of the supernatural and science by using science to unlock secrets of the supernatural. Men are capable, under this philosophy, of exploring even the deepest, darkest corners of the world. That is why is is described as an "idealist" philosophy.
  • Understanding Romantic Idealism, and the fact that Shelley was an opponent of the idea, we can see why the Wretch was so large:
    • Shelley HAD to make the Wretch gigantic in order to convey her point that ambition, if left unchecked in world of science, could lead to creations and discoveries out of human control.
    • The basic idea of the book is that men are not unlimited in their ambition and intellect, and that such a drastic undertaking as trying to impart life to lifeless matter could end only in disaster.
      • Compared to a 7'1 gargantuan, how "disastrous" would a 5'6 "monster" with yellow skin really be? Shelley's goal was to admonish ambitious scientists against these undertakings. Thus, she has to instill fear and and create the most horrific scenario, while still remaining within the realm of some believability. Creating a 300 ft monster would have been just as ineffective as a five ft. monster.
  • For a more literal interpretation, the novel itself says that Victor needed to build all the arteries and veins necessary to sustain human life, an intricate process indeed. Scaling the human body up by some proportion therefore made his job of building the wretch must easier, since a larger body meant larger veins and arteries, which were easier to build. This interpretation is not nearly as fun though.

IV. Victor and Walton as Foils

“ I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans.” (17)

Foils are corresponding characters in a work of literature that can be compared with respect to their similarities. The use of foils is an omnipresent theme throughout Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Two of the most signification foils the reader meets are Robert Walton and the man he picks up at sea, Victor Frankenstein. They are similar in that:
  • Both of these characters express a thirst for knowledge. Walton expresses this ambition through a journey to the North Pole that he undertakes with some men. Victor expresses his passion by pursuing the study of science. After studying for several years at a university, he seeks to apply his knowledge in the creation of The Wretch, which ultimately leads to his demise.
  • Walton, aboard his ship, cannot seem to find a friend. He mentions several times in his letters to his sister how he longs for a friend:

“ I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans.” (17)

He feels that he needs someone who is as intellectually refined as he and who shares his interests. When Walton discovers Victor and hears of his story, he realizes that his man is much like himself. They are both passionate, adventurous Romantics. However, Victor had previously found his companion in Henry Clerval, an unfortunate victim of the Wretch. Victor states that he cannot bring himself to “replace” Clerval.

  • Lastly, each finds a sense of connection and calmness when in nature. Walton's life dream was to become a sailor and this dream comes to fruition when he sets off for the North Pole:
    • "I am already far north of London; and as I walk in the streets of Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has traveled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes.” (15)
  • Similarly, Victor is hugely connected with nature. When going through a break down in association with the wretch, he is almost always calmed by the presence of nature. Several times he uses it as a retreat to prevent himself from going mad or to treat his present madness:
    • "It was a divine spring; and the season contributed greatly to my convalescence. I felt also sentiments of joy and affection revive in my bosom...”(63)
      • The spring cures him and brings new life into him, though he experiences a “relapse” several times.

The spring cures him and brings new life into him, though he experiences a “relapse” several times. Though the foils have much in common, aspects of their personalities are revealed through their actions that demonstrate how they differ:
  • When the crew comes to their captain to ask that they abandon their mission and turn around toward home, Walton knows this is probably the best thing for everybody. Victor, however, delivers a long-winded speech on courage, bravery, and loyalty. He follows solely his ambition and takes nothing else into account. Walton's ambition is strong, but he knows that he is not the only one on the boat. His passion is checked by a sense of reality; that they could in fact die on the water and it would be his fault, after they had all ask to leave.
  • After losing Henry, Victor loses all control and is checked into an insane asylum. He repeatedly vocalizes how he is alone in the world without his best friend. When Walton loses Victor, however, his reaction is much different. He calmly accepts the event and, though he mourns the loss of a great man, focuses not on his own misery but reflects on Victor's life.

V. Influences on Victor: Why Did He Pursue Science? Why Did He Create the Wretch?

“…but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” (Shelley 42)
  • The death of victor's mother from the Scarlet Fever influenced him to search for a method that would counteract death.
    • Victor was 15 years old when he had his first experience with electricity. While on vacation with his family he watched as a bolt of lightning struck a tree and utterly destroyed it. This astonished him.
    • Victor was introduced to the ideas of Galvanism through a family friend and then abandoned his former interest in natural sciences to study his new-found love.
    • Intensely studied Agrippa, Magnus, and Paracelsus and became somewhat obsessive with their scientific ideas.
      • "If...my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science had been introduced...i should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside and have contended my imagination." (40)
  • Victor's father encouraged him to cease studying the concepts of Galvanism; however, he didn't give him any other options to fill the void that his studies held.
    • When attending college Victor's professor, Mr. Waldman, encouraged him to study the out dated concepts of the ancient teachers of science.
    • Victor was obsessive in his studies of Galvanism which led him to have the strong want to create life.
  • Victor Frankenstein was, to put it simply, overambitious.
    • ex) Victor states his motives: "I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation." (49)

VI. The Role of Nature: Reflecting Victor's Moods, Desires, and Warning the Ambitions Scientist

"I contemplated the lake: the waters were placed: all around was calm; and the snowy mountains, 'the palaces of nature', were not changed. By degrees the calm and heavenly scene restored me, and I continued my journey towards Geneva"
In Frankenstein, nature often reflected Victor's various moods, helped soothe him, and even warned him. This can be seen throughout Volume I in the following examples:
  1. "I remember the first time I became capable of observing outward objects with any kind of pleasure, I perceived the fallen leaves had disappeared and that the young buds were shooting from the trees that shaded my window" (63)
    • Here, nature represents a new beginning in Victor's life. He is no longer burdened by the thought of the wretch. It is a rebirth of his life without the monster he created. The "young buds" are often used in literature to symbolize change and revival.
  2. "It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishments of my toils"
    • Nature serves as a warning here. It was the night Victor was going to bring his creature to life and the weather helps set the mood. It is shown in the surroundings taht his is not such a good idea. The word "dreary" helps deliver this tone.
  3. "The leaves of that year had withered before my work drew to a close; and now every day showed me more plainly how well I had succeeded"
    • Victor has been removed from nature because of his work. It is winter now, which shows that he has been working for quite some time. Nature, again, serves as a warning because winter is usually associated with death and it is somber.
  4. "As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from and old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and no soon as the sizzling light vanished, the oak disappeared, and nothing remained by a blasted stump."
    • Victor sees the power in electricity, but fails to see the danger. When the lightning strikes the tree, Victor is amazed by its power but doesn't understand the hazard involved. Nature is a warning here as well; showing Victor that although it may be beautiful and awe-inspiring, there are risks associated with electricity. The lighting and "blasted stump" are both symbols of impending doom.
  5. "I contemplated the lake: the waters were placed: all around was calm; and the snowy mountains, 'the palaces of nature', were not changed. By degrees the calm and heavenly scene restored me, and I continued my journey towards Geneva"
    • Here nature helps comfort Victor. The peaceful calm of the lake gives him a sense of tranquility and helps "restore him." Victor is on a long journey to Geneva, and nature helps make it a little easier. It helps soothe him.

VII. Parenting and Responsibility

"My mother's tender caress and my father's smile of benevolent while regarding me, are my first recollections."
  • Victor Frankenstein experienced a golden childhood:
    • He was always treated with a lot of love and care by his parents: he even admits, "My mother's tender caress and my father's smile of benevolent while regarding me, are my first recollections."
    • He was his parents' only care for a long time, that is, until they adopted Elizabeth.
  • Once Elizabeth came into the family, Victor saw her as something to care for:
    • He sees Elizabeth as a present from his parents.
    • He always felt the need to protect, love, and cherish her.
    • He describes her as "My more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only."
  • These strong caring familial relationships never existed between Victor and his Wretch:
    • Once Victor created the Wretch, he immediately abandoned it. Because he wasn't pleased with the Wretch's physical appearance, Victor just tried to leave it behind and forget about it.
    • As the creator of the Wretch, Victor failed to take responsibility for it the way a parent should a child: the way a creator should his progeny, no matter how hideous.
  • There were many consequences as a result of Victor's neglect towards the Wretch.
    • This is what ultimately caused the Wretch to resort to murder.
    • He wanted revenge on Victor for abandoning him. He later did this by killing all the people that Victor was close with.

VIII. Role of Justine At the End of Volume I: Is She Just a Murderer?

“God knows...how entirely I am innocent. But I do not pretend that my protestations should acquit me: I rest my innocence on a plain and simple explanation of the facts that have been adduced against me; and I hope the character that I have always borne will incline my judges to a favourable interpretation, where any circumstance appears doubtful or suspicious”(84)

Background Information: Who is Justine?
  • Following the death of her mother, Justine Mortiz, a close family friend returned to live with the Frankenstein family as a servant.
  • When the Wretch murdered Victor's youngest brother William, he places a charm that William was carrying in his pocket in the fold of Justine's dress. This leads directly to the accusation of Justine.

Prior to this, upon Victor's return to Geneva, he finds himself lurking about the outskirts of town. As he walks near the spot where his brother was murdered he discovers the Wretch and becomes convinced that the monster is responsible for the murder.
  • Thus, Victor, more than anyone else, is confident in Justine's innocence.
    • "You are all mistaken; I know the murderer. Justine, poor, good Justine, is innocent." (81)
  • Though he mentions to everyone that she is innocent, he refuses to explain himself for fear that he will be called insane.

It is throughout the trial that the reader is provided with a better understanding of Justine's character. After she pleads innocent, she begs the judge for permission to have a few witnesses come up and examine her character. This is what we learn:
  • Elizabeth, Victor's cousin, addresses the court and describes Justine as:
    • "The most amiable and benevolent of human creatures" (86)
  • However, though Elizabeth stands up for Justine's innocence, she, like Justine, is completely helpless to stop the execution.
  • Justine confesses to the crime, believing that she will thereby gain salvation, and is executed.
  • In the end, Victor is the only one who could have proved Justine is innocent?
How, in your opinion, did the inclusion of Justine at the end of Volume I help characterize Victor? Share your thoughts!

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