Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, stands tall as a classic horror novel that is considered to be one of the most important works of Gothic literature. The book follows Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who attempts to engineer a new body through the various limbs of other dead bodies he secrets away, reanimating them through his particular brand of quack science. The morality of Victor Frankenstein is constantly called into question, from his playing God by attempting to create new life to his mistreatment and misunderstanding of the poor creature he creates. Frankenstein is by no means a hero, but neither is he a demon: he is instead a flawed, hubristic man whose reach exceeds his grasp, and who wrestles constantly with the morality of his actions. In many ways, he is simply a poor parent, someone who creates a child that he does not know how to care for, and in his mistakes abuses him and turns him into a monster.
Frankenstein has a lot of these tensions about parenthood and childrearing, which come to play in Victor’s life. The novel clearly connects Victor Frankenstein and his creation as father and son, since he literally gives life to this creature and is subsequently responsible for him. Essentially, the book deals with themes of parenthood and the ways in which parents are asked to get their children ready for the harsh nature of human civilizations; if this is not done correctly, the children just "retreat into themselves" and abandon society entirely (Claridge, 1985). Victor Frankenstein’s own childhood is depicted as dramatically influencing his way of parenting as an adult; he does not know how to really live someone. In the beginning of the book, Victor’s parents are shown to be kind and full of affection on the surface, but this causes unease in Victor. He turns out to just be the "plaything and idol" of his parents, not permitting him to really be part of the family or an individual in his own right (Shelley 33). Even in the Gothic era, this kind of behavior was considered to be quite irresponsible: “The romantic educators typically placed the blame for an adolescent’s misconduct at the door of a negligent parent” (Claridge 14). When Victor thinks of his childhood, he is glib and sarcastic about it, as he jokes that "every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control" (34). As an adult, he is shown to not have these attributes at all.
Victor’s own sense of morality seems to be very selective; he focuses quite a bit on select others to whom he feels a particular sense of affection. After his family adds an adoptive sister, Elizabeth, Victor falls in love with her, almost to the point of obsession. Later in the novel, he will become equally obsessed with his creation, showing Victor’s single-mindedness and dedication to his passions: “the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time” (Shelley 75). Victor also owns up to this self-centeredness as a man, which led to his rejection of the monster, and his subsequent violent personality: "I ought to have made him happy before I complained of his wickedness" (Shelley 102). While he does not extend his sympathies to the bigger picture, he seems loyal to the singular things he is focused on, such as the monster and Elizabeth.
Much of our understanding of Victor’s morality comes to bear in his relationship with his creation. In Shelley’s original novel, the creature is surprisingly well-spoken and knowledgeable, having been given the chance to educate itself. To that end, his one single flaw is his physical ugliness, which is the primary thing that drives others away from him, including Victor. After Victor first creates the monster, he recoils in horror: “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?” (Shelley 77). Because of Victor’s hubris of science, Victor creates something between life and death, whose ugliness he only understands after he brings it to life. Because he does not understand how to love it, he runs away screaming in terror, leaving the monster without a parent figure. As a result, the monster runs away and eventually kills his brother William; right away, we get Victor’s sense of guilt which (though all too late) cements his essential sense of compassion for others: "I was the true murderer" (Shelley 89). Victor admits to his own negligence, which led to the destruction he sees around him. By the end of the book, recognizing that the monster’s rampage and search for vengeance is his doing, he admits his own mistakes: "I abhorred the face of manoh, not abhorred! I felt attracted even to the most repulsive among them" (Shelley 184-185). Despite the fact that he tries to explain his true motivations, that he held life in great esteem by the end of his life, he owns up to his arrogance and his desire to play with knowledge man should not have.
Victor’s mistakes and irresponsibility are reflected equally in the monster. The monster, like a spurned child, tries to escape his parent’s shadow and the fact that he is without any support system. The monster continues the cycle of children attempting to outshadow the parents; Victor tried to do that by becoming better scientists than his parents, and the monster does it by revenging himself upon Victor for being rejected by him. The creature absolutely hates Victor for that initial rejection: "You, my own creator, detest and spurn me" (Shelley 99). Because of that negligence, the monster blames Victor for being "the author at once of my existence and its unspeakable torments" (p. 220). Because of that hatred of Victor, it extends to all of man as well, thinking that mankind is "at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base" (p. 119).
In the end, Victor Frankenstein is not a hero or a demon, but a flawed human being whose lust for science, power and prestige came from a troubled childhood and his belief that mankind should do all it can to achieve scientific progress. Because of his love for Elizabeth to the exclusion of nearly all else, he does not cultivate a sense of patience or responsibility, making him a poor guardian and parent for the hellish creature that he brings into the world. That creature then hates him for spurning him, causing a killing spree that brings Victor to his senses only too late. These are the actions of an extremely morally grey character, which was the hallmark of Gothic literature at the time; Victor is the ultimate irresponsible parent, and the monster is a mistreated child who knows not what to do with itself.
Claridge, Laura P. "Parent-Child Tensions in Frankenstein: The Search for Communion." Studies in the Novel vol. 17, no. 1. Spring 1985. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Print.