Character Breakdown

Posted: April 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

Robert Walton

“My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading. These volumes were my study day and night, and my familiarity with them increased that regret which I had felt, as a child, on learning that my father’s dying injunction had forbidden my uncle to allow me to embark in a seafaring life.”

– Frankenstein, Preface

Frankenstein’s style is universally recognized as being written in the epistolary form. The term epistolary is derived from the Latin word epistolē, meaning “letter”, and, in this case, the letters are the correspondence between Robert Walton and his sister, Margaret Saville.

However, Robert Walton isn’t simply a device that Mary Shelly uses to frame the narrative; he is a parallel to Victor Frankenstein, and in some ways, the Creature – forming a balance. As an explorer, Robert represents passion, determination, drive, and a hunger to conquer the unknown. These traits are an example of the qualities he shares with Victor, especially during the period of time that Victor is most heavily invested in birthing the Creature. Furthermore, Walton’s resolve isolates him from others, including his shipmates. Isolation is the centerpiece of the Creature’s struggle with civilization, and is the most recognizable feature Walton shares with it.

Henry Clerval

“I was indifferent, therefore, to my schoolfellows in general; but I united myself in the bonds of the closest friendship to one among them. Henry Clerval was the son of a merchant of Geneva. He was a boy of singular talent and fancy. He loved enterprise, hardship, and even danger, for its own sake. He was deeply read in books of chivalry and romance. He composed heroic songs, and began to write many a tale of enchantment and knightly adventure.”

– Frankenstein, Chapter 2

There is a central core or group of themes at the heart of this novel: alienation, unchecked passions, nature vs. nurture, culpability, and friendship. Taking it at face value, Henry Clerval might seem like just a companion for Victor. Yet, upon further scrutiny, there is evidence that Henry is a personification of many of these themes.

Several valid examples come forward during the stretch that of time that Henry is nursing Victor after his encounter with the Creature. Not only is he acting as a true and unselfish friend, but a caretaker. This creates a boundary between Victor and the Creature, in the sense that he is allowed to thrive in a compassionate world, with nurturing people (like Henry), while the Creature is neglected, and exposed to its harshest elements (nature).

Later in the novel, Henry becomes the victim of the Creature’s unchecked passions. Motivated by revenge, the Creature murders Henry sometime after Victor destroys what would have been a second monster. The death of Henry is one of the plot elements that slowly isolate Victor in the same way his Creature is isolated.

De Lacey

“The old man, I could perceive, often endeavoured to encourage his children, as sometimes I found that he called them, to cast off their melancholy. He would talk in a cheerful accent, with an expression of goodness that bestowed pleasure even upon me. Agatha listened with respect, her eyes sometimes filled with tears, which she endeavoured to wipe away unperceived; but I generally found that her countenance and tone were more cheerful after having listened to the exhortations of her father.”

– Frankenstein, Chapter 12

The Creature’s turbulent life and actions can be traced to neglect, more specifically, from abandonment. It was “birthed” despised, and from that moment, knew nothing of kindness, empathy, or benevolence. It was, for the most part, betrayed, except in one instance.

The old man, De Lacey (through his interactions with his family), becomes a role model for the creature, despite the distance between the pair. The Creature’s infatuation with De Lacey serves to inform the reader that it is not without humanness. Simply, it is seeking the basic compassions that it has been denied.

Most notably, De Lacey is blind. What this means for the Creature is that it can’t be rejected for its horrid appearance, but rather, appreciated for its merits.

Victor Frankenstein

“I, their eldest child, was born in Naples, and as an infant accompanied them in their rambles. I remained for several years their only child. Much as they were attached to each other, they seemed to draw inexhaustible stores of affection from a very mine of love to bestow them upon me. My mother’s tender caresses, and my father’s smile of benevolent pleasure while regarding me, are my first recollections. I was their plaything and their idol, and something better–their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me.”

– Frankenstein, Chapter 1

In his essay, “Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism” scholar George Levine compares Victor Frankenstein to Milton’s Satan, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and even Percy Shelley (1). Is that reasonable? The Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost is tragic, stuck between hero and antagonist; however, he still demonstrates a remarkable arrogance. The Ancient Mariner is a character forced to roam the earth, out of guilt, and recite his story in order to educate those he meets. And, according to William Veeder (professor of English at the University of Chicago), Percy Shelly was obsessed with idealizations of patriarchy (2). Indeed, it seems that Victor does in some way compare to these individuals.

There is evidence in Mary Shelley’s later fiction (Lodore, Falkner, and The Last Man), that she too has an idealized vision of fatherhood. At some point, the three different heroines, from these three different books make mention of the “idolized” father (2). It becomes clear, then, that Victor’s role was to be the ideal father. He was shown care, he was shown friendship, and most importantly, he was shown love. It was his duty, therefore, to pass these qualities on to his Creature.

The Creature

“I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed: when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs.”

– Frankenstein, Chapter 5

By touching upon the other characters, much of the Creature’s personality and symbolism has already been explained and clarified. The question remains, how is the Creature a reflection of society? H.L. Malchow explains that Gothic literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries represent (subconsciously) the social liberation and political revolution of the era. Europeans of the time inherited a portrait of foreigners from such works like the Persian Letters and conservative thinkers like Cobbett – who encouraged stereotyping and prejudice (3).

The Creature’s “ugliness” is representative of discrimination and abnormalities Europeans associated with foreigners. In Denise Gigante’s essay, she quotes Burke in describing the monstrous, and she clarifies by saying that, Burke sees that the “system of manners” operates through a skin of “pleasing illusions” in order to repress societal issues (in this case xenophobia). Gigante compares the creature’s ugliness to disorder. She further elaborates that Shelley was perhaps influenced by the history of the British West Indies by Bryan Edwards, since Shelley herself writes in her journal that she was captivated by it, and in turn feasibly created a distinctively foreign creature (4).


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