You Could Learn a Lot From a Shelley – Ethics of Frankenstein

You Could Learn a Lot From a Shelley


Brandy Anderson

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has so many layers that one could spend a lifetime studying the novel without once exhausting the many varied possibilities of interpretation. Questionable ethics run rampant throughout Frankenstein, and it is not only seen in the characters Victor Frankenstein and the Monster as is so often presupposed. By using multiple characters Shelley utilizes each unique perspective to reveal a didactic book of ethics and behaviour for readers to emulate and to avoid.

The primary example of unethical cowardice is clearly seen in Victor Frankenstein. His constant refusal to take responsibility plague both his life and the lives of those around him after he constructs and then animates his creature. Victor is in a never ending flux of negative emotions. He turns his creation into a monster both physically and mentally. It is only after his constant rejection of the Monster that the creation begins and continues to wreak havoc and destruction around Victor’s intimate circle of loved ones. The initial moment of life is the pivotal time where Victor has the power to turn his creation into either angel or daemon. Victor allows the “horror and disgust” (31) which filled his heart to control his actions. Rather than taking responsibility for the life he had just given, Victor spurns the Monster and it is this unethical act that sets forth the dire actions of the Monster.

This cruel abandonment serves as a duality of lessons. First, it instructs us to assume responsibility for our actions and to follow through with commitments. Secondly, it shows us the danger of seeking knowledge that we are unprepared to manage. Victor’s drive to learn the secret to making life utterly blinds him to the consequences of achieving such a monumental feat. When he succeeds he is paralyzed with his own inability to assume the responsibility and care that he should have anticipated his creation would require.

Shelley gives the Monster a personality that has many dimensions and he carries positive and negative qualities. His negative qualities only appear after he is repeatedly abandoned and neglected. This raises the assumption that it is not Victor’s animation of the patchwork body that is necessarily the cause of such evil, but rather it is Victor’s neglectful and cruel behaviour towards his creation that causes the damage. Shelley diverts focus away from the common arguments of morality and the issue of “not playing God” and choses to divert the focus on the ethical problems of the individual. Victor becomes “the wretch – the miserable monster whom [he] created” (35); he is referring to the Monster, however he could be speaking of himself as well.

Not only does Victor shirk from his own responsibilities, he allows others to assume the responsibilities for his dangerous choices. This lack of ethics results in the deaths of his loved ones, deaths he could have presumably prevented if he had followed through with his own accountability. One of the most blatant examples of the wrongs of embodying passive ethics is seen during the accusation, trial, and then execution of Justine Moritz. It is Victor’s refusal to own up to his unethical behaviour that allows the innocent Justine to be killed for a horrendous crime, a crime which Victor is more rightly accountable for. Victor fancies himself “wretched” (57) and he becomes so lost in his own self pity that he distances himself from all ethical propriety.

Shelley shows the reader that this form of wallowing escapism does not render a person any less accountable for their actions. Victor relates to Walton that he “remained motionless. The thunder ceased; but the rain still continued, and the scene was enveloped in an impenetrable darkness” (48). This is symbolic of Victor’s life after his refusal to take charge of his own actions, but it is not only himself whom he thrusts into this impenetrable and perpetual darkness, it is a fate he prescribes to all of those closest to him. This teaches us that our ethical or unethical actions affect not only ourselves but others as well. There is a heavy price attached to individual actions and it is crucial to be aware of this interconnectedness.

Shelley puts more emphasis on ethics of the individual rather than society because group ethics are so flawed. Elizabeth laments “when I reflect… on the miserable death of Justine Moritz, I no longer see the world and its works as they before appeared to me. Before, I looked upon the accounts of vice and injustice, that I read in books or heard from others, as tales of ancient days, or imaginary evils; at least they were remote, and more familiar to reason than to the imagination; but now misery has come home, and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood” (61). A person cannot and must not rely on society to dictate an ethical way of life. It is up to the individual to construct his or her own ethical compass. Elizabeth goes on to say “when falsehood can look so like the truth, who can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness? I feel as though I were walking on the edge of a precipice, towards which thousands are crowding, and endeavoring to plunge me into the abyss” (61). The abyss is what a person falls into when he or she abandons his or her own set of ethics in favour of those dictated by society.

The Monster is immediately treated with fear and disgust by individuals who are acting on superficial ethics as dictated by social norms. The Monster is constantly greeted with fearful backlash merely because of his appearance. When he saves the little girl from drowning, arguably the most ethical action of all the novel’s characters, he is repaid for his heroism by the rustic’s immediate accusations and hatred. If the rustic had listened to his own personal ethics rather than relying on the those he learned through his social upbringing the outcome may have been different. The Monster should have been judged solely by his good deed without regard to his appearance.

The Monster reflects that although he is “harsh” his “intentions were affectionate” and although “his manners were rude” he “deserved better treatment than blows and execration” (77). Shelley reminds us that our behaviour and actions are what truly count and no regard to character should be   based on outward appearances. Before the Monster was met with such constant hatred and bitter rejection he was filled with optimism and good will towards humanity. He says “for a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing” (80). Shelley is making the statement that humanity is intrinsically good and it is only neglect and gross maltreatment that mars a person and turns him or her into a dark creature.

Old man De Lacey is one of the most virtuous and kind characters in the book, yet he too is deceived by superficial prejudices. When the Monster eventually gains the courage to speak to De Lacey when he finds the blind old man alone, De Lacey is forced to judge his companion solely on words and verbal cues. An amiable conversation is struck and it seems the bond and friendship so desperately sought by the Monster will be fulfilled. The old man urges the Monster to “not despair. To be friendless is indeed to be unfortunate; but the hearts of men, when unprejudiced by any obvious self-interest, are full of brotherly love and charity. Rely, therefore, on your hopes… if these friends are good and amiable” (90). The old man is unknowingly giving himself ethical advice, and his subsequent failure to take his own advice further adds to the fall of the Monster. It is only when Felix, Safie, and Agatha whose “fatal prejudice clouds their eyes” that things swiftly deteriorate for the Monster (90).

The De Laceys exhibit many virtuous and ethical qualities up to the point of their exclusion of the Monster and their subsequent refusal to allow him into their intimate circle. Shelley dictates them as a prime example for the still developing infantile Monster. His study of this close knit family invokes positive and happy feelings because of their good manners and kind treatment towards each other. It is through them that the Monster learns what a happy and healthy family dynamic can be. He sees the care and love exchanged between the old man and his son and daughter. He sees the token of unconditional friendship exchanged between Safie and the De Laceys. Through Felix and Safie he also sees the positive aspects of romantic love.

Felix embodies the positive ethics of fulfilling familial obligations. His devotion to his father and sister teach the reader the importance of maintaining and nurturing familial bonds. The father also returns this love and devotion. Alphonse is another example of a positive father figure. Although, where Felix plays the role of the devoted and noble son, Victor does not return such attention to his own father. Victor constantly neglects Alphonse in favour of first pursuing and later fleeing his obsession. Yet Alphonse remains a source of comfort to his son. In one of Victor’s more wretched hours, Alphonse resolutely tells his son they should “cling closer to what remains” and they should “transfer [their] love for those whom [they] have lost to those who yet live” (132). The father serves as the voice of comfort and reason, he is the patriarchal beacon to guide his son through his own darkness. Shelley has the father put the mental health of his loved ones above his own internal suffering.

Victor does not take others’ mental health into such high esteem. One of the most unethical moments of the novel occurs when Victor entreats Elizabeth to enter into marriage with a dark and giant secret looming above them, one that she cannot know until she binds herself to him through marriage. On their wedding day Victor perceives that Elizabeth “was melancholy, and a presentiment of evil pervaded her; and perhaps also she thought of the dreadful secret, which [Victor] had promised to reveal to her the following day” (133). Shelley parallels the unethical withholding of information with the impending doom of the Monster fulfilling his death threat. Shelley is making a statement that withholding knowledge and blocking access to key information is the equivalent of death.

If Victor had been ethical and revealed his horrible secret to Elizabeth sooner, if he had armed her with the knowledge of what he had done, he may been able to save her life.  When Victor laments that “no creature had ever been so miserable as I was” (137) it shows his ignorance of the consequences produced by his constant unethical behaviour. If he had been more self-aware he would realize that it was his maltreatment of the Monster that first set forth this sequence of horrible events. He is so deluded as to his own role that he fails to recognize his self-loathing mirrors that of the Monster. Victor’s lack of ethics turns his “excellent and venerable” father into a man whose “eyes wandered in vacancy, for they had lost their charm and their delight” (137). When Victor says “cursed, cursed be the fiend that brought misery on his grey hairs, and doomed him to waste in wretchedness” (137) he is in essence cursing himself.

One of Victor’s few redeeming qualities is his vehemence in his plead towards Walton that he not suffer from the same obsessive mistakes he did. Victor finally puts his sense of right and wrong above his pride and self-delusions, if only momentarily. Victor tells Walton to “learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (31).  By using Victor as a mouthpiece, Shelley is warning readers not to allow themselves to be completely absorbed by their obsessions and reminds them to maintain personal ethics above all other pursuits.

It could be argued that Victor is at the pinnacle of his ethical progress when he abandons everything to adopt the widely unethical action of revenge. It is only after he finally reveals his secret to someone that he confesses that his “rage is unspeakable, when I reflect that the murderer, whom I have turned loose upon society, still exists” (139). Victor now puts the safety and well being of others before himself. He vows to “devote [himself], either in [his] life or death, to [the Monster’s] destruction” (139). Victor has at length learned from his arrogance, pride, obsession, and blindness.

Victor imitates his father when he gives sound advice to Walton. He tells him to “learn from my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own” (146). Yet Victor still has not learned from his mistakes. When the ship’s situation becomes increasingly dire and the crew want to return to England should a break in the ice occur, Victor blasts them for cowardice, and shames them not possessing “strength enough to endure cold and peril” (149).  Yet Walton with his stronger set of ethics realizes that he must put a stop to his incessant desire for discovery that endangers the lives of his crew. He writes to his sister “could I, in justice or even possibility, refuse this demand?” (149). Walton puts the lives of those in his trust above his obsession, thereby making a clear distinction between himself and Victor. Shelley shows how a person triumphs when he or she acts in a just manner.

Shelley closes the novel by illustrating the principle distinction between the ethical Walton and all others for Walton is the only person to show the Monster compassion. After seeing the “appalling hideousness” (152) of the Monster Walton still calls him back as the Monster is about to escape. The Monster points out the hypocrisy of humanity’s ethics. He says “Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me? Why do you not hate Felix, who drove his friend from his door with contumely? Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child?” (155). When the Monster says this makes his “blood boil” (155) Shelley may be also speaking for herself as she gives readers these instances of wild injustice that they must strive to never enact themselves.

Works Cited:

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818 Text. Ed J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1996. Print.


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