Photo via Pikist
By Aiza Bragg
(UBC Arts One, Gavin Paul seminar)
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the characters of Victor and his creature parallel each other as they both face injustice and suffering and both resort to violent revenge. The creature is a manifestation of Victor’s own flaws and motivations, as Victor calls him “my own spirit let loose from the grave […] forced to destroy all that was dear to me” (100), and he expresses Victor’s need for revenge, companionship, and power. Both Victor and the creature turn to revenge as the first solution to their suffering, seeking to injure each other in the ways they themselves have been injured. Additionally, they each argue that their desires for vengeance are justified by the suffering they have faced, even though the suffering is shared between them, as Victor is slowly reduced to the same desperate and isolated state that his creation is tormented by. Despite this, Victor and the creature have limited sympathy for each other, emphasizing their own selfishness. This selfishness manifests as a need for power, as Victor’s desire for glory and respect conflicts with the creature’s desire to institute himself as Victor’s master. Trapped as reflections of each other’s violent motivations and unjust suffering, Victor and the creature are “bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of [them]” (118). The parallel character arcs of the two characters are reconciled in the conclusion of the novel, as the creature comes to terms with his own guilt while Victor is utterly destroyed by isolation and vengeance, a reversal of the original power dynamic between them.
Victor and his creature are both haunted by the concept of “justice,” which they rely on to save them from their suffering, and when this concept of justice fails them, they turn to revenge as a justifiable solution to their problems. The concept of justice is first introduced when referring to Justine, when Elizabeth is reassured that “if she is, as you believe, innocent, rely on the justice of our judges” (103). However, this justice proves unreliable when Justine is executed, a motif that returns when Victor and the creature realize that the system of justice has failed them. The creature makes an appeal to Victor’s sense of justice, claiming that Victor owes him “that justice which I vainly attempted to gain from any other” (152), namely, compassion. Determined to prove that he is owed compassion from Victor, the creature loses his comprehension of justice only after facing unjust suffering, stating that Victor has “left me no power to consider whether I am just” (120). This suffering, which is “augmented also by the oppressive sense of […] injustice” (153), causes the creature to believe that he must take revenge on the creator of his suffering, Victor, in order to enact justice. For the creature, the desire for revenge becomes “dearer than light or food” (176), until he is consumed only by his need for Victor to suffer. This character arc is mirrored in Victor, who does not think of revenge as a solution until after he has felt that justice has deserted him. When the creature originally begs for a mate, Victor is moved by the “justice in his argument” (157) but begins to question if he really owes the creature this kind of justice. However, after the creature commits murder, Victor becomes vengeful, and he states that “when I reflected on his crimes and malice, my hatred and revenge burst all bounds of moderation” (112), a direct parallel with the hatred that the creature harbours for Victor. Additionally, Victor and the creature both think of revenge and murder as a justified punishment for each other, exonerating themselves from the consequences of their actions. This is shown when the creature laments to Victor that “you accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature” (119). The desire for revenge is not inherent in Victor or the creature, but they both attempt to justify violence by calling it revenge. The final turning point in Victor’s character arc is his appeal to the magistrates, who he hopes can enact some sort of justice or punishment on the creature, which fails. Upon realizing that the system of justice cannot help him, Victor devotes himself to making the creature “feel the despair that now torments me” (203). In the cases of both Victor and the creature, they are abandoned by systems of justice, which causes them to challenge their own conceptions of what is “just” before eventually turning to bloodthirsty revenge.
An additional trait that links the characters of Victor and his creation is their selfishness, which is especially evident in their blind quests for revenge. Victor originally rejects the title of a selfish man, and worries that “future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race” (174), although here he is still motivated by the protection of his legacy, not by a greater desire to help humankind. Like his creature, he rarely sees past his own suffering, as shown when they both strike out at each other despite their shared pain: they both sacrifice innocents for their revenge. The creature’s violence is first enacted on William and Justine, and he kills them to punish Victor. However, Victor also sacrifices the creature’s unborn mate for revenge, even feeling “as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being” (178), a decision partially motivated by his selfish desire to see his creature suffer. After the creature violently repays Victor’s destruction of his mate with the murder of Elizabeth, Victor maintains that he “did right in refusing to create a companion [for the creature]” (216). Here, Victor uses the destruction of the creature’s mate as emotional leverage, much like the creature uses the deaths of Victor’s friends and family: as a tool for spurring the suffering of each other. Victor also feels no attachment to the creature nor any need to care for it. When the creature is brought to life, his immediate reaction is to be disappointed at the loss of “dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest” (84); he is not concerned about the consequences of his creature, and focused solely on the loss of his own aspirations. Victor is seemingly aware that he owes the creature “all the portion of happiness that it was in my power to bestow” (157), yet he ignores this debt once gripped by his desire for revenge, just as the creature neglects to sympathise with William and Justine. Even when forced to face his duty to the creature, Victor doesn’t commit to any obligation, stating that “the justice due both to him and my fellow-creatures demanded of me that I should comply with his request” (159), but then that “my duties towards my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention” (216). Although his care for his friends and family is indeed one of Victor’s main motivations, on some level Victor wants to indulge in the creature’s suffering rather than avenge or honour his friends. This is suggested when he goes hunting for the creature instead of protecting Elizabeth, prioritizing the destruction of the creature over the safety of his wife. By positing the needs of the creature as antithetical to the needs of his fellow humans, Victor justifies his drive for revenge. In both Victor and the creature, this drive overrides their ability to sympathise with each other or with the innocent casualties of their feud, and they are consumed by selfish bloodthirst.
Victor and his creature are further mirrored in the isolated suffering that they endure, and their isolation leads them to be motivated by similar desires for violence. The destructive power of isolation is set up in the narrative by the repeated emphasizing of the importance of companionship. Victor’s family is described as a “domestic circle, from which care and pain seemed for ever banished. […] Neither of us possessed the slightest pre-eminence over the other; the voice of command was never heard amongst us; but mutual affection engaged us all to comply with and obey the slightest desire of each other” (71). The importance of family and companionship is also displayed by the De Laceys, as Felix “could have endured poverty […] but the ingratitude of the Turk, and the loss of his beloved Safie, were misfortunes more bitter and irreparable” (140). This forms the basis for the creature’s ideals of companionship. When the creature is first “born” from Victor’s experimentation, he is without suffering or corruption, unprotected but innocent. With a good spirit driving him to “restore happiness to these deserving people” (131), the creature is in all ways undeserving of the suffering and isolation he endures. However, he is immediately corrupted by the hatred of humanity. The creature uses his suffering as justification for his murderous revenge schemes, stating that
I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me: what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing? […] Shall I not then hate them who abhor me? I will keep no terms with my enemies. I am miserable, and they shall share my wretchedness. (119)
The creature then states that while his “vices are the children of a forced solitude” (158), companionship would reverse his evil. This is echoed by Victor, who fears being alone and losing his ties to the world. He feels great sadness in becoming alone after being “surrounded by amiable companions” (73), and even isolates himself as a punishment to force him to work on the creature’s mate (168). Victor begins to grow half-mad from isolation, with no one to soothe or support him, and this causes him to develop the same raving desire for revenge that his creature is so prone to. This vengefulness in both Victor and the creature is triggered by the destruction of their romantic companions. For Victor this is the death of Elizabeth, as all of the happiness that he “may one day enjoy is concentered in [her]” (193), just like the creature had hinged his hopes of love and tranquility on the mate that Victor destroys. After Elizabeth’s death, Victor begins mirroring the behaviours expressed, and the sufferings endured, by his creature: he is isolated, haunted by the images of what his happy life could have been, the same torment that the creature endured as a result of Victor’s neglect. Neither are made fully human by their suffering, and neither are made fully monstrous by their violence. Victor is described by Walton as “so noble a creature destroyed by misery” (61), a similar description to that of his creation, who was born noble and good-spirited but corrupted by isolation, misery, and hatred. This shared suffering links Victor and the creature, and they both emerge from these toils filled with violent and vengeful motivations, which lends credibility to the creature’s claims that suffering caused his murderous actions. As a narrative, this is not necessarily meant to justify the creature’s actions but simply parallel him with Victor: two benevolent people turned cruel by isolation.
Finally, Victor and the creature are mirrored in their power struggle, as both attempt to regain control over the other, causing them to switch roles as master and servant. Initially, Victor intends for the creature to bring him glory and acclaim, assuming that the creature will remain subservient and treat Victor with absolute respect and gratitude. Victor maintains a strict power dynamic between himself and the creature, excitedly assuming that his creation would
bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. (80)
This desire to hold the power and respect of a creator stems from Victor’s egotism: he only begins dabbling in matters of life and death to achieve some semblance of “glory” (69) and refuses to “exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth” (75). The creature, the main product of Victor’s attempts to essentially institute himself as a god, fittingly embodies the destruction of these egotistical aspirations. When the creature gains animation, Victor suddenly finds him terrifying and monstrous, although he had been eagerly awaiting this moment. This suggests that it is not the physical form of the creature that terrifies Victor, but the power and autonomy that the creature possesses. Victor is not willing to relinquish his power as the creator and therefore flees from the creature lest he be forced to obey. As a literary device, the creature serves to challenge Victor’s desire to “sport thus with life” (118), dragging him down from the godly elevation he once sought. When Victor finally caves, the power dynamic between him and his creature reverses, and the creature states, “you are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” (176), signifying this change. Since the relationship between Victor and the creature is built on the power of creator over creature, this change in dynamic forces them into opposition with each other, feeding their cycle of revenge and leading to their destruction. The ending of the novel finalizes their character arcs as reflections of each other’s past selves. Victor begins his relationship with the creature weighed down by guilt, stating that “anguish and despair had penetrated into the core of my heart; I bore a hell within me” (109), while the creature seemingly feels no guilt and acts out of pure rage. However, by the end of the novel Victor is on a blind quest for revenge above all, while the creature has begun to feel the weight of his actions and accept the burden of guilt. While Victor blames himself for the murders of his friends, the creature blames himself for the death of Victor, asking for a “pardon” (217) although it is already too late. Even in the framing of the final scene, Victor and the creature mirror the beginning of their power struggle: Victor’s corpse is positioned with the creature looming over it, ready to be reanimated like the collection of sewn-together limbs the creature once was. The connection between Victor and the creature is made evident in his final monologue, when he calls himself “the slave, not the master of an impulse, which I detested, yet could not disobey” (218), recalling Victor’s own submission to the mastery of revenge. However, the creature regains power over himself by telling Walton that “neither yours nor any man’s death is needed to consummate the series of my being, and accomplish that which must be done” (220), showing that he has grown out of his purely vengeful mentality. By choosing to redeem himself and accept the consequences of his actions, the creature moves past the cycle of revenge that drove Victor to his death.
Throughout Frankenstein, Shelley emphasizes the similarities between Victor and the creature through their motivations: both are driven by an all-consuming desire for revenge and a hatred of isolation. Both characters are motivated by selfish desires, neglecting their internal concepts of sympathy and justice to cause suffering for the other. This traps them in a cycle of revenge and violence which does not cease until Victor’s death. By having the flaws which Victor indulges be reflected in the creature, Shelley suggests that it is Victor’s own internal vengefulness, selfishness, and need for power that leads to his demise. Unwilling to bend to the mastery of the other, Victor and the creature are destroyed by the very desires that caused them to want this destruction in the first place. Their character arcs move in opposite directions, with Victor slowly devolving into murderous rage as he is reduced to isolation, while the creature begins to regret his actions and asks for repentance. Eventually, the two characters swap places and exchange power, with the creature presented as the flawed but sympathetic master, and Victor as the isolated and destroyed servant.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 3rd ed. Edited by D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Broadview, 2012.