Fate and injustice in three parts

When looking back at the novels we’ve read this semester, I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness welling up from within.  It is possible that this sadness is sparked by a sense of finality in the closing of the semester, but it could also be the progressive downward, depressing spiral that we, as a group, have experienced through these readings.  It is unlikely that this emotional response was the intended result of the order in which these novels were assigned, but the order was indeed intentional.  The obvious comparison that one could draw between the novels we’ve read this semester, is their tragic endings.  These tragic endings come in different shapes and resolve themselves in different ways, but a strong element that runs like a blood red thread throughout is the cruel nature of fate.  For this final blog post, I will look at how this cruelty is made manifest in the endings of Frankenstein, Mill on the Floss and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.


The first novel we read for class was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I struggled assigning blame to a single individual in this novel.  I think Shelley presents all the characters as flawed human beings, or in the case of Victor’s creation, an approximation of a human being.  Focusing on Victor’s creation, we find a being that was brought into a painful, certainly deformed existence without any consideration of how wretched his life would be.  There is no other place that this is more evident than in the quote from Paradise Lost on the title page of Frankenstein. “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?”  In this sense, the creation possessed zero free will and was fated for misery.  When he finally takes agency and performs actions driven by his desire, we find that those are, again, simply a response to some external stimuli of which he has no control over.  Victor refuses to provide his creation with basic human needs.  The creation’s only power is that of consequence.  Consequences can only be reactionary responses to actions that are out of our control.  With this, the creation strikes out like a rabid, helpless animal to inflict pain on anyone within striking range.


In George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Maggie’s fatal end is a result of multiple intersecting circumstances of fate conspiring to her and Tom’s death.  Eliot presents this death in peaceful terms, with brother and sister embraced in a final reconciliation.  “In death they were not divided (657).” We can choose to agree with this perspective, or we can look at the suffering of Maggie throughout the novel.  The poor girl, turned woman through the course of the novel, never finds her place in the world.  The apex of this life is a frustrating failed relationship with a fancy boy, Stephen, and the fallout created is the final insult to Maggie.  Her life was filled with a struggle against a forceful patriarchy that beat against her like the flood waters that finally freed her from her suffering.  A force of suffering to which she recognized would be a lifelong affliction.  “I will bear it, and bear it till death… (649)” This force requires Maggie to submit to powers that are greater than her will.  Her fate was to be born in a time and to a family that had certain expectations of her.  A set of expectations that were not like those whom her brother was able to enjoy.  These gifts, we find, were wasted on a man-child, undeserving of such. His development is stunted before we even reach the middle of the novel.  Maggie’s family, which stifled her development, remains a constant force that persistently draws her back, closer to a watery grave.


The final novel, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s tragic end is an almost sweet release from a life ripe with cruel suffering.  She grieves the most under the will of fate – “Tess was now carried along upon the wings of the hours, without the sense of a will (231).”  Her guilt and obligation further disconnect her from autonomy.  Self-denial leaves her unloved and penniless.  Tess’s life filled with suffering and grief caused by a willful violation perpetrated by a representative of fate.  The moment she takes agency, she damns herself to death.  The killing of Alec is met with swift “justice.”  A Justice which is only afforded to those in the good graces of fate.  Tess attempts to enact her own form of justice by murdering Alec.    Alec absolves himself of the sin, but the pain caused is not so easily washed away.


The sense of injustice grows with each novel.  The one thing that truly differentiates Tess of the d’Urbervilles from the other two novels is the sense of hopelessness.  In Frankenstein the characters are all so flawed that we are not blindsided by the tragic ending.  We expect that the people who behave in this way, or flawed creations are bound to end up on the wrong side of providence.  In Mill on the Floss, we feel for Maggie, but her potential was stunted by her parents from the point of her creation.  Her behavior is rash and reactive.  She has agency, but she chooses to rebel in a destructive manner. Her life is a tragedy which presents itself in a slow, protracted, struggle leading to a train wreck of an ending.  Tess of the d’Urbervilles presents a young woman with potential, even if it isn’t real or wouldn’t amount to much by some standards.  However, Tess truly exists in a hostile world.  All people and forces conspire against her and her womanly obligation only serves to rip away any last semblance of free will she may have had.  None of the authors give the reader a sense of hope in the end and there is no justice enjoyed.  Certainly not justice that isn’t the result of someone death.  Justice for Victor’s creation is the death of Elizabeth and Clerval.  Justice for Tess is Alec’s death.  Justice for Alec is Tess’s death.  It is hard to find hope in these works, but realism and naturalism doesn’t always want to give that to the reader.

Tess, Frankenstein, and Mill on the Floss: The Endings 

In modern storytelling, the ending is usually wrapped up in a pretty bow with loose ends being tied, generally leaving a satisfied and happy ending for the reader.  However, in Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Frankenstein, and Mill on the Floss, this is not necessarily the case.  All three authors included the tragic deaths of the main characters, with Tess being the only one who had just one protagonist die and not two of them, like Frankenstein and Mill on the Floss.  All the deaths throughout the three books (Tess, Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s creation, Maggie, and Tom) serve as the reason for the endings to contain themes of grief and injustice, as the main character usually lives to the end and has a happy ending, especially in modern works. 


In Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Tess is executed for stabbing Alec to death in the end of the novel.  This death can initially be viewed as a justified death, but because Tess is the main character of the book and subject of the title, the reader is inclined to observe her death as unjustified.  The author, Thomas Hardy, intentionally makes Tess the character that the reader focuses on to possibly affect this response to the ending specifically.  Her death, although technically justified because she murders Alec, can be seen as injustice because she is the protagonist, and this is essentially her story being told.  Tess herself is “almost glad – yes, glad” to die, which makes the reader feel sympathy for her because she thinks that dying would be an end to her suffering (580).  This might help pull the reader in the direction of Tess’s side of the story because it pulls on the emotion of sympathy from the reader.  This death in the end is the best ending in Tess’s mind, although it may not be the stereotypical happy ending for the protagonist.     


In Frankenstein, both Victor Frankenstein and the creature tragically die in the end, Victor succumbing to illness and the creature committing suicide after the death of Victor.  These untimely deaths serve as the loose ends being tied up in the novel, but this does not instantly mean that the ending is a happy one.  The gothic novel starts and ends with misery and dismal themes, with Victor feeling the “thirst of knowledge”, which resulted in him attempting to create life and then the dread that followed his success (Ch. 2).  This ending may have been created by Mary Shelley to correct the initial wrong done by Victor, creating an unnatural life, by forcing Victor to die a natural death and then killing off the creature to show the reader that it should not have been given life in the first place.  The reader might feel grief and sorrow for the two main characters because Victor is trying to correct the wrong that he made by creating the monster, and because the creature shows true love for his creator in the end by killing himself out of pain. 


Mill on the Floss, written by George Eliot, is similar to Frankenstein in regard to having two of the main characters dying tragic and untimely deaths in the end of the novel.  However, the reader feels the most sympathy for Maggie and Tom, as they die in a horrific flooding accident and were not executed for a crime, like Tess of the d’Ubervilles.  One reason for this ending would be that Maggie and Tom, who had been apart emotionally and physically, would be finally reunited by Maggie attempting to save Tom.  However, this reunion is cut short by the debris crashing into their small rowboat, effectively killing the two.  The reader, not expecting this ending, may be shocked by the deaths but could also take comfort in the possibility that Maggie and Tom “had gone down in an embrace never to be parted” (Ch. 5).  This is the only comfort that the reader can have regarding these deaths because the incident was so sudden and unjustified, and this theme of being together eternally shows that they at least were reunited in the end, both in life and in death.   


Tess of the d’Ubervilles is similar to these two novels, Frankenstein and Mill on the Floss, because all of the deaths were not fully expected by the reader and seemed to be very tragic events.  Tess’s death can be seen as unjustified to the reader because of the use of sympathy because of the rape, much like the deaths of Maggie and Tom pulling on the same emotion because they are finally reunited in order to convey the deaths as unfair.  While Frankenstein’s ending may have been more predictable than the others, all three novels did not explicitly hint at the turn of events at each ending, with both Victor and the creature dying, Tess being executed for the murder of her rapist, and Maggie and Tom being suddenly crushed by flood debris.  Tess is different in the sense that it is a more singular death in the end, even though Alec is killed somewhat close to the end.  The reader may not be inclined to include his death as a tragic one because of the rape and his overall character presentation in the novel.  Overall, the deaths in these three novels are similar in many ways, with a few exceptions.   


The Cross-Shaped Hole in A Christmas Carol

A Christmas time hardly ever rolls around that does not find me enjoying Charles Dickens’ delightful tale in some form or other, whether for private reading pleasure, in a read-aloud gathering, as an adaptation for stage or screen, or at the very least in many shared allusions and quotations scattered liberally over family festivities, like drops from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s torch. It is, of course, one of the best of books for inspiring holiday hospitality. It encourages readers not to look on the poor as strangers, but “to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys” (42). The story closes, memorably, with Scrooge’s overflowing acts of charity and generosity, as he provides food, warmth, and medical care to the poor from whom he was formerly estranged. He no longer desires to banish the unwanted, unknown masses of the poor into prisons and workhouses, for now he knows them as individual human beings. He knows them as friends.

And yet, in some ways A Christmas Carol is a strange book to incorporate into a Christian holiday celebration, because it does not “keep Christ in Christmas.” While it might make the poor appear as friends, it makes Jesus into a stranger. It banishes him to the corners of chapters, leaving Him to shiver in the margins of the pages like a refugee outside a border-wall, looking in. It seems odd that in a book whose quintessence is the birth of Christ, without which event the story could not in any sense exist, the name of Jesus is never evoked. Not once is His name mentioned. Nor is the title “Christ” used anywhere except in formations such as “Christmas.”[1] There are no sermons given. No one recounts the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus. There is no stable, no manger, no Mary or Joseph, no shepherds.[2] Indeed, the Jesus-shaped hole at the center of the story is called out by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round,” he exults, “—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time” (42). Those em-dashes contain the whole question I am asking: How can this book, framed and invested, as it were, with that sacred name and origin, fail to mention them? How can it leave Jesus out in the cold?

Not only is Jesus never mentioned and His salvation never laid out plainly in this novella, but it may even preach an anti-Christian gospel. Rather than faith in Christ, A Christmas Carol appears to credit good works with the ability to reconcile people to God. In begging the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to give him a chance to change the future, Scrooge cries out: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach” (117). When he awakes and finds that he has been granted that chance to repent, he repeats his resolution, then faces this new Christmas morning “glowing with his good intentions” (118). Rather than trusting Jesus’ atonement to save him, Scrooge immediately and busily sets about saving himself by the works of his hands. “He did it all, and infinitely more” (123). Not only does Dickens appear to make Christ a stranger to the reader; he seems to go further and banish Him as an outsider, replacing His sacrificial crucifixion with a rich man’s alms-giving actions.

Why, then, this cross-shaped hole throughout the book, filled up with human works rather than God’s grace? Why so many casual exclamations referring to God—such as “God save you!” “God bless it!” “Lord bless ye!” “Lord bless me!” “God forbid!” “God bless my soul!” “God love it” “Oh God!”, or “God knows”—throughout the text, but so few serious ones that might point readers to a God they may not know? Why do characters so often go to church, but there is no report of what they heard there? Why does the cold caroler at Scrooge’s door sing “God bless you, merry gentleman! /  May nothing you dismay!”, but Dickens stops before quoting the next lines: “Remember Christ our Savior / Was born on Christmas day”?

There are certainly cultural explanations available for this lacuna. Anglophone readers in 1843 would have been extremely familiar with the Biblical story of Christmas’s “sacred name and origin.” They would not need accounts of what church-goers would hear, because they were likely church-goers themselves. At the very least, England was still culturally a nominally Christian country in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the Bible occupying a central place in standard education. Dickens could not predict that his book would be popular years later with a biblically uninformed audience.

Furthermore, Dickens himself was not enamored of what we now like to call “organized” religion, and perhaps held some less-than-orthodox beliefs himself. In The Life of Our Lord, he rewrote the birth of Jesus heretically, making the angels say to the shepherds: “There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love him as his own son.” And while the doctrine of good works can perhaps be ascribed to denominational differences (historically, Anglican preaching has focused more on outward than inward signs of regeneration), Dickens himself went even further, arguing that “because [Jesus] did such Good, and taught people how to love God and how to hope to go to Heaven after death, he was called Our Saviour.” This is the heresy of adoptionism or dynamic monarchianism. Dickens concludes The Life of Our Lord with this unmistakable adjuration to his children: “Remember! – It is christianity [sic] TO DO GOOD always.” In short, Dickens’ stated version of Christianity posits a non-divine Jesus and a works-based soteriology.

With these concerns in mind, it almost seems as if it is erroneous to read A Christmas Carol as a Christian book. However, whether by design or in spite of himself, Dickens did include the saving shape of the cross in his story in the form of an important chiasmus. When Scrooge awakens after the three marvelous encounters with the spirits and cavorts joyfully around his room, “He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!” (119). This beautiful palindrome with its arrangement of words crossing in the middle creates a cross-shape out of the sounds of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, thus telling the whole Gospel story from Jesus’ birth through His death and resurrection down to the church as His body in that day. And of course, the most-quoted line in is Tiny Tim’s “God bless us every one!” (89), which the narrator echoes to conclude the book, expansively: “Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

In short, while there are still valuable questions to be asked about the orthodoxy or denominational nature of A Christmas Carol, it really answers my concern itself, in Fred’s wise words: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that.” With these words, Fred welcomes Jesus as friend, family, and savior who both gives and receives Christmas hospitality.

[1] There are several oblique—but important—references to Jesus without using His name. Tiny Tim told his father, coming home from church, “that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (87). The narrator comments upon adults playing games, claiming that “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself” (96). When Scrooge enters the house of the bereaved Cratchits in one of the Christmases of the future, he hears a Scripture quotation read aloud: “‘And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them’” (Mark 9:36, qtd. in 112).

[2]  There is one mention of the Magi, spoken by Marley’s Ghost: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!” (56), and one rather facetious reference to “Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds” depicted upon Scrooge’s fireplace-tiles (50).

Think about the children!

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational Lady Audley’s Secret features twists and turns, conniving plots, and multiple identities. Among the insanity, the reader may forget about the effect on a character outside of Lady Audley’s domestic sphere. This character, being the direct product of one of the most central of the dramatic storylines: Georgey. What is the ultimate role of Georgey in the novel? Perhaps Braddon intended for him to provide sympathy and show a different family dynamic and its effect on the young boy.

Georgey, as a relatively minor character, garners much sympathy from readers and characters alike as he plays the innocent bystander and byproduct of his parents’ troubled relationship. George leaves his wife and their weeks old infant, and in turn, she leaves as well. This abandonment illustrates the complete lack of power that Georgey holds over his life trajectory, which serves to indicate the extent of Braddon’s sympathy rhetoric. His grandfather supports Georgey, but he grows up without much structure and in poverty with his alcoholic family member. Georgey does elicit much sympathy for himself, but ultimately, he may serve to also elicit both sympathy and resentment from Lady Audley and George. While both parents have wronged their son deeply, could Braddon also be using Georgey as a plot device that not only creates sympathy, but also enhances it? For example, the first conversation between Georgey and his father begins with George’s outcry to him,“‘I am your father, come across the sea to find you…will you love me?’” (Braddon 83) which is sad enough on its own, but then amplified by Georgey’s response. Uncertain, he “pushed him away” and said “‘I don’t know you’” (Braddon 83).The heartwarming tenderness of a father and son reuniting is as absent as George during Georgey’s early childhood. Georgey’s purpose in the novel may be to strengthen the readers’ emotional response to George and to Lady Audley.

Although initially the parents have wronged him, Braddon complicates the narrative with empathetic background motivations. George left his family, but only in an effort to support them. Lady Audley, then Helen, took drastic measures only because her choices as a single mother at this time were very limited. She returns to him in secret, and her son knows her only as “the pretty lady” about whom “Granpa told [him] not to tell anybody” (Braddon 191). He goes on to describe how she visited him when he was little, “came up into [his] room, and sat upon the bed, and cried—and she left the watch under [his] pillow” (Braddon 191). Through the relationships in the novel, Braddon allows Georgey to work as a central force of sympathy, as he increases the often bittersweet, sympathetic aspects to other characters. He does so namely for his parents, but also for his grandfather and Robert.

Georgey’s connections to the other characters are subverted from typical Victorian standards of the family unit. The inclusion of a child complicates the Talboys couple’s relationship and dynamic. Once uncared for by his parents, he is given to his grandfather. Now, Georgey’s upbringing was not ideal but was also not abusive, for he was “happy enough with his drunken old grandfather, who had always displayed a maudlin affection for the pretty child, and had done his best to spoil Georgey, by letting him have his own way in everything” (Braddon 201). Further still, he is then given to Robert, who enrolls him in boarding school. Georgey got quite unlucky and quite lucky with his family connections, as his family members both abandon and support him.

Ultimately, Braddon uses the character of Georgey to create higher stakes and more drama for his surrounding family. We are supposed to feel sympathy for him specifically, but it also seems to be intended that we mainly view Georgey as he stands in relation to the other characters. For this reason, Georgey remains a minor character, with long-reaching effects on how the readers view the surrounding George, Lady Audley, Robert, and Maldon. Fortunately, he does receive a happy ending and truly reconnects with his father George, as well as Robert and Clara. This is pleasurable, to see such a sympathetic character with continuously low power eventually reach contentment at the novel’s end. This ending is even more satisfying considering the heavy work of sympathy that Braddon used on him – and through him.

Anvilicious Narm in Mary Barton?

With dramatic phrases and pauses, with rhetorical flourishes and sensational descriptions, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton veers dangerously close to that scorned genre, melodrama. Chapter twenty-eight, in particular (the chase after HMS John Cropper), is a fast-paced, emotional, adventuresome, high-stakes, life-and-death escapade full of tears and breathlessness. Similarly, the courtroom chapters stage scenes of sentimental theatricality climaxing in a last-minute entrance and a fainting woman. The novel wraps up with a deathbed confession and reconciliation, a long-delayed marriage for love, and the curing of blindness. These are sensational events indeed.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, melodrama is a work of literature that excites its audience “by exaggeration and sensationalism,” or, “More generally: any sensational incident, series of events, story, etc.; sensationalist or emotionally exaggerated behaviour or language; lurid excitement” (OED). With the exception of “lurid” excitement, these descriptions fit Mary Barton, particularly the chase scene. Chapter twenty-eight, “John Cropper, Ahoy!” is full of sensational diction. There is even a gothic tone to Mary’s fear when “a kind of nightmare dread and belief came over her, that every thing animate and inanimate was in league against her one sole aim and object of overtaking Will…. she sat silent with clenched hands…. But she was sickening all the time with nervous fear” (370). Here is the damsel in distress, motionless in a boat, at the mercy of men and nature. Yet the girl’s suffering is in the context of a high-speed inverted escape trope nearly as pulse-pounding as a “Follow that car!” chase scene in a modern heist movie. The little river-boat struggles to catch up with the ship, and “as they looked with straining eyes, … they saw her sails unfurled and flap in the breeze, till, catching the right point, they bellied forth into white roundness, and the ship began to plunge and heave, as if she were a living creature, impatient to be off” (371). Dramatic sensationalism is located in the elements, as the wind picks up, and in the vessels, as boat and ship compete against each other and against time, tide, and tempest. Such an unconventional vehicle chase is certainly an example of a sensational incident heightened by exaggeration.

Furthermore, not only the situation, but also Mary’s emotional actions during this hot pursuit are dramatized and sensationalized. Not content any longer to sit still and await the men’s initiative, “Mary stood up, steadying herself by the mast, and stretched out her arms, imploring the flying vessel to stay its course by that mute action, while the tears streamed down her cheeks” (371). Those outstretched arms, those tears streaming down cheeks, are the classic stuff of melodrama, as is the diction of what happens to Mary next. The captain shouts down to see what she wants, but “Her throat was dry; all musical sound had gone out of her voice; but in a loud harsh whisper she told the men her errand of life and death, and they hailed the ship” (372). The adjectives here are themselves melodramatic—dry, musical, loud, harsh—especially ‘musical,’ which hearkens back to the origins and etymology of melodrama as musical theatre. The captain’s harsh rebuff and Mary’s traumatized, religiously-tinged response also heighten the tension and enlarge the scale of ordinary interactions:

He swore a dreadful oath; he called Mary a disgraceful name; and he said he would not stop his ship for any one, nor could he part with a single hand, whoever swung for it. The words came in unpitying clearness with their trumpet-sound. Mary sat down, looking like one who prays in the death-agony. For her eyes were turned up to that Heaven, where mercy dwelleth, while her blue lips quivered, though no sound came. Then she bowed her head and hid it in her hands. (372)

This purple passage seems dangerously close to ham-handed bathos, and indeed “melodrama” is typically used as a term of insult, suggesting ineptitude on the part of the author or poor taste on the part of the reader. However, Mary Barton’s reception is not that of a dime-story bodice-ripper or cheap true-crime thriller. It is treated by academics as a serious work of literature and enjoyed by thoughtful readers as a lively but sophisticated novel. However, then, does it escape from being melodrama?

One possible feature that raises this novel above heavy-handed sentimentalism is Mary’s active, heroic role. She is not the standard, passive, damsel-in-distress of Gothic horror, macho Westerns, or lurid warning tales like The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall with its defenseless maidens and their infamous virgin bosoms “that rose heaving above the border of lace” (Lippard 73). Instead, Mary Barton is a proactive, sensible protagonist who makes plans and executes them in order to save her helpless lover and help her guilty father. I recently heard a very persuasive paper by my colleague Nichole Bouchard arguing that Mary Barton is a remarkable example of a nineteenth-century heroine who overcomes hysteria, manages the bodily symptoms of anxiety, and retains her wits under great strain (in the courtroom scene), and that Gaskell made this character choice at a time when most other writers were showing their female characters as victims of these very ailments. Perhaps such fortitude is what raises Mary Barton above melodrama.

There are other possibilities, of course. Perhaps Gaskell does not shy away from melodrama in this book, but rather shows that the genre has been unfairly maligned. Or, more subtly, she may use Mary Barton to reveal hypocrisy in the hearts of many academics, who claim to have exalted literary tastes, but who really like a cheap, page-turning, romantic beach novel as much as anybody else. Such a strategic move would be in keeping with Gaskell’s social agenda throughout the book, as she strives to arouse in middle-class readers sympathy with and understanding for their economically underprivileged neighbors. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Gaskell cleverly drawing her snobby, bourgeois audience into enjoyment of a much maligned, supposedly low-class genre.


Many thanks to that inestimable site of wisdom, TV Tropes, which I consulted freely while writing this post.

The Nuances of Maggie and Tom’s Relationship

The relationship between Maggie and Tom, arguably our two most vital characters, provides an interesting – if odd – dynamic. They are siblings and often act as such, but The Mill on the Floss seems ultimately centered on the proximity of their relationship. This usually depends on Tom’s everchanging view of his sister, as Maggie seems to always hold an extreme love for him. Maggie’s loving and sensitive nature pervades the novel, but only Tom is first in her heart. The novel opens with the relationship between the two while young, setting a tone for the pairing. Maggie begs for his love, crying and declaring “I…lo-lo-love you so, Tom” (Eliot 79). He is often manipulative with the power he holds over her, declaring “I don’t love you,” which upsets her. Eliot shows the reader how deeply Maggie wishes to please her brother and receive love from him. The love between them is fraternal, although several points in the novel may cause the reader to question their closeness. I do not believe that Eliot was intentionally making claims or insights to incest – however, I do see some parallels between Maggie’s relationship with Tom and a romantic but non-sexual connection.

Eliot’s narrative relies on Maggie induce sympathy and better illustrate the traditional characteristics between a non-related couple that the relationship shares. The narration, while third-person, focuses on Maggie in these sections so as to bring the reader closer to her and view the relationship through her. Her intention here is to characterize Maggie in relation to Tom, which makes the reader sympathetic to the protagonist’s simple and childlike desire to be loved by her brother. Because we often see Maggie rejected, Eliot further illustrates her thematic use of rhetoric to induce sympathy in the reader. Maggie does not always face rejection, however. Her heavy inclusion into the narrative of the novel provides detailed description of her other relationships with young men. She has two suitors, Philip Wakem and Stephen Guest. Despite her other relationships, however, Maggie continuously demonstrates how deeply she cares for Tom above all others. “‘I love Tom so dearly…better than anybody else in the world. When he grows up, I shall keep his house, and we shall always live together’” (Eliot 26). Since childhood, Maggie has not been able to imagine a future without Tom, and therefore wishes to forever live under him and his roof. Tom, however, never has any romantic conquests. He imagines the same life for them, and personally “meant always to take care of her make her his housekeeper, and punish her when she did wrong” (Eliot 83). Here in lies Tom’s motivation of a traditional and patriarchal seat of power. Unlike Maggie, driven by love, Tom focuses more so on himself. Eliot describes this through traditional roles and active diction. He resigns Maggie’s future under him, and demonstrates his ultimate need for power through active verbs like “take,” “make,” and “punish” (Eliot 83). Although they arrived at this symbiosis in different ways, they both desire and consent to a relationship that they hold above all others. Eliot concludes the novel through the dynamism of Maggie and Tom’s relationship.

The ending of the novel reinforces the idea that Maggie and Tom have a relationship that transcends all others. Eliot solidifies the bond between them through their intimate sharing of death. She describes that “brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted— living through again in one supreme moment, the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together” (Eliot 467) This eternal embrace mimics that of the eternal physicality and spirituality in marriage. God ordains these connections through marriage ceremony, but also through the fact that Maggie and Tom walk together in the afterlife. The culmination of the novel acts to illustrate that through the entire narrative, Tom and Maggie are meant to be together, and will forever remain as such.

Wherefore the Sybil?

If a reader, frantically eager to begin reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, were to inadvertently skip her prologue she would not intuit that she had missed anything. Admittedly, the same could very nearly be said for a number of other, not unsizable, portions of the novel throughout, but it is particularly true of the prologue, which feels awkwardly fitted to the succeeding story. In the prologue, Shelley, or a fictional persona she adopts, claims that she stumbled upon the scattered Sybil’s leaves while flagrantly flouting the directions of her Italian tour guides, and it is through the fruits of this transgressive spelunking that the author manages to piece together and then relate the tale of humanity’s end which makes up the novel proper.

The result of this peculiar framing device is a rather complex layering of narration in the novel. Lionel Verney is the narrator of the novel proper and the titular “last man,” but he is writing this account well after the time at which the author finds (apparently) a transcription of Verney’s future book recorded centuries earlier by the mythic Sibyl. Certainly an odd turn of affairs! Verney’s narration is told through the Sibyl’s leaves as translated by the author, and the author makes it clear that she performed a significant work of interpretation in piecing together the leaves, claiming, “Certainly the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion…in my hands” (7). Presumably all of this business is meant to somehow shape the reader’s experience of and engagement with the novel, but answering exactly how it is supposed to shape that experience is not easy. The prologue might seem insignificant or even distracting upon first glance (and possibly still after further inspection), but considering the influence of the multi-layered narration does suggest some possible ways that Shelley might have hoped to alter the reception of the text by the reader.

One effect of the author-Sybil-Verney narration could be to render Verney’s account ambiguous enough to make the novel a warning of potential danger rather than a statement about a certain future. Frequently, futuristic and dystopian novels seek to depict a terrible outcome in the future in order to warn about errors in the present. As a forerunner of the dystopian novel genre, Shelley would not have been drawing on this generic tradition as such, but she might nonetheless have tapped into a similar impulse. Perhaps she hoped to write about a catastrophic future for humanity without removing all hope of changing that future, so that her audience might feel compelled to act in order to change the outcome of humanity.

However, this reading is complicated by the fact that the novel does not seem to be primarily, or even very significantly, focused on highlighting humanity’s errors and warning about their destructive tendencies. To be sure, Verney has his fair share of critiques leveled at human foibles and follies, and Shelley does use the collapse of civilization to point out the absurdity of class distinctions and other such distinctions (although the protagonists remain rather distinctly aristocratic in their own perception). But it is never suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that human error is the catalyst of the catastrophe. To the contrary, the origins of the plague are entirely unknown and human conduct, good, bad, or somewhere in between, is all equally incapable of speeding or slowing the spread of the disease. Those who band together in the face of disease, die. Those who selfishly take advantage of the disease, die. Human action is not highlighted as an agent initiating or exacerbating the apocalypse; instead the novel emphasizes humanity’s lack of agency in relation to the plague. The point is not that humanity could have prevented the plague; the point is that they could not have done so.

Thus, rendering the account of the future ambiguous might play a part in Shelley’s motivation, but it does not seem to be a major part. So why else might Shelley employ this complex, rather unintuitive, narrative structure?

Well, perhaps she was simply trying to find a way to write about potentially “unbelievable” events in a future world. In the mid-nineteenth century, the novel was still a relatively young genre, and many novelists had chosen to somehow couch their story in the guise of a true account in some way. Shelley employs such a technique but is hampered by the fact that she cannot very plausibly present the text to her readers as an authentic recording of true events if those events take place in the future. And who better to relate the future than the Sibyl? There is no point dealing with second-rate future-gazers when you can just send your author straight into the Sibyl’s cave. This practical strategy for evoking a sort of “truthiness” might well explain Shelley’s layered narration in part.

However, we ought also to consider the inverse of the first possible answer we pondered. We have asked whether Shelley might have wanted to make Verney’s account questionable by the ways in which she drew it from the future to the present, but she might also have wanted to obscure her novel’s biographical elements by pushing present and recent past into a far-off future. Clearly, Shelley is not laboring to conceal the parallels between Lord Raymond and Lord Byron or between Adrian and the similarly sailing-accident-prone Perce Shelley. However, she is also not writing a straight biography or some kind of biographical allegory. She could have expressed her complex feelings about Byron and her somewhat perplexing feelings for Shelley by writing about them as themselves, but such writing is, in some ways, uncomfortably confined by facticity. To simultaneously write about and not write about the passing of the Late Romantics, who made up so significant a part of her life, she may have had to create enough distance between her fictional subjects and factual friends so that her readers would not draw too direct a correlation between them. Lord Raymond resembles Byron in many ways, but he is not Byron. As such, he can be better than Byron, while still modeling his faults and his fall. And the divorce between the angelic Adrian and the errant Perce seems much greater. Perhaps, by placing these departed figures in the future, Shelley was able to not only reflect on what they were but also imagine what they might have been. In some ways, dark though her plague-wracked future is, it at least allows her drowned Perce a chance to shine in a new light.

Shelley’s novel is many things. It’s a bit of biography. A bit of tragic romance. A bit of social critique. And a lot of apocalypse. And perhaps that variety is, in the end, what her framing device enables her to accomplish. The novel feels a bit oddly patched together at times, but then she frames it as something almost literally patched together from leaves and scraps of leaves gathered off the floor of an Italian cave. Her layered narration secures her freedom, and, while there is probably much more we could say about what Shelley might be doing with that freedom, we could at least perhaps conclude that that freedom is likely, to some extent, an end in itself.

Pulling Up a Sibyl by Her Own Bootstraps: Narrative Contradictions in “The Last Man”

by Sørina Higgins

The Last Man is constructed as a tri-partite narrative whose fictions are mutually contradictory, lacking closure, inhospitable to the reader, and difficult to interpret. The three putative narrators are “Mary Shelley,”[1] the Cumaean Sibyl, and Lionel Verney. “Shelley” begins by claiming: “I visited Naples in the year 1818.”[2] She describes her explorations of a cave complex in Baiæ Bay that turns out to be the ancient haunts of the Sibyl. Here, “Shelley” collects leaves “traced with written characters” (3).[3] She spends time “deciphering these sacred remains,” editing, translating, organizing, adding material, and shaping the fragments into a narrative (3). Indeed, she admits: “Sometimes I have thought … they owe their present form to me, their decipherer” (4). Shelley thus uses this first frame to plant suspicion in the reader’s mind about the accuracy of the story displayed within: not a welcoming move.

The second narrator is nearly subsumed into the first: the Cumaean Sibyl is not allowed to speak for herself, but only as channeled through “Shelley” (who is, of course, channeled through Shelley). Within the frame, the reader is meant to believe that the main components of the story originated in Sibylline oracular writings—i.e., that they are divinely inspired and inescapably true. This origin story renders the embedded tale of humankind’s devastation by the plague as a warning. Many predictions of disaster include a comforting caveat; after Jonah’s declamation to Nineveh—“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4)—repentance led to God’s “relenting” and holding back “the destruction he had threatened” (3:10). The readers of The Last Man, however, have no such option. No repentance is called for. No method of avoiding destruction is offered. Their only hope, oddly, is to disbelieve the story and put its inaccuracy down to the distortions introduced by “Shelley” during her process of “adaptation and translation” (4). This is a strange way to frame a novel: By encouraging readers to disbelieve it. Clayton Carlyle Tarr writes that frame narratives “frequently disturb narrative cohesiveness,” and that is certainly the case here.[4] From the very opening of The Last Man, the reader is encouraged to trust its veracity as a divinely-inspired prophecy of the future and simultaneously to suspect its accuracy due to its dubious reconstruction.

The third narrator is Lionel Verney, the main character, and his account contradicts the other two. Those may be harmonized with each other (the Sibyl could have written the leaves and “Shelley” could have transcribed them), but if his account is true, theirs must be ignored and erased to make space for his supposed authorship. When he is the last person alive on earth (as far as he knows), he decides to write a book dedicated “to the illustrious dead,” speculating that “the children of a saved pair of lovers” somewhere will re-populate the globe and read his book (339). In it, he narrates his life from solitude through young love, domestic life, and political action to solitude again. His writing of the book introduces a strange loop somewhat similar to the variously-named bootstrap paradox that bedevils time travelers. If the Sibyl wrote the leaves and “Shelley” edited them, then Lionel did not write the book; but then the prophecy is false, because the prophecy includes and is in some way predicated upon the book’s being written. If Lionel did/will write the book, then the Sibyl did not write it, and it is not a divine prophecy.

The Last Man’s frames, then, contradict one another; the first two are historical, the last is prophetic. One scholar asks: “Do prophecy and history contend as narrative modes?”[5] They certainly do in Shelley’s novel. This book “complicates conceptions of history and authenticity, and, because the opening frame never returns, Shelley leaves us with a perplexing understanding of what we have read and how we have read it.”[6] Have we read a prophecy of our own future? Or a fictional account of future we need not fear? The most crucial question raised by these debating narrative personae may be: Why did Shelley write a book whose conflicting frames alienate a reader via skepticism?

Scholars have wrestled with the destabilizing implications of The Last Man’s narrative frames. They may be merely a pragmatic writing technique, allowing the past-tense narration of events in the future.[7] But more is going on. Morag Veronica McGreevey thinks that “the novel’s annihilating conclusion denies the possibility of an audience,” which then forced Shelley to create the Sibylline frame as an excuse for the book’s creation in the past so that it may have an audience in the present (before the plague-ridden apocalypse).[8] But this ignores Lionel’s hope that survivors might still exist to be fruitful and multiply. Emily Steinlight takes the opposite approach, arguing “The Last Man does not foretell a destiny, much less an end of history,” because it assumes a present audience.[9] This ignores the story’s claim that it was written (by the Sibyl) in ancient times and edited by “Shelley” in 1818 and thus could easily be read in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.

Many scholars read the open-ended narrative frame, with its account of questionable editing practices, as a destabilization of faith in authors, editors, or publishers.[10] The most dramatic of these is Tarr, who argues the lack of closure is “an enduring horror.”[11] This reading sees the conflicting frames as Shelley’s intentional device, either to protest her mistreatment by the literary industry of her day or to question her role as Percy’s literary executor.

There is a way to reconcile the varying frames, but it is inhospitable to narrators and reader alike. It requires believing (contrary to her report) that “Shelley” copied the Sibyl’s prophecy exactly—that’s what we are reading—and the prophecy will be fulfilled in our future, when Lionel Verney will write, word-perfectly, the book predicted by the Sibyl, constructed by “Shelley,” and written by Shelley. It could all be true, and we are awaiting our doom. It’s coming soon, in 2100.


[1] I use the quotation marks to distinguish this character from Mary Shelley and to acknowledge the many scholars who read this narrator as an ungendered fictional figure.

[2] This is, in fact, true of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

[3] I am using this edition: Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. New Introduction by Brian Aldiss. London: The Hograth Press, 1985.

[4] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. “The Force of a Frame: Narrative Boundaries and the Gothic Novel.” University of Georgia Dissertation, 2013. Abstract.

[5] ENG 274 notes: “Mary Shelley in Context.” web.stanford.edu/class/english274a/originals/lastman.doc.

[6] Tarr 36

[7] Franci, Giovanna. “A Mirror of the Future: Vision and Apocalypse in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985) p. 186., qtd. in Albright, Richard S. “‘In the mean time, what did Perdita?’: Rhythms and Reversals in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Romanticism on the Net. Issue13, February, 1999.

[8] McGreevey, Morag Veronica. “Reading Apocalypse: Ruptured Temporality and the Colonial Landscape in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.” B.A. Hons, The University of British Columbia, 2013. 1.

[9] Steinlight, Emily. Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life. Cornell University Press, 2018. 72.

[10] Zolciak, Olivia. “Mary Shelley’s The Last Man: A Critical Analysis of Anxiety and Authorship.” Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2017. 50-51. Webb, Samantha. “Reading the End of the World: The Last Man, History, and the Agency of Romantic Authorship.” Mary Shelley in Her Times. Ed. Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. Webb, Samantha Christine. Literary Mediators: Figures of Authority and Authorship in English Romantic Prose. Temple University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1999. 129. Tarr 36, 138.

[11] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. Gothic Stories Within Stories: Frame Narratives and Realism in the Genre, 1790–1900. McFarland, 2017.

Victor Frankenstein and Responsibility

Victor Frankenstein, who is obsessed with biology and life itself, is the sole person who is responsible for the creature that he created.  When Victor finally completes his goal of creating life, he does not celebrate.  Rather, he “rushed out of the room” when he realized the monstrosity that he had put into the world (84).  He is plagued with disturbing nightmares that night and has one more encounter with his creation before running away once more.  He immediately refuses his responsibility as creator of the creature because he cannot mentally cope with the thought of what he had done.  However, he is still seen as the creator in the novel and therefore should have the sole responsibility of the creature and its actions. 

Victor is right in thinking that he should take the blame for the deaths of William and Justine.  After he realizes that it was his own creation that could have possibly murdered William, and will indirectly kill Justine, he states that, “the tortures of the accused did not equal [his]; she was sustained by innocence, but the fangs of remorse tore [his] bosom” (106).  He, at the very least, assumes part of the blame in this statement because he realizes that he has indirectly caused this tragedy by attempting to create life.  While he is reveling in the fact that Justine will die because of his mistakes, he fails to do anything to save her.  This shows the reader that not only does Victor realize his guilt, but he refuses to tell the truth in order to save Justine because he is too selfish.  He ran away from this situation, quite like he ran away from his creation on its first night of life.  However, just because Victor does not immediately take on the responsibility, does not mean that the creature is not still his sole responsibility, much like a father is to his child.   

Mary Shelley criticizes the false security that is given to Justine and the Frankenstein family during the trial by letting everyone assume that because Justine was “guiltless of this murder”, that she will not be tried guilty and executed (102).  Victor and his father discuss how Justine will be freed simply because she must be innocent, which Shelley proves to be incorrect later in the story.  Victor seems to be calmed by his father’s statement that Justine will be okay because he did not realize at this point that his own creation had committed the murder.  Once he realizes this, he is filled with obvious guilt because he states that she is his “unhappy victim” that he has condemned (106).  The reader can readily assume that Victor not only has, but should have the full responsibility of his creation, even though he may not want that responsibility.  

The Monster as a Means to an End

Victor Frankenstein’s monster is the manifestation of his morbid fascination with death. When his mother dies, he emphasizes his difficulty realizing that “she, whom we saw every day, and whose very existence appeared a part of our own, can have departed for ever” (72). He shows a sense of communal identity through his pronoun usage despite the isolation he displays throughout the novel. He sees his mother as a part of himself, so when she dies, he loses his sense of self. The form of the sentence itself is drawn out, much like Victor’s grieving process, which covers several pages throughout the novel. In contrast, the reader learns about the mother’s death in one paragraph. The focus of the text is therefore his relationship to death rather than death as an event. One of Victor’s key flaws is his inability to death, which the monster forces him to confront.

At the culmination of his grieving process, Victor creates a living being out of dead bodies. When he sees his creation, he falls deathly ill. Clerval comes to visit Victor, who explains, “I was lifeless, and did not recover my senses for a long, long time. This was the commencement of a nervous fever, which confined me for several months” (87). After disrupting the boundary between life and death, he becomes “lifeless” just like the bodies he turned into a living being. He is “confined,” both to his illness and to his fear of death. He loses his “senses,” which the novel argues are key features of the human life. The “nervous fever” he experiences occurs throughout the novel as he blurs life and death through the monster.

As a result of Victor’s relationship to the monster, he believes death is a form of escape from the horrors of life, but he cannot submit to it until he avenges his lost loved ones. When he passes this burden to Walton, he sees death as a source of peace. Before he dies, he says, “That [the monster] should live to be an instrument of mischief disturbs me; in other respects this hour, when I momentarily expect my release, is the only happy one which I have enjoyed for several years” (216). Victor recognizes he has a responsibility to destroy his creation, but he realizes he can no longer cling to revenge as a source of life. The word “release” encapsulates his ultimate view of death. His death, rather than his wedding, is the one happy moment he experiences after he gives life to the monster. In the end, he joins his dead loves one and finds peace. While the monster pushes Victor toward death, he also allows Victor to accept death as a necessary part of life.


The Sublime and Victor: A “Relatable” Connection

The idea of the sublime is something that is new to me and I really connect with it. There has always been something about literature with a sublime setting that has fascinated me, and learning about it through Frankenstein has made me realize where that fascination comes from. I have always felt a connection with nature and have felt almost as if being immersed in nature “elevates” me in a way, just like the sublime settings do for Victor.


A couple quotes about the sublime stood out to me:


“Immense glaciers approached the road; we heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche, and marked the smoke of its passage. Mont Blanc, the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raised itself from the surrounding aiguilles, and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley” (Shelley 115).


“I remembered the effect that the view of the tremendous and ever-moving glacier had produced upon my mind when I first saw it. It had then filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy. The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always had the effect of solemnizing my mind, and causing me to forget the passing cares of life” (Shelley 116).


I see both of these block quotes as perfect examples of the sublime in Frankenstein. The

first quote does a great job of describing a sublime setting. Words such as immense, supreme, magnificent, and tremendous all give the reader a feeling of being a part of something bigger and more powerful. I find it very interesting that this thought of Victor’s about the landscape he is in can make such a big impact on me as a reader. A lot of times, setting doesn’t stand out to me very much, but that is not the case here. I think Shelley definitely put a lot of effort into making Victor’s impression of the setting very clear and detailed so we as readers could feel what Victor was feeling in the moment.

While the first block quote is mainly a description of the sublime setting, the second one is Victor describing how this setting has made him feel. These larger-than-life scenes of nature seem to make Victor feel small and powerful at the same time. I find it really interesting how he pairs “the awful and the majestic” together here. I think these two words perfectly encompass what a sublime setting is and how it should make someone feel. I find Victor’s expression of emotion in this scene powerful and moving. It shows that nature has more power than a lot of readers of Frankenstein realize. In this novel, I see the sublime settings and the extended descriptions of them as a tool used by Shelley to increase the character development in Victor. The times I have felt most connected to Victor’s mind while reading this book are when he is in awe of these settings.


Sins of the Father


Shelley’s Frankenstein and her attempts to avoid the “amiableness of domestic affection,” portray, for the reader, many instances of domestic failure.  Shelley suffered the devastating loss of her mother, estrangement from her father and entered a marriage under questionable circumstances, all before she entered true adulthood.  Knowing this and gleaning bits of information from the footnotes, we can’t help but believe that this greatly influenced her work.  Shelley’s relationship with her mother would have been formed through her writings.  Unable or unwilling to speak with her father, she would again be forced to understand her father’s thinking by reading his written word.

Frankenstein presents the reader with a handbook of exactly what not to do as a parent.  From chapter one, Victor’s description of his “domestic circle” hints at a mother and father unwilling to allow their child to suffer any uncomfortable circumstance.  For Victor and his family, “care and pain seemed for ever banished.”  Even though Victor’s father attempted to discourage the study of alchemy by suggesting that Victor “not waste his time upon” this “sad trash,” he fails to recognize that this only sparked a deeper interest for his child.  Victor easily hid this continued study from his father and regretfully remarks that if his father simply explained that these were disproven theories, perhaps the arcane would have not taken residency in his psyche. The father’s inability or unwillingness to guide his child onto the safe path resulted in a perversion of knowledge.

Victor’s lifelong pursuit to create his creature filled him with purpose and drove a series of feverish attempts to fulfill his dream.  There is never mention of why he has chosen to do this other than for self-serving reasons.  The creation is about him and never about the spark of life that he, as a modern-day Prometheus, steals from the gods. Once the fruits of his labor are realized, he immediately becomes the prototypical absent father.  The ultimate sin of the father is irresponsibility and selfishness.  Victor’s creation yearns for companionship but is denied from the moment of creation.  The creature’s construction is not the genesis of his evil, it is Victor’s failure to fulfill his duty as a father.

Victor only dabbles in acknowledgement of his fatal flaw.  It isn’t until he is near-death that he finally acknowledges that he is ultimately responsible for all the death that resulted in his creation.

On the topic of responsibility and culpability

The topic of responsibility can be a difficult one to explore, because “responsibility” may heavily affect the view of one’s culpability for his or her actions – despite responsibility, one may be condemned or condoned. How deeply, therefore, must we take into account context and history when determining a sense of “blame” for these characters? Does an abusive childhood at all excuse, or at least contextualize, a serial killer’s actions? Does it lessen the blow of the gavel, and by extension, the punishment? If so – just how harshly should a reader judge the monster and his violent actions, and Victor Frankenstein for creating him?

Looking at their relationship in a family perspective, Victor holds as much responsibility for his creation as a parent does his child. This creature is a blank slate, confused and ignorant just as a newborn, and Victor plays the stereotypic role of absent father immediately by running away, “unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] created, [rushing] out of the room” (84). This instantaneous rejection is certainly not lost on the creature, who will be experiencing this rejection for the rest of his life. It is, after all, what spurns the creature into exacting revenge upon Victor. In this way, Victor is directly responsible for the creation of the monster – of course – as well as the monster’s desire for violence towards the Frankenstein family and friends. Responsibility for this creature, however, is not culpability for this creature’s actions. Frankenstein’s monster has the gift of free will, which means that ultimately, his actions are his own and therefore he himself is responsible for them. This son’s sins cannot be solely blamed on the father! Those in connection to Victor, after all, are not the only ones who receive the monster’s wrath.

When searching for responsibility, is the victim ever at fault? One may argue that the De Lacey family is responsible for the creature’s pyrophilic actions due to their reactions towards the monster. The women flee at the sight of him, while Felix “tore [the monster] from his father…[and] in a transport of fury, he dashed [the monster] to the ground, and struck [him] violently with a stick” (148). As the reader, we know that the creature’s intentions are pure and the humans misunderstand him, but how much does this context excuse their frightened and violent reactions, or the creature’s scorned one? The monster, when he “reflected that they had spurned and deserted [him], anger returned, a rage of anger…and [he] turned [his] fury toward inanimate objects” (151). Now, these occurrences can be laid out in a clear cause-and-effect manner. The humans cause the monster to be angry, and the effect is the monster burns down their cottage. How much “blame” can be put on those who caused the effect? While it is understandable that the effect occurred because of the cause, the family does not have responsibility for the monster’s actions. Causation, in this way, does not invoke responsibility. Instead, the creature must take full responsibility for the fire, although he is not responsible for the poor way he was treated. That responsibility, at least, goes to the De Lacey family.

A similar thought process can be applied to the murder of Victor’s brother William. In the end, William is not responsible for his own death in any legal or moral way, despite the fact that his death occurs because he accidentally causes it. The monster is at first only wanting to connect with the boy, thinking him unprejudiced. He is proven wrong when William shouts at him “‘monster! ugly wretch! you wish to eat me, and tear me to pieces…” (154). At these remarks, the creature is not violent, although perhaps irritated. It is only at the familial reveal that he turns to violence. During his taunts, William yells at the “‘hideous monster!” that his “papa is a Syndic – he is M. Frankenstein – he would punish you’” (154). Because it is William’s tie to Victor that he is murdered, Victor himself is somewhat responsible for his death. Of course, in the end, actions must not be severed from its actor – the only one truly responsible for killing William is the killer himself. No matter one’s lot in life, and to whom blame is thrown, responsibility for your actions always points directly back at you.

Storytelling in Frankenstein

Frankenstein involves many instances of storytelling and reading, most of which instigate a chain reaction of misfortunes within the story. One of the most obvious examples of reading influencing actions is Victor’s initial obsession with the works of Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus, which eventually leads to the creation of the monster. The monster’s reading of the literature he discovers gives him identity. He identifies with the protagonist of Sorrows of Werter and with Satan in Paradise Lost, saying “many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter fall of envy rose within me” (Vol 2, ch 7, p.144). This strengthens his sense of being an outcast, which eventually leads to his anger against humankind. The monster engages in storytelling as well, when he begs Victor to show pity for his state of isolation and create him a mate. Although Victor initially complies, his misgivings about the morality of the mate later stop him from going through with the creation—an incident which leads to the death of Victor’s wife.  Many of the terrible things that happen throughout the book result from poor reaction to stories.

There are two instances where the action as a result of a story is unclear.  The bulk of the narrative is Victor’s story to Walton, which builds up to Walton’s eventual confrontation of the monster and the ambiguity of what action Walton would take after hearing the tale. It is clear though that Frankenstein attempted to dissuade Walton from attempting another creation, “would you also create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy?…Peace, peace! Learn my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own” (Vol 3 ch 7, p. 209).  The novel is bookended by Walton’s letters to his sister. While we as the readers obviously do not know what Margaret’s actions will be, we do choose how we will respond to the story, outside the narrative.

Each instance of reading or storytelling provokes or is meant to provoke a specific reaction. The ancient philosophers provoke curiosity ambition in Victor, much like his story to Walton and the monster’s story provoke curiosity. Paradise Lost and Sorrows of Werter provide the monster with insight and identity. Nearly all of the stories provoke some feeling of compassion or identification. However, many of them also drive the characters to make choices they regret, like the creation of the monster, his mate, or the death of Frankenstein.

Walton is not necessarily driven to make choices he later regrets, though it is interesting that his response to Victor—that is, compassion and sympathy—are what the monster hoped to gain from Victor. Walton says of Victor, “I have longed for a friend; I have sought one who would sympathize with and love me” (vol 3 chapter 7, p.211). Because both the monster and Victor are, in some ways, to be pitied and both have done terrible things yet receive such different responses to their stories, Shelley may be trying to identify some issue of prejudice or flawed justice. However, she could also be pointing to how similar the man is to the monster in their choice of action.

The readers are audiences not just to Walton’s letters but to the entire narrative, so they have the choice not just to react to the letters, but to the stories of Frankenstein and the monster as well. Shelley allows us to determine our response to the characters, and to decide how we will be influenced by stories.

Learning to Deal with Hardship

There are many ways that Victor Frankenstein and his creation can be compared and contrasted, but one of the main similarities they have is their negative reaction to hardship. Both seem to try to be good and kind when things are easy, but the moment something bad happens to them they become sad or angry, and entirely convinced that their suffering is more than anyone else could comprehend.

Victor himself talks about how he was never made to endure hardship. When he and Henry Clerval are exploring Europe, Victor’s enjoyment of the sites is “embittered both by the memory of the past, and the anticipation of the future” (Volume 3, Chapter 2). He says that he was formed for “peaceful happiness” and was never discontented in his youth. This is key because it shows that as a child, Victor had an entirely happy life. He talks near the beginning of the novel about his indulgent parents who let him read what he wanted, his friends whom he’d known since childhood and always gotten along with, and the happy way he explored the world around him. Child Victor never had to contend with any difficulty.

This changed when Victor’s mother died. He had to go to school soon after this had happened, and even though his going was delayed by several weeks it meant that at least part of his grieving process was done alone. In fact he describes himself as being entirely alone in the new city, and not knowing how to make friends as all his friends from home had been made in childhood. Victor does not know how to overcome challenges such as these and therefore isolates himself to an extreme when he endeavors to make the creature or in other-words to discover the secret of life and death, something that one could argue he is interested in because of his recently deceased mother.

Victor’s ability to cope with bad events only gets worse from there. Every time the creature does something that upsets him, he says he is in anguish and that no one could conceive the pain he had to endure. It is an entirely selfish attitude, much like one a child would adopt upon being injured. Victor does not think anyone can feel the pain he does because he never felt any as a child and imagines all must be as happy as he was then. Pain makes him withdraw, thinking only of himself and discounting the pains of everyone else, including his family who suffer at the death of William and even Justine who has to die for a crime she did not commit.

The creature has a similar progression to that of Victor. He starts out life, as far as he can remember, in the woods and all alone. Here he survives by eating nuts and berries, but he does not seem to be in any major distress. He gets cold, or hungry, but he also is able to experience pleasure, stating that he “was delighted” when he heard the birds and awed at the sun rising in the sky (volume 2, chapter 3). He seems to have a fairly happy life, even if he does sometimes get cold or hungry. There is no major hardship he has to face.

This changes when he meets man. The creature is met with hostility, and then goes into hiding on instinct. He tries to learn, then, how to interact with humans, but when that results in failure he grows angry to the point of burning down a cottage and, upon later being shot while trying to help a little girl, swearing vengeance on all mankind. The creature here has the excuse of never having been taught how to behave at all, but the fact remains that he overreacted, perceiving himself as grievously injured when he failed for basically the first time in his life. After all, he had learned to read and speak and write, could find wood to help the cottagers, knew how to get food when he was hungry, and figured out how to keep warm. He had never yet met with any failure, and upon doing so he deemed himself grievously wronged, even by the end echoing Victor’s statement that his “suffering was superior” to Victor’s just as Victor claimed his suffering was unfathomable to others.

The main opposition to these two is Henry Clerval and Justine. Clerval was the son of a merchant, needing to work hard to succeed in what he did. When he has to convince his father to school and initially fails, he does not give up or despair. He keeps trying and eventually succeeds. When Clerval meets with hardship, he does his best to cope with it healthily, unlike Victor or his creature. Same with Justine. She is composed for her trial, and even when she is about to die because she is accused of killing a child who she loved, she finds it in herself to think of others. She tells Elizabeth “may heaven in its bounty bless and preserve you… live, and be happy and make others so” (volume 1 chapter 7). She is concerned for Elisabeth even when suffering herself, showing that the hardships she faced in being poor taught her how to think of others and stay kind even while in the mist of despair.

Victor and his creature both let the kind compassionate people they want to be die when they face difficult challenges. Victor draws into himself and is full of self-pity, making everyone around him more miserable and yet still being conceited enough to claim that he suffers the most. The creature reacts by getting angry and directly hurting others. One has to wonder how the novel would have been different if they had been taught how to deal with hardships, or learned to react to them in a better way. In the end though, they both deal rather selfishly with difficulties while those who had to deal with them earlier in life learn to do so in a better way, implying that learning how to cope with hardship is an extremely important lesson that must be learnt if one wants to be a virtuous member of society.