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 usage of setting as it relates to characterization

An author’s use of form in his or her creation of a novel’s setting is of course necessary for any plot-driven text, but it can also strengthen the development of its characters and play a role in the novel’s thematic points. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Frankenstein, and Mary Barton, each author uses setting to further develop its main characters. Thomas Hardy uses setting to illustrate his protagonist’s purity and normalcy, while Mary Shelley does the exact opposite to characterize Frankenstein’s monster and the detachment from the world around him. Elizabeth Gaskell, on the other hand, uses her setting as a middle ground from which Mary can experience a spectrum of settings and their designated social and monetary statuses.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, setting plays an important role in demonstrating the heart of Tess’s morality. Hardy uses the environment as an interesting parallel to Tess, making her a part of nature and of the novel’s setting. She is a farm girl, and is comfortable around nature as such – making it a contrast as she finds similarity to the portraits in the ancestral mansions. Instead, Tess “felt akin to the landscape” (Hardy 61) in the country. Hardy illustrates how Tess and nature are related in purity, as they are both of this earth and, by definition, natural. While Tess often takes omens from the behavior of animals, she is also often wrong. The narrator explains that “it was not the expression of the valley’s consciousness that beautiful Tess had arrived, but the ordinary announcement of milking-time” (Hardy 63). By allowing the environment to mirror Tess, he transcends her over the social climate of the time and makes her everlasting, just as the laws of nature are. Any rejection of her from the environment is false, and “this encompassment of her own characterization, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’s fancy…it was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she…she had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly” (Hardy 51). This mirroring can also be seen in the tragic darkness of Tess’s original fall at the hands of Alec, where “everything was blackness alike” (Hardy 44) in that forest. Through his descriptions of setting and nature, Hardy provides the reader with further characterization as to Tess’s humble purity and her congruence with the natural world.

Shelley’s use of setting is emphatically different from Hardy’s, as she uses the gothic imagery of the monster’s surroundings to illustrate how he is unable to assimilate with others. On his own, the monster is immediately subject to the dark and cold, without shelter. The harsh environment rejects him, mirroring his isolation but condemning his unnatural being. Following the additional rejection from the De Lacey family, darkness falls and “as the night advanced, a fierce wind arose from the woods, and quickly dispersed the clouds that had loitered in the heavens; the blast tore along like a mighty avalanche, and produced a kind of insanity in [the monster’s] spirits” (Shelley 151). As anger and betrayal excite him, so too does his surroundings surge with this emotion, and the wind and clouds mimic the monster’s strong feelings of isolation and paranoia. Even though the monster finds refuge in the forest, he recognizes that there is no place for him. Frankenstein’s monster reflects that “with the world before [him,] whither should [he] bend [his] steps? [Although he had] resolved to fly far from the scene of [his] misfortunes…every country must be equally horrible” (Shelley 151). Therefore his ending is somewhat fitting, as the monster resolves to commit to the eternal surroundings of the endless ocean. He places himself “upon the ice-raft…[and] he was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance” (Shelley 221). Although both Hardy and Shelley do allow the description of setting and nature to deepen the reader’s understanding of the characters’ places in their world, they do so by expressing its acceptance or rejection of the character, respectively.

Gaskell’s use of setting differs from both Hardy’s and Shelley’s in that it does not take an extreme stance. Where Tess exemplifies the normality of nature, and Frankenstein’s monster represents the opposition to normal natural law, Gaskell’s protagonist Mary Barton finds herself in middle ground. The setting passively accepts her, as Gaskell does not use setting to comment on Mary’s specific place in her world. Instead, Mary here represents the entire middle class as a whole, and these surroundings illustrate that Mary is an “every-day-man” of sorts that can transcend social class boundaries because of it. The setting of Mary’s house allows the reader to look into her private life and character, as the interior is described, that “resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray…[on which] the fire-light danced merrily” and “gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room” (Gaskell 14). The warmth and simplicity of the house mirrors the comfort of Mary. However, this middle-class setting is contrasted by two sides of the spectrum, and Gaskell shows the reader two other households and how they compare. In the Davenport home, the door “led to a black cellar, with a grating instead of a window…the floor was one mass of bad smelling mud…[and] there was not an article of furniture in it” (Gaskell 60). Through seeing the pitiable living conditions of the Davenports, the reader can contextualize the privilege of Mary’s upbringing, and how this corresponds with her perspective. On the other side of the spectrum at the Carson house, it “was a good house, and furnished with disregard to expense…[where] a roaring fire burnt merrily” (Gaskell 63). Through being able to experience the other neighborhood surroundings of different class distinctions, the reader is better equipped to perceive the world as Mary does. Therefore, through exposing these three different settings, Gaskell caters sympathy to Mary and the goal of the middle class to blur the lines among these settings.

Hardy’s use of setting in Tess of the D’Urbervilles differs from the other two novels’ usages in that its layers radically help illustrate the notion of purity in Tess. The setting as it relates to nature makes claims regarding Tess’s normalcy and place in the world, and argues against any social stigma. The added layer of setting includes its Victorian landscape, and the present social climate that had every preparation to condemn Tess for the so-called “seduction,” while preserving Alec. Unlike in the other novels, the setting both sets up an argument against Tess, while also making a case for her. Whereas one factor of the novel’s setting speaks to her breaking of social code and social law for females at the time, the other factor of the novel’s setting speaks to how this perception will come to pass, but that the natural world claims Tess’s purity as its own forever. Hardy’s duality of setting only deepens the reader’s relationship with Tess, as her surrounding either condemns or accepts her, and attempts to sway the reader into a side as to her intentions, personality, and purity.

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 Emphasis on Nature to Reveal Clues to Reader

In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, setting is used to reveal the character’s mental state and in some cases nature even goes so far as reviving the characters. While there are similarities between the sublime and gothic genres, there are distinct differences. In Shelley’s writing, the gothic is often used to portray a horrifying or despairing scene while the sublime shows restoration and happiness.

While Shelley uses setting throughout the entire novel with each of the characters, a more specific example is seen a page apart where Shelley uses both the gothic and sublime to show Victor’s emotions. The scene after the monster has finished telling Victor his story and Victor has begrudingly agreed to create him a mate demonstrates how Shelley uses the setting to display emotion. After the monster has departed, Victor walks back to the village as the sun was on “the verge of the horizon” where Victor would soon be “encompassed in darkness” (159). Victor’s heart is heavy as he is overcome with emotion sitting down next to a fountain. Here, Shelley uses the darkness as a metaphor for the emotions of darkness that are taking over Victor. The fountain next to him can be interpreted as the intense feelings of despair wash over him or the tears he wants to cry. Continuing in the paragraph, Shelley goes further describing the “dark pines” and “broken tree” (159). The trees are lingering over him to again show how his thoughts of remembering the conversation with the monster as well as the thoughts of what might happen in the future linger over Victor. He even cries out that the trees and stars are mocking him and asks to be alone in his solitude further proving the landscape as a metaphor for his haunting thoughts. Darkness and solitude are very prominent give-aways when writing in the gothic genre.

On the next page, Shelley then uses the sublime genre to show restoration in Victor. She even references the gothic, the “blackness overcast” to contrast the sublime, the “approaching sunshine” (161). The sublime can be identified by descriptions of nature: “I passed whole days on the lake alone in little boat, watching the clouds, and listening to the rippling waves…but the fresh air seldom failed to restore me” (161). Shelley uses these descriptions to show the change of heart in Victor as he returns to his friends better than ever. A common theme in both the gothic and sublime is solitude. In the sublime scene, Victor takes “refuge in the most perfect solitude” (161). In the scene before, Victor begs to be away from the trees, or nature, but now he finds nature has restored him. Shelley does this to show how much effect nature can have on the characters and the reader. Nature goes so far as being able to restore Victor and give the reader an indication Victor is feeling better. She puts am emphasis on nature as a powerful tool in her novel.

Along with demonstrating how important nature is to the novel, Shelley uses the difference of setting between the sublime and gothic to project how Victor is feeling. Even with the similarity of the two genres, solitude, she demonstrates the difference between the two as well. As previously mentioned, in the gothic scene, the trees are leaning over Victor, while in the sublime scene, the air is open. Shelley takes the solitude aspect of each genre and puts it in two different contexts to further prove setting reflects the feelings of the characters.

Putting an emphasis on nature, Shelley gives the reader a clue into the heads of the characters through her descriptions of setting. Since the point of view in the novel is so distanced from the reader, and we are not put in the heads of the characters, it is important that reader has these clues to pick up on how the characters are feeling and how the reader is supposed to feel as well.

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.

When life imitates art

One of the funniest scenes in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is when Frankenstein asks Igor whose brain they just put into the creature. “Abby someone,” Igor replies, “Abby… Normal.” If Igor had only been a better reader, he might have been able to avoid putting “an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA.”

This scene is oddly consistent with the treatment of reading in Mary Shelley’s text. If only the characters had received better direction while reading, many of the tragedies of the novel could have been avoided. Walton, Victor, and the creature are more or less self-educated during formative periods of their lives, and all admit that their reading drives their actions… and not for the better.

Writing to his sister, Walton notes, “[A] history of all the voyages made for purposes of discovery composed the whole of our good Uncle Thomas’s library. My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading . . . [t]hese volumes…” (52). He largely credits his obsession with his dangerous journey North to reading about such voyages as a child.

Victor, unfortunately, can relate. While young Clerval may have been reading tales about heroic “Orlando, Robin Hood, Amadis, and St George” (67), Frankenstein becomes enchanted with “the whole works of [Cornelius Agrippa] and afterwards of Paraclesus and Albertus Magnus” (69). These books inspire him to seek out pseudoscientific knowledge that might be better left unknown.

These stories have such a hold on the characters that even though their life experiences show them how far their reading has lead them astray, they still can’t quite escape their influence. Victor can tell his story in the hopes of correcting Walton’s faulty reading, for instance, but Walton would still not willingly quit his journey north until his crew practically threatens mutiny.

Even the creature’s reading—including Ruins of Empires (134), Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and Sorrows of Young Werter (142)—teach him that mankind can be “at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base” (135), the latter of which properties he chooses to emulate. While Victor’s books teach him that all knowledge is and can be accessible, moreover, the creature’s books teach him to frame his life as a tragedy, a frame which he chooses to inhabit.

Judging by the numerous footnotes in our text, Mary Shelley seems influenced by reading her parents’ works (much of which was about education). She certainly is aware that books—including hers—can be transformative.

Because of her emphasis on the dangers of misguided reading, Shelley’s novel seems to suggest that we watch what and when we (or our children) read because books don’t end when we close the pages.

Censors and book burners and propaganda writers know this all too well—but then again, so do people who seek to eradicate poverty by increasing literacy. Books are no simple evil or good, but a tool that can be used to achieve either end.

It Takes a Village

Society versus the individual. Who is ultimately responsible? Victor Frankenstein created the monster and then abandoned the monster to its own devices. Victor’s creation went over the line of what science should be able to do. He was an isolated man who was curious and ambitious. His own ambition became his downfall. He created a monster that was disproportionate to humans, a creature that was stronger, where people could visibly see the stiches and organs. His creation was heinous to himself, and yet he took no responsibility for his actions. Victor never told his family what was going on and did not track the creature down once the creature left.

The creature spiraled down into a hole of isolation, similar to Victor’s isolation. The creature is continually harassed, shot at, and thought of as a monster. His appearance makes people jump to assumptions. The little human interaction the creature received was from watching the De Lacey family. Although, he was not actually a part of the family, a part of society, he was a third person observer. When he tried to actually interact with the De Lacey family he was run off. That was when he decided that Victor’s responsibility was to create him a mate. The creature wants companionship, a basic human want and need. And something he is continually denied throughout the novel.

When does the individual’s actions stop being their fault? What is society’s role in helping raise a child? An African proverb states “It takes a village to raise a child.” And yet the “village” to help raise the creature is absent. They judge the creature, assume he is a monster, and further help is isolation lifestyle. The creature’s actions, especially once he vows revenge on Victor, are his fault. But the responsibility does not rest solely on his shoulders, but on the shoulders of society and more importantly Victor’s shoulders.