The importance of literature in Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The story Frankenstein written in 1818 by Mary W. Shelley is one of the most well-known works that shows the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and the creature (monster) as one of the fundamental topics. Literature that the main characters use in Frankenstein plays an important role in describing these characters, their attitudes, backgrounds, likes and aspirations. In this case, the role of literature is best explained by the saying “tell me who your friend is (what you read) and I will tell you who you are”. Victor has Cornelius, Agrippa, Elizabeth and Clerval have their poetry, and the creature has books like Plutarch’s Lives and Milton Paradise Lost. The essay explores how these books that the characters read are significant and why. It will comment on how the books/authors reflect the characters’ identities and how the books/authors influence the character’s identity. Also, one will show how the books/authors influence the way others perceive the with the main focus on Victor and the Monster.
Books get into focus in Chapter 2 when Victor who has a delightful childhood spots Cornelius Agrippa. After his father calls the books “sad trash”, Victor due to his stubbornness and inquisitiveness chooses to read the whole book. Ultimately he reads all books by Agrippa, and then reads Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. These books shape his character as a natural scientist and he unsuccessfully tries to perform some experiments. Victor, for instance, enjoyed the idea of summoning devils and ghosts. One should note that Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus are not considered as reputable and serious scientists in Victor’s world. For example, Paracelsus was a Swiss alchemist and physician who just like all alchemists tried to turn iron into gold and find the fountain of youth. The books clearly show that Victor was growing into the world of supernatural, yet tried to mix it with science whenever he could. On the other hand, Henry and Elizabeth, had their poetry and focused on morality of life, justice and other mundane worldly things similarly to what most other common people preferred. Victor, in this case, appears to be obsessed with the alchemy, science and the supernatural, namely, with things like galvanism and electricity after his literary experience was complemented with the experience of watching the lightning strike the tree. The book choices that Victor made after his father called it “sad trash” clearly show that Victor tried to do not what his father told him to do. In this case, Victor appears to lay the blame on his father and it is father’s dismissal of the books in fact, prompted Victor to read them and ultimately venture into the territory of science and natural philosophy. The experiments with the ghosts and devils clearly demonstrate Victor’s inclinations and hint that at some point of time Victor will try to create a creature of his own (Knellwolf, 150). One may also argue that Shelley tried to show the role of Romanticism and fate since it is providence that made Victor read the books and pursue the experiments. Then it is the ‘guardian angel” (lighting striking the tree) that showed him to stop experimenting and then it is fate that ultimately led Victor to create the creature that contributed to his own demise (Hogsette , 118).
The role of books is seen in Chapter 3, too, when Victor met his university professor M. Krempe, who dislikes the fact that Victor read the ancient writers Agrippa and others. This stimulates Victor to read more. On the other hand his other professor, M. Waldman appears to further encourage Victor to pursue the unknown and provides another list for Victor to read. Therefore, the books of Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus clearly allow Victor to set ambitious goals, yet ultimately the proper scientific approach promulgated by his other two professors encourage him to find the reliable and scientific ways to actually attain to his ambitious goals that Victor set while reading Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus. Once again the books clearly show what interests the character in Shelley’s Frankenstein and what aspirations the character has. Naturally, Elizabeth and Clerval who have their poetry are all about mundane romantic yet down-to-earth practical thinking, like family, food, kitchen and church. They are not interested in science, technology, development or progress whatsoever and choose to live the lives of ordinary citizens (Coghill, 120).
The books that the creature/monster reads present another important and noteworthy point of view. As shown in Chapter 15, the monster while making his daily rounds for food and firewood found a lather bag that had some books and articles. Accidentally there were Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werter and Plutarch’s Lives and these books appear to attract his greatest attention and stir up the most emotions. To be more objective, the monster also found some papers in Victor’s cloak that he stole from the laboratory. The books Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werter and Plutarch’s Lives appear to have the greatest effect on the monster, on his mind, thinking and ultimately decision making. He gets so emotional that he cries when reading Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werter or Milton’s Paradise Lost. He finds out about the mankind’s fall and the removal from the Garden of Eden. In fact Milton’s Paradise Lost appears to share much with monster’s own story, such as the search for love and knowledge, his removal from the society and the problematic relationships between God (the creator or Victor) and the monster. The monster does not really identify himself with Adam, although both were created, not born yet when he realizes that Adam did actually enjoy the life with his Eve, he realizes that he was denied that opportunity from the very beginning. Thus, he starts to realize that he is more compared to the character of Satan, who is condemned to hell and internal suffering and is left to envy all other “normal” angels (Hogsette, 128). This is where readers find out that the monster is envious of the life of his protectors. In fact, ultimately when the monster starts to kill, the readers may realize that this action of the monster was greatly influenced by the books and by the position they formed in the monster’s head. As for Plutarch's Lives, this book allows the monster to experience the outer world and prompts him to pursue greater heights, achievements and experiences. This books is likely prompted the monster to choose virtue and reject vice whenever possible. In other words, the book, as per Romanticism nature of the whole novel shows that the monster believed in the innate goodness of the mankind(Knellwolf, 170). Perhaps, this book is what prompted the monster to seek contacts with the humans i.e. the De Lacey family. The papers found in Victor’s cloak aggravate the monster yet make him more reasonable. The monster admires the idea that God made man in his own image, good, powerful and beautiful. On the other hand, he realized that his own shape was only a filthy reflection of Victor’s beauty. The monster certainly tries to ignore the importance of beauty and does want to be a part of the De Lacey family, yet, apparently it proves to be impossible. In fact his self-education and knowledge make him even a greater outcast than ever before. At this point of time, one can conclude that the books that the monster reads persuade him to focus on finding his own Eve and leading a different, not lonely, life (Coghill, 124).
To summarize, the importance of books in Shelley’s Frankenstein cannot be overestimated. The books show that interests each character, what aspirations, wishes and ideas she/he has and what actions one can expect from them in the future. Elizabeth and Clerval have their poetry and naturally they do not seek technological progress and take no interest in science. Victor, although influenced by his father, picked the books by Agrippa, Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus and ended up studying science to pursue alchemist goals of ghost calling and resurrecting lives, which ultimately allowed him to create the monster. The monster, who accidentally spotted the best examples of World’s literary heritage, namely, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werter and Plutarch’s Lives was also greatly influenced by those in terms of forming his own identity, realizing that unlike God who created men beautiful (in his own image), Victor did not create him beautiful and thus denied him many opportunities in life. This knowledge ultimately prompted the monster to fight for his own Eve, and when unable to get one, prompt the monster to take revenge on his own creator.
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein,
Hogsette , David S. Metaphysical intersections in Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s theistic investigation of scientific materialism. NY Random House, 2007.
Coghill, Jeff. CliffsNotes on Shelley’s Frankenstein. Prentice Hall, 2006.
Knellwolf, Christa. Goodall, Jane. Frankenstein’s Science. NY Random House, 2005.
Shelley, Mary. Paul, J.. Frankenstein (Second Edition) (Norton Critical Editions). NY Random House, 2005.
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