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Essay: Horror as a manifestation of Guilt in the novel Frankenstein

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  • Published: 25 July 2022*
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Frankenstein (1818) is a tale of a man with a colossal ambition who in the pursuit of elixir of life “bestows animation upon lifeless matter” (Shelley 34) only to create a wretched monster that he ends up abandoning; it is a tale of creation and abandonment. However, it cannot be reduced to be understood as merely a horror story about a scientific experiment gone wrong. It is neither a didactic Faustian fable about the horrific repercussions of a mortal’s overarching ambition for knowledge wherein morality is propagated and reinforced through terror. The novel rather uses the motif of an individual’s transgression only to highlight the presence of societal restraints and in doing so shifts the focus from the individual to the society. It thus becomes a story that studies the schismatic identity of a man as the product of the divide between the self and the society.

This divergence becomes the main reason of the contrition that ultimately leads to the demise of Frankenstein. Although, the pangs of remorse can also be sensed through the subtitle of the novel, The Modern Prometheus, referring to the Greek myth of Titan Prometheus who stole fire from Gods and gave it to mankind. Prometheus was chained to a rock and eaten by vultures as a punishment for tampering with the status quo. Victor Frankenstein’s courage to create a being, which is on the prima facie a God’s venture and his audacity to tamper with nature resulted in a similar punishment. Their courage to intervene in the working of universe led to their demise. The idea of replicating God’s position is a responsibility that was unsuccessfully per formed by Frankenstein. Victor’s inability to take responsibility for his own creation with the sub sequent shunning of the monster that he made was more of a downfall than the act of creation itself. In the first place, to understand his irresponsible nature we have to delve into his reasons behind creating such a wretched monster.

Frankenstein’s idea of creation is no way a capricious one, it is rather the fulfilment of obsessively regressive desire. Against his father’s world of limited aims of natural philosophy, Frankenstein attempts to contrive the science of alchemy and succeeds in raising a monster from the dead, an incarnation of his desires repressed by the civilized society. His desires are re pressed, moreover burdened by the weight of responsibilities on his shoulders. Frankenstein’s treasured readings of chimerical science of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus which had reigned the imagination of his mind laid the major foundation of detachment from his father. His father’s pressure on him to study natural philosophy despite his interest in alchemy, depicts the kind of neglected upbringing he acquired. The responsibility of studying the course of his father’s choice and further becoming the instructor of his younger brothers had suppressed his desires. Frankenstein’s father, Alphonse also controlled Frankenstein’s emotional space by the burden of the tasks. Frankenstein asserts, “My mother was dead, but we had still duties which we ought to perform; we must continue our course with the rest, and learn to think ourselves fortunate” (81). Even after the death of his mother, the duties forced him to immediately set for Ingolstadt to shun the gathered pain and sorrow. The notion of duty was heavy enough to push him away from the mourning of his mother. After the death of William and innocent Justine, the sense of remorse increases but he is again reminded of his responsibilities by his father “is it not a duty to the survivors, that we should refrain from augmenting their unhappiness by an appearance of immoderate grief? It is also a duty owed to yourself; for excessive sorrow prevents improvement or enjoyment, or even the discharge of daily usefulness, without which no man is fit for society” (152). The negligence of parenting and the notion of duty encourages him to articulate his repressed self in a being who is free from the restraints of society, a being who is not bounded by other’s wishes, ultimately resulting in a fatality.

In addition, for Frankenstein, it was a chance to overpower his father who burdened him with his own thoughts, he says “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs’s” (95). Frankenstein dreams of glory that would prove the eligibility of his ideas to his father. Consequently, the creature also, an extension of the creator tries to overpower him after his abandonment. Frankenstein realizes the responsibility of the horror that he has created and starts to recognize the monster as an extension of him self, “I felt as if I had committed some great crime, the consciousness of which haunted me. I was guiltless, but I had indeed drawn down a horrible curse upon my head, as mortal as that of crime” (262). With the twinge of horror comes the feeling of guilt and hatred toward the monster, and in fact he starts hating himself.

John N. Dussinger in his essay Kinship and Guilt in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein posits that “the narrative[of the novel] is explicitly about evil, a dialogue, in fact, between protagonist, who experiences it from within as a daemonic force, and antagonist, who experiences it from without as a social injustice”(Dussinger 39). The daemonic forces lie inside Frankenstein, pro jected through the monster. His obsession of creating the presentation of his other ‘self’ turned into creating the guilt of the monster residing inside him. “I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Un able to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room”. This sudden rush of regret after two years of ardent devotion is not only based on the diabolical physique of the monster but from the horror of creating something that was similar to his own self.

The book tends to follow Rousseau’s idea that man is naturally born good but corrupted by society. The evil in man is instilled by the society and thus isolation is necessary in order to remain good. The monster or Frankenstein’s alter-ego stems from the idea of Rousseau and Locke, convinced of man’s original goodness. Thus, we ought to say that the tabula rasa of the monster is turned villainous only by the dominance of the society. The monster’s rational explication of evil is deriving from parental irresponsibility and social injustice. The forced alienation from the society and his creator resulted in the development of an evil will. Frankenstein in cut ting himself from the family betrayed his creator i.e. his father because of the parental negligence, similarly, the monster betrayed his creator, Frankenstein because of the lack of guardian ship towards his creation. Despite different outer appearances, the two characters resemble each other in the sense that they share considerable psychological conduct. The creator and the creature bear a feeling of resentment starting from Frankenstein’s childhood and further projected onto the creature. Robert Rogers in his essay notes that “dynamically considered, the appearance of an alternating personality can be understood in terms of the drives which have been repressed and impulses which are defended against” (Rogers 92). This explains Frankenstein’s immediate repulsion towards his creation. Consequently, Frankenstein is guilty of producing his evil self.

After the horrible guilt of creating his alter-ego, Frankenstein abandons the creature, giv ing up the responsibility of his protection, the lone monster develops rage in his alienation from society. In this relentless anguish, he finds his solace in taking vengeance from his creator. He vows to kill every reason of the contentment of Frankenstein’s life, and successfully kills his brother, friend and lover. During these remorseful deaths, Frankenstein not only goes through the guilt of not being able to rescue his family, the guilt of not being able to repress the monster was greater. He determines to unremittingly chase his creation, just as earlier the monster had pursued his valid demand. First, the shadow goes out to chase the man, then the man strives to chase his shadow. Frankenstein’s repressed desires have emerged from its surface and he must bury them again; but his alter-ego denies to retire from life. Frankenstein with the same monomania as that of in the moment of creating his monster pursues him to the ends of the world, “I pursued my path towards the destruction of the daemon, more as a task enjoined by heaven, as the mechanical impulse of some power of which I was unconscious, than as the ardent desire of my soul” (Shelly 327). The horror of creating something dreadful, unstoppable and cause of a catastrophe by in stilling his dark side in an abnormal body; in addition, not being able to subdue those desires brings a sense of excessive culpability.

Moreover, the gothic motif of an alternative personality is interestingly utilized in the novel. Freud in his essay The Uncanny illustrates the idea of the double or alter-ego which causes uneasiness in the readers. He says “the uncanny is nothing else than a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfils this condition” (Shelly 15). It is a situation where the character’s psychological mechanisms be come accessible to external forces which results in an uncanny feeling. This different psychologi cal personality brings a sense of horror, hence from this horror Frankenstein strives to bolt his alternative self, but in failing to do so develops a sense of guilt.

Much like the act of creation, Frankenstein fails to execute the act of abandonment. The horror of his actions continues to haunt him. So much so, that his earlier position of being an outcast in his ideal family and society is manifested all the more intensely post his catastrophic transgression. In the struggle between articulating his connections with family and negotiating his kinship with the monster, the latter overpowers the former. “The creation of the monster comes irrevocably between Frankenstein and his family” (Dussinger 53). His earlier guilt of overstepping the societal duties now transcends into the catastrophic guilt of annihilating them. The unconscious guilt of his love for Elizabeth as the cause of his mother’s death transcends into the conscious knowledge of bringing about a fatal disaster on his family leading to the death of William, Justine, Clerval, Elizabeth and finally his own father. While he blames the monster for his doom, he fails to see himself as a passive victim, separate from the overpowering sense of guilt that haunts him:

“I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror… nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me” (Shelly 131).

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