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Essay: Contrasting evil in Beowulf, Frankenstein, Paradise Lost & The Shining

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If evil is to be defined as ‘profound immorality and wickedness, especially when regarded as a supernatural force’, this question is a complex one in three of the texts I have chosen to study. The antagonists in ‘The Shining’, ‘Frankenstein’, and ‘Paradise Lost – Books I & II‘ both demonstrate varying degrees of moral ambiguity; none are presented as completely and irredeemably evil. Indeed, this is the case to the extent that the identity of the ‘true’ antagonist is ambiguous. This serves as a a contrast to ‘Beowulf’, which presents Evil and Good as diametrically opposed forces, the struggle between the two being solely a physical one. In all three other texts, the manner in which the author presents evil raises questions as to the absolute nature of it. Beowulf and Frankenstein respectively hold two strikingly different presentations of Evil; their portrayal differing in their complexity and depth. The former, written via translation by Seamus Heaney in the form of an Epic Poem, depicts antagonists of straightforward evilness as are befitting of the form of the piece, and are shared by classical Epics such as Homer’s The Odyssey and Vergil’s The Aeneid. This invites a fascinating comparison with Paradise Lost: Books I & II, which, in spite of sharing the status of an Epic poem with Beowulf, imbues Satan with a ‘teasing ambiguity’ and charismatic allure that blurs the lines between hero and villain. Indeed, the question is often raised of whether Satan in fact plays an Anti-Heroic, perhaps revolutionary role in Paradise Lost; Blake suggests that ‘Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devil and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. Such a depiction has intriguing connotations for both Frankenstein and Beowulf; Satan is said to be the origin of all evil, an idea that is even alluded to fairly directly when Grendel is referred to as ‘Hell’s Captain’. Given Milton’s portrayal of Satan’s evil as uncertain in his seminal work, it must surely be considered that evil is an inherently complex concept, reflected in the characters that exhibit it. Shelley’s Frankenstein is undoubtedly in support of this view;  the Creature is depicted as eveil even in spite of his impessive sensibility.

Moreover, the same can be said, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, with regard to Beowulf: In spite of the apparent simplicity of the protagonists’ evilness, there is a degree of humanity in their depiction, in particular Grendel’s mother, who demonstrates a degree of emotional pain at the loss of her son.

The impact of narrative on the presentation of Evil in these four texts must be considered; it is this which makes a powerful contribution to the perceivable moral ambiguity of the characters. This is especially apparent in Frankenstein, the framed narrative structure of which allows the point of view of multiple different characters to be explored. Indeed, it is the narrative of the Creature himself that demonstrates firstly his startling eloquence; in his very first piece of speech he cites the ‘considerable difficulty with which I remember the original era of my being’. The Creature subsequently recounts the events that have led up to his meeting with Victor, chronicling the injustice he has suffered at the hands of humanity, and I perhaps in a broader sense the events that have shaped his character. Frankenstein thus alludes to multiple texts which to a degree explain the source of the Creature’s initial astounding capacity for empathy, including Paradise Lost.

Frankenstein and The Shining both explore the concept of human evil outside of the more supernatural antagonists of each respective novel, focussing on familial evil, and its potential presence in the relationship between patriarch and progeny. Victor’s emotional mistreatment of the Creature is obvious even from its birth; ‘unable to endure… I rushed out the room’, he is immediately repulsed, and, physically incapable of abandoning him. As such, the first act of evil that Victor does unto the Creature (disregarding the initial creation) is one of neglect; the withholding of the affection and support which, according to Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the Creature is owed. By contrast, the two father-son relationships depicted in The Shining show no lack of interaction, or even affection. Instead, they demonstrate violent overtones, which upon first glance appear more sinister: ‘he had grabbed Danny’s hand and bent it’. While Victor yearns to undo his creation, this singular act of drunken violence is sufficiently disturbing to cause Jack significant psychological trauma for years after the event. However, in spite of the superficial differences between the relationships in the two texts, both concern themselves with cycles of abuse. In much the same way that the Creature’s violence is portrayed as motivated by Victor’s treatment of him, King suggests that in spite of his love for Danny, Jack is doomed to tend towards abuse as a result of his own treatment at the hands of his father.

Interestingly, the familial relations of the very inhuman monsters of Beowulf are the direct antithesis of those exhibited in the other three texts, raising questions about their relative evilness by comparison to far less superficially monstrous characters. Where there is a tendency toward abuse elsewhere, Grendel’s mother demonstrates a maternal ferocity in protecting her offspring, and, in a more human manner, grief, and the desire to avenge his death; ‘she’d brooded on her loss, misery had brewed’. This is perhaps the only emotional complexity shown at any point in Beowulf, by any of the antagonists, but is testament to the notion that Evil is inherently a complex concept, and as such even creatures apparently of the most straightforward monstrosity and savagery do not exhibit it in unadulterated fashion. Douglas Preston sums up this concept with his statement that ‘We all have a monster within; the difference is in degree, not in kind’. This suggests the notion of the uniformity of evil; that it is a self-contained force. King’s The Shining agrees with this notion to an extent, although its elaborate depiction of family life and the human evil that can accompany it suggests a degree of complexity, the novel’s primary antagonist, The Overlook Hotel itself can be said to be more completely evil even than Milton’s Satan. However, this is due to the identity with which King portrays it; an impersonal, undefinable supernatural force of inherent malevolence. Indeed, Jack Torrance is a conduit for the evil of the Hotel: ‘this inhuman place creates human monsters’. The presence of an irredeemable evil perhaps goes some way to explaining the moral ambiguity of Satan, Victor, the Creature, and even Grendel’s mother; all exhibit, to vary degrees, an extent of humanity. Whether it is the eloquence and sensibility of the Creature, or the savage maternal instincts of Grendel’s mother. Thus, the conclusion might be drawn that to be human is to be evil to an incomplete extent. The authors’ presentation of their characters in texts is less in terms of good and evil in a straightforward sense, but rather it refers to the concepts of fallibility and redemption. In any case, to consider any of them to be wholly evil is to misread their portrayal. All three are considered Evil by default, a preconceived assumption which is subsequently questioned through the authors’ presentations.

This raises the question of culpability, and its role in qualifying a character as evil. One of the fundamental questions that Shelley’s Frankenstein poses is whether the Creature’s actions can be condemned given his treatment at the hands of humanity. Regarding the guilt of the Creature, Shelley is quick to emphasise the philosophy of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau; the idea of the tabula rasa, or blank slate. This states that upon entering the world a human is completely innocent, with minimal inherent tendency toward neither good nor evil, although Shelley goes beyond this, portraying the Creature as one with a natural capacity for empathy and compassion, a stark contrast to Grendel, who is portrayed as ‘Cain’s spawn’ – by nature evil. The atrocious treatment the Creature receives at the hands of humanity, solely as a result of his repulsive outward appearance, can thus be seen as an explanation for his crimes against his maker and many other humans. However, the Creature is not necessarily presented as a figure who is absolved of all blame for his sinful actions simply because of some mistreatment; he arguably goes far beyond what would have been constituted as a reasonable reaction to his reception by mankind. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to justify serial murders with any wrongdoing. This being said, it is undeniable that humanity’s treatment of the Creature is reprehensible throughout his existence; even the man who created him rejects him almost immediately upon being brought to life, simply seeking human connection with his paternal figure. The Creature seems almost to reach out imploringly toward Victor, with ‘one hand stretched out’, although Victor appears to misperceive this as an attempt to ‘detain’ him, and instead of reciprocating the apparent affection, flees, so repulsed is he by the Creature he has created.  This supports the idea that the Creature is in fact ‘more sinned against than sinning’; his whole life is thus laid on a foundation of abandonment, something which Shelley saw as inexcusable given her parents’ view on the matter of childrearing. Furthermore, she echoes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy of the social contract, the idea that every parent has a direct responsibility to love, cherish, and car for their creation. Victor immediately and completely violates this social contract, which Shelley portrays as a great sin towards the Creature. This

One regard in which all four the texts are similar is the presence of an obvious supernatural evil. Frankenstein and Beowulf both present creatures of abnormal creation, who haunt their respective adversaries largely as a result of their physical monstrosity. Both demonstrate human qualities: The Creature is formed of human remains, and demonstrates an empathy and sensibility that surpasses that of many humans, although, perhaps as a result of Victor’s weighted narrative, one would be reluctant to call him straightforwardly human. Alongside his grotesque appearance, the Creature also demonstrates abnormal size and strength, characteristics archetypal of monstrosity: The humanity of Grendel is even more ambiguous; his immense physical strength and magical properties would appear to preclude him from being considered human, although he is said to have descended from Cain, an immoral human. Thus, these two antagonists appear to exist within the liminal space between the human – the natural – and the supernatural, by direct contrast to the antagonist of one of my subsidiary texts. The Shining presents a wholly supernatural evil; indeed, the antagonist of the novel is not so much a character but an inexplicable force of evil that resides with the Overlook hotel. Moreover, Paradise Lost has Satan as its primary antagonist, a character who too cannot be considered human, although exhibits many human qualities. Indeed, Satan in the first two books maintains his celestial aura from his time in heaven, and as such

‘Beowulf’ presents villains of more straightforward evilness; the fact that none of the three monsters are capable of any dialogue causes their presentation to be rather simpler than that of the antagonists of the other three texts. Thus, Grendel, his mother, and the Dragon are unable to demonstrate any emotional complexity, hence their characters are dominated by their physical monstrosity. A similar degree of physical monstrosity is demonstrated by The Creature in ‘Frankenstein’ however, it is his eloquence and intellect that immediately denote his moral ambiguity, contributing to a great contrast in presentations of evil, in spite of superficial similarities.

In ‘Frankenstein’, the Creature commences the novel as a morally sound character, but goes on to murder innocent women and children, as well as torturing his creator. The protagonist, Victor, is also complicated, facilitating the Creature’s change into a murderous character through his abuse and neglect of him, in spite of his status as the protagonist and ‘hero’. The very fact that the novel is narrated by both these characters provides a problematic narrative perspective; it becomes apparent that both creator and progeny are characters of great moral ambiguity, neither of whom can be described as straightforwardly evil. Indeed, it is Shelley’s presentation of the Creature as eloquent and articulate that first prompts to reconsider Victor’s superficial judgement of him as resolutely evil.

Satan is inherently the embodiment of evil, and hence one would expect the presentation of Evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ to be accordingly simple. However he is the vocaliser of the opening book of the collection, providing a  – perhaps biased – different angle on the nature of the figure, and therefore the nature of evil itself. In addition to this, the classical, epic structure of Paradise Lost is one which would usually entail a heroic protagonist, as is seen in Odysseus in the Odyssey, or Achilles of the Iliad. These are characters who also have some moral complexity; they cannot be described as completely ‘good’. Satan proves to be a similar character in the first two books of ‘Paradise Lost’; given the narrative perspective at the beginning of a poem, a somewhat sympathetic view of Satan as an almost anti-heroic character, flawed, yet fighting against a God who is portrayed more as a tyrannical dictator than a benevolent father. Fascinatingly, the very same character is used to denote the absolute evilness of Grendel in ‘Beowulf’ demonstrating the uniqueness of Milton’s portrayal of both Satan, and evil as a concept.

‘The Shining’, by far the most modern of the four texts, holds a presentation of evil furthest removed from the other texts. The novel does not contain a principal antagonist per se; the object of evil is the Overlook Hotel itself, causing Jack Torrance’s slow descent into a maniacal murderer, determined to kill his own family. However, beyond the obvious supernatural evil of the Overlook itself, The Shining also examines human evil in a manner that might be compared to ‘Frankenstein’; Jack’s relationships with his wife and son are complex, and invite questions regarding the nature of paternal responsibility, a theme dealt with to some extent in ‘Paradise Lost’ but particularly by ‘Frankenstein’. Indeed, the two texts feature a similar conflict; a father figure bent on destroying its offspring. (an interesting contrast with Beowulf where it is a maternal figure who seeks revenge for the death fo her offspring) Stephen King manages to convey the complexity of Evil effectively through his use of free indirect discourse; portions of the novel are Jack’s own internal monologue, allowing  the reader to sympathise with his perhaps disagreeable actions, in a manner very similar to ‘Frankenstein”s use of multiple first person narratives.

He is equally hideous in appearance, admitting himself the reaction of ‘consternation and horror’ that he receives upon being witnessed, even to the extent that he incites violence: ‘in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground and beat me violently with a stick’. Through such a vivid description of the hatred the Creature receives, Shelley strongly conveys the extent of his hideousness, but contrasts this with great emotional intelligence and sensibility. Indeed, he decides not to retaliate against Felix in spite of his capacity to ‘tear him limb from limb as the lion rends the antelope’. He demonstrates a lucid understanding of human morality which, much like Caliban, greatly exceeds that of any of his less ‘monstrous’ counterparts, including even his own creator, Frankenstein himself. As such, it is apparent that there is a disconnect between the Creature’s physical monstrosity and his moral clarity of thought, providing, like Caliban, a warning against the dangers of superficial judgement. Although Frankenstein’s monster begins the novel as a tabula rasa of sound morality, he soon develops into the killer that his creator has long expected him to be: ‘I too can create desolation, my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him’. This intensifies the warning against mistreatment via misjudgement, as well as providing an implicit warning against Victor him self’s attempt to play god and ‘create a human’.

John Milton and Mary Shelley both create ‘monsters’ of great emotional complexity and depth, and moral ambiguity, to the extent that their status of monstrosity is repeatedly questioned. Milton very much introduces Satan in this manner; although his straightforward initial description is one of absolute evil, Milton, through his language and style, subtly questions this notion. Shelley, by contrast, introduces Frankenstein’s monster with a solely physical description, notably through the narration of Victor himself. The initial impression of the Creature is thus one of straightforward superficial monstrosity, which does not do justice to the depth of character he demonstrates throughout the rest of the novel.

Before analysing the presentation of the Evil of the Creature Shelley provides in Frankenstein, the possibility of Victor’s unreliability as a narrator must be considered; he takes an undeniably partisan view of the Creature, whom, it must be noted, killed his fiancé. The resolutely negative description of the Creature following its genesis is therefore unsurprising, although Victor’s initial reaction to the Creature is one shared by other humans who witness him in the novel. Regardless, Shelley endeavours to create an impression of a monster who inspires fear through its grotesqueness when introducing the Creature, a stark contrast to Milton’s antagonist, whom is described as heaven’s most beautiful angel. Perhaps ironically, it soon becomes clear that the two are moral opposites as well as physical, although in reversed fashion. However, the initial impression Shelley creates does nothing to foreshadow the Creature’s emotional sensibilities; the very first description of him refers to a ‘dull yellow eye’. The immediate connotations of such an adjective are of ill-health and malady, and thus an association of the Creature with disease is formed. He is described as moving with a freakishly inhuman ‘convulsive motion’, again associated with illness, or perhaps a form of reversed death throes, as the Creature is brought to life. This serves as a reminder of the nature of the monster’s unnatural creation, a contributing factor in its status as a ‘monster’. The Creature’s skin shares its diseased colouring with his eyes, being almost translucent, ‘scarcely cover[ing] the work of muscles and arteries beneath’, adding to a disturbing and inhuman appearance. His physical monstrosity is intensified by the presence of ‘beautiful’ feature such as ‘teeth of a pearly whiteness, and ‘hair… of a lustrous black’, through their juxtaposition of his more hideous ones. In addition, the ‘lustrous black’ hair owned by the creature is characteristic of gothic villains such as Dracula, and, like his appearance, foreshadows his eventual status as a true villain and monster in the story.

Milton, by contrast to Shelley, initially ignores the physical appearance of his ‘monster’ Satan, and instead introduces him through contextual information regarding his relationship with God, Adam and Eve. In doing so, Milton manages to convey to a certain extent what it is that makes his antagonist evil, providing an insight into the nature of the monster. However, this is not to say, as one might expect, that the initial impression of Lucifer is an unambiguously monstrous one. Rather, Milton seems to deliver, albeit discreetly, some redeeming qualities to the entity that is supposedly the source of all evil. The first description of Satan himself, however, does not support this: ‘th’infernal serpent’, reminiscent of his role in the first sin, and his deceit of Eve in the Garden of Eden, as well as making the obvious link between Satan and his residence, hell, via ‘infernal’. Furthermore, the first few lines which introduce Lucifer place heavy emphasis upon his duplicity; his ‘guile’ is noted, alongside the manner in which he ‘seduced’ Adam and Eve ‘to that foul revolt’. The use of ‘seduced’ as the very first word in reference to Satan, gives immediate testament to his complexity as a character, indeed, it is indicative of a degree of charisma, a quality which Milton continues to echo throughout Satan’s introduction, as well as being sexually suggestive, perhaps in reference to the role of lust in the Fall. Following this, Milton proceeds to describe Lucifer’s conflict with God. He does so in a way that is far from one sided, in fact, he to some extent portrays God as despotic, referencing his ‘throne and monarchy’, as well as Satan’s ‘ambitious aim’ against it. This line portrays Satan less as a transgressor, but more as a liberator; it is difficult to construe ‘ambitious’ as a negative adjective. Moreover, other adjectives that Milton uses to describe Satan include: ‘aspiring’ and ‘proud’, both of which serve to emphasis a vision of him as arrogant yet magnetic personality, whose bold challenge to authority was in ‘vain’. It is almost as if Milton introduces him with anti-heroic qualities as opposed to those of a straightforward monster and villain. Moreover, Lucifer is arguably the antithesis of Frankenstein’s Creature given his initial status as Heaven’s most beautiful angel, by contrast to the latter’s hideousness. In addition, Satan carries the status as the ultimate moral abomination, the origin of all evil; ‘Hell’s dread emperor’, not shared by Frankenstein’s monster, whom is initially an ethical being. However, both represent a defiance of God: as formerly discussed, Frankenstein’s creature is of unnatural genesis, taking the role of endowing life from God himself appears dangerous. Similarly, Satan defies god directly in an attempt to usurp him. If a Christian view of the nature of Evil is to be accepted, then both characters might be considered thus.

The initial impressions of both the Creature and Satan, fail to provide a complete picture of the characters and the nature of their monstrosity. Whilst Satan is established as evil, he is somewhat redeemed by Milton, and the extent of his monstrosity is not truly revealed; the initial impression is of a beguiling, alluring, very human entity, who demonstrates no physical monstrosity. The Creature is stark contrast to this, demonstrating many monstrous – or villainous – tropes such as extreme size, physical grotesqueness, and dark hair. However, Shelley does not reveal in her introduction of the monster his capacity for emotion, but rather through her description of him foreshadows his eventual fall to true monstrosity.

The evil of the respective antagonists of the texts can, to a certain extent, be explained by the concepts that they allegorically represent. As is stated in The Shining “We sometimes need to create unreal monsters and bogies to stand in for all the things we fear in our real lives.” A particular interpretation of The Creature in Frankenstein is that he is a representation of the French Revolution: initially of sound morality yet becoming warped into a mass murdering force of evil.

Similarly, Milton’s Paradise Lost, as a result of the author’s context as a political activist in the English Interregnum, is often read as a piece of political allegory. God, in spite of his status in Milton’s writing as an ipso facto force of omnipotent good, nonetheless has connotations of monarchic despotism which to a significant extent reflect Milton’s polemics in opposition to the English monarchy of the period. Milton’s context provides some insight into the evil of his principle character, Satan; the knowledge of Milton’s suspicion of absolute, God-given power. Indeed, Satan is a character who espouses the value of democracy: “Me though just right, and the fixed laws of Heav’n/ Did first create your leader, next, free choice,[…] Established in a safe unenvied throne/ Yielded with full consent,” (l 18-24). As such, his portrayal in some aspects is not one of evilness, but of righteousness. The context of Beowulf is somewhat different to the other texts through the relatively unknown nature of its context. Indeed, it appears that there are somewhat clumsy insertions of Christian thought. Whether these are authentic to the original version, or later insertions upon the poem being put into writing.

In conclusion, the four texts I have chosen to study all contain depictions of Evil that contrast greatly with each-other, to a significant as a result of the varying historical and political contexts; the eras in which they were written.

Bibliography

Primary Bibliography:

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  • King, S. The Shining

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