To what degree are the characters in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein responsible for their own fate? HSC english question on Frankenstein by MARY SHELLEY.

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bank4320 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To answer this question, it is worth taking a step back and considering the subtitle of the novel: "The Modern Prometheus". For those unfamiliar with the older Prometheus, he was the titan who--according to Greek mythology--gave humanity power over nature by giving to them fire.  In the context of Frankenstein, this modern Prometheus is Victor.  He, like the earlier titan, seeks to overcome human limitations through re-animating inanimate matter. (Significantly, he abandons his family and friends in the process, and, as the summary points out, flees from his creation when he does eventually animate it.)  Because his creation leads to both his ruin and the deaths of those closest to him, he is, like Prometheus, a tragic figure: he aspires to deification, but cannot bear the responsibility that this status entails.  For this reason, his character is his fate. The case of the monster is much more problematic. He has all of the emotions and mental capabilities of a human, but is still rejected by society.  As he says at one point: "I had feelings of affections, and they are requited by detestation and scorn. Man, you may hate; but beware!" (1001; Norton Anthology). In other words, the more free the monster is to realize his humanity, the more he is fated to exclusion. Of course, there is nothing in the narrative that implies this outcome was inevitable; if he had not been disowned by Victor his fate would have been quite different. Their fates are complementary.

Lynn Ramsson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question is an interesting one, and the answer is not exactly straightforward, especially when comparing the two different versions of Frankenstein. In the first version of 1818, Victor appears to have more free will, and he appears to choose to do the experiments that lead to the invention of the creature. In the second version from 1831, Victor is more of a victim of fate, and his actions seem driven by a more powerful force that propels him to do its bidding. In the 1831 text, Victor seems destined to all the tragedy that he creates and falls victim to, whereas in the 1818 text, Victor seems stronger and more in control, which means that the terrible things that happen are his own fault.

Mary Shelley's life experiences may explain the significant shift in her attitude toward fate and free will. In 1818 and then again in 1819, two of Mary Shelley's children died. These tragic deaths were very hard on her, as she had wanted to be a mother for her whole life, and motherhood was already fraught for her, as she had lost her own mother when very young. It is possible that Mary Shelley believed before her children died that she had some control over her own life; after losing two of them when very young, she may have realized that she was at the mercy of fate and changed the text of Frankenstein accordingly.

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