In Frankenstein, is ambition the cause of Victor's ruin?
Ambition does indeed seem to be the cause of Victor’s ruin. He determines to challenge the limits of human knowledge, to go above and beyond natural laws. This sets a chain of events in motion that he cannot control, and indeed seems hardly willing to face up to, in his immediate rejection of the creature which he endows with life.
There are several traditions that lie behind the story of this man with over-reaching ambition. One is the Germanic legend of Faust who sold his soul to the devil in return for forbidden knowledge and all manner of worldly delights. The great German writer Goethe wrote his famous version of the legend, in roughly the same period as Frankenstein.
There are two other major strands which influenced the novel in its depiction of unbridled ambition. One is the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, the Titan who defied the gods to create and nurture human beings. Shelley of course makes the reference to this myth explicit by labelling Frankenstein as The Modern Prometheus in the title of the novel. Prometheus was severely punished by the gods for his presumption, and Viictor too suffers terribly, being unable to face up to the consequences of his actions and seeing the monster cut down a succession of his loved ones.
Finally, of course, there is the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, and their subsequent fall. Milton’s epic treatment of the story in Paradise Lost figures largely in Frankenstein, as is immediately apparent from the epigraph which takes the form of a quote from Milton’s despairing Adam. Here, too, the first sin of the first man and woman was to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – to gain more knowledge than God ever intended for them. The themes of gaining forbidden knowledge, of pursuing more than is properly allotted to the human sphere, is the central one of Frankenstein.
Victor, in his sorrowful retrospective of his life, realises quite clearly his own sin of ambition, but he also sees it as a case of fate inexorably leading him on:
Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction. (chapter 2)
Put this way, it has simply been his fate to have pursued the path of forbidden knowledge, and to suffer so much himself as a result. He is not presented as wicked, but misguided. He can in fact be thought of as a tragic hero both in his questing and his suffering, a romantically doomed figure. Even as he dies, having ruined himself and others (not least his own creature), his innate nobility of nature and demeanour still shines through, at least in Walton’s admiring eyes:
what comment can I make on the untimely extinction of this glorious spirit? (chapter 24)
Frankenstein is a broken man by the end, but still a very eloquent one who is able to counsel Walton against the dangers of unrestrained ambition, which has been the cause of his own downfall.