In Frankenstein, how does Mary Shelley present the character of Frankenstein and his reaction to his creation?
In her classic of gothic literature, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley portrays her “protagonist” as fanatically committed to an end, the result and implications of which he has completely failed to foresee. Victor Frankenstein departs for the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, leaving his family and cousin Elizabeth behind in Geneva, to pursue his interest in science, specifically, in the question of whether dead tissue can be regenerated. Toward this end, Victor becomes a man obsessed, eventually stalking cemeteries in the dead of night and robbing graves of their contents so that he can continue his research and experimentation. He has clearly, as depicted by Shelley, passed the line between rational and irrational commitment to a particular endeavor. It is in Chapter Five where Shelley brings Victor’s efforts to fruition employing prose to emphasize both the scale of those efforts and the immediate regrets he experiences upon achieving success. As Victor describes the rapid transition from initial elation at having restored life to once-dead tissue to abject horror, Shelley paints a classically horrific image of that moment:
". . .the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?"
Victor’s creation so horrifies the young scientist that he summarily rejects it. Later, he reflects upon his work and the somewhat counter-productive nature of the entire enterprise:
“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 ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
And, as if the above exclamations of dread and regret left any doubt with respect to Victor Frankenstein’s feelings regarding the fruits of his labors, the following passage, also from Chapter Five, solidifies those sentiments in the mind of the reader:
“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”
Victor’s revulsion at his own creation will set into motion a series of catastrophic events that will see him lose all that is dear to him and leave him a devastated soul, the life draining out of his body on Robert Walton’s ship on the top of the world.
Chapter Five is a crucial moment as it sees Frankenstein's creation come to life. The way he behaves and acts towards the Creature initially is pivotal in terms of how the rest of the text unfurls.
The setting plays an important role in foreshadowing the subsequent doom that will occur. The absence of light is significant because light is typically associated with good and the lack of light highlights the fact that Frankenstein has endeavoured to go beyond accepted scientific boundaries: he has transgressed against Mother Nature.
It was on a dreary night of November... It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out - Chapter Five
There is juxtaposition between what Frankenstein aimed to create and what he sees when the Creature opens its "watery eyes". He describes his initial vision as "Beautiful! - Great God!" and it is clear he has taken care to be precise in his construction of the Creature as its limbs "were in proportion and I had selected his features as beautiful". However, the pallid reality is that the Creature is comprised of dead body parts, therefore can never be as beautiful or aesthetically pleasing as a human being. The language used by Shelley paints a grotesque portrait of the Creature, which highlights Frankenstein's personal revulsion as well as the horror of what he has accomplished:
These luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. - Chapter Five
From the moment the creature “breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs”, Frankenstein’s dream dies. He shows this through the declarative:
I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart – Chapter Five
Frankenstein, from this point onwards, begins his descent into death himself; all because he has given life to a lifeless entity. It as if nature is trying to make up for the life he has created by sapping away his own strength and health. Frankenstein is so appalled at what he has done that he flees his residence. Pathetic fallacy is employed by Shelley to illustrate the wrought emotion of this chapter:
I did not dare return to the apartment which I inhabited… drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky… I continued walking in this manner for some time, endeavouring by bodily exercise to ease the load that weighed upon my mind.
I imagined that the monster seized me; I struggled furiously and fell down in a fit. - Chapter Five
The events of this chapter take their toll on Frankenstein mentally. He has a mental breakdown as a result of his intense paranoia regarding the Creature, and is nursed back to health by his friend Clerval. It is interesting that Clerval is so attentive and doting on Frankenstein, because this exacerbates Frankenstein’s complete abandonment of the Creature for the reader.