In Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, what are Victor Frankenstein's strengths?
In Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, the reader is too often able to see Victory's actions as characteristics of weakness.
There is no doubt that Shelley approaches the question of Victor's desire to be God-like, and for creating life (something only God can do), he defies the laws of heaven and earth and is punished severely.
However, much like a parable of a good man who is led astray by hubris and curiosity, Victor is not a weak or irresponsible man at the story's beginning.
One of Victor's strengths is his devotion to family and friends. While his actions unintentionally bring devastation down on those he loves, he is a man of staunch support and deep affection. Shelley describes Victor's love of Elizabeth, a child his parents adopt when she is very young:
…Elizabeth Lavenza became the inmate of my parents' house—my more than sister—the beautiful and adored companion of all my occupations and my pleasures.
…[I] looked upon Elizabeth as mine—mine to protect, love, and cherish…No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me—my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only.
Victor is not gregarious; in fact, he would "avoid a crowd", except for one person—his best and most-loved comrade:
…I united myself in the bonds of the closest friendship to one [of my school-fellows]. Henry Clerval...was a boy of singular talent and fancy.
Victor is a young man who appreciates the things he has. He is not, by nature, grasping for money or power—these things do not motivate him.
No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence. …When I mingled with other families I distinctly discerned how peculiarly fortunate my lot was, and gratitude assisted the development of filial love.
While a thirst for knowledge becomes Victor's undoing, this quality is admirable even though it is a double-edged sword. Victor's intent is never to rise above his station in the universe. He does, however, have an insatiable curiosity.
The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.
This is strength to be commended for in studying the world around him, Victor grows in knowledge. Unfortunately, he does not grow in wisdom!
Victor is exultant as he discovers the secret to creating life. He becomes obsessed with being a benevolent creator; however it is also praiseworthy to note that he believes he could bring good into the world with what nature has revealed to him:
Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. […] Pursuing these reflections, I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.
The reader can admire Victor as he ultimately endeavors to share his experiences in order save others from making the same disastrous mistakes he has made—he finds within himself compassion for others…to share wisdom he had never before recognized:
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
Perhaps in the story's themes we can discover the cautionary nature of this story. Victor discovered early on that he had a desire to...
...penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places.
As we read Victor's story, we discover his deep-rooted curiosity. He loves his family and friends, and is extremely grateful for the life he has been given and the blessings of his childhood joys and the goodness visited upon him by his parents. While Victor attains great knowledge, his actions are sparked by an immature and irresponsible wish to learn more, even if it is dangerous—something he never considers.
For example, Victor notes that his father had attempted to shield him from the darkness of life—something he mentions when he intentionally searches out corpses in order to study death and decay, aware that his father would be horrified.
Victor is foolish in believing that man has a right to know the secrets of the world and use them indiscriminately. In theory, his aspirations seem harmless enough—his original intent is that in some way, his knowledge might benefit the world in fighting off death. It is only when he sees the consequences of his work that he understands what he could not have anticipated before: the horror of his actions and the results of his work…the creature that nature—God—would have wisely known not to create.
Victor clearly demonstrates his immaturity by running away from his responsibility after sparking life in the monster. (In this moment, he ceases to be a scientist and acts more like a child.) He forgets the very tenets of parenting that he experienced at the loving hands of his parents. Foolishly, he also overlooks that need of love and care the creature desires, just as Victor had experienced as a child and a young man. And it is only when he faces personal devastating loss at the creature's hands that he finally realizes what his actions require—that he stop the monster from harming anyone else. Though too late in coming (where his friends and family are concerned), his decision to make things right is also admirable.
Victor had many admirable qualities as a young man. However, he foolishly lets his ambitions blind him to his responsibilities—not only as an adult, but also as a scientist and a man. Shelley seems to say that brilliance comes with responsibility, and man should know his limitations with nature, with God.