Ethical and moral grounds Essay
Ethical and moral grounds
From a moral point of view, the truth of the above statement seems so convincing that it would be very difficult to make an argument against it. Victor Frankenstein’s creation of the monster and subsequent rejection of him is questionable on both ethical and moral grounds so we feel that surely he is responsible for his creation’s crimes – and it is the issue of responsibility that goes to the heart of the question of who is the ‘true’ murderer. However, over the course of the book, we see the monster evolve from a child-like creature without any understanding or language into one who becomes sensitive, eloquent, cruel and violent.
Consequently it could be argued that with this change came moral awareness and therefore the true responsibility for the murders. By examining the events that lead to the deaths of William, Justine, Clerval and Elizabeth, this essay aims to establish who bears the ‘true’ responsibility for the murders rather than just whose hands committed the crime. The death of Frankenstein’s younger brother William is perhaps the most appalling, as William is only a child, and the monster’s excitement at what he has done shocks the reader even more: ‘I gazed on my victim, and my heart swelled with exultation and
hellish triumph'(p117). This reaction to the death of a child seems unbelievably evil – yet the monster’s joy is not really in William’s death – it is actually in the realisation that he can hurt and therefore revenge himself on Victor: ‘I, too, can create desolation; my enemy is not impregnable’ (p117). Also, although the reader would expect to feel no sympathy whatsoever for the assailant of such a crime, Shelley uses it to show the extent of prejudice even in society’s youngest members which has the effect of catching the reader off guard.
Desperate for human company, the monster incorrectly reasons that the ‘little creature was unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity’ (p117). This has the unexpected effect of making the reader feel sorry for the monster as well as the victim, because by now Shelley has developed him into a thinking, sensitive being who has still been completely rejected by all – even a child.
Although the reader is horrified by the murder, the monster’s intention to abduct William ‘to educate him as [his] companion and friend’ is at least as pathetic as it is wrong, and therefore somehow also human and mitigating. Nevertheless, William’s murder was not portrayed as being premeditated but it was definitely a deliberate and reasoned act of vengeance: ‘Frankenstein! You belong then to my enemy… you shall be my first victim’ (p117) and so it seems to make holding Victor solely responsible for it extremely difficult.
The death of Justine however is not only the most damning for Victor, because he withholds information about her supposed crime for the most selfish of reasons, but for the monster as well. Under the pretext of fearing he will be dismissed as a madman, Victor remains silent about the monster. Yet since he is already thought to be ‘mad’ this is hardly a convincing reason. Nearer the truth is his fear of being abhorred by mankind for creating the monster, and it is for this weakness that Shelley ensures we feel less sympathy for Victor.
The monster too is at his most despicable and calculating as he deliberately plants the incriminating evidence of murder on the innocent Justine and we feel that there is little to choose between him and Victor. However, it is significant that Victor himself sees Justine’s trial as some kind of judgement on his arrogance in creating the monster in the first place and even acknowledges that the true responsibility for both William’s death and Justine’s eventual execution should be his:
‘It was to be decided whether the result of my curiosity and lawless devices would cause the death of two of my fellow-beings: one a smiling babe, full of innocence and joy; the other far more dreadfully murdered… ‘ (p61). In failing to save Justine from execution, Shelley is drawing attention to Victor’s failure to resolve the moral dilemma he is in, which conveniently protects him as well as the monster. Also, she is drawing attention to the corruption of the courts and the church in accepting a confession from Justine extracted under the threat of withholding her last rites. The murder of Clerval reveals how sophisticated the monster has become in psychological torture.
Although William’s murder happened after a chance meeting, Clerval’s, and later Elizabeth’s, is part of the monster’s premeditated plan to revenge himself on Victor and he knows that the best way to destroy him is by attacking those he loves. Unlike the unplanned murder of William that left the monster feeling exhilarated and powerful, he describes the ‘anguish’ he felt and how his ‘heart was poisoned with remorse ‘ (p. 188) after Clerval’s death. These painful recriminations show that the monster is capable of remorse and compassion as well as cunning, and yet condemn him all the more.
This is not the picture of an ignorant or backward monster who could not help himself, but one of someone who could perhaps have chosen differently. Even more incriminating is Elizabeth’s death, where the monster’s threat to Victor that he will be with him on his wedding night again makes it difficult to hold Victor solely responsible, even though he left her alone and open to attack. This murder is not just to punish Victor for abandoning him, but is the monster’s revenge for cruelly destroying the female companion he so desperately needed.
Thus we can see that although the monster may literally do the killing and is therefore clearly culpable, he is not solely and directly responsible for the murders. For this very reason it could be argued that neither is it completely satisfactory to say that Victor is the true murderer because he did not literally commit them: ‘I, not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer’ (p72). It is impossible to address the question of who the ‘true’ murderer is in a literal way. For instance, Victor could never be held legally responsible for the murders because he did not physically commit them.
The only way the question of responsibility can be answered is on ethical and moral grounds, but the problem with assigning blame and responsibility based on these considerations is that they are almost meaningless without a social context. In other words, it could also be argued that the ‘true’ responsibility for the murders goes beyond either Victor or the monster to society as a whole because once people start rejecting and alienating an individual they create outsiders. And once social rules and responsibilities cease to apply to an individual they are free to behave as monstrously as they like.
However, if we believe that as members of society we are responsible for our actions, then we have to believe that Victor was ultimately responsible for all the deaths. If he had not been so arrogant as to obsessively pursue the mastery of nature and life over death, the monster would never have come into being.
This was definitely a flaw rather than a strength in Victor’s character because Shelley shows him being punished by remorse and regret almost as soon as the monster is created, ‘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’. This description of ugliness is extreme, and at the same time prevents us from sympathising with Victor because we do not understand why he continued with his experiment knowing others would certainly feel as repelled – if not more so. We wonder why an intelligent man didn’t anticipate society’s reactions to a creation as ugly and unnatural as he was making – or even his own reactions to such a creature, and realise that if he, its creator, could not love it then why would anyone else?
The only logical answer is the morally questionable one of supreme arrogance and self-indulgence at the expense of all others: Society, family, and colleagues. Victor was totally repelled by the ugliness of the monster – and so was everyone else that set eyes on him, which resulted in his alienation and isolation. Yet it is more accurate to say that Victor didn’t actually create the monster by ‘making’ him, but by rejecting him. Only after being constantly rejected and driven out by everybody was he ‘wrenched by misery to vice and hatred’ (p188).
It was neglect and the basic need of companionship that he craved that drove him to being a monster. Shelley does show the monster developing awareness of right and wrong, but also of mankind’s prejudice and intolerance of those who are different. She seems to be saying that being educated, from however noble a source, is not a substitute for being nurtured by a parent or society and that those who fail to give this nurture, like Victor, are the real monsters. In other words, Victor is the true murderer because he is the true monster.