Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’, and P.B. Shelly’s ‘Alastor’ Essay
Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’, and P.B. Shelly’s ‘Alastor’
The theme of suffering is best conveyed through the “solitary” aesthetic figure of the wanderer or vagrant. Romantic writers produced works revealing extremes of isolation and socialisation, creating ‘either a wild beast or a god’ and proving that although solitude can render knowledge, it can also be the cause of deep suffering. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,
is an account of the monstrous potentiality of human creative power when severed from moral and social concerns. Suffering is displayed through the characters of Victor Frankenstein and his nameless creation, the monster or “the fallen angel” . Moreover, what is necessary to further the discussion of suffering, is the cause and indeed expression of suffering endured by the central characters. Frankenstein hopes to be the source of a new species, but ironically, his creature evolves into a self acknowledged Satan who swears eternal revenge and war on upon his creator and all the human race as a result of the misery he experiences at their hands.
The Monster sees salvation only through the creation of his Eve. Both master and creature are torn by their internal conflicts from misapplied knowledge and their sense of isolation. P.B. Shelley’s Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude, compares well to Frankenstein as there are many similarities with the poet and the character of the Monster and his creator, Frankenstein; both texts portray the themes of suffering through isolation and central to both is the desire for a companion or equal other.
Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude is a touching poem which conveys well the suffering of the individual. There is an obsession within the young poet within the poem, which leads him to express the broodings of the heart in solitude. The lonely musings of the poet are ironically soothing and create a melodious tone to the poem as he learns and strives for more knowledge to quench his young mind. As P.B.Shelley describes the character in the preface to the poem, he also draws on its moral: ‘It represents a youth of uncorrupted feelings…He drinks deep of the fountains of knowledge and is still insatiate… His mind is awakened and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to himself…’ He yearns as a result, for his perfect companion, but his wandering to far lands fails to find him his ideal.
Shelley goes on to write that in desiring the purest being in a ‘single image’ he seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception. ‘Blasted’ by his disappointment he descends to an ‘untimely grave’. Shelley stated also in his preface that the tragic flaw of the young poet is that he is ‘deluded’ and ‘duped’ and thus ‘morally dead’. Shelley suggests, therefore that the spirit is cursed because it fails to exist with other citizens of the world. The poet chooses to wander in solitude and so suffers for existing ‘without human sympathy’. It is the ‘intensity and passion for their search’ which leads them to ‘lasting misery and loneliness in the world’. The moral is epitomized in the final lines of the preface: ‘Those who love not their fellow beings live unfruitful lives and prepare for their old age a miserable grave’.
It is ironic that the poem begins exclaiming ‘Earth, Ocean, Air, beloved brotherhood!’ and yet this obsession and love for creation leads him further and further away from coexisting with all these things which he admires, leading to withdrawal and suffering. The opening verse describes romantic images of nature, typical of the period in which Shelley was writing, revealing the poets love for nature: The ‘dewy morn’ and the ‘solemn midnight’ as well as the descriptions of animal and insect life, create a tranquil atmosphere. Yet these are suddenly juxtaposed by the second verse; the poet describes suffering and disturbed sleep in ‘charnels and on coffins’ and the philosophical questions of the purpose of existence that follow create a sense of foreboding. P.B.Shelley, significantly, then describes ‘the alchemist’, implying that just as the alchemist’s quests to turn base metals into gold are an impossibility, the poets quests to wander and reject society, is equally fruitless. Parallels can be made to Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, who also is like the alchemist .
The poet desires a companion, just as the Monster does in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the poem, the longing is portrayed in the image of the moon: ‘As oceans moon looks on the moon in heaven’ This image is significant for several reasons; the poet compares illusion and reality and therefore conveys how he pursues the dream image of the maid into the real world, but the pursuit, as the image boldly suggests, is impossible and unattainable. In addition to this, the image of the moon enhances the feelings of a vacant natural world as it seems to the poet, whose narcissist love is directed to an ideal conceived within his own mind. This can be compared to both the character of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. Just like the poet in Alastor, the Monster desires in despair for an ideal which will never become a reality.
Equally, the idea of narcissism is also apparent within the character of Frankenstein. In the poem, ‘Yellow flowers forever gaze on their own drooping eyes’ This image symbolises Narcissus who saw his reflection and fell in love with it, mistaking it for a Nymph, falling into the river, and dying in pursuit of his own reflection, turning into a daffodil. In the same way, Frankenstein is solipsistic and motivated by selfish desires; for him, love is narcissistic and in his pathetic attempt to make a creation in his own image, as God did with Adam, he creates instead ‘the fallen angel’, which he fails to love and nurture. Thus the novel and the poem both represent an idealistic quest, egotistical in essence- and for Frankenstein, a quest for self glorification- which gives rise to unimaginable suffering.
In his poem, Shelley compares suffering and loneliness with an eagle, ‘grasped in folds of green serpent’ burning with pain, ‘Frantic with dizzying anguish’ Shelley appropriately uses the imagery of the serpent attacking a bird, drawing in Biblical parallels to the poem, just as Mary Shelley does in her novel to place importance on the Fall of Man. This theme is essential in Frankenstein as it often provides reasons for the suffering the characters experience, as Frankenstein too gains his knowledge through a forbidden act. Despite James Reiger’s 1974 criticism of the realism of the novel, it cannot be denied that Shelley knew far more about Galvanism, science and sorcery, than her critics gave her credit for. Frankenstein’s asexual creation of a ‘new species’ is actually an evolutionary regression. His ‘solitary reproduction’ is far from God-like; it is instead the beginning of terror and torment on human lives. The reader first learns about Frankenstein’s ill health and general condition through Robert Walter.
This is an effective narrative method revealing Shelley’s exceptional style which enhances sympathy towards Frankenstein and, more importantly, serves to create suspense. He is described as being ‘dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering…generally melancholy and despairing’ and more significantly, ‘gnashes his teeth as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppress him’. This description also highlights that Shelley’s work has been influenced by her father, the author of Caleb Williams, William Godwin, who wrote ‘Every time the mind is invaded with anguish and gloom the frame (or physical and outward vigour) becomes disordered’ (Godwin, Political Justice, Pg 249)
Walter’s description of Victor Frankenstein only creates further suspense and is heightened by Frankenstein’s answer to why he is alone and travelling in such severe conditions: “To seek one who fled from me” It is his ‘constant and deep grief’ (Walter, page 59) which instil ‘sympathy and compassion’ in both Walter and the reader. The cause to Frankenstein’s grief is then revealed to the final and only friend he will ever have, in a unique Gothic style, revealing elements of both the sensational and supernatural. What follows then is a chilling story, in which Shelley creates a brooding atmosphere or gloom and terror, mystery and suspense, revealing at first the sufferings of the creator, and then the pain and torment of the creation.
Frankenstein emphasises that “No youth could have passed more happily than mine”. Shelley contrasts the description of Frankenstein’s upbringing which is both respectable and pleasant, to the ‘gloomy and narrow reflection upon self’ which Frankenstein now feels on telling his story to the lieutenant. He outlines his fascination for ‘the structure of the human frame’ (page 79) and his various advancements in his work , but what is emphasised more is his obsession with his work. When his experiment is finally complete, there is no such joy.
Frankenstein describes his disappointment and disgust when the monster woke, having ‘worked hard for nearly two years, but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart’ (page 85) So sickened and repulsed by the being he has created, Victor leaves the room: ‘…one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped’ (page 88). Thus form the moment the Monster is created, Frankenstein rejects him. His justification for his action is simply: ‘Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance!’ It is this fatal rejection which leads to his own downfall and proves that the suffering and solitary state of the monster is a result of Frankenstein’s irresponsibility.
Victor’s suffering is caused by loss of his family and lover, and ultimately himself. Walter describes him as ‘broken in spirit’ but a ‘divine wanderer’ nevertheless. Frankenstein says ‘I have suffered great and unparallel misfortunes.’ Victor is not only referring to the murders, but also to the trial of Justice who is wrongly accused of murdering the young boy, William. Victor is aware that it was in fact the Monster who committed the murder, and when Justine’s verdict is announced, Victor can only think of his own guilt: ‘The tortures of the accused could not equal mine…the fangs of remorse tore at my bosom’.
Victor blames himself for the deaths that occur because only he is aware of his creation and that it was he who let lose the malice of the ‘fiend’. His mental state leads to his illness, and typically in a Romantic novel, Shelley proves language cannot describe the nature of experience and is therefore limited, as Victor states: ‘…the sense of guilt which hurried me to hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe.’ Victor describes his own solitary state has being ‘deep, dark, death – like solitude’ and this implants bitter rage within him: ‘My abhorrence for this fiend cannot be conceived’ and so he vows to avenge the murders.
The arrival of the monster reveals to the reader a different story of suffering. Shelly prepares the reader for a terrifying gothic figure, but when he finally appears before the vehement Victor, he is composed and calmly states: ‘I expected this reception…all men hate the wretched’. His demeanour and eloquent speeches reveal a learned individual whose rationality supersedes even Victors, furthermore, there is a tone of remorse and pain in his voice. It is certain that Victor’s creation only grows monstrous qualities through his sufferings. Victor created life and abandoned it, and the monster even states helplessly:’ No father had watched my infant days’. His creation therefore has no identity, family, society, home or companion. He recognises that he is different: ‘Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?.’ His perceptions of himself are formulated as a result of societies reactions to him. He is ‘hideous and gigantic’ and suffers for these reasons in solitude.
He describes his initial feelings as a new creature on earth, a ‘helpless, miserable wretch; I knew and could distinguish nothing; but feelings of pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept.’ His experiences are harrowing and emotional, and yet astounding; the monster’s sensory experiences are like a small child that is abandoned and desperately trying to survive. His first encounter with mankind leaves him afraid ‘miserable…from the barbarity of man’ (130) However, his encounter with the cottage family reveal the real nature and characteristics of the Monster. He yearns to be part of a family unit and on seeing the family weep, he realises their pain is poverty. He realises that by stealing from them ‘inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained and satisfied myself with berries’ (141)
He helps them by collecting firewood and without their knowledge tends to their crops, and his only reward is his personal satisfaction of being able to help the needed. It can be stated that at this stage, the creature is only monstrous in appearance, and his recognition of the cottagers suffering shows his astonishing empathetic qualities. His romantic descriptions of his observations of the children and the loving nature of the family, juxtapose with his solitude and his feelings of self- loathing which are epitomised in seeing his reflection in the lake: ‘I was filled with bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.’ When the cottagers finally find him, they too react through physical violence and ultimately the monster is rejected once again only to return to his solitude and misery:
‘Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant…
endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome;
I was not even of the same nature as man…When I looked
around I saw and heard of none like me…a blot upon this
earth which all men fled, and whom all men disowned’ (149)
The monster is visibly aware of his alienation and his reflections cause him agony and sorrow. He expresses his pain through wandering, and this is a pivotal moment which captures the transition completely: ‘I gave vent to my anguish in fearful howling. I was like a wild beast.’ His distress and agony are with a world full of prejudices where he is given no chance, and thus, he projects his rage at his surroundings tearing at branches and trees, and finally ‘sank on the damp grass in the sick impotence of fear.’ It is at this moment that he realises his goodness will never be recognised; he is grotesque but has physical strength as his only tool, hence declaring ‘everlasting war ‘ on his ‘enemies’, and above all, ‘against he who had formed me’, his creator, Victor Frankenstein, the root of his suffering. The image which follows is a hellish and ghoulish scene of the monster howling into the night and burning down the cottage he had once loved. His stream of bad fortune is just appalling and Shelley seems to be exposing the inhumanity of humanity.
The significance of the three texts which the monster encounters cannot be overlooked. The first text is Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther which enables the monster to realise his own solitary state and depression. He weeps whilst Werther suffers too as an orphan and solitary walker, and adds: ‘I applied much personally and to my own feelings and condition’ (153) He compares his Werther’s desires to become part of Charlottes family to his own which were to become part of the cottage family, the De Lacey’s. Shelley’s novel also draws from her mother’s work, such as Vindication in which the influence is apparent through the monster’s actions; he is deprived of the domesticity and affections necessary for human beings.
Thus through Goethe’s text, he learns of the domestic idyll. The second text is the Volume of Plutarch’s lives which depicts the history of the origins of mankind, and from the text he learns ‘high thoughts’, and goes on to state: ‘He elevated me above the wretched sphere of my own reflection [of self- pity and gloom], to admire and love the heroes of past ages’. However it is the third text, Milton’s Paradise Lost which is most striking in its parallel towards both the Monster and Victor . The monster found a correlation between his condition and stated: ‘Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other human being…I was wretched, helpless and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition’ (page-136).
The monster’s central complaint is that he is alone and he requests that Victor make a companion for him: ‘I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me… my companion must be of the same species and have the same defects’ (Page 168) Society has rejected him because he is ‘deformed and horrible’, but this suffering leads to the monster retuning to find his creator so that loneliness can only be overcome by a companion – this is a huge realisation in the monster: and more significantly, is that this suffering caused by complete solitude, is experienced by humans too. Hence the suffering felt by the monster makes him no different to man. The monster goes on to say that a companion is ‘necessary for my being’ (Pg 168) and the only cure for his malicious behaviour and misery. When Victor refuses a ‘fiendish rage animated him as he said this; his face was wrinkled into contortions too horrible for human eyes to behold…’ (Pg 169)
This is his reaction to someone refusing what he desires most, what has haunted him since his creation and his rage is hardly surprising when considering the suffering he has endured. ‘Every time languor and indifference creep upon us our functions fall into decay…’ This is where the monster’s argument finds its roots, for as Godwin writes in Political Justice, in order to be ‘cheerful’, we must ‘cultivate a kind and benevolent propensity…’Godwin also expressed his views on solitary confinement and these too seem to be echoed in the text :’The soul yearns, with inexpressible longings, for the society of its like.’
The monster is hence likened to the offender in solitary confinement and pleads for a companion: ‘Who can tell the suffering of him who is condemned to uninterrupted solitude? Who can tell this that this is not, to the majority of mankind the bitterest torment that human ingenuity can inflict?’ (Pg 251) Echoing Godwin, who wrote ‘A man is of more worth than a beast’, Victor disregarding the monster’s pleas, destroys the unfinished female monster. This is the penultimate event which gives rise to relentless suffering endured by the monster . The extent of his misery is epitomised with the monster questioning Victor: ‘Shall each man find a wife for his bosom, and each beast have his mate, and I be alone? Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness?’ (Volume 3, chapter 2) Thus there is a disastrous outcome to Victor’s reasoning.
In Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel, Frankenstein hopes to be the source of new species, but ironically, his creature evolves into a self acknowledged Satan who swears eternal revenge and war upon his creator and all the human race. The monster reflects that hell is an internal condition which is produced and increased through loneliness. Both master and creature are torn by their internal conflicts from misapplied knowledge and their sense of isolation. In P.B. Shelley’s poem, the solitary walker suffers as a result of his own actions and choice to be abandon society. He suffers for having fantasies that will never be a reality. Hence his suffering is a result of his own disillusionment.
1. Shelley, P.B., Alastor: Or, The Spirit Of Solitude
2. Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft , Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus,(D.L.Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf) 1999.
3. Duncan Wu, ed,. Romanticism: A Critical Reader, (Blackwell, 1995)
4. Butler, Marilyn, Romantics, Rebels and Revolutionaries: English Literature and its Background, 1760-1830,(Oxford University Press, 1981)
5. Goethe, J.W., The Sorrows of Young Werther(Penguin Books, 1985)
6. Furst, Lilian, European Romanticism, (Wayne State University Press, 1990).