Hypocrisy in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein
Humans are inherently flawed, as are the greatest characters in literature; the characters in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, are no different. In literature, a tragic flaw, or ‘hamartia”, is what leads to a hero’s downfall. It also works to humanize the characters, no one is perfect so a perfect character would be boring and unrelatable. The tragic flaw in Frankenstein is undoubtedly blind ambition. This is hammered home in the line, “Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition” (157). Besides the main flaw though, characters can have others which would further complicate thus further humanize them. A common minor flaw that can be seen in Frankenstein is that of hypocrisy, Victor, the Monster, and even the society that Mary Shelly lived having varying levels of hypocrisy.
Victor Frankenstein’s hypocrisy is multifaceted, and it is best to look first at his upbringing. His household is made up of broken families. For instance, his father’s sister sent her daughter, Elizabeth, to be raised in the Frankenstein house. Victor’s friend, Henry Clerval, also spent most of his time at the Frankenstein’s home and accompanied them on trips. There is also a woman, Justine Moritz, who moved in after her own mother died. Victor includes these accounts of his childhood saying, “ I feel pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood before misfortune had tainted my mind” (page 21). I don’t believe it to be a stretch to say the joy he experiences here is due to the connectedness of his upbringing; always with family and friends. This seems to change after Elizabeth becomes sick. She lives and begins to heal but Victor’s mother comes into contact with the sick Elizabeth too soon, she herself becomes sick. Unfortunately, she dies to the illness. Victor states, “I need not describe the feelings of those whose dearest ties are rent by that most irreparable evil…” (25) and while yes, the “irreparable evil” mentioned is death, just what is death? Ultimately, it is a separation.
If Victor’s greatest joys in childhood come from family bonding, then his darkest memory comes after a severance of those family bonds. Victor would surely remember just how devastating it can feel to be abandoned from those you love, and yet the first of Victor’s hypocrisies is abandonment: “Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…” (36). Victor created life and then abandoned it, left it alone knowing full well just how terrible it is to be left behind and denying the being the same joys he experienced in his youth of family bonding.
The second of Victor’s shortcomings is allowing Justine to take the fall for William’s murder. In his refusal to act Victor is allowing a person to be separated from their family, his family really. The last of Victor’s hypocrisies is when he is talking to Walton. To Walton, he warns him of going too far with research and losing sight of what really matters saying, “Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition” (157). However, he gives the crew that is on verge of a mutiny a pep talk that seems to be telling them to keep going despite any hardships, in other words, he is telling them to be ambitious.
The Being is equally as complicated, playing both victim and villain. When the Being finally gives his account of things in Volume two, the Being’s character comes to light. He explains that after leaving Victor, he disappeared into the villages and then the forest living as a forager. Before he begins his tale, he tells Victor, “I am miserable, and they shall share my wretchedness. Yet it is in your power to recompose me and deliver them from an evil which it only remains for you to make so great” (69). The Being here shows that he understands he is being terrible, but he isn’t taking responsibility for his rage. If the Monster’s following story is to make us pity him, it falls flat because of this preamble. Perhaps that is why Victor ultimately gives up on the Beast’s favor in the end. The Being reacts poorly to the denial of his request saying, “Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you” (120).
The monster tried to argue that a mate could temper him, that they could live in South America away from the rest of the world with no issues. However, even Victor will eventually see a problem with that logic. Victor points out about the bride-to-be that “she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other” (119). The Being never seems to argue against this point. Considering how subjected the creature feels with the life that he was dealt, one would think that he would have more qualms with bringing in another life much like his.
The creature doesn’t seem to be angry that he is alive, quite the opposite really, when he says, “Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me” (88). It is rather the solitude and distance from humanity that he hates. Living alongside one companion would still lead to feeling locked away from the world. How long until they were to be bored with each other? Bored with their environment? Want new books? He compares himself to Adam in “Paradise Lost” which means his bride is to be his Eve, a being made simply for his own enjoyment. If the being already thinks his place in the world is a weird place between man and animal, his bride’s place would be even less as she would exist merely to be a companion.
The hypocrisy of the two main characters makes perfect sense when looking at the world that Mary Shelly produced the work in. The work originally started as a competition to tell ghost stories among friends. Mary’s idea was then expanded on at the request of her husband, Percy Shelly, and “published 19 months later, anonymously, but with broad hints that it might be by Percy Shelly or Byron” (xi). Mary was denied putting her name on her own work. Early criticisms, thankfully included in this edition of the novel, show that those that believed the story to be written by Percy or Byron, highly praise the work. Such as Sir Walter Scott in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine saying, “…the work impresses us with a high idea of the author’s original genius…he has aspired to the paullo majora…” (231). Edinburgh magazine also published, “This tale is evidently the production of no ordinary writer…” (237) and later “If we mistake not, this friend was a Noble Poet” (238).
Did everyone share such thoughts? No, of course not, but those that knew that Mary Wrote were much more critical overall. For instance, Knights quarterly said regarding both Frankenstein and another novel by Mary Shelly, Valperga, “But whence arises the extreme inferiority of Valperga? I can account for it only by supporting that Shelly wrote the first, though it was attributed to his wife, – and that really she wrote the last” (240) Or the British Critic saying, “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel” (British Critic, Upenn). The hypocrisy here should be apparent. Those who were fans of Percy and Byron loved the work when the author was anonymous, but those who either knew that the writer was Mary or at least thought that she was the writer were much more critical of the work.
There also doesn’t seem to be any hint that Percy was asked about how the work came to be, but Mary talks about being asked just that in her introduction for the third edition of the work. In the introduction, she says, “I shall thus give a general answer to the question… “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” (169). There has been an air of disbelief around the idea that Mary could have written the work and there are still people trying to find out just how involved Percy was in its creation as if knowing that a man was behind will allow people to sleep better at night and justified the novel’s grotesque nature.
In conclusion, the hypocrisy in and around Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein centers around that of patriarchal hypocrisy. Victor seems to say one thing while constantly going against his own advice. The Being is in agony trying to decide his place in the world and criticizes Victor for creating him and yet wants another being created. Of course, this theme makes sense when you look at the world that Mary was living in, one that has problems no praising a novel written by a man, but will judge the same novel much harsher when they realize it was actually written by a woman. Not that the world is much different today considering that Mary’s own introduction is included in the back with a paraphrased version written by J. Paul Hunter included in the front instead.