Essay: Darwinian Literary Analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818 Text)

Darwinian Literary Analysis of Mary Shelley’s

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818 Text)

by A.D. Shaffer

{Graduate Studies; originally written for Humanities 551 Spring 2015}

The ability to write a terrifying ghost story was realized by Mary Shelley through her imaginative dreams during a visit with Lord Byron in which the three accepted a challenge to create a chilling tale. After aptly listening to her husband Percy and Lord Byron discuss the fundamentals of the meaning of life and whence it came, paired with Erasmus Darwin’s theories on reanimation, Shelley envisioned a monster of terrible origins: a man created by man. I intend to expose the rudimentary workings of the author’s own mind and experience as fodder for her ghost story, insomuch that her biological tendencies afforded her the ability to create such a foe. Dependent on personal experience, humankind is able to mimic nature – but only so far as the individual mind is able to imagine due to the factors of evolution.

The human brain is limited by one’s own imagination, or lack thereof. Shelley uses her character, Captain Walton, as Victor’s audience as means to encourage her own readers to allow for unusual happenings; Victor said, “I believe that the strange incidents connected with it will afford a view of nature, which may enlarge your faculties and understanding. You will hear of powers and occurrences, such as you have been accustomed to believe impossible: but I do not doubt that my tale conveys in its series internal evidence of the truth of the events of which it is composed” (Shelley 17). Due to her parentage, both being writers, Shelley knew that she needed to bridge a gap between reality and reanimation. Captain Walton, an explorer on expedition to the unknown Artic, represents the inquisitive mind of humankind; that he immediately believes and loves Frankenstein is motivation for the reader to accept the story presented. It is through Walton in which the audience hears of the workings of Frankenstein.

As human beings of the nineteenth century could not create something from nothing but only rearrange what was already there, Shelley shows her main character Victor Frankenstein taking pieces of variant dead corpses and repurposing them into the Creature. The author uses her inherent skill of literature to envision an amplified species of humankind – a man who was larger, more durable, and easily acceptable to change – specific characteristics in which a higher evolution is suggested. Favoring factors of natural selection include a focus on the species’ ability to adapt to its environment. Charles Darwin notes the importance of adaptive abilities as they determine a selected species, he said, “Over all these causes of Change I am convinced that the accumulative action of Selection, whether applied methodically and more quickly, or unconsciously and more slowly, but more efficiently, is by far the predominant Power” (105). By granting the Creature thicker skin to better survive the conditions of nature, Shelley presents a suspension of disbelief for the reader who is to presume the Creature is more than natural man.

Literary Darwinism allows for the human brain to expound on the natural experience through evolutionary means. Victor notes on the wavelike reactions to change: “One sudden and desolating change had taken place; but a thousand little circumstances might have by degrees worked other alterations, which, although they were done more tranquilly, might not be the less decisive” (Shelley 54). His description mirrors the action of natural selection – small variations eventually forming new species through adaptations, or responses, to one’s environment. D.T. Max summarizes the abilities of literature as dependent on the evolving nature of humankind: “They say that it’s impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us”. Literary Darwinism explains to the audience why Victor Frankenstein, a character of the eighteenth century, could not accept the monstrosity that he created as minds from that time period could not fathom an unnatural person: “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” (Shelley 39). Victor is mortified with his own actions because he belongs to a time period in which humankind is not mentally prepared to accept the workings of science in the form of reanimation. The audience of the nineteenth century is vastly different than a modern audience because evolution has affected the modern brain’s ability to comprehend artificial manipulation.

The modern audience who reads Shelley’s piece will wonder why Victor deserted his creation, not why he created a monster. The reason behind this could be that the idea of reanimated flesh is not a new concept. The modern audience was subjected to the abilities of science via cloning of the 1990s, and the roots for cell division are found as early as 1892 by Hans Driesch. Dealing with embryos, Driesch discovered that each blastomere of the sea urchin created a new reproduced cell and that the cell, undiminished, was able to reproduce during cell division (McKinnell and Di Berardino 876). The point addressed is not focused on sheep, but more so to the public’s acceptance of cell division being a factual truth and common knowledge. With scientific acceptance the audience is able to understand cloning as a realistic possibility instead of a fantasy.

The advancement of the human brain relies on universal growth per species, and we look to culture to define the limitations. However, culture itself is a result of genetic growth: “At the core of Literary Darwinism is the idea that we inherit many of the predispositions we deem to be cultural through our genes” (Max). The meat of the matter is that Shelley was only able to create Frankenstein because her mind was predisposed to allow for scientific influence by means of her husband and father. Furthermore, due to her inherited genes from her parents, Shelley was able to construct a story of scientific nature using popular vocabulary of the time. Through her genetic disposition, Shelley knew to avoid areas of science that brought discomfort to the public, namely the grizzly work of dissecting human bodies, and she tactfully kept the physical construction of the Creature to a minimal while Victor “…pursued nature to her hiding places” (Shelley 36). The tone of the piece follows the designs of naturalism, and Shelley skillfully allows Victor to be the center of his own existence. The piece is more about how the instance has affected Victor’s own life than that of the life of his creation.

The modern reader empathizes with the loneliness of the Creature, who is so bereft of direction that he is never given a name. Despite his miserable conditions, the Creature is seen as more than human as he teaches himself how to read, write, and speak by way of mimicking the cottagers. Language and communication between the cottagers is fascinating to the Creature, he said, “I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it” (Shelley 88). He is self-taught and learns at an accelerated rate in which should produce pride in Victor for creating such an eloquent being. However, Victor feels only repulsion towards the Creature, insisting that he is a daemon from the start. While the physical looks of the Creature are considered deformed, he notes other valuable abilities that are better than regular humans: “I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they, and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs” (Shelley 96). Like a variation of species, the Creature’s genetic makeup is suggested to be of advanced development.

The humanity of the Creature is expressed through his own self-hatred upon reading the contents of Victor’s journal in which he recognizes his ugliness and issues a demand upon his creator. Comparing his life to the ordeals of Satan in Paradise Lost, the Creature said, “God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid from its very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested” (Shelley 105). He wants Victor to create a female companion so the Creature does not have to be alone any longer. Later, Victor relents to his monster’s request to end further injustices to his family; but he rips the second creation apart halfway through, thinking humanity better off without two fiends haunting the world. Victor’s fear is that the creatures will reproduce and form a variant of species, a more evolved version of humanity.

Living up to the expectations of his creator, the Creature murders the people in Victor’s life in which bring him happiness – William, Clerval, and Elizabeth. Life is void of joy for Victor who notes “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change. The sun might shine, or the clouds might lour; but nothing could appear to me as it had done the day before” (Shelley 167). Death again is present for Victor’s father, and the falsely accused Justine. Victor assumes blame for the deceased as he created the monster that set the actions into effect. Victor renews his vigor with revenge, he said, “I was possessed by a maddening rage when I thought of him, and desired and ardently prayed that I might have him within my grasp to wreak a great and signal revenge on his cursed head” (Shelley 168). The harder Victor tries to uphold humanity, the farther he loses his own – he wanders the deserts and barbarous countries in search of the Creature.

Victor was a man of science, but during his final breakdown he turns to spirits of the dead and wandering ministers of vengeance to direct and aide his pursuit of his creation: “Let the cursed and hellish monster drink deep of agony; let him feel the despair that now torments me” (Shelley 172). He believes these spirits bless him with sleep and strength; at his utmost lonesome he turns to them for support, but it is more likely that it is the Creature who leaves sustenance not a good spirit: “Sometimes, when nature, overcome by hunger, sunk under the exhaustion, a respast was prepared for me in the desert, that restored and inspirited me. The fare was indeed coarse, such as the peasants of the country ate; but I may not doubt that it was set there by the spirits that I had invoked to aid me” (Shelley 173). Sleep comes in the form of sheer exhaustion, and his strength is fueled by obsession for revenge – Victor has been reduced from sophisticated aristocracy to uncivilized instinctual survival dependent on the elements of nature.

Captain Walton alone witnesses Victor’s death, but the Creature appears shortly after, lamenting his grief to Walton. The Creature justifies his murderous actions by describing his necessity against good: “Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen. The completion of my demoniacal design became an insatiable passion” (Shelley 188). The Creature adapts so that he may survive, the environment that issued the change was humanity – by neglecting to recognize the innocent life created from coarse parts. He leaves Walton with intentions of suicide, as he sees no other consolation than death.

In conclusion, Shelley’s ability to conceive of the story of Frankenstein is found in her predisposed genetics as well as the acceptance of entertainment through literature is found in her audience’s mind. Through the lens of Literary Darwinism, the story of the Creature is a tale of searching for acceptance inside humanity – that the Creature fails is a sign for further improvement through evolution. Frankenstein implies a warning to address the abilities of science with caution and suggests the limitations of humankind as a mere component when compared to the complexities of nature.

Works Cited

Darwin, Charles. “The Origin of Species (1859).” Darwin a Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Philip

Appleman. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2001. pp. 95-174.

Max, D. T. “The Literary Darwinists.” New York Times, 6 Nov 2005. Web.

anted=all&_r=0. Accessed 28 Apr 2015.

McKinnell, Robert G. and Marie A. Di Berardino. “The Biology of Cloning: History and

Rationale.” BioScience, 49.11 (1999): 875-85. Web. Accessed May 5, 2015.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818 Text). Ed. Marilyn Butler. New

York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Picture c/o:

*** Check out my alternate ending to Frankenstein under “Natural Survival” to see the Creature survive***


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