Frankenstein’s Creature: Not So Innocent
During my undergrad, I took a couple of Philosophy courses that dealt with morals, ethics, utility, “the greater good,” etc. We began with a thought experiment. You’ve probably heard this one: A small child stands on a train track. A distance down the track a train carrying 50 passengers approaches at top speed. The train cannot slow down in time to avoid killing the child. No one is able to get to the child in time to remove him from the tracks. However, there is a lever to change the track of the train. By pulling the lever, the train will assume its new track and avoid killing the child, but since the new track is still under construction, the train will plunge over the side of a cliff, killing everyone on board. You must choose: pull the lever or not. Save the child or save the 50 passengers. Most if not all of the people in class that day opted to save the 50 passengers because they reasoned that it was better to save 50 people than one child. And, I suppose that’s the right and “moral” way to think of it. Fifty saved people serves the greater good more so than one live child but 50 dead.
However, the professor wasn’t finished yet. He asked us to rethink the problem with the child on the track, the lever, and the oncoming train with 50 passengers. All circumstances remained the same except for one detail: on board the train are 50 convicted pedophile murderers on their way to prison. Instantly, some opinions changed in the room. Save the kid! Let the pedophiles crash and burn! Then the professor reminded us that there were also two prison guards, a medic, and the train’s engineers on board. There followed another change of opinion. The room began to divide. Then an added fact changed the circumstances again because now, in the child’s “living” blood, was the cure for cancer. And so on and so forth. After a time, no one knew what was right anymore. It just wasn’t so straightforward. I think this was the entire point of the exercise: most of our moral choices are conditional and based on circumstances.
It’s hard to find a truly constant black or white, isn’t it? Is killing someone always wrong? Yes. Well, unless you are defending your own life, or the life of, say, your child. Is stealing always wrong? Of course. That is, unless you are starving and stealing food to stop from starving to death. Is lying always wrong? Yup. But when asked for an honest opinion, I would never tell a bride on her wedding day that her wedding dress is the ugliest dress I’ve ever seen—I will instead choose to lie through my teeth and tell her the dress she chose is gorgeous. In this case, to save her feelings and not ruin the best day of her life, may be the appropriate thing to do after all is to lie to her about her dress. So in this case, does the act of telling the lie become the moral act, or is the unwillingness to hurt her—a moral intent—still moral if the only way to accomplish the intent is with an immoral action? Hmmm.
Which brings me to Frankenstein’s Creature. My paper is wrapping up now—that is to say, the paper seems to be wrapping itself up now. I always know a paper is speaking when it seems to take on a mind of its own. Now, it is beginning to say, “And that’s all I have to say about that.” Lol. Yet, during this process I begin to be aware that I might have favored the Creature’s point of view. Like most people who study Frankenstein, I believe it is Victor who is corrupted, immoral, unethical, and monstrous. Victor is the bad guy, or at least, the worst of the two. But now, my mind is changing at the eleventh hour. Now, when it’s too late to begin again, I have become…”pissed off”…with the Creature. Can it be that the Creature might actually be the evil monster Victor said he was?
Oh dear. Now I’ve done it.
I just keep going back to the same question over and over again. If the Creature was not an evil monster, and wanted only another person as a companion, why didn’t he just leave? When he learned to speak and read and write, when he fully understood that he was—without a doubt—a person, it was only then that he approached the blind grandfather. With this man, he had a conversation. There was a peace between them—maybe a budding camaraderie. It was the sighted people who cast the Creature out. However, why didn’t the experience with the old blind man give the Creature—obviously intelligent—his answer? Seek out a blind friend. Keep company with the lame and disabled of society, and there were lots of those in Shelley’s era. Why on earth did he return to Frankenstein? To my mind, this was his greatest mistake, and his most “telling” decision.
Actually, he had no plausible reason to return to Frankenstein except one: Vengeance. It was not to demand a mate, although that was part of it, but he could not be sure that Frankenstein would comply. He could not have believed that Frankenstein would be approachable, and he wasn’t. He had no noble purpose in mind. It was revenge—pure and simple. Otherwise, why murder little William beforehand? And then why frame Justine for it? Why punish “the help” for the actions of her employer? That was utterly senseless, and did not further his quest for revenge. In fact, it accomplished nothing and was just a cruel thing to do. It was monstrous…evil.
To my mind, the Creature had come to the first, most critical, fork in his road when he was at the farm. He could have chosen to go one way toward freedom and his own meager fortune, whatever that could have been. It still was not too late for the Creature, but he chose Frankenstein. He chose out of rage and a sense of entitlement—Frankenstein “owed” him something. But in actuality, what did Frankenstein truly owe the Creature? He was a thing made from dead body parts—a Creature with no place in the world. Did Frankenstein owe him shelter and meat and an education? Or simply a swift death?
Was it ever justified for the Creature to kill? Did any of the killings he commit ever fall into a moral grey area? Did the Creature kill to save his own life?…in a moment of panic?…in a moment of insanity? Perhaps it might be argued that if the Creature would have killed Frankenstein at the moment when—after negotiating, agreeing, waiting, watching the process, and anticipating the idea of companionship and freedom—Frankenstein tore apart the Creature’s bride, he would have done so in a moment of temporary insanity, and would not have been accountable for it. The killing would have been beyond his control, and therefore without immoral intent. So, no malice aforethought. But the plain truth is that every act of violence perpetrated by the Creature was done with a present mind and intent. The Creature was truly evil, just as Frankenstein claimed.
Does that excuse Frankenstein? Is Frankenstein the cause for the Creature’s descent into evil? Frankenstein is clearly the cause for the Creature’s descent into loneliness and despair, but then there was the old grandfather. The old grandfather treated him with kindness, and did not reject him. The sighted family rejected the Creature. The Creature chose to blame all of humanity for the rejection he received from Frankenstein and the farm family, and in so doing, dismissed the kindness of the grandfather. If the Creature had any goodness inside him, he would not have forgotten the kindness of the old man. There is also the suggestion here that the farmers were obligated to accept the hideous stranger suddenly in their home, or be vilified, and somehow deserve punishment. This attitude both dehumanizes them and strips them of their right to freely associate…it takes their choices from them.
But as for Victor himself… Victor “assumed” the Creature was evil only because he saw that the Creature was ugly. That Victor turned out to be right about the Creature after all was, well, dumb luck. But was Victor himself ever in a grey moral area? Never, except for one time. When the Creature first came to life, Victor panicked. Basically, he picked up his skirts and ran like the devil was chasing him. He was absolutely terrified. Yes, all of Victor’s work until that moment was unethical, morally questionable, and even criminal. But there is a big difference between “dreaming” about skydiving and actually stepping out the door at 10,000 feet into thin air with nothing between you and certain death but a piece of silk—packed by some “dude” with a hangover. When Victor’s dream came to life, he ran away screaming. Yes, he was a spineless coward. And yes, he was guilty of performing unethical science. But was Victor immoral for running away? I really don’t know, because until the moment the Creature opened his eyes, Victor had been like a kid playing with his dad’s tools in the garage while his dad was at work. It’s all fun and games until the chainsaw comes alive and starts flying out of control around the garage floor, destroying everything in sight. Yes, Victor ran, because suddenly, it got very “real.” Victor, at that moment, was probably so freaked out that he had no idea what to do. It came down to fight or flight and flight won.
Allowing for the time already past, running away was possibly not Victor’s immoral act—all things being equal. Perhaps it was questionable, but understandable. Like swearing when one stubs one’s toe. But not necessarily immoral, because after he caught his breath and got it together, he did go back. He went back and was relieved beyond words that the Creature was gone. Regardless, he went back without knowing whether the Creature was there or not. His intent was moral. He went back to face the music, so to speak, but there was nothing more to do when the Creature was gone. So he cleaned up, learned his lesson, and went on with his life. And Victor would have gone on, married Elizabeth, inherited his father’s wealth, had a family, and lived happily ever after. Likewise, the Creature might have formed a relationship elsewhere and lived out his own life. But the Creature returned to Frankenstein with murder on his mind.
Looking back on Frankenstein, I might have taken a different approach to the paper than the road I took. I think I would have concentrated only on the Creature’s moral choices. I haven’t come across a paper yet that deals solely with that topic, so maybe that’s a topic out there for someone looking for one. As for me, I don’t think I will be writing about Frankenstein or his fantastical Creature at any time in the future.
It’s been fun though…