“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”
When Victor Frankenstein leaves his childhood home to study the sciences, his scholarly enthusiasm quickly gives way to poisonous obsession. We learn that madness and genius aren’t mutually exclusive – that in fact, the two often go hand in hand. But we also learn how the two extremes of masculine ambition are married in the character of our unhappy protagonist.
“Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!”
Frankenstein is consumed by ambition. His aim is to give life to lifeless things – questions of life, its origin and conclusion, have orbited his imagination since his mother’s death. He digs up corpses from the neighbouring cemetery, stitches limbs together in an attempt to create capable recipients of life, often shudders and abhors his work. He realizes the foulness of his activity, and yet, doesn’t stop. Can he stop? Why, or why not?
“Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?”
It’s interesting to consider the question of agency here: is Victor just insanely hardworking, determined to learn the deepest secrets of life, come hell or high water? Or is his labor pushed along by some external madness that seizes his psyche against his will? To what extent is he really in control of his own pursuits?
Here’s another question to consider: is it significant that Shelley – herself an undoubtable genius, as well as an admirable feminist – makes her protagonist male, and not female?
The former question is up for debate, but I’d argue the latter warrants a resounding “yes.” Camille Paglia said, “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.” Victor Frankenstein shows us the perfect union of these extremes: he is wildly imaginative, artistic, and industrious, and simultaneously selfish, unwise, and wicked. Men, Paglia asserts, are prone to the extremes of good and evil, love and hate, creation and destruction. Victor, like Mozart, creates something world-changing and unprecedented; he also, like Jack the Ripper, throws himself into the depths of evil. He incarnates both poles of masculinity; he’s the hero and the villain.
The breadth of a single man’s character, we learn, is unfathomably wide. Frankenstein’s own creature sums this up best when he says:
“Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.”