The Scientist And His Monster
Atop icy Mont Blanc, Victor Frankenstein is confronted by his creation.
The following is an excerpt from Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds by Mary Shelley, edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn and Jason Scott Robert.
It was nearly noon when I arrived at the top of the ascent. For some time I sat upon the rock that overlooks the sea of ice. A mist covered both that and the surrounding mountains. Presently a breeze dissipated the cloud, and I descended upon the glacier. The surface is very uneven, rising like the waves of a troubled sea, descending low, and interspersed by rifts that sink deep. The field of ice is almost a league in width, but I spent nearly two hours in crossing it. The opposite mountain is a bare perpendicular rock. From the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy; I exclaimed—“Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life.”
As I said this, I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man. I was troubled: a mist came over my eyes, and I felt a faintness seize me; but I was quickly restored by the cold gale of the mountains. I perceived, as the shape came nearer, (sight tremendous and abhorred!) that it was the wretch whom I had created. I trembled with rage and horror, resolving to wait his approach, and then close with him in mortal combat. He approached; his countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity, while its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes. But I scarcely observed this; anger and hatred had at first deprived me of utterance, and I recovered only to overwhelm him with words expressive of furious detestation and contempt.
“Devil!” I exclaimed, “do you dare approach me? and do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust! and, oh, that I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!”
“I expected this reception,” said the dæmon. “All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.”
“Abhorred monster! fiend that thou art! the tortures of hell are too mild a vengeance for thy crimes. Wretched devil! you reproach me with your creation; come on then, that I may extinguish the spark which I so negligently bestowed.”
My rage was without bounds; I sprang on him, impelled by all the feelings which can arm one being against the existence of another.
He easily eluded me, and said,
“Be calm! I entreat you to hear me, before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough, that you seek to increase my misery? Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.11 Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine; my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
“Begone! I will not hear you. There can be no community between you and me; we are enemies. Begone, or let us try our strength in a fight, in which one must fall.”
“How can I move thee? Will no entreaties cause thee to turn a favourable eye upon thy creature, who implores thy goodness and compassion? Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing? they spurn and hate me. The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge. I have wandered here many days; the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not grudge. These bleak skies I hail, for they are kinder to me than your fellow-beings. If the multitude of mankind knew of my existence, they would do as you do, and arm themselves for my destruction. Shall I not then hate them who abhor me? I will keep no terms with my enemies. I am miserable, and they shall share my wretchedness.12 Yet it is in your power to recompense me, and deliver them from an evil which it only remains for you to make so great, that not only you and your family, but thousands of others, shall be swallowed up in the whirlwinds of its rage. Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me. Listen to my tale: when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me. The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they may be, to speak in their own defence before they are condemned. Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!13 Yet I ask you not to spare me: listen to me; and then, if you can, and if you will, destroy the work of your hands.”
Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds
“Why do you call to my remembrance circumstances of which I shudder to reflect, that I have been the miserable origin and author? Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light! Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you! You have made me wretched beyond expression. You have left me no power to consider whether I am just to you, or not. Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form.”
“Thus I relieve thee, my creator,” he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes, which I flung from me with violence; “thus I take from thee a sight which you abhor. Still thou canst listen to me, and grant me thy compassion. By the virtues that I once possessed, I demand this from you. Hear my tale; it is long and strange, and the temperature of this place is not fitting to your fine sensations; come to the hut upon the mountain. The sun is yet high in the heavens; before it descends to hide itself behind yon snowy precipices, and illuminate another world, you will have heard my story, and can decide. On you it rests, whether I quit for ever the neighbourhood of man, and lead a harmless life, or become the scourge of your fellow-creatures, and the author of your own speedy ruin.”
As he said this, he led the way across the ice: I followed. My heart was full, and I did not answer him; but, as I proceeded, I weighed the various arguments that he had used, and determined at least to listen to his tale. I was partly urged by curiosity, and compassion confirmed my resolution. I had hitherto supposed him to be the murderer of my brother, and I eagerly sought a confirmation or denial of this opinion. For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness. These motives urged me to comply with his demand. We crossed the ice, therefore, and ascended the opposite rock. The air was cold, and the rain again began to descend: we entered the hut, the fiend with an air of exultation, I with a heavy heart, and depressed spirits. But I consented to listen; and, seating myself by the fire which my odious companion had lighted, he thus began his tale.
11. Though this work well predates such existential writers as Albert Camus (1913–1960) and John Paul Sartre (1905–1980), Mary’s narrative grapples with many of the same issues, including feelings of anguish and meaninglessness, especially in the face of suffering and human finitude. Much like the existentialists, who acknowledged the absurdity of making sense of life in a godless world, Victor’s creation lives a life full of anguish and isolation, and he has no creator to whom he can turn for answers or consolation. And yet the creation still sees life as “dear” and chooses to “defend it” in spite of this endless misery, a point echoed by the existentialists nearly a century later, who emphasized both the absurdity and the beauty in choosing to continue to live in the face of suffering. Mere existence, in this sense, becomes a form of resistance or rebellion against meaninglessness and our unyielding trajectory toward death.
12. Here we see a classic way the “other” is constructed. The creature, an outcast from human society, begs Victor to hear his story and see things from his, the other’s, perspective. He asks, in essence, to be recognized as human. And yet, anticipating rejection, the creature also proclaims his hatred for the humans who can grant him this recognition. This profound ambivalence is in a sense at the core of otherness. The other, as critics from Franz Fanon to Gayatri Spivak have argued, has a split within himself, a wound at the heart of his selfhood. He knows who he is, and yet in the eyes of his fellow humans he sees only the monster they imagine him to be. In this scene, it is also important to consider that the creature’s perspective is presented by Victor himself. As readers, we cannot truly know the creature, nor will we ever know what he actually says. We have only Walton’s version of Victor’s version of the creature’s story. It’s possible that Victor simply wants us to believe that the creature hates humanity and so has chosen to include only the most terrifying and vengeful statements that the creature makes. Again, this is what it means to construct an other. The truth of the other’s experience is barred from us because we have access to it only through representations created by a society that has rejected that other.
13. The concept of murder functions like a central litmus test here and throughout the novel. On the one hand, if you see Victor’s creation as a person, then Victor is countenancing murder as he seeks to destroy his creation. Indeed, it would become very difficult to make a moral distinction between Victor and the creature if this were the case. On the other hand, if the creature is a beast, a piece of property, or a daemon (as Victor often calls him), then it is not possible to murder him because he is not a person. During slavery, this question arose on a number of occasions. Could an owner be prosecuted for murdering a piece of property? The question was highly politicized because to charge an owner with murdering a slave would be to acknowledge the slave’s humanity and thus to call into question the entire institution of slavery. Even if the creature in Mary’s tale is not human, however, his destruction may still have moral implications for other reasons, but Victor would not be guilty of murder, and the creature would have committed a crime Victor was himself not guilty of. Mary appears to have anticipated by two centuries one of the central ethical concerns of robotics and artificial intelligence. How sophisticated would an artificial intelligence have to be before it could be murdered? If it can be murdered, do we then have to face the issue of its enslavement?
—Sean A. Hays
Excerpted from Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds By Mary Shelley, Edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn and Jason Scott Robert, published by The MIT Press. All rights reserved.