Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man, did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me? — Milton, Paradise Lost You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” — St. Paul
As a semi-pro educator the most obnoxious question that creeps out of the faces of the pupils is “why?”* Perhaps all teachers and parents can relate. The instructor, full of life and vigor, bounces into the classroom which such grand expectations only to hear some sad sap squawk out a “what” or a “why” protruding from his face as the day’s task is given — to which the obvious remark is “because I said so” or “it’s good for you.” However obnoxious (and out of place) this question may be, in the correct context it is the essential question. If but one question is ever asked of us as we pass through this world, “why” is the one which may just lead us to the next. This is the question every person eventually asks and answers in their lifetime either consciously or subconsciously, and it is the question that Mary Shelley so beautiful frames throughout her Gothic novel Frankenstein.
Published in 1818 When Shelley was just 21, the novel Frankenstein was initially meant to be nothing more than a scary story. Shelley did this and much more. For Frankenstein involves so much symbolism on the philosophical and psychological level, it could be considered a novel that was ahead of its time. Touching on a wide range of topics such as loneliness, ugliness, acceptance, sin nature, vengeance, justice and responsibility to name a few, Shelley’s created Monster ultimately questions our very nature, and his story becomes ours. Though faulty, the structure of the novel involves multiple layers of stories being told all within in one larger story. The effect is that when we arrive at the story of Frankenstein’s Monster in the very middle of the book, we feel as if we have scaled down from a great height — the Monster is the creation and all these other characters are so some type of celestial beings looking down upon him. This furthermore reflects our own hierarchy of importance in the universe, helping us to empathize with the Monster. All this to lead into a brief look at the story of Frankenstein’s Monster and the philosophical problems he presents to his Creator.
Most are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Doctor Frankenstein and his created Being, so I will bypass his initial story leading up to the Monster’s tale. For his account of what happens after his “birth” is a fantastic look at the existential musings that occur in us in our search for the unseen. When the life is taken from man, the most important belief he will have had is how he thinks or perceives God. But the most important thought he has on earth is what he is to do about himself. We see, feel, taste etc. long before we reach thinking about God. And while his existence is innately within us, we first must use these senses we have been given to observe our world, and that is naturally what the Monster does.
His initial encounters with the world are far from pleasant. As he begins to encounter humans for the first time they flee from him in fear, yet he still continues to observe humans interacting with each other. The Monster feels the same things that he observes humans feeling: pain, hunger, affection, cold, but due to his physical ugliness, he is unable to find his desired fellowship. As he observes a particular family he feels “sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature; they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions.”
Out of the goodness of his heart, the Monster begins helping this family by replenishing their firewood. His original goodness is an essential link to him being a type of Adam: created with no mother or father and with no explicit sin nature. Yet his deformity is a sign of what’s to come:
“I admired the perfect forms of my cottagers — their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions; but how I was terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!… when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet know the terrible effects of this horrible deformity.
As he progresses in the learning of language, this too makes him begin to think existentially about who he is.
And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man… When I looked around I saw and heard none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?
This question “What was I?” echoes through the reader’s mind for the rest of the tale. These thoughts are heightened considerably when he reads Milton’s Paradise Lost and specifically reaches the part about Adam. His questioning turns to wrath and ire as he begins to feel the injustice of his creator’s irresponsibility in forming him, for even such hideous demons as Satan had companions and fellow devils in hell.
His simple question of who he was led to the all-important question of why he existed in the first place. As he cannot take the weight of his own thoughts and loneliness any longer, he decides to visit these cottagers he has been observing and is met with disaster. The only character in the entire book that seems to have any true sympathy for him is the old blind man who cannot see his deformity, the deformity that is symbolic and foreshadows his evil. The blind man’s love of others covered this monstrosity, and he alone accepted him without questions.
But the tale is a tragedy, and this terribly lonely monster begins to curse the man who created him, seeking for answers to his life’s unanswered question: “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?” Ultimately, his loneliness drives him to despair.
“No eve soothed my sorrows nor shaded my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplications to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him.”
The abandonment and frustration the Monster felt toward’s Frankenstein led to his downfall. He was created good, but as he continued to commit evil this “evil thenceforth became [his] good.” This role reversal in the moral dilemma that man faces is what happens to humanity in general over time. When we first give into the evil that our flesh so longs to do, it is a terribly painful process for we are fighting our higher nature that comes from a holy God. However, as we continue in this sin, the pain eases and eventually that sin becomes a virtue and we will justify it by whatever means.** Frankenstein’s Monster realized this in the end, and this realization haunts him: “When I run over the fateful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness.”
The tragedy of Frankenstein’s Monster is such a philosophically enriching dilemma for us because it prompts us to think about our nature and relationship with God. While there can certainly be conclusions drawn from such a work that I would disagree with, thinking about such concepts can be enlightening and enriching for your faith.
Consider three major questions and ideas this novel alone brings to the table for discussion:
- Why do we exist?
- Is God irresponsible in creating us?
- Who is responsible for sin?
What are we to do with our existence? Why do we live and what are we doing here? Is it all meaningless? If God is so good, why is there so much pain? Was Macbeth right after all? Is life nothing more than a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, then is heard no more? Is it a tale told by an Idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Was King Lear right in crying out “When we are born, we cry that we have come to this great stage of fools”?
I suppose I could write another two-thousand words in response to all those questions, but for the purpose of this post, I want to state that these questions are entirely valid based on the evidence we have been given: our senses. We live in a beautiful yet bleak world full of so much love which is so easily snuffed out by the hate. In the same town during the same month a family exchanges gifts and good cheer over the hearth and a man shoots up an elementary school. Where is God then? Is he not held responsible? Yet the randomness of this world clashes with such an oddly peculiar cycle observed in nature, one that is also grotesque and glorifying. And all this questioning can possibly lead us closer to a knowledge of our Creator.
The novel Frankenstein was written well before the popular concept of evolution was purported by Darwin, yet it still begs the question. Why would Frankenstein’s Monster immediately, that is after his observances with his senses, assume that he was created? Why does he not instead assume that he came from some sort of gooey substance? Better yet, in observing the humans and realizing that he is far superior to them in every way but appearance, why does he not assume that he is some type of evolved being? But no, he returns to the issue of his having no creator, and the mere observance of the change in seasons does something inside of him which only the supernatural can account for:
Happy, happy earth! Fit habitation for gods, which, so short a time before, was bleak, damp, and unwholesome. My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future guided by bright rays of hope and anticipation of joys.
When we see the beauty around us, some odd sort of thing called bliss and joy arise in us and point us to something else. Naturalism by itself cannot account for that giddy feeling we have within us when our favorite song comes on the radio or we see a familiar face in a foreign city. When the awful pains and agonies invade our lives, we still do not respond in apathetic resignation, but we cry out for justice — and why justice? And why, why? Why, when all is said and done, would the language produce a group of letters or symbols to create a word so small and insignificant in stature yet grand and overpowering in its effect? For such a word does nothing for the naturalist. It offers no survival value but only befuddles and blocks conversation’s flow. Do without it, and a whole lot more natural selection would be accomplished for the sake of naturalism. As annoying as this word formed into a question may be at times, we are allowed to reflect on our own existence because of it. And when the question is posed enough times, we see no sadistic idiot at the end of the tunnel, lost in darkness and distance, no more questions leading to opened doors and more questions, but an answer to all those “why’s” we’ve ever had, full yet free, guiding us to an bright anticipation guided by more answers to the riddles of life on earth.
____________________________________________________________*Some may wonder about the obnoxiousness of “what?” In the original manuscript, I included this question as more obnoxious than “why?”; however, upon second thought, “why?” is clearly more annoying. For “what” only means the child was not listening or misunderstood, but “why” heavily implies that he was listening and understanding and is questioning the validity of the day’s task as well as your authority. In respects to being a substitute teacher, I find this novel to be fitting. For in my experience the sub is treated like he has some terrible deformity, as if he is a sort of demon carrying a plague upon the earth and every classroom he enters is subject to his poison as he speaks. He is not only a sub-teacher but sub-human. And the children shriek with an odd sort of joyful malice when he enters the room. **Lest there be confusion, this is not meant to deny original sin. But if God, the Source of all life in this universe, is good than we originate from that good and it can be no other way. Thus, when we sin a great deal of pain occurs because we are fighting this higher nature. Unfortunately, once Adam sinned, we were all thenceforth conceived in original sin. Our flesh can do no good apart from God, and we are separated from him until we accept his call to repentance.