The Theme of Injustice in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s 17th century novel, Frankenstein, is actually a novel that reflects three forms of injustice, namely natural injustice, legal injustice, and most of all, social injustice. Frankenstein is actually a novel where the characters are all innocent – including the man himself who created the monster, Dr. Frankenstein, all those who died a tragic death in the story, and even the monster himself who was responsible for most of the killings. These innocent characters have merely become victims of their circumstances and so they have all experienced injustice. This paper seeks first to prove and establish the innocence of the characters in Frankenstein amidst the revenge, remorse and deaths. After which, the paper seeks to discuss the injustices that have befallen these rather innocent people.
The Proofs of Innocence
The characters in Frankenstein may appear cruel, may have acted harshly towards others, and may even have resorted to killing. However, they have not done these seemingly evil things intentionally. They are all only victims of the circumstances they are in at the moment.
Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein himself may be considered the root of all the evil that ensues from the creation of the creature. His hubris may have been the reason behind his creation of a monster that ultimately turned into a killing machine. However, there are a number of instances in the novel that prove Frankenstein’s innocence of such blame. The most important, however, is that Frankenstein himself states that his creation of the monster was based on his desire to “bestow animation upon lifeless matter [in order to] renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Shelley 4). Frankenstein did not at all dream of creating a vengeful monster that would cause murder, guilt and pain. We can see from the aforementioned line that Frankenstein is innocence in that his purpose in creating the monster is to hopefully destroy or surpass the one natural phenomenon that has troubled him so much – death. As a typical scientist who wants nothing but to improve the plight of human beings, Frankenstein undertakes the experiment. The only problem is that the experiment becomes an error and an irreversible one. Nevertheless, based on the aforementioned statements and based on the fact that several times in the story he himself experienced great remorse for the deaths of his friends and family, Dr. Frankenstein himself is indeed a good man with an original noble purpose for his creation.
The Monster. The monster may perhaps have earned a negative reputation in the novel because of his murder of two very helpless victims – an innocent ten-year-old boy named William, a helpless woman named Elizabeth, and a good and loyal friend in the name of Henry Clerval. All these seem unforgivable acts for these people have absolutely nothing to do with the monster’s grief and the rejection he has received from people. Nevertheless, the monster has perhaps done these things only out of revenge, pain and self-hatred. The monster is in fact a creature of kindness for in fact he mentions, “This [human] trait of kindness moved me sensibly” (Shelley 12). The monster admits to having been accustomed to stealing some food from the store of he cottagers at night, but he says that when he has found out how his actions hurt the people, he begins to satisfy himself with food from the forest. He also mentions, “My thoughts now became more active, and I longed to discover the motives and feelings of these lovely creatures” (Shelley 12). Moreover, he admits that by learning the history of the cottagers, he was deeply impressed and he learned “to admire their virtues and to deprecate the vices of mankind” (Shelley 15). Based on these statements, the monster is not an evil creature at all but rather a kind being that empathizes with humans, who are not even his own kind.
Another proof of the monster’s innocence is that it has decided to study the people’s language, history and literature because he is curious about their culture and how to communicate with them. The problem is that he has failed with his first test – talking to the blind man De Lacey because he was caught by De Lacey’s son Felix and driven away. Nevertheless, despite the fact that “[his] travels were long and the sufferings [he] endured intense” (Shelley 16), the monster still decides to save a young girl from drowning in the stream and for which he is shot by the man who may have been the girl’s lover. At this time one hears the monster saying, “This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense, I [get a] shattered…flesh and bone” (Shelley 16). This perhaps is the last straw that must have extinguished in the monster’s heart that last flicker of hope he has for humanity’s compassion and with it came his transformation into an evil creature. And perhaps one can excuse the monster for the series of killings that follows after this emotional reckoning.
From the above statements, one can conclude that Dr. Frankenstein and the monster are in fact simply victims of their own circumstances and are therefore free from blame. Dr. Frankenstein and the monster have genuinely benevolent motives: the doctor wants a solution to death and all the monster wants is to learn as much as he can about humans and to study their language and culture and eventually to belong to the human society.
The Acts of Injustice
After establishing the proofs of the innocence of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster, one can see the outright injustice that these two characters have experienced, as well as all those whose lives they have touched. Shelley’s Frankenstein is said to have been “based on Godwin’s rationalist ethics which see evil as a consequence of maltreatment of injustice” (Levine). One of the injustices experienced mainly by Dr. Frankenstein and the monster is natural injustice. Natural injustice is considered the violation of one’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Natural Injustice. In the case of the monster, there are several instances where these natural rights are violated. First of all, his mere creation was certainly a violation of his right to be born through natural birth. This means that Dr. Frankenstein should not even thought of creating him in the first place. Another instance of natural injustice that the monster has felt is when Viktor himself leaves him and feels a certain repugnance towards him despite the fact that he is his creation. A third instance of the violation of natural injustice directed against the monster is when Dr. Frankenstein breaks his promise and terminates his creation of the female monster while swearing, “; never will I create another like yourself, equal in deformity and wickedness” (Shelley 20). The monster sets up a deal with Dr. Frankenstein in Chapter 17 commanding him to make a female for the monster and threatening to deprive him of lifelong happiness if he does not agree to it. Nevertheless Dr. Frankenstein terminates the experiment and in doing so, violates the monster’s natural right to and perhaps his only chance at happiness.
Aside from the violations of the monster’s natural rights, Dr. Frankenstein himself is also not spared from these. The pain of injustice strikes the doctor when his mother Caroline Frankenstein catches the scarlet fever and her illness becomes severe. His mother, who has even been left poor by the death of her father and who has never done anything wrong, dies a natural yet painful death. Another instance of natural injustice is when Dr. Frankenstein finds out in Chapter 7 that his brother William is dead and his neck is broken by the monster, who admits the crime in Chapter 16. A third violation of natural injustice is the death of Henry Clerval, Dr. Frankenstein’s childhood friend, in the monster’s hands in Chapter 21. This act of injustice is directed not only against Henry but against Dr. Frankenstein himself, for it is said that after Henry’s death, Dr. Frankenstein “grew feverish [and] a darkness pressed around [him and] no one was near [him] who soothed [him] with the gentle voice of love” (Shelley 21). And perhaps the final straw is the death of Dr. Frankenstein’s wife herself towards the end of the novel. Dr. Frankenstein finds her ““lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair” (Shelley 23). The natural injustice Dr. Frankenstein feels at this instance also turns him into a creature of revenge and despair, even though he does not want to. Pessimism, despair and loneliness fill Dr. Frankenstein’s heart as he says, “it was during sleep alone that I could taste joy. O blessed sleep!” (Shelley 24).
Legal Injustice. Aside from the natural injustice inflicted upon Dr. Frankenstein, the monster, and all the innocent people who die in the hands of the monster, another type of injustice that is described in the novel is legal injustice. Legal injustice is inflicted first on Justine Moritz, the girl who is adopted by the Frankensteins, when he is accused of, tried and executed for William’s death in Chapter 7. The fact that the monster apparently set her up is admitted by the monster himself in Chapter 16. Justine’s death is clearly an act of legal injustice since Dr. Frankenstein himself does not do anything to prove that it is his creation that has murdered William and not Justine. Justine’s trial and execution is even made more unjust by the fact that she admits having “confessed a lie [and that she] confessed, that [she] might obtain absolution” (Shelley 23). In short, Justine’s injustice is threefold in that she is first falsely accused, then she is falsely sentenced to death and made to confess a lie. Lastly, she even dies with regret of her false confession. Her last words are, “falsehood lies heavier at [her] heart than all [her] other sins” (Shelley 23). And perhaps, one of the most painful acts of injustice that could ever happen to someone is that you are accused of killing someone who you have dearly loved and favored all your life. The legal injustice experienced by Justine Moritz eventually becomes a natural injustice on the part of Dr. Frankenstein, who blames himself for his death. However, Shelley is said to have emphasized “Viktor Frankenstein’s passive reaction to the injustice of the Moritz trial” (Vincent). Nonetheless, injustice begets injustice.
Social Injustice. Apart from natural and legal injustice, the idea of social injustice permeates Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Social injustice is the injustice that afflicts someone who feels that society rejects him. It is in fact said that one definitely feels “fierce outrage against social injustice in the females of Frankenstein.” (Bowerbank)
Once more, the monster is the quintessential victim of this type of injustice. The monster is rejected wherever he goes and this type of rejection even begins with the most painful rejection of all – Dr. Frankenstein’s rejection of the monster. It is very painful indeed for the monster to realize that the man himself who has created him actually feels “breathless horror and disgust [filling his] heart” (Shelley 5) upon seeing the monster. After this, there have still been several instances of social injustice that follow especially when, as the monster talks with old man De Lacey, the son Felix came “[dashing him] to the ground and [striking him] violently with a stick” (Shelley 15), which he does despite the monster’s good intentions. Perhaps one last act of social injustice against the monster is when it was shot by the lover of the girl whom he has rescued from drowning in the stream. How much pain and injustice do you think one would feel if he helped a stranger and in the end this stranger robs and kills him? It is like welcoming a beggar to your house where you feed and clothe him and he robs and kills you. This social injustice against the monster is perhaps the cruelest of all the types of injustices in the story for despite the natural predisposition of the monster towards violence, he has made efforts to civilize himself and to understand man. Nevertheless, his efforts and benevolence have been repaid with condemnation, rejection and hatred.
On the subject of economic status, or wealth and poverty, another instance of social injustice is the De Lacey family, who is described by the monster in Chapter 12 as poor. He says, “It was poverty, and [the De Lacey family] suffered that evil in a very distressing degree” (Shelley 12). This is clearly an act of social injustice on the part of the De Lacey family. Moreover, the monster’s account of the love story between Felix and Safie in Chapter 14 also reflects some acts of social injustice. One last thing is that a negative, oppressive image of the rich is portrayed in the novel for it seems that the monster is rejected by the wealthy yet it is with the impoverished that he has sought shelter. Based on the aforementioned statements on the De Lacey family, Shelley’s Frankenstein is indeed “an articulation of he anxieties of those marginalized by…socioeconomic status under laws governing the distribution of property in England.” (Peek)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a timeless masterpiece for it mirrors not only the injustices of its time but also of the present. Natural injustice is shown in the very act of Dr. Frankenstein creating the monster thus depriving it of a chance to be born naturally. Natural injustice is also directed not only at the monster but also at all the innocent people who have died in the novel leaving Dr. Frankenstein in great emotional pain and thereby depriving him too of happiness. Legal justice, on the other hand, is the injustice experienced by Justine Moritz upon being set up and falsely convicted of and executed for killing William. Lastly and worst of all, Shelley’s Frankenstein gives life to social injustice in both the rejections the monster has experienced and the poverty that the monster thinks the De Lacey family does not deserve. Nevertheless, despite all the violence and injustices in the story, one can see that Dr. Frankenstein and the monster are themselves not worthy of blame for both their intentions are pure and sublime as the sun and they themselves are both victims of injustice. Indeed more than just a novel about dark science and revenge, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a testament to how natural, legal and social injustice can bring about the beast in someone and how seemingly destructive injustice is.
Bowerbank, Sylvia. “The Social Order VS The Wretch: Mary Shelley’s Contradictory-mindedness in Frankenstein.” ELH. 46 (Autumn 1979): 418-431. 9 May 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/pss/2872688>
Levine, George. “Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 7 (Autumn 1973): 14-30. 10 May 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/pss/1345050>
Peek, Patricia. “‘The words induced me to turn towards myself’: The Politics of Inheritance in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” ETD Collection for Fordham University. (1 Jan 2007). 11 May 2010. <http://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI3271272/>
Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. 2004. Pinkmonkey.com. 9 May 2010. <http://www.pinkmonkey.com/dl/library2/Frankenstein.asp>
Vincent, Patrick. “‘This Wretched Mockery of Justice’: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Geneva.” European Romantic Review. 18 (5 Dec 2007): 645-661. 11 May 2010. <http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a788239016&db=all>