In the early 19th century, the role of man, specifically the European man, was being redefined in a number of ways. Science leaped ahead in ways that would offer power and possibility, the undiscovered portion of the globe was shrinking fast, and industry and global trade began to change the way people thought about the relationship humans shared with nature and other humans. A popular British sentiment to come out of this philosophical discussion was one of God-like superiority to other cultures and the natural world. Mary Shelley continues the discussion of this kind of arrogance and ambition through several of her male characters within Frankenstein, most notably Victor Frankenstein. However, many of Victor’s traits are mirrored in the character of Robert Walton, and his ambition to create life is paralleled by Walton’s desire and efforts to reach the North Pole. While Shelley contrasts the negative effects of ambitious conquest with the bliss of domestic spheres, she seems only to caution against the extremes of ambition in the ways they emerge in the narratives of Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein. Other, more minor characters such as Henry Clerval and Alphonse Frankenstein seem to provide a healthy, more balanced example of personal ambition. What Walton and Frankenstein have in common is that they will stop at nothing in their pursuit of glory. This overreaching ambition tends to manifest itself in the novel in three important ways. Firstly, it causes characters to set for themselves either unrealistic or unnatural goals. Secondly, it leads them to disregard the ethical implications of their actions in service to their goals. And lastly, it causes a complete failure to anticipate the consequences that may be caused by the achievement or fulfillment of ambition. It is also possible that Mary Shelley is using the themes of pride and ambition to raise questions about the work of the poets in her social circle. Like science and exploration, poetry is yet another field in which ambition can push its limits. As children, both Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton want to become poets, and in several places in the novel, Victor is referred to as having the soul of a poet.
Victor Frankenstein is considered to be an early reiteration of Lord Byron’s Manfred, who, by nature lacks humility. His insatiable ambition is his downfall, and we can see this pattern emerge in Victor. In the beginning, his arrogance is balanced with a kind of childhood naivety. However, as he gets older, this trait becomes increasingly more dangerous. As a child, he feels entitled to Elizabeth, almost as if he owns her, and this relationship continues throughout the novel as victor takes for granted that she will always wait for him as he is reluctant to marry her. Victor’s Ambition causes him to aspire to the god-like endeavor of creating life, but it is this same ambition that blinds him to the obvious method that involves his returning to Elizabeth. Victor is so one-track minded that his ambition gives him tunnel vision. He can neither anticipate the consequences of his actions, nor can he evaluate the ethical implications of what he has done. His lack of empathy is also born out of his arrogance. For example, when Justine is wrongfully convicted of William’s murder. He dismisses her suffering, saying that his experience is worse because he is not “sustained by innocence”(Shelley, 60). It, of course, does not occur to him to testify of the monster, and thus absolve Justine.
Walton and Frankenstein are parallel characters in many respects. Chief of these is their desire to become the greatest and go the farthest in their respective fields. As an explorer, Walton’s narrative serves as a fairly practical and concrete example of how Victor’s pride and ambition can play out in the real world. Through Walton’s letters to his sister, we learn that he has for a long time wanted to be an explorer, and has worked hard with that object in mind. The implication of his voyage, however, is that it will open up new routes for British trade. In this sense, the outcome Walton’s mission would have effects beyond his control that would affect more than just himself and his crew. His ambition, however, causes these concerns to be, at best, peripheral. The risks he is willing to take for glory involve his life and the lives of his crew. However, we can safely assume that Walton would be the one to get credit if the mission were a success. Walton’s crew members have to stop just short of mutiny in order to force him to return from the expedition.
Victor's Intention to Create Life
One of the scenes that best illustrates the arrogance of Victors ambition is the one in which he first formulates his intention to create a living man. Intoxicated by his early accomplishments he notes the excitement he feels at setting this lofty goal “No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success” (Shelley, 34). He goes on to challenge the limits and laws of human existence, saying “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world” (Shelley, 34). The way he intends to do this is by creating a being, but when he proposes the project, the focus is on himself and his legacy. “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their’s” (Shelley, 34). Although he does succeed in giving life to a creature, the outcome looks nothing like his expectation. Victor has become so wrapped up in the fantasy that he is unable to anticipate how this experiment could go very wrong. He is expecting gratitude, but what he really creates are the conditions that inspire hatred and revenge. He takes his ambition just one step further, thinking to himself “if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Shelley, 34). Victors state of mind in this scene helps us to understand that pride is largely one of the motivating factors that causes him to create the monster.
Victor's Speech to Walton's Crew
Themes of pride and ambition emerge in one of the final scenes in which Victor delivers a speech to Robert Walton’s crew. The speech is delivered after Victor overhears the crew members demanding that the ship return home. An important aspect of this scene is its position in the novel. The fact that it occurs at the end of Victors life and after everything has transpired with the monster shows how little Victor has actually changed since the beginning of the novel. Because his character so naturally agrees with Walton, it’s no surprise that he becomes a champion for his cause:
“What do you demand of your captain? Are you then so easily turned from your design? Did you not call this a glorious expedition? and wherefore was it glorious? not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror; because, at every new incident, your fortitude was to be called forth, and your courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded, and these dangers you were to brave and overcome. for this was it a glorious, for this was it an honourable undertaking” (Shelley, 170).
Even though this is a matter that does not concern him at all, Victor’s disregard for potential consequences can be seen here, and he continues in language that is strikingly similar to his early ideas about his own ambitions, claiming “You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your name adored, as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind” (Shelley, 170). Victor again makes a distinction between his idea of average men and great men:
“Oh! be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes, and firm as a rock. This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts might be; it is mutable, cannot withstand you, if you say that it shall not. Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brow. Return as heroes who have fought and conquered, and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe” (Shelley, 170).
In spite of Victor’s impressive monologue, captain Walton has no choice but to consent and turn the ship around, and presumably, he and his crew are saved because of it. Although we don’t get the sense that Victor has learned from his experience with regard to ambition. We do get to see Walton save himself and his crew by humbly abandoning his ambitions, even if he was forced to.
Impact in/for Frankenstein
The themes of pride and ambition are central to the story of Frankenstein, as the many manifestations of Victor’s pride emerge as his greatest weaknesses and can even be argued to be the cause of all the suffering in the novel. Ambition drives the characters of Frankenstein and Walton, and without it, the story could never advance. Readers have to watch as more and more characters suffer because of Victor’s pride, and we can see suffering end when Walton is forced to abandon his own ambitions. Shelley uses the negative effects of ambitious conquest in contrast with the happiness and peace of domestic spheres, which works to critique common conceptions of societal roles. In this way, Frankenstein serves as a cautionary tale that illustrates the dangers of overreaching natural boundaries. This element is significant to many later adaptations and appropriations of the story. Whether it be the desire to explore or create, it must not come at any cost. The association of Frankenstein with ambition has also maintained cultural significance throughout the many years since its publication. Even those who have no familiarity with the text understand the expression, “we've created a monster” to mean something to the effect of “we went too far,” even if they don’t associate it with Frankenstein.
References and Further Reading
Peake, Richard Brinsley. "Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein." Romantic Circles. Ed. Stephen C. Behrendt. University of Maryland, Aug. 2001. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein: A Longman Cultural Edition, Second Edition. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007. 5-179. Print.
Malchow, H. L. “Frankenstein’s Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Past & Present No. 139 (1993): 90-130. JSTOR. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
By: Samuel Evens