This review has been two years in the making and is quite long. Maybe if I finally post all of my thoughts surrounding this story, I can move on from this obsession and focus on other projects. We shall see. Also major shout-out to my girl B for proofreading this essay and offering suggestions.
I was first properly introduced to Frankenstein through the 2018 Guthrie production. I knew that my mother had written her master’s thesis on the novel but I was still more familiar with the Boris Karloff version, with electrodes in the neck. I went in expecting horror and what I got was severe heartbreak. I vividly remember riding the bus back to campus and crying on my friend’s shoulder. I decided to name the Creature Peter, after Marvel’s Spider-Man. In typical fan discourse, the Creature* is named Adam or Prometheus, which are both worthy symbolic alternatives, but I chose my personal name before doing much research. I was again reacquainted with the story in my sophomore British Literature class, where I filled ten pages of my notebook with curse words. If you don’t believe me, I can send you the photos. 🙂 I continued using Peter as the Creature’s name, but not in public class discussion.
Frankenstein was first published in 1818 by 21-year old Mary Shelley. The classic novel follows the life of the Creature, a man sewn together from the dead limbs of other humans, and electrically animated by Victor Frankenstein, a college dropout with some biology credits. Despite his initial obsession with creating life, Victor is repulsed by his new son and runs away. Victor and his Creature dance around each other for years, until the Creature asks for a mate. When Victor fails to comply, the Creature kills two people in retaliation, after accidentally smothering one earlier.
While the events of the novel play out as a classic tragedy, the philosophical questions that underpin them deserve serious contemplation. What constitutes a “human”? How does one obtain and maintain a “soul”? How far is too far in the pursuit of knowledge? How does one evaluate Peter’s violent actions against his continuous cries for love and belonging? That last one hits home-we all desire love and belonging and achieve it to varying degrees by varying means and circumstances.
*Anyone who refers to Frankenstein’s creation as “m**ster” will be scolded and blocked. It’s rude and plays into cultural misconceptions. 😉
There’s the spoiler-free portion. Spoiler warning from here on out. ⚠️
I wrote this paper (Thy Fallen Angel_ Disability Representation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) a few weeks ago, for a course about stories of oppression and resistance. This paper focuses on the parallels between Peter’s experience, and the experience of “disabled”/physically nonconforming people in our society. This blog is a less academic paraphrasing of the essay, but feel free to compare the two. I also wrote a paper comparing Frankenstein and Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
To address the elephant in the room, no Peter’s narrative is not explicitly stated as being about “disability” but his story mirrors such narratives closely enough for solidarity and empathy. He is “born” to a father who deeply desires him, but suddenly changes his mind, leaving his newborn son to fend for himself.
Victor narrates Peter’s “birth” in the novel with these chilling terms; “For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far
exceeded moderation, but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished and
breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (Shelley 60)
This newborn is not taught proper social skills and so learns by observation, on the fringes of society. Peter’s story about his time with the de Lacy family is especially poignant. Peter finds a family in a secluded cottage and observes them for some time, slowly learning what a healthy family dynamic is supposed to be. He is welcomed as a friend by the blind grandfather and shown the first true kindness in his life, but this is quickly taken from him when the son and daughter-in-law are terrified at the sight of him. The two strangers act on impulse, physically attacking Peter and driving him away, The one brave initiative Peter took in his whole life proved to be a disaster.
Peter spends months alone in the woods, reading books swiped from the de Lacy house (particularly Paradise Lost) and examining Victor’s journal. Peter wants answers as to why he was created in the first place and then so cruelly abandoned. Who among us hasn’t tried to explain or analyze our suffering?? Meanwhile, Victor suffers from anxiety and family drama, rendering him incapable of telling his loved ones what has happened, and amplifying his paranoia about being “watched” or “hunted” by his son.
When he is discovered and chased off, he eventually comes face to face with his creator again and begs for mercy, pleading,
“Remember, that I am thy creature. I ought to be thy Adam but I am rather thy fallen
angel, whom thou didst turn from joy for no misdeed… How can I move thee? Will no
entreaties cause thee to turn a favorable 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?” (Shelley 93)
This poignant and pitiful plea comes in the middle of the first meeting between Peter and
Victor after being apart for many months. From a mental newborn who couldn’t speak, Peter has grown into quoting Milton and contemplating his own creation and existence; yet all Victor can see is the physically deformed body. Victor is so shocked and disgusted by Peter that he doesn’t take so much as a second to explore his unconventional son’s mind or heart.
When he reunites with Victor, Peter is promised a companion, an equal, and this brings him more joy than he’s ever known. Victor assembles this female companion but is suddenly terrified that she and Peter will biologically reproduce. This fear causes him to destroy the bride in front of Peter’s eyes. Peter is left with his rage and the two separate. Throughout all of this, Victor maintains that his son is an “abomination”, and a “wretched devil”. Parenting 101! Those who do not physically conform can have trouble relating to others and so lack the intimacy they crave. While Peter is an extreme example, this yearning for companionship is universal.
I should mention that Peter does kill three people independently-one is an accident and two are intentional. Peter accidentally smothers Victor’s kid brother William when interrogating him, and he is remorseful for this. When Victor destroys the bride, Peter kills his best friend Henry and wife Elizabeth in retaliation. Peter does not enjoy killing as an end in itself, but understands that it’s the only possible way to make Victor understand his pain.
Finally, Peter and Victor meet aboard the ship of Captain Walton, after years of a cat-and-mouse game. Victor dies of “natural causes” (probably of frostbite or malnutrition), and Peter comes to take his body away. Peter knows he has no one left to turn to, no one who truly understands his unique circumstances. Victor has been narrating the entire novel to Walton, and now Walton is face with proof of the fantastic story. Walton has a choice: will he agree with Victor that Peter is an abomination? Or will he vindicate the suffering of a lonely man? Walton’s choice is irrelevant, as Peter has given up all hope in life. Peter has these parting words for Captain Walton:
“Fear not that I shall be the instrument of future mischief. My work is nearly complete. Neither yours nor any man’s death is needed to consummate the series of my being…but it requires my own.” (Shelley 188)
This quote appears on the final pages of the story, before Peter jumps off the boat,
disappearing into the ocean. He plans to “collect a funeral pile and consume to ashes this
miserable frame…” (Shelley 188), seeing no purpose or hope in his existence. What strikes me about this ending is the lack of redemption. Both characters die, although Victor gets an unfairly better deal.
If you’re still here, thank you for reading. This novel has been close to my heart for many years, and Peter will always be my favorite unconventional son of literature. I’m disappointed in major media for distorting the story, but surprisingly Hallmark did a fantastic job with their 2004 miniseries. Stay tuned for the next installment of Frankenstein Fridays! 🙂
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Johanna M. Smith. Frankenstein: Complete,
Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives. 3rd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.