Frankenstein: Good vs. Evil isn’t so Black and White

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was ground breaking for many reasons, but maybe her most lasting was it’s complicated look at whether good and evil traits are human or monster.

Book Culture Classics Favorite Quotes Opinions
Frankenstein and his creature facing off in the torch light.

The 19th century was a time of propriety, decorum, and scientific exploration. While the two former ideas might not seem to align much with the latter, Mary Shelley brought them together to highlight the complexity of the social scene. Shelley was a master of her craft as well as a perpetrator of questioning the norm. She’s the mother of science fiction and created one of the greatest monsters in the history of literature. Frankenstein explores the theme of good vs. evil in an effort to ascertain whether it is an inherent trait or a construct of societal expectations and how society’s standards directly affect a person’s natural actions. Mary Shelley theorizes that good and evil are not to be taken at face value.

For over two hundred years, the creature of Shelley’s science fiction phenomenon has been placed in the realm of monster and villain. Is he the real monster of the story, or is his creator? Let’s take a closer look at the text to see.

Cause and Effect From the Beginning

True evil is hard to see when directly under one’s nose and conforms to society, like that of Victor Frankenstein. Sometimes, physical deformities can blind one into believing that a person is evil by nature; if they are physically not palatable, so too would their personality. Frankenstein’s creature is considered evil due to his acts; however, his acts are a direct correlation to the treatment he was subjected to in the English society in which he was abandoned. Though fully sentient, empathetic, and intelligent, Frankenstein’s creature was refused acceptance by his creator and the family he protected for over a year due to his physical attributes.

Illustration of victor Frankenstein putting together his creature in his labratory.

Blinded to what he was creating by the magnitude of the discovery he was trying to make, Frankenstein, too late, saw his creation as a monster rather than a gleeful success of scientific genius. Upon the success of creating life, he rushed out of the room in disgust and horror for

“…these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast…watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.”

This is the first of many rejections to come to the monster.

Who’s the Monster

Years of study and experimentation bring to reality the aspirations of Victor Frankenstein after he pieces together parts from deceased humans and brings them to life. Frankenstein, realizing his mistake, runs away from the monster and, upon return, is happy to note the monster has left; however, he falls ill due to the malnourishment he endured during his experimentation. After his friend, Henry, nurses him back to health, he removes himself from his previous studies and finds out his brother was murdered. He returns home and realizes that the brother was murdered by his monster, though he never speaks up about it, and an innocent is convicted and killed for the crime.

Victor Frankenstein experimenting with lab equipment.

The monster hides out in the woods during this time, learning from observing a family he adopts as his own, unknowingly by them. When he finally reveals himself, they flee, also disgusted by his appearance and monstrous size. The creature returns to his master and tries to reason with him to make the creature a companion so that he will no longer be alone. Frankenstein agrees, then goes back on his word.

Betrayed and angry, the creature vows to make Frankenstein as lonely as he is and kills his creator’s wife on their wedding night. Frankenstein spends the rest of his life hunting the creature down, only to perish on a ship after regaling his rescuer of the tale. Seeing his creator dead, the monster mourns the loss and goes off to die alone.

Nature Vs. Nurture

Frankenstein’s drive to create life was single-minded; he never thought of the consequences of the experiment’s results or of the responsibilities he would have should he succeed. Upon success, this blindness was revealed. Rather than ascertain the extent of the monster’s cognitive functions or kill the creation, he chose to run away both physically and mentally from his mess. He distanced himself from the creature by leaving him but also by not claiming him. In doing so, he was the first of many rejections the creature would face, and being that the creature had no example behaviorally other than to run from one’s problems, the monster didn’t stand a chance among the masses.

Upon their first meeting, the monster tries to explain the nature of his discontent and misery:

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.”

The monster claims that he was good at the start, but after such harsh mistreatment by everyone he came across, he had no chance of staying that way, for it hardened him and made him as cruel as those who rejected him. This alludes to the psychological theory that one’s experiences affects later decisions. Moreover, Shelley’s creature exemplifies that the evil that one exudes is caused by others and their treatment.

Repeated Exposure to the Same Treatment Compounds the Problem

Cause and effect are represented throughout the entirety of the story; for every action, there is a significant reaction. The good versus evil argument and how a person came to be one way or the other is represented in both Frankenstein and his creature. Frankenstein is, at minimum, negligent and, at worst, naturally evil. He chooses to play God and create life without regard to the consequences. He allows an innocent woman to die for a crime she did not commit. He is a liar and manipulator, but somehow, he sees himself as the victim throughout.

The Bride of Frankenstein and Frankenstein's creature holding hands.

The creature, on the other hand, only reacts to events that lead him to become emotionally broken repeatedly; a sentient person or creature can only take so much before they change. He tells of his travels, of his attempts to become a member of society, to educate himself, and how he protected a family and wished to join them only to be turned away. When he thought that he might get a companion like him, that too was taken away.

“I may die, but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery. Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict.”

The creature who wanted only to belong, to be loved, finally turns into the thing everyone only saw superficially and seeks to repay his creator the misery he has given him.

Society Bears Fault

The monster’s entire inability to join society hinges on the sheer fact that he is disastrously put together from the pieces of previously deceased persons. His malformation disgusts those who lay eyes on him, causing them to run away in fright before ever saying a word. As is what happened with Frankenstein on the night of his creation:

“…the beauty of the dream had vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…”

This repeated lack of acceptance and immediate dismissal caused him to hide in the woods, observing a family to try to familiarize himself with their customs, knowledge, and lives in a vain attempt to make himself more palatable in their eyes.

When finally, the creature chooses to present himself to the blind elder, he is semi-accepted as his physical features are not a hindrance. Through his secret learning along with the Arabian, he can speak well, and the old man is intrigued. This gave the creature but the briefest moment of hope. Unfortunately, the rest of the family arrived home before he could leave and let the old man bring him up to the rest of the family

“At that instant, the cottage door was opened, and Felix, Safie, and Agatha entered. Who can describe their horror and consternation on beholding me? Agatha fainted, and Safie, unable to attend her friend, rushed out of the cottage…”

This reaction from the people he thought he could join as a member of their family solidified the monster’s understanding that he would never be accepted, especially after he returned to find the cottage empty and Felix arranging for their move. Their reaction to flee caused a deep-seated resentment in the monster for mankind, a violent hatred for all that he had worked for and lost due to the fickle nature of humans.

There will always be an argument over whether the actions of the individual are established in utero or if the actions of one’s environment influence one’s behavior. Arguably, there is sufficient evidence that it’s not one or the other but the combination of the two. Frankenstein is an excellent example of, by the end of the book, two villains attempting to kill the other. Both were heavily influenced by their environment, but who is to say their nature wasn’t evil to start and was just given a reason to let go?

For more Frankenstein content, click here.