Throughout Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, knowledge of the existence of a creator has a crippling effect on the creature as he struggles to reconcile his own perception of himself with his maddening desire for divine approval and acceptance. It is impossible to ignore the author’s place within her text as Shelly, an avowed atheist, makes a comparison of human development through the contrary means of both religious and secular/humanistic relationships. In the end, through Frankenstein, Shelley concludes that moral and spiritual development can best be attained through the shedding of dogmatic belief structures, resulting in the elimination of God towards the attainment of self-realization.
Frankenstein’s creature is a testament to this theory as his education and growth follow several divergent paths throughout his short existence, resulting at the last in the freedom of the creature through the death of his creator. Strangely, although the secular theme is continued throughout the text, the religious references and biblical allusions cannot be ignored and are a complex addition to a text that could otherwise be viewed as a secular treatise on the dangerous nature of knowledge. Although it would be simple to pare the text down to such non-religious terms, it cannot be ignored that Frankenstein contains a great deal of biblical symbolism, particularly the theme of the outcast and the story of creation. “The creature is bitter and dejected after being turned away from human civilization, much the same way that Adam in “Paradise Lost” was turned out of the Garden of Eden. One difference, though, makes the monster a sympathetic character, especially to contemporary readers. In the biblical story, Adam causes his own fate by sinning. His creator, Victor, however, causes the creature’s hideous existence, and it is this grotesqueness that leads to the creature’s being spurned. Only after he is repeatedly rejected does the creature become violent and decide to seek revenge” (Mellor 106). This creation allegory is made clear from the beginning with the epigraph from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which begins the novel.
Despite the lack of cultivation and learning in the morals and ethics of Christianity, the monster in Frankenstein is able to form his own code of behavior based on example and the behavior he views from others. It should be noted that his instinctive sense of morality comes without knowledge of God or a creator and while this may seem to be an atheistic or at least secular way of thinking about how morality is “inborn” it is impossible to ignore the way the bible and religious learning influence even this aspect of the story. Consider the moment when, much like the prodigal son in the bible, the monster in Frankenstein is reduced to sleep with the pigs and live like an animal.
Although both the prodigal son and the monster are on the verge of starvation, they choose not to kill and eat the pigs that keep them company. The prodigal son will not eat them for religious reasons. The monster will not eat them for moral reasons, and explained in one of the important quotes from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, “‘My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment’” (157) Without the “voice of god” or other commandments the monster is able to discern moral right and wrong. “Like most of the writers in her literary circle, from Lord Byron to Doctor Polidori, Mary Shelley–self-educated and one of the best-read women of her time–was intrigued by old tales and ancient myths concerning lost and outcast wanderers. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son fits perfectly into the Romantic notion of the isolated soul, the tortured, wandering loner who is, by fate or circumstance, cast adrift on a sea of loneliness and despair. In chapter 11 of Frankenstein–the first chapter narrated exclusively by the monster–there is a very subtle yet unmistakable allusion to Christ’s parable” (Thompson 192).
In the creature’s earliest days of life, he struggles with the concept of humanity and what it is to be human. His new and unexplained existence places him in an introspective and indefinite state of inquisitiveness. As he explains to Frankenstein in their first meeting, “I admired virtue and good feelings and loved the gentle manners and amiable qualities of my cottagers, but I was shut out from intercourse with them, except through means which I obtained by stealth, when I was unseen and unknown, and which rather increased than satisfied the desire I had of becoming one among my fellows”(124). The creature is imbued with conflicting desires. He idealizes the emotions and interactions of the cottagers, yet is unsure of his place among them. The creature utilizes his observations of the cottagers to create his own ideals of humanity. At this point in the text, the creature still reflects a kind of kinship with those he is observing. It would seem that the creature views other people as closer to God, not simply because of his own isolation, but because he witnesses their apparent ability to function in a world of God. This not only comments on the creature’s act of acquiring a sense of morality through observation, but more importantly it is a rewriting of the Cain and Abel story from the Old Testament. However, since this study seeks to separate the religious from the secular, this tale has been skewed slightly as the creature cannot be distinctly connected to neither Cain nor Abel as he wanders lonely about the earth with a separation from his creator. Like Cain he is shunned and cast off by humanity and divine influence and like Abel he is the victim of desire that itself is separated from God as well—in this case a dangerous desire of knowledge (Victor’s act of playing God).
In Frankenstein the creature’s desire to be accepted and assimilated is apparent when he speaks further of his feelings towards the cottagers. “The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition”(128). The creature reflects in these words a sense of simplistic desire, uncorrupted as yet by the malevolent and reactionary forces that will later come to shape his existence. His desire to be a part of the cottagers’ lives, to have them accept him and even love him, illustrates a tangible connection felt between the creature and the rest of humanity. The creature goes on to say, in one of the important quotes from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, “I required kindness and sympathy; but I did not believe myself utterly unworthy of it”(128). The creature believes himself capable and even worthy of both emotional and psychological reciprocation and, by extension, capable of existing in harmony with the rest of humankind.
In an attempt to further his capacity for human interaction and thereby define his place in society, the creature in Frankensteineducates himself on morals and vices. “I read of men concerned in public affairs, governing or massacring their species. I felt the greatest ardor for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the signification of those terms, relative as they were, as I applied them, to pleasure and pain alone”(125). The creature develops his own sense of morality without the influence of religion or the creator mythology. His standards are human and reactionary, based solely on the senses of “pleasure and pain”, yet they are crucial and significant to his development. As he wrestles with ideas of right and wrong, good and evil, he comes closer to sating his desire for acceptance and integration into society. Of the cottagers, the creature goes on to say, “Such was the history of my beloved cottagers. It impressed me deeply. I learned, from the views of social life which it developed, to admire their virtues and to deprecate the vices of mankind”(124). This passage signifies one of the few positive influences of humankind on the creature. Through their unknowing example, the cottagers serve the creature as teachers, imparting a sense of morality and virtuous behavior through simple human interaction.
It is evident from these examples from Frankenstein that the creature is capable of learning moral and virtuous behavior without the influence of spiritual or divine proclamation. The presence of a bible or other religious scripture is conspicuously absent from his education, yet he is capable of developing a thoroughly structured sense of morality and ethics. His “ardor for virtue” and “abhorrence for vice” is a basis for strong intellectual development, as well as being instrumental in positive human relations, the end goal of the creature’s self-education. In considering this, one must also question whether this apparent “closeness” to god on the part of the cottagers is a result of their society and civilization as opposed to a difference between the creature and the villagers. “Shelley’s monster is not evil by inherent constitution. He is born unformed–carrying the predispositions of human nature, but without the specific manifestations that can only be set by upbringing and education. He is the Enlightenment’s man of hope, whom learning and compassion might mold to goodness and wisdom. But he is also a victim ofpost-Enlightenment pessimism as the cruel rejection of his natural fellows drives him to fury and revenge” (Gould 14). It is human interaction (and the lack thereof) that ultimately drives the creature beyond his limits, not evil borne of the absence of God or knowledge of his existence. Considering the fact that the creature lives outside the bounds of civilized society, and thus lacks the enculturation that contributes to a sense of community to help ease the “awesome” thought and perceived conception of God, it becomes clear that Shelley may be trying to relate the idea that only through society and interaction with others (or better put, civilization) can a human being grapple with the enormity of God.