Conflict in Frankenstein

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, 'Frankenstein,' is far more than a sci-fi horror masterpiece. Victor Frankenstein and his monster are tortured by conflicting loyalties and contradictory ambitions, their inner lives as messy and complicated as the world they make.

Bad, Mad, and Sad: Conflict in Frankenstein

Life is rarely pretty and it's never easy. Both Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation know this all too well. Mary Shelley's 1818 classic, Frankenstein, asks the question of what we should do when life gets wickedly complicated, when our hearts and minds are torn in a thousand different directions.

Both Victor and his monster want what they can't have. In fact, they want lots of contradictory things all at once, and this battle between heart and mind, soul and spirit, tears them apart. Victor wants the simplicity of home but also the magnificence of genius. The monster wants the comforts of companionship but also the satisfactions of revenge.

Such conflict threatens the world around them, sucking Victor and the monster into its vortex--along with everyone around them.

Mary Shelley

Torn Between Ambition and Simplicity

Victor Frankenstein's genius comes at a price, one he's paying even before his monstrous creation comes to life. See, Victor has a home and a family he adores. He has a beloved father, brothers he cherishes, and a woman, Elizabeth, whom he loves and wants to marry. His home in Geneva is magnificent, surrounded by the majesty of the Alps and embraced by the serenity of glacier lakes. Plus, Victor's an aristocrat; his familial home is a lordly estate.

With such a home and family, why would anyone want to leave? Yet that's exactly what Victor does. His ambition and restless intellect drive him to exchange the comforts of home for the rigors of the University of Ingolstadt.

This is the first and perhaps most important of the conflicts Victor faces, because here he learns that his greatest ambitions are truly within his reach. Victor's dreams know no limits, but these are accompanied by a hubris, or dangerous pride, which makes him feel entitled to dare that which, perhaps, humans had best leave alone.

Victor's intent on harnessing the spark of life; he wants to find the source of creation and, above all, control it. He wants to become master over life and death. Everything and everyone must take a backseat to this burning ambition.

Victor's first conflict, then, is a conflict of priorities. He has to figure out what matters most in his life, because there is simply not enough room for both his ambition and his home life. Something has to give and, for Victor, that something is his family.

The monster awakens

The Conflict between Desire and Dread

Victor's ambition makes him do things that he once thought unimaginable. We're never given the exact details of Victor's process in creating the monster, but we get a strong sense that there was something unsavory about it. Victor references crypts and cemeteries and charnel houses, or secondary burial sites where the bones from unearthed graves are stored.

Victor also suggests that he has scavenged butcheries and slaughter houses, that he's ravaged both the animal and the human in the service of his dream. He's done things that many would consider vile, perhaps even blasphemous. Victor has voluntarily stained his hands and his soul because his desire is stronger than his revulsion, his ambition exceeding any moral qualms.

The Conflict of Self-Interest Versus Selflessness

Only when the monster opens his terrifying eyes, only when he takes his first lurching steps, does Victor finally wake up himself and realize what he's done. So when Victor faces the third great conflict of his life, he does so with a battered conscience. Humbled, guilt-ridden, and in a panic of fear, Victor has to choose whether to consent to the monster's demand for a bride.

The monster has promised Victor that a companion will end his war on humanity. A companion who is just like him--of the same origins, deformed and outcast--will cure the isolation that makes the monster's life unbearable. He promises to disappear with his bride forever into the jungles of South America.

However, if Victor refuses, then the monster vows a revenge that will be beyond Victor's most terrible imaginings--and it will come first against everyone Victor loves, until, finally, death will be a welcome release. At first Victor agrees with the monster's demands, thinking above all that this will buy his loved ones' safety. However, he soon grows horrified to imagine that a whole race of monsters might come from this terrible pair he has created.

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