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Victor Frankenstein as a Tragic Hero

Victor Frankenstein as a Tragic Hero
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  • 0:04 Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes
  • 0:38 Talent and Potential
  • 1:26 Right Motivations
  • 2:39 The Fatal Flaw
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

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

This lesson explores the character of Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece, Frankenstein, and argues that he is best viewed as a tragic hero.

Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes

When Mary Shelley published her 1818 novel, Frankenstein, she probably never imagined that it would become one of the most iconic horror stories of all time. Nor did she likely envision that she was introducing one of literature's most controversial characters, Victor Frankenstein.

What makes Victor Frankenstein so compelling is how very human he is. He's not the dark villain foolishly playing with the forces of life and death. He is a good, but flawed, human being, who unwittingly unleashes destruction, the perfect example of the tragic hero.

Talent and Potential

So what makes Victor Frankenstein a tragic hero? Frankenstein blossomed into a gifted scientist from his very first years at the University of Ingolstadt, Germany. His success there was all the more remarkable in that his life prior had been devoted to the study of ancient philosophers, discredited by the Age of Enlightenment professors under which he studied. These 18th century men of science devoted themselves to the scientific method, objectively and empirically observing the natural world and its workings.

Victor's success in creating life proves his potential is virtually limitless. That is one important attribute that makes him a tragic hero: he exists beyond the realm of ordinary folks. The tragic hero is not like the rest of us. He possesses extraordinary attributes that seem to come from some divine grace.

Right Motivations

Victor Frankenstein not only has an incredible mind and infinite potential, but also has good intentions, at least for the most part. Yes, he's passionate about his studies, and is ambitious. The thought of creating life thrills him.

Victor lost his mother to scarlet fever just before entering the university. He had seen the devastation of death. He knew the desolation, the grief that never entirely heals. He felt that if science could conquer that greatest of human tragedies, mortality, then there simply could be no greater good. Science, for Victor, should always work toward the benefit of humanity, and what higher good could science achieve than to spare humankind the inevitability of loss?

In this, too, Victor exemplifies the characteristics of a tragic hero, because this figure is always guided by the best intentions. This by no means suggests the motives are always entirely pure, because the tragic hero is also human. And human flaws inevitably get in the way, as with Victor's ambition and pride. But despite these shortcomings, the tragic hero seeks to do good, to serve others, as well as, if not more than, himself. The tragic hero always means well, even when he doesn't do well.

The Fatal Flaw

What makes the tragic hero tragic is the inevitability of the fatal flaw, which the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), famously termed the hamartia. The hamartia is that character defect, that element of flawed humanity, that brings about the hero's downfall. The hamartia turns the hero's limitless possibility and gifts into a curse. The more gifted the hero, the more terrible his fall.

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