Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” embodies many Byronic hero elements. More specifically, Victor demonstrates many traits associated with the Byronic hero. These elements essentially begin revealing themselves when Victor’s obsession with natural philosophy begins. His fascination concerning his studies has transformed him into a desensitized human being. His views regarding once precious, human life are now scientific, emotionless observations. We truly begin to see his detachment at this point progressing forward. Victor’s approach seems callous as he states, “a church yard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life” and continues by stating that the bodies “had become food for the worm” (78). Of course, this is something that we all know is true, but is not spoken of out of respect. Victor, however, lacks “delicacy of the human feelings” (78). His fixation on “life to death, and death to life” is extremely unconventional and certainly crosses boundaries. We know this to be true based upon how secretive he is. What should remain separate becomes fluent. Furthermore, much like the other Byronic heroes we have examined, Victor’s obsession isolates him. Victor, here, is taking on the role of a divine figure (God), or, in other words, Victor is playing with fire (something bound to have dangerous consequences). His acquirement of knowledge has transformed him into an incredibly dark being – “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (80). To add to Victor’s Byronic hero features, one could say he has a ‘God complex’ (hubris) due to his craving for fame – “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (80).
While examining Victor’s character it is nearly impossible not to notice a parallel with Byron’s “Manfred”. I would like to highlight a few sections of the novel in which directly mirror Manfred’s character. In Act 2, Scene 2 (lines 105-117) of “Manfred” Manfred is describing his beloved Astarte. Simply put, she is similar to him, but better (653).
“She was like me in lineaments – her eyes, (105)
Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone
Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;
But soften’d all, and temper’d into beauty;
She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,
The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind
To comprehend the universe: nor these
Alone, but with them gentler powers than mine,
Pity, and smiles, and tears – which I had not;
And tenderness – but that I had for her;
Humility – and that I never had.
Her faults were mine – her virtues were her own –
I loved her, and destroy’d her!” (117)
Victor’s narration presents Elizabeth to the reader on page 66 in two beautifully written paragraphs – “Her person was the image of her mind; her hazel eyes, although as lively as a bird’s, possessed an attractive softness” (66). Victor continues, “I was more calm and philosophical than my companion; yet my temper was not so yielding. My application was of longer endurance; but was not so severe whilst it endured” (66). Much life Manfred does, the reader finds Victor elevating Elizabeth focusing on her attributes that make her a better person than he. Both Byron and Shelley provide incredible distinction between their Byronic hero and their beloved. On a final note, Victor destroys the life within Elizabeth just as Manfred claims he destroyed Astarte – “She was no longer a happy creature … She had become grave” (113).
Another instance that coveys a parallel between “Manfred” and “Frankenstein” is when Manfred (Act 1, Scene 2) is at the Mountain of the Jungfrau upon the cliffs (646).
“To rest for ever – wherefore do I pause? (19)
I feel the impulse – yet I do not plunge;
I see the peril – yet do not recede;
And my brain reels – and yet my foot is firm:
There is a power upon me which withholds,
And makes it my fatality to live;” (24)
Manfred, here, is contemplating suicide in nature. However, there is a force that keeps him from taking his own life because it is his punishment not to die and continue living in despair, instead. Similarly, Victor is alone in nature and has rowed to the middle of a lake. It is here that he is experiencing “miserable reflections” (112). Victor’s true state of misery is exposed when he says, “I was tempted to plunge into the silent lake, that the waters might close over me and my calamities for ever” (112). However, there is a force that also keeps Victor from choosing suicide as he explains that he was “restrained” from doing so. Instead, Victor lives in “daily fear”, agony, and grief as a punishment for the monster he bestowed.
Lastly, I would like to briefly investigate Shelley and her careful use of diction when describing Victor’s time alone at Montanvert, or, more generally, in nature. He describes it as a “scene terrifically desolate” (116). Keep in mind that ‘terrific’, formally, was used differently during this time in contrast to how we use the word today. ‘Terrific’ did not necessarily have a positive connotation. In fact, ‘terrific’ literally meant causing terror. We examined ideas involving terror found in nature back when we studied Edmund Burke who put an emphasis on terror of the sublime:
“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
– Edmund Burke, from “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” (1757)
Shelley continues by explaining the effect that the view of nature has on Victor. Victor states, “It had then filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave me wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy” (116). The reader, here, sees the beauty, rather than terror, of nature.