De Lacey and Walton: Reflections of Frankenstein - By Laura Dame
12 February 2020
In 1818, Mary Shelley was 19 years old and she had just written a story that would become an icon, a foundation for all bone-chilling stories that followed. Despite having been crafted into several goofy cinematic retellings, Frankenstein is often lauded as a thrilling horror story; in actuality, the novel exhibits more science-fiction traits than horror and its inherent spookiness is revealed in a psychological, existential manner rather than through ghouls or serial killers. With a protagonist who exhibits egotistic mindsets and irresponsible tendencies, Frankenstein is fear-inducing because it identifies flaws in human nature and the potential repercussions of those flaws—a more real and therefore eerie concept than many horror stories boast—forcing readers to contemplate themselves and the morals they live by. Shelley promotes this existential fear by teaching readers the moral of her story through two characters who parallel her antihero protagonist Victor in such a way that they both highlight Victor’s flaws and express the moral of her story in a precise and undeniable manner. Though somewhat minor characters, Felix De Lacey and Robert Walton have purposefully similar and—at apt moments—dissimilar stories as Victor, creating a mirroring effect in the novel which allows readers to see Shelley’s overarching point without her having to explicitly tell them, making the implications of Victor’s often hard to understand decisions all the more poignant. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley draws parallels between three male characters to emphasize the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences of ignoring one’s mistakes.
Beginning early in the novel and continuing through the end, the progression of Frankenstein hinges upon Victor Frankenstein’s choices that, ultimately, are almost always mistakes. The most significant of these mistakes is, of course, Victor’s manic creation of the monster or, as Victor refers to him, “the fiend” (Shelley 102). By giving life to the pieced-together being with “shriveled complexion, and straight black lips,” Victor sparked a mayhem and tragedy-filled course for his own life that eventually sees him through to a lonely and less-than-noble end (Shelley 35). Immediately following the reanimation of the “dæmon,” Victor “[rushes] out of the room,” essentially abandoning this creature he toiled over at birth, and proceeds to live in a state of fairly blissful denial about the “catastrophe” he has created (Shelley 67, 36, 35). Though being pursued by the increasingly vindictive monster, Victor repeatedly neglects to admit what he has done and falls from a state of denial into one of terror, remorse, and grief after failing to come forward with the truth when a woman’s life is on the line. His agony is then doubled when he continues to be too morally weak to reveal the truth and his culpability even when his loved ones’ lives are at stake, the monster murdering them one by one. Only after years of guilt and secrecy does Victor share his “great and unparalleled misfortunes” with anyone, and his confession to Robert Walton is hardly noble as he attempts essentially to hand his moral liabilities over to Robert rather than seeking peace with his mistakes: “I ask you to undertake my unfinished work” (Shelley 17, 157). Victor’s repeated lack of conscience when being virtuous is most vital and his generally cowardly manner of living life is what creates horror-like tension in Frankenstein for readers; this underscores Shelley’s connection between failing to take responsibility for one’s actions and losing the ability to live happily and at peace.
Furthering the impact of Victor’s egotistical character and poor decisions, Shelley makes the results of his mistakes and his reactions to those mistakes far-reaching and dramatic, claiming several innocent lives and ultimately destroying Victor himself.
By having Victor spend the majority of the book in a depressed and grief-stricken state of mind, Shelley points readers to the idea that people cannot run away from their mistakes and choices; even if one flees the country and lives as though their past is irrelevant as Victor does, reality will live on in one’s mind, wreaking internal havoc. Victor's initial decision to live in denial ultimately costs him greatly and self-punishment is the coping mechanism he turns to: he mentally (and, later, physically) exiles himself from those he loves and, eventually, tries to avenge his innocence and loved ones in a foolish manner. By depriving himself, Victor feels as though he is in some way paying for his mistakes. Exhibiting traits Vel-Palumbo et al. analyze in their article “Why Do We Self-Punish? Perceptions of the Motives and Impact of Self-Punishment Outside the Laboratory,” Victor attempts to avoid the shame he fears from others but ultimately inflicts it on himself: “protecting the self from threats of failure they appear to indulge in them, subjecting themselves to aversive experiences such as physical pain or psychological self-blame” (756). Victor’s “psychological self-blame” can be seen in phrases such as “I called myself the murderer of William, of Justine, of Clerval” or “I…threw myself on the grass, weighed down by horror or despair” (Shelley 127, 104). Similarly, by the end of the novel, Victor’s interior blame and shame lead him into physical pain when he embarks on a lengthy and dangerous journey to chase the “abhorred monster,” winding up with “feverish fire…in his eyes” as he lies dying, remorseful, largely alone, and desperate (Shelley 68, 154). Through these harsh and long-lived effects of Victor’s mistakes, Shelley allows readers to see that mistakes dealt with rashly and through denial or self-punishment are not truly dealt with at all and will manage to impose their consequences, regardless; confronting mistakes well will likely result in less harm and distress overall, even if it means the painful forsaking of one’s pride.
Serving as a model of humanity for the monster and a character parallel to Victor, love-stricken Felix De Lacey offers readers an alternative to Victor’s tragedy-filled ending in Frankenstein. Felix, like Victor, has made a life-altering mistake in attempting to save the father of Safie (the woman he loves) from legal troubles. Although this undertaking holds less worldwide import than Victor’s decision to create life, Felix’s mission has similarly drastic results. Felix’s poor and self-centered decision to save Safie’s father through illegal means results in his sister and “blind and aged” father being jailed on his account (Shelley 87). It is at this juncture that Felix makes a choice pivotally unlike those Victor makes following his creation of the monster; Felix does not attempt to ignore what he has done and immediately begins trying to remedy the situation by “[delivering] himself up to the vengeance of the law” (Shelley 87). Felix sacrifices his own well-being, pride, and social standing for the sake of his loved ones without hesitation, something that Victor repeatedly fails to do. Similarly, though Felix and his family wind up “derived of their fortune, and condemned…to a perpetual exile from their native country,” they are all alive and together, a type of security and peace that Victor fails to find with his own family, as he separates himself from them and allows them to stay in harm’s way (Shelley 87).
Also like Victor, Felix deals with a certain amount of emotional and psychological misery in the novel, but the difference between the two men continues to be poignant in the way that Felix is not alone in his grief as Victor was. With his family equally involved and knowledgeable of the unfortunate circumstances, Felix does not have to navigate his guilt, shame, and sadness alone; his loved ones are both alive and a part of his emotional life, allowing them to offer Felix the support and comfort which Victor so horribly failed to give himself. The similarities and differences between these two characters—as culminated in Victor’s rather pathetic ending and Felix’s ultimate happiness—exaggerate Victor’s shortcomings, suggesting to readers that to deal with one’s mistakes nobly is to find longterm peace and happiness.
Shelley’s pointed decisions to give Felix (the morally stronger character) a happy ending and Victor (the morally weak character) a dramatic and sad ending are one element of the character-mirroring technique that is so influential in Frankenstein. The parallels between Felix and Victor cause an echoing effect in the novel, a verbal “sound” that slyly draws readers attention to Shelley’s moral without requiring blatant explanation on her part. In his examination of James Joyce’s writing “Joyce’s Doubling,” Kenneth Pellow describes the same writing technique:
"Almost every repetition of a character-type…could cause a reader to recall the earlier instance, and thus inevitably make comparisons and/or contrasts. These analogies, in turn, subtly urge a reader toward moral inferences, even toward judgments, wherein a particular character is found to be more — or, obviously, less — culpable than another with whom the first is associated" (Pellow 29).
Pellow’s analysis of Joyce’s works aptly fits Shelley’s use of character mirroring in Frankenstein as well. The repetition of circumstances and emotional states in Victor and Felix’s stories combined with Shelley’s carefully chosen deviations from similarity spark recognition for readers, allowing them to judge the characters for themselves. By having readers draw their own conclusions about Felix and Victor, Shelley makes the judgements readers decide upon for Victor all the more impactful. Shelley is not preaching a moral to her audience; she uses parallel characters to show the moral implications of her story, offering readers a role in making the novel’s overall meaning and the chance to see the importance of taking responsibility and living truthfully in a more personal way.
In reading Frankenstein the temptation might be to view Robert Walton and his story as nothing more than a stage for Victor Frankenstein’s tale to take place on, but Robert actually appears to fulfill a similar role to Felix De Lacey, with eye-catching similarities to Victor and a distinct moral purpose. Robert’s story, however, differs from those of Victor and Felix in key ways that highlight a more realistically human balance between selfishness and virtue that is neither strictly good nor bad, and that readers can more easily relate to and learn through. Much as Victor and Felix do, Robert sets off on a rather dramatic mission, a “laborious journey” driven by a selfish motivation to “accomplish some great purpose” (Shelley 8, 9). Robert asks a crew of men to risk their lives on a dangerous trip and says farewell to his sister with the words “If I fail, you will see me again soon or never” (Shelley 9). In this sense, Robert shares those self-centered tendencies that Victor exhibits. He quickly sets aside his sister’s possible concerns for his safety and is willing to risk the lives of the ship crew in order to achieve a sense of accomplishment in life. The arctic voyagers soon become “encompassed with peril,” though, and Robert is faced with the difficult decision to “return shamefully…[his] purpose unfulfilled” or to push onward, more so than ever risking his own life, the lives of the crew, and the possible heartbreak of all family members involved (Shelley 153, 155). In his version of Victor and Felix’s pivotal moments and despite a somewhat bitter tone (“It requires more philosophy than I possess, to bear this injustice with patience”), Robert ultimately makes the decision to turn the ship back towards safety and attempt to spare his life and those of the crew (Shelley 155). Where Victor fails to prevent the murder of Justine, Robert concludes that saving lives is more valuable than his own pride. Robert is willing to sacrifice his own desires and his ego for the sake of the more noble, ethical choice. Robert’s story gives readers the opportunity to see a character make the right decision, actually preventing a terrible mistake rather than standing by and letting mistake after mistake (or tragedy after tragedy) occur as Victor does. In this way, Shelley uses character parallels between Robert and Victor to emphasize how one can feel torn between pride and virtue, but ultimately make the right decisions.
Because he takes responsibility for his actions, does not try to live in denial of truth, and makes no attempt to hide away his more base human emotions like bitterness, Robert is someone that readers can see themselves in and feel inspired by this realistic combination of virtue and pride.
Although Robert is disappointed by the failure of his quest for fulfillment, he does not sink into a depressed, self-punishing state as Victor does. He feels a sense of isolation that is akin to Victor’s mental and physical exile, but he also describes a sense of overall peace: “while I am wafted towards England…I will not despond” (Shelley 155). Because he is not burdened with deserved guilt like Victor, Robert can live light-heartedly and lacks the delusional depression that Victor shows. Victor’s comment to Robert that “I have been occupied with examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable” is revealing of a ruminative and fantastical state of mind, that Victor can find his role in so many deaths faultless. Robert’s morally sound decision to alter their course towards a safer area means that he does not feel the need to mentally or physically punish himself in an attempt to restore his mortality, nor does he have a litany of disasters to reflect upon and try to cope with (Vel-Palumbo 763). This essential difference between Victor and Robert, the different outcomes of their drastically different decisions, shows how Shelley strays from making Victor and Robert exact copies of one another in moments when it makes her point clear. Victor makes a poor decision and winds up tortuously unhappy; Robert makes a wise, albeit hard, decision and winds up, though maybe even he does not realize it, in a state free of guilt which is ultimately far better than if he had made a selfish, Victor-like decision and caused the deaths of crew members or even himself. That guilt would be an agony far worse than the disappointment of a failed dream. Pellow’s description of this concept in James Joyce’s writing is, once again, apt for Frankenstein: “his characters and their actions…constantly put us in mind of other characters in the collection; and the retrieval cues are always thematically productive” (46). Shelley’s use of character parallels with Victor and Felix and again with Victor and Robert in terms of their similar life circumstances and rationales is purposeful, and it emphasizes central themes of the novel: being truthful and unselfish when it is most needed will lead to better overall happiness, while failing to do so could spell disaster in one’s life.
Beginning with the absence of parents, specific male and female relationships, and a connection to Victor’s monster, Mary Shelley’s characters Felix and Robert have many experiences in common with antihero Victor that showcase Victor’s story (mistakes, self-punishments, and all) in a way that allows readers to judge his character for themselves, making their judgements personal and therefore more effective. Similarly, Shelley’s precisely chosen deviations from creating similarities between Victor, Felix, and Robert make Victor’s mistakes all the more glaring and causes readers to come to the conclusion about him that Shelley desires. Her science-fiction-based discussion of morals, truth, virtue, and taking responsibility for one’s actions allows readers to see reality in stark clarity, through a lens of eerie other-worldliness. The timeless moral initiatives of Frankenstein and Shelley’s inclusion of the reader through character parallels make the novel stunningly influential two centuries after it was written, even as the British Romantic movement generally feels out of place in the 2000s. Truth is still truth, virtue is still virtue, and failing to prevent multiple murders is still undeniably wrong.
Pellow, Kenneth C. “Joyce’s Doubling.” Renascence, vol. 68, no. 1, 2016, pp. 27-48. EBSCOHost, http://lrc-proxy.abtech.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-ebscohost-com.lrc-proxy.abtech.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=112905673&site=ehost-live. Accessed 18 January 2020.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Vel-Palumbo et al. “Why Do We Self‐Punish? Perceptions of the Motives and Impact of Self‐Punishment Outside the Laboratory.” European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 6, Oct. 2018, pp. 756-768. EBSCOHost, 10.1002/ejsp.2368. Accessed 18 January 2020.