Third-Personal Standpoint in Frankenstein; or, a Modern Prometheus

face of a prisoner

The early nineteenth-century novel Frankenstein gave birth to one of the most well-known stories in the English-speaking world. Frankenstein in popular understanding is typically associated with a man-made monster. The novel Frankenstein originally had the added title clause or The Modern Prometheus. An under-appreciated aspect of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is third-personal communicative standpoint. The ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound forcefully demanded second-personal communication with Prometheus the prisoner. Frankenstein, in contrast, communicates third-personally in strange and horrible ways. That third-personal standpoint lessens accountability for prisoners’ suffering.

Frankenstein’s literary form places readers in a third-personal standpoint at multiple levels of narration. Frankenstein is structured as letters from Robert Walton to his sister Margaret Walton Saville. In these letters, Walton asks substantially nothing of his sister, says nothing about her situation, and records nothing about her responses. Walton is “very doubtful” that he will receive letters from his sister. He nonetheless urges her to write because he might receive the letters “on some occasions when I need them most to support my spirits.”^ Walton also questions the transmission of his letters to her:

A scene has just passed of such uncommon interest, that although it is highly probable that these papers may never reach you, yet I cannot forbear recording it.^

Walton varies the form of his closing: “Your affectionate brother, / R. Walton.”; “Your affectionate brother, / Robert Walton.”; “Most affectionately yours, / R.W.”^ After three letters to his sister, Walton’s texts mix the style of letters and journal entries. He includes salutations to his sister, but no further closings. Walton’s letters present the reader with one-sided, ego-centric, weakly addressed correspondence.

Most of Frankenstein’s text is third-personal address within Walton’s correspondence to his sister. Three closed letters from Walton to his sister lead to a fourth. The fourth letter consists of three dated entries breaking into a record of Victor Frankenstein’s narrative:

I have resolved every night, when I am not engaged, to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he {Victor Frankenstein} has related during the day. If I should be engaged, I will at least take notes. This manuscript will doubtlessly afford you the greatest pleasure: but to me, who know him, and who hear it from his own lips, with what interest and sympathy shall I read it in some future day!^

In the Thomas copy of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley underlined “pleasure” and wrote below, “impossible.”^ Most of Frankenstein formally consists of Walton’s manuscript of Victor’s narrative. The time between night and day further separates the manuscript record from the spoken words it claims to record. Underscoring the third-personal standpoint of the manuscript in the letter, Walton emphasizes his own interest in reading it in the future.

Within Walton’s journal of Victor’s tale is Victor’s record of the creature’s tale. The latter tale is transmitted orally:

I weighed the various arguments that he had used, and determined at least to listen to his tale. … seating myself by the fire which my odious companion had lighted, he thus began his tale.^

Victor never interrupts this story-world. It takes up about 19% of the pages of the novel. However, the creature (“my odious companion”) at several points addresses Victor and hands him text:

I have copies of these letters …. Before I depart, I will give them to you, they will prove the truth of my tale; but at present, as the sun is already far declined, I shall only have time to repeat the substance of them to you. …

It was your journal of the four months that preceded my creation. You minutely described in these papers every step you took in the progress of your work; … You, doubtless, recollect these papers. Here they are.^

Victor himself subsequently neither describes these texts nor explicitly hands them on to Walton to provide a conventional documentary claim for the novel as a whole. Formally, the reader reads a letter from Walton to his sister. That letter that contains Walton’s recollection of what the creature told Victor that Victor much later told Walton. Frankenstein does not use a third-personal standpoint as a device for literary realism. It functions as a device for externalizing and circulating stories.

Other formal characteristics of Frankenstein also prioritize narrative externalization and circulation over realism. Within Walton’s recollection of Victor’s oral account are several additional letters. These letters have the formal structure of written letters: they include addresses, salutations, signatures, and dates.^ They are unrealistic representations of recollected speech. One letter, a letter from Victor’s father to Victor, refers to the letter itself and alludes to the popular practice of reading:

I wish to prepare you for the woeful news, but I know it is impossible; even now your eye skims over the page, to seek the words which are to convey to you the horrible tidings.^

Gothic and horror novels attracted readers with the allure of reading horrible events. Abstract moralizing was less attractive to readers of gothic novels. Victor’s father understood the imperatives of the novel market:

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. …

But I forget that I am moralizing in the most interesting part of my tale; and your looks remind me to proceed.^

Even the creature, self-taught and three persons removed from the author of Frankenstein, expresses in his oral tale the novel-market imperative of keeping the story moving and retaining the good-will of the reader:

I now hasten to the more moving part of my story. …

I will soon explain to what these feelings tended; but allow me now to return to the cottagers^

Despite the marked boundaries between the narrations of Walton, Victor, and the creature, all three narrations have similar style, diction, and tone. Frankenstein doesn’t contain realistic writing within gothic conventions. Frankenstein formally and poetically externalizes narratives and directs attention to third-personal relations of their transmission.

Encapsulating relations of address within a text contributes to positioning it as a third-personal artifact. Writing early in 1820, Shelley imagined an “electric life” in written words:

It is impossible to read the productions of our most celebrated writers, whatever may be their system relating to thought or expression, without being startled by the electric life which there is in their words.^

Describing “electric life” in the text figures the text as a living artifact able to address any reader. That address, however, carries no moral obligation: every text doesn’t demand accountability from every person, including those who don’t read it. To create a second-personal claim, one person might direct a text to another and, with relational and institutional support, demand that she or he read it. Because colleges and universities held few persons in early nineteenth-century England, such demands had little to do with textual audiences then. Authors designed their texts knowing that persons encountered them from a third-personal standpoint in competition for attention.

Frankenstein was designed for popular circulation as an anonymous novel with textual signs of its author. Frankenstein went on sale in January, 1818. It was then sold in a portable format (three volumes, duodecimo) and at a rather high price (16s. 6d). Those features indicate that Frankenstein was commercially targeted to circulating libraries offering popular reading.^ Frankenstein’s publisher was associated with low-status works concerning “magic, the illegitimate supernatural, and horror.”^ Frankenstein was published anonymously. Anonymous publication was typical for novels of that time. In the years 1817 and 1818, about 60% of British novels were published anonymously. However, late in printing Frankenstein, Shelley asked the printer to insert a dedication: “To / WILLIAM GODWIN, / Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c. / These Volumes / Are respectfully inscribed / By / The Author.”^ William Godwin was a famous figure. Being a follower of Godwin was a significant literary, philosophical, and political marker for imagining Frankenstein’s author.

The preface to the 1818 edition of Frankenstein provided additional resources for imagining the author. The preface refers to prominent persons and literary works: Dr. Darwin, “psychological writers of Germany,” the Iliad, “tragic poetry of Greece,” “Shakespeare, in the Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Milton, in Paradise Lost,” and the author’s friendship with a highly popular writer. The preface refers to the pleasurable society of two friends. It notes, “a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than any thing I can ever hope to produce.” That’s plausibly Shelley referring to Byron’s popular success. “Dr. Darwin” refers to Erasmus Darwin. He was a physician, a natural philosopher, and Charles Darwin’s grandfather. In Zoönomia (1794–1796), Erasmus Darwin proposed that all living organisms evolved “from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality.” That view was associated with atheism and “the free-thinking physiologists of Germany.”^. Shelley was profoundly atheistic. He was also highly sensitive to his intended audiences.^ Shelley’s preface ironically declares, “I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination.” With the phrase “serious faith,” Shelley signaled a sophisticated strategy of social deniability.

Frankenstein predominately represents suffering third-personally. While desire for personal aggrandizement apparently motivated Victor, he declares that he sought to be useful to his fellow-creatures:

“When younger,” said he, “I felt as if I were destined for some great enterprise. My feelings are profound; but I possessed a coolness of judgment that fitted me for illustrious achievements. This sentiment of the worth of my nature supported me, when others would have been oppressed; for I deemed it criminal to throw away in useless grief talent that might be useful to my fellow-creatures. … But this feeling, which supported me in the commencement of my career, now serves only to plunge me lower in the dust. All my speculations and hopes are as nothing; and, like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell.^

Victor’s words have a flat, third-personal tone that stretches across the semantic range from “My feelings are profound” to “I am chained in an eternal hell.” He is speaking to himself about himself. Within such third-personal self-address, recognition of second-personal communicative absence is an implicit turning point:

He drinks deep of the fountains of knowledge, and is still insatiate. The magnificence and beauty of the external world sinks profoundly into the frame of his conceptions, and affords to their modifications a variety not to be exhausted. So long as it is possible for his desires to point towards objects thus infinite and unmeasured, he is joyous, and tranquil, and self-possessed. But the period arrives when these objects cease to suffice. His mind is at length suddenly awakened and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself. He images to himself the Being whom he loves. … He seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception. Blasted by his disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave.^

Victor, even when suffering acutely, describes himself from an external standpoint:

I was formed for peaceful happiness. During my youthful days discontent never visited my mind; and if I was ever overcome by ennui, the sight of what is beautiful in nature, or the study of what is excellent and sublime in the productions of man, could always interest my heart, and communicate elasticity to my spirits. But I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul; and I felt then that I should survive to exhibit, what I shall soon cease to be – a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity, pitiable to others, and abhorrent to myself.^

Victor, unhappy, full of self-loathing, and sensing his impending death, declares that he felt he should survive to exhibit himself as a spectacle.

While Prometheus in Prometheus Bound was fundamentally concerned with personal claims, Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus cares most about universal utility. Victor evaluates his own actions from a utilitarian perspective:

I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties toward my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery.^

After stating that his intimate friends are dead but their voices are with him in life or death (‘wherever I am”), Victor declares:

but one feeling in such solitude can persuade me to preserve my life. If I were engaged in any high undertaking or design, fraught with extensive utility to my fellow-creatures, then I could live to fulfill it. But such is not my destiny; I must pursue and destroy the being to whom I gave existence; then my lot on earth will be fulfilled, and I may die.^

The claim of Victor’s friends on him is subordinate to a “high undertaking … fraught with extensive utility to my fellow-creatures.” Victor imagined creating the creature to be such an undertaking:

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.^

In pursuing this undertaking, Victor remained away from his native town for two years, stopped writing to his parents, and forgot his friends. Victor’s intent in creating the creature was quite unlike that of the God of Genesis in creating Eve for Adam.

Frankenstein embraces the universal, utilitarian moral calculus of William Godwin and Jeremy Bentham. In a letter to William Godwin on Dec. 7, 1817, Shelley declared that he sought to preserve his life primarily because of the utility of his life to others:

It is not health, but life, that I should seek in Italy, & that, not for my own sake — I feel that I am capable of trampling on all such weakness — but for the sake of those to whom my life may be a source of happiness, utility, security & honour – & to some of whom my death might be all that in the reverse.^

Godwin’s book Political Justice (1793) presented the hypothetical of being able to save only one person from a burning room. One had to choose between saving a literary author about to compose a famous work, or saving one’s mother, a chambermaid. Reasoning based on social value, Godwin’s Political Justice argued one should choose to save the literary author rather than one’s mother.^ Frankenstein includes a dedication page to William Godwin.

The close personal and ideological relationship between Shelley and Jeremy Bentham has been under-appreciated in the scholarly literature on Frankenstein. Thomas Love Peacock, one of Shelley’s close friends, dined regularly with Bentham. Leigh Hunt, to whom Shelley effusively dedicated The Cenci, was close to Bentham. Bentham visited Hunt when Hunt was imprisoned. Shelley read Bentham’s Traités de legislation civile et pénale in 1814. In 1817, Shelley authored two political pamphlets under the pseudonym “The Hermit of Marlow.” That pseudonym echoed Bentham’s sobriquet, “Hermit of Westminster.”^ Shelley, like Bentham, had wide-ranging proposals for reform. Both despised Christian institutions and beliefs. Shelley explicitly compared his work A Philosophical View of Reform (1820) to Bentham’s work, probably meaning Bentham’s Plan of Parliamentary Reform. In A Philosophical View of Reform, Shelley declares approvingly:

The result of the labours of the political philosophers has been the establishment of the principle of Utility as the substance, and liberty and equality as the forms, according to which the concerns of human life ought to be administered.

Shelley singles out “Godwin and Bentham” as “political philosophers of our own age” who have built upon “great luminaries of the preceding epoch.” He specifies “Godwin and Hazlitt and Bentham and Hunt” as “those who have already a predestined existence among posterity.”^

In Frankenstein, second-personal moral claims produce only despair. Consider the creature and the blind cottager De Lacey. When the creature introduces himself to De Lacey, the creature doubles De Lacey and his family as unnamed others. The creature describes De Lacey and his family as “friends.” They are persons who “have never seen me, and know little of me” and who are “prejudiced against me.” De Lacey offers to help the creature by “undeceiving” these others. He gives a third-personal reason for his expressed willingness to act: “it will afford me true pleasure to be in any way serviceable to a human creature.” The creature responds:

Excellent man! … I trust that, by your aid, I shall not be driven from the society and sympathy of your fellow-creatures.

With the same distancing, De Lacey in turn responds:

Heaven forbid! even if you were really criminal; for that can only drive you to desperation, and not instigate you to virtue.

The contrasting references to “human creature” (De Lacey in reference to Frankenstein’s creation) and “fellow-creatures” (Frankenstein in reference to De Lacey’s family) further fracture the dialog. Hearing the blind man’s family returning spurs the creature to an urgent second-personal appeal to De Lacey:

Now is the time! – save and protect me! You and your family are the friends whom I seek. Do not you desert me in the hour of trial!^

To that appeal, De Lacey responds, “Great God! who are you?” De Lacey’s family enters and chaos ensues. The creature is violently attacked, but manages to escape. The family deserts its cottage. The creature, in extreme anguish, burns down the cottage. The dialogue between the creature and De Lacey, sustained in third-personal abstraction, collapses when it shifts to a second-personal moral claim.

Second-personal moral claims that produce despair mark other important points in Frankenstein’s plot. The creature demands of Victor:

You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do; and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse.^

After an intense rhetorical battle, Frankenstein acquiesces. He subsequently balks. The creature, enraged, sets out on a murderous path. The creature then brings about the death of five of Victor’s intimates. Keen for revenge, Victor seeks out a criminal magistrate, recites his case against the creature, and declares:

This is the being whom I accuse, and for whose detection and punishment I call upon you to exert your whole power. It is your duty as a magistrate^

The magistrate describes the task as inauspicious. He urges Victor “to make up your mind to disappointment.” In short, the magistrate rejects Victor’s second-personal appeal. Victor leaves the magistrate’s office “angry and disturbed, and retired to meditate on some other mode of action.” Victor resolves to pursue the creature himself. He pursues the creature from Germany to the “wilds of Tartary and Russia” and then toward the Arctic. This pursuit across a wide expansion of the world recalls the gadfly chasing Io in Prometheus Bound.

The narrator Walton finds Victor on an ice-raft in the sea north of Russia. Near death, Victor implores Walton:

when I am dead, if he should appear, … swear that he shall not live – swear that he shall not triumph over my accumulated woes …. thrust your sword into his heart. I will hover near, and direct the steel aright.^

Victor dies. Then the creature appears to Walton. Walton “endeavored to recollect what were my duties with regards to this destroyer. I called on him to stay.”^ The ghost of Victor, if it had been hovering near, would have dissolved in despair at Walton’s response.

Frankenstein suspends ordinary practices of communication. In writing to his sister, Walton discusses at length a man he has met. He describes the man as an “interesting creature,” “my guest,” and “the stranger.” He declares, “I begin to love him as a brother.”^ But Walton never tells his sister the man’s name. Like Victor in Walton’s introductory letters, the creature never gains a proper name.^ Despite the creature’s humanly sympathetic personality and verbal acuity, his “hideous appearance” decisively controls any communication between him and others. The creature, however, travels across towns and countries without attracting widespread attention. Victor refuses to describe the creature to anyone for most of the story. Others show little interest in seeking out the creature whose effects they observe. All these aspects of communication in Frankenstein are extraordinary deviations from ordinary practice.

Frankenstein replaces ordinary practices of communication with representations of powerful sentiments. Upon meeting the imprisoned Justine, who has confessed to murder, Elizabeth exclaims, “why did you rob me of my last consolation?” Then an even more peculiar exchange occurs:

“And do you also believe that I am so very, very wicked? Do you also join with my enemies to crush me?” Her voice {Justine’s voice} was suffocated with sobs.

“Rise, my poor girl,” said Elizabeth, “why do you kneel, if you are innocent? I am not one of our enemies; I believed you guiltless, notwithstanding every evidence, until I heard that you had yourself declared your guilt. That report, you say, is false; and be assured, dear Justine, that nothing can shake my confidence in you for a moment, but your own confession.”

“I did confess, but I confessed a lie.”^

Elizabeth statement, “That report, you say, is false” anticipates Justine recanting her confession. The wordless converse of Elizabeth and Justine’s love for each other apparently generated Elizabeth’s foreknowledge of Justine’s statement. This pattern of communicative anticipation characterizes Prometheus Unbound. Examples in Prometheus Unbound include Panthea’s departure at the end of Act I, and the wordless converse of Asia and Panthea in Act II, Scene 1. Narrative anticipations of others’ voices also occur with respect to the texts of Rosalind’s husband’s will and Lionel’s verses in Shelley’s Rosalind and Helen.

Rather than presenting Justine’s execution, Frankenstein describes Elizabeth’s and Victor’s resulting despair. Executions drove the sale of popular print in early nineteenth-century England. Frankenstein doesn’t include an account of Justine’s execution. In a fragment probably written in 1816^, Shelley argued that public executions produced false emotions:

The spectators who feel no abhorrence at a public execution, but rather a self-applauding superiority, and a sense of gratified indignation, are surely excited to the most inauspicious emotions. The first reflection of such a one is the sense of his own internal and actual worth, as preferable to that of the victim, whom circumstances have led to destruction. The meanest wretch is impressed with a sense of his own comparative merit.^

Rather than describing Justine’s execution, Victor asserts his own, greater suffering:

I rushed out of the court in agony. The tortures of the accused did not equal mine; she was sustained by innocence, but the fangs of remorse tore my bosom, and would not forego their hold. …

I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt. I had before experienced sensations of horror; and I have endeavored to bestow them adequate expressions, but words cannot convey an idea of the heart-sickening despair that I then endured. …

The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the dreary boundary between life and death, felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony. …

I was a wretch, and none ever conceived of the misery that I then endured.^

After learning that Justine is innocent of the crime for which she will be executed, Elizabeth declares:

do not mourn, my dear girl. I will every where proclaim your innocence, and force belief. Yet you must die; you, my playfellow, my companion, my more than sister. I never can survive so horrible a misfortune. …

I wish … that I were to die with you; I cannot live in this world of misery.^

Accounts of executions designed for popular circulation lack the moral force of suffering communicated second-personally. So too do Victor’s and Elizabeth’s assertions that their suffering resulting from Justine’s execution exceeded Justine’s own suffering.

Elizabeth’s response to Justine’s execution mocks popular literature of crime and punishment. Justine’s execution turns Elizabeth into a caricature of the pious mourner:

she no longer took delight in her ordinary occupations; all pleasure seemed to her sacrilege toward the dead; eternal woe and tears she then thought was the just tribute she should pay to innocence so blasted and destroyed. … She had become grave, and often conversed of the inconstancy of fortune, and the instability of human life.^

Elizabeth describes popular accounts of crime and punishment as closer to reason and less imaginatively affective than her personal experience:

When I reflect … on the miserable death of Justine Moritz, I no longer see the world and its works as they before appeared to me. Before, I looked upon the accounts of vice and injustice, that I read in books or heard from others, as tales of ancient days, or imaginary evils; at least they were remote, and more familiar to reason than to the imagination; but now misery has come home, and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood.

Rather than emphasizing Justine’s innocence (“I will every where proclaim your innocence, and force belief”), Elizabeth’s reflections primarily concern the alleged crime and appropriate punishment:

Every body believed that poor girl to be guilty; and if she could have committed the crime for which she suffered, assuredly she would have been the most depraved of human creatures. For the sake of a few jewels, to have murdered the son of her benefactor and friend, a child whom she had nursed from its birth, and appeared to love as if it had been her own! I could not consent to the death of any human being; but certainly I should have thought such a creature unfit to remain in the society of men.

Her ensuing assertion of Justine’s innocence doesn’t even have sufficient force to stand on its own:

Yet she was innocent. I know, I feel she was innocent; you are of the same opinion, and that confirms me.

Elizabeth declares that she would prefer to be executed for murders she did not commit than to have committed murder and gone free:

William and Justine were assassinated, and the murderer escapes; he walks about the world free, and perhaps respected. But even if I were condemned to suffer on the scaffold for the same crimes, I would not change places with such a wretch.^

Elizabeth also wishes to escape from the world. She expresses this wish after abstractly evaluating retributive punishment:

Oh! how I hate its shews and mockeries! when one creature is murdered, another is immediately deprived of life in a slow torturing manner; then the executioners, their hands yet reeking with the blood of innocence, believe that they have done a great deed. They call this retribution. Hateful name! When that word is pronounced, I know greater and more horrid punishments are going to be inflicted than the gloomiest tyrant has ever invented to satiate his utmost revenge. Yet this is not consolation for you, my Justine, unless indeed that you may glory in escaping from so miserable a den. Alas! I would I were in peace with my aunt and my lovely William, escaped from a world which is hateful to me, and the visages of men which I abhor.^

Although spoken to family and friends, Elizabeth’s words are highly rhetorical and emotionally wooden. She is delivering an address to a crowd of selves.

Victor’s father similarly offers third-personal reasons to Victor for lessening his suffering. Victor’s father declares:

“Do you think, Victor,” said he, “that I do not suffer also? No one could love a child more than I loved your brother;” (tears came into his eyes as he spoke); “but is it not a duty to the survivors, that we should refrain from augmenting their unhappiness by an appearance of immoderate grief? It is also a duty owed to yourself; for excessive sorrow prevents improvement or enjoyment, or even the discharge of daily usefulness, without which no man is fit for society.^

Victor’s father’s statement, “No one could love a child more than I loved your brother,” obscures his father-son relationship with a universalized comparison of affection. His reference to “survivors” and his concern with man’s fitness for society are also components of third-personal reasoning. The father’s argument has the advantage of applying to everyone. It has the weakness of making no specific moral claim on anyone. That’s quite unlike the second-personal communication of suffering that Prometheus Bound created in fifth-century Athenian theatre.

Frankenstein is a public work written in competition for attention. Competition for attention favors a third-personal communicative standpoint. Frankenstein, along with The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound, show the literary circumstances of early-nineteenth-century England transforming Promethean imagination toward third-personal communication.

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