Who Is Telling the Truth in Shelley’s Frankenstein?

by Austin Pilgrim

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an expeditioner, Walton, an avid student of the natural sciences, Victor Frankenstein, and his ultimate scientific creation, the Creature, grapple for control to tell the story. Thus, storytelling plays a vital role in the analysis of truth in this frame narrative. At the outermost frame is Walton writing to his sister about his adventure to the North Pole and Victor Frankenstein. Then, there is Frankenstein recounting his life story to Walton for the majority of the book. But within Frankenstein’s narrative is the Creature’s own story with a competing interpretation of the truth. Frankenstein’s stories influence the reader to believe that the Creature is naturally evil by highlighting a malevolence observed in the Creature. The Creature’s stories, on the other hand, lead the reader to believe that he is a benevolent being that maintained good will in adversity. By threading these multiple stories throughout Frankenstein, Mary Shelley not only demonstrates the power of storytelling but also raises a serious question: if what people believe to be true can be manipulated, then is there such a thing as universal truth?

Aboard the sea captain’s ship and close to death, Victor Frankenstein recounts many stories to the explorer Walton. Frankenstein includes his own value judgments in his stories to influence Walton’s perspectives, which can be seen most notably in his re-telling of the night he brought the Creature to life. Frankenstein describes his Creature as the embodiment of “horror” and “disgust” (58). To emphasize the ugliness and inhumanity of his creation, Victor describes its skin as “yellow” and its hair and lips as “black” (59). He recalls that its skin is composed of animal skin taken from a butcher’s shop. Even the “pearly whiteness” of the Creature’s teeth are, according to Frankenstein, a despicable contrast to its “watery eyes” (59). This scene makes use of the literary motif of a monster as a devil or hybrid being, stuck somewhere between human and animal. Not only does Victor compare the Creature to a devil and an animal, but he also associates its appearance to that of a mummy’s. He qualifies, however, that an animated mummy could not be “as hideous as that wretch” (59). This simile coupled with Victor’s descriptions contributes to the negative characterization of the Creature. By highlighting his physical characteristics, Frankenstein portrays the Creature’s appearance as the manifestation of his inherent evil, thus influencing Walton to agree that the Creature is a malicious monster.

In addition to Frankenstein’s influence over Walton, the extradiegetic storyteller, Shelly, also uses the Creature’s unsettling presence to affect the reader’s perspective. Later in the novel, Frankenstein is awoken by a nightmare of his creation, wherein its hand is stretched forward, “seemingly to detain [him]” (59). Victor does not know the true intention of the Creature and characterizes these actions as malevolent. Reflecting on this dream, Victor concludes that “no mortal could support the horror” of the Creature’s appearance. The extremity in which Victor describes his creation makes an unbiased conclusion about the Creature’s true nature even more difficult for Walton and the reader. The Creature, however, tells another story.

Throughout Frankenstein, in the stories he tells to Victor Frankenstein, De Lacey, and the reader, the Creature attempts to demonstrate that he was not born naturally evil. This argument is first made to Victor at the top of Mount Montanvert. When Victor challenges and threatens the Creature, the latter compares himself to the fallen angel, and claims that Victor “drives [him] from joy for no misdeed” (103). The Creature uses this biblical allusion to emphasize his innocence and Victor’s wrongdoing in casting him out. He claims that he was naturally “benevolent and good,” but negative experiences in society introduced him to “misery” and caused him to commit atrocious, murderous acts (103). The Creature further challenges Victor’s depictions of him as naturally malevolent by describing his own soul as having originally “glowed [with] love and humanity” and even of being born with the same qualities as human beings (103). Thus, the reader is invited to see the Creature not as a devil, but a human being and Victor is asked to consider whether his crime was creating the Creature or abandoning it. It is important to observe that the Creature introduced his life story with a plea: “Listen to me” (104). This is a significant moment because it represents the Creature asking not only Victor but also, metafictiously, the reader to believe his story. Again, the reader is left with the role of determining what the truth is—if there even is a truth.

In addition to the Creature’s fallen angel analogy, the subplot of the cottagers—DeLacey, Felix, Agatha, and Safi—is significant in his quest to explain how he gradually developed a capacity for evil actions rather than having been born evil. According to the Creature, his experience with this family was a major reason he became a murderous villain. The Creature discusses that during this time in his life, he was virtuous. He speaks of the time where he learned about human emotion from the novels he found in the woods and how they lead him to reflect upon his role in the world (131). His accumulation of knowledge humanizes him, allowing him to experience optimistic emotions. He further demonstrates his positive qualities by explaining the charitable acts he did to support the Cottagers. After hearing about their struggles, the Creature “[brought] home firing wood” so the Cottagers could spend their time finding food to eat instead of wood to stay warm (130). The Creature recounts to Victor that these Cottagers were “beloved” by him and that he was drawn to, and “impressed”, by their story (130). He compassionately articulates that after watching them, he came to appreciate their “virtues” (131).

The subplot of Frankenstein’s story, that of the cottagers the story of Felix, Agatha and DeLacey is significant in the Creature’s quest to prove his innocent origin. According to the Creature, his experience with this family was a major reason he became the murderous villain he is, or at least that is the truth that he wants to be believed. Upon recounting the history of his “beloved” cottagers to Victor, the Creature claims that he was “impressed” by their story (130). This statement clearly articulates humane feelings that the Creature held for these three people. Furthermore, after learning more and watching them longer, he states he came to appreciate their “virtues” and even to “deprecate the vices of mankind” (131). The irony of this last phrase either undercuts the Creature’s authority or, perhaps, recalls the literary tradition of the tragic hero, who inevitably falls as a result of his own actions. At the time of the scene in the cottage, the Creature says, he could recognize human evil, and even came to deplore it. However, later in the novel, after many experiences in the world, he comes to practice the vices he claimed to deplore. In addition, the Creature discusses how he had virtuous intentions at this point in his life, and only later wished for revenge. From novels he finds in the woods, Paradise Lost, Lives, and Sorrows of Werter, he learns about human emotions and reflects upon his role in the world (131). The books reflect the Creature’s accumulation of knowledge and, he hopes, human emotions.. Furthermore, the Creature demonstrates his benevolence at this stage through stories of his charitable acts in supporting the cottagers, which included collecting firewood and clearing away snow. The Creature portrayed in these stories is nothing like The Creature who is driven away by the cottagers; thus, this juxtaposition supports the Creature’s claim that he gradually learned how to be malevolent from the way people treated him. The Creature describes feelings of “rage and revenge” for the first time while reflecting on the experience (139). He describes the cottager’s betrayal and abandonment, heavily influenced by his ugly appearance, as the spark to his declaration of “ever-lasting war” on mankind and his life of crime (138).

In a final attempt to persuade Victor and the reader, the Creature tells the story of his last benevolent, and misinterpreted, act—the final turning point before he became the evil being that Frankenstein decided he was at the beginning of both his life and the novel. Wandering through the woods after being driven out of the cottage, the Creature sees a young girl running alongside a river. When he sees her fall in, he says he “rushed” into the river, “saved” her, then “dragged” her to the shore, all while fighting against a strong current (143). These word choices imply that his life-saving actions were instinctual, which reinforces his argument that he was naturally benevolent. Furthermore, the Creature explains that even after declaring war on all human beings, he did attempt to save one. Yet, to the creature’s continuous dismay, a man rips the girl from the Creature’s hideous grasp and darts into the woods. Upon pursuing the duo, the man fires a gun at the Creature, wounding him. The Creature then re-fortifies his vow of “eternal hatred” and “vengeance” towards humanity and completes his transformation to that of a true monster (143).

The conclusion of Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley does not resolve the debate over the Creature’s inherent benevolence or malevolence. Victor dies, and the Creature leaves his bedside never to be found again—as impossible to discover as the truth. Throughout the novel, Frankenstein’s stories had attempted to influence the reader that the Creature was naturally evil. The Creature’s stories, on the other hand, begged the reader to see him as a benevolent being whose good will was gradually eroded by society’s rejection. Reading through the multiple narratives folded into Frankenstein, the reader wonders whether there is a universal truth, or, many truths that can be framed by different storytellers.

Work Cited

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Maurice Hindle. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.