Probability in Frankenstein

In lecture yesterday we discussed the theme of the supernatural in Frankenstein, particularly through the lens of Sir Walter Scott’s review of the text and his emphasis on probability. Upon initially reading Scott’s review, I found myself hesitant to accept the claim that Frankenstein is a “probable” novel, mostly because of the relative improbability of the monster himself (i.e.: Victor inexplicably creates him from an ambiguous collection of stray organs; the monster’s intelligence is so advanced that he is able to pinpoint Victor’s precise location (multiple times) and somehow navigate his way across national borders, remaining unseen.)  

But the probability Scott refers to, as we discussed, is not in fact the probability of the supernatural in the text, but rather how the human characters “conduct themselves in the extraordinary circumstances in which they are placed, according to the rules of probability, and the nature of the human heart.”   

For the most part, the probability of the novel according to Scott’s definition is upheld by most of the characters in the novel. For example, when the monster reveals himself to his cottage family, Agatha faints, Safie runs away, and Felix throws him to the ground and beats him “in a transport of fury”– all ostensibly reasonable reactions. 

But Victor is the only person in the novel who does not behave precisely according to Scott’s definition of probability. His relentlessly self-interested attitude prevents him from considering others before himself.

Even when he ruminates on the potential destruction his monster and a female counterpart could inflict upon the world, he asks, “Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?” No disrespect to Victor, but should his right to create life matter at this point, when the potential safety of humankind is at stake? Victor clearly finds his own internal struggle to cope with the implications of his actions more significant than the actual implications themselves. 

Victor even exhibits some self-interested behavior in his relationship with Elizabeth. When his father proposes that Victor consider marrying Elizabeth soon, Victor reacts with, “I must perform my engagement, and let the monster depart with his mate, before I allowed myself to enjoy the delight of an union from which I expected peace.” But what about Elizabeth? For someone with whom he has shared a lifelong intimacy, Victor shows little concern for her thoughts about the wedding, and fails to even consider cares to consulting her before deciding to travel abroad for an extended period of time.

And the most glaring example of Victor’s blinding self-interest, I believe, is his inability to comprehend that the monster’s warning, “I shall be with you on your wedding night”, in fact was a threat to Elizabeth’s life, not his own. This came up in lecture, and I think most of us agreed that this was a particularly bothersome aspect of the text. The true meaning of his warning is pretty transparent: since Victor has failed to create his female mate, he plans to rob him of his own. But of course, Victor fails to even once consider whether anyone else could be potentially affected by the monster’s promise to arrive on his wedding night (not even his wife?), and we know that this lapse in judgement ultimately leads to Elizabeth’s demise.

So I think that Victor’s character is perhaps the only foil to an otherwise successfully “probable” novel by Scott’s standards. 

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5 Responses to Probability in Frankenstein

  1. writinginmy says:

    Perhaps the disconnect between the probability of the rest of the novel and the probability/practicality/rationality of Victor serves to set him up as a kind of ‘other’ for the reader. That is, he is just as ‘monstrous’ and ‘alien’ to us as the creature is to the rest of the characters in the novel. In that vein, Frankenstein might deserve the same kind of consideration we give to his creature – both are outcasts, socially maladjusted, alien, frustrating, etc. We cannot really relate to either of them (though we might sympathize).

  2. Victor may be shortsighted, but I’m not sure his judgement’s been blinded by self-interest. After all, he chooses not “to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations,” and he expects death his reward. He’s torn between his own well-being and the fate of the world; he’s caught between a rock and an existential threat, and he reacts, I think, as any reasonable person in his unreasonable situation would. Victor’s behavior looks like it’s grounded enough in a probable, realistic world, and really, at the end of the day, the least probable aspect of this novel can’t be self-interest and shortsightedness.

  3. I agree with the comment above mine. Even though Victor’s lack of awareness does lead to the death of those who he loves. I feel like his lack of awareness reflects the circumstances that led to his creation of the monster well enough that it’s reappearance later does not stretch the probability of the text too far. Victor can’t see clearly with anything relating to the monster; it is the one thing that characterizes his interactions with it throughout the text. So, as much as the monsters intent might seem obvious to us, I can see how it was not for Victor given the lack of awareness that Shelley had already made apparent in his character.

    • elephantusk says:

      Thanks for your input, guys. I think all of you make excellent points in defense of Victor… maybe I’ve been too hard on his character. I just felt bothered by his lack of awareness throughout the novel, and I might have taken my criticism out on him unfairly.

      Also, the point about how short-sightedness can’t be the least probable aspect of the novel is totally true.. I got a bit carried away at the end of this post, it seems. While reading the novel, Victor’s self-interest bothered me (probably irrationally so) more than anything else, so I tried to hash it out here as best as I could.

  4. kristy0715 says:

    I agree with both contrasting opinions to how Victor’s personality and decisions ultimately spoiled the probability of the work. However, I believe that Shelley succeeded in creating Victor’s character because the readers often become so frustrated in Victor’s actions, yet sometimes feel that they cannot be too unreasonable in their anger because some of his motives are justified. Throughout this book, I often found myself wondering if Victor was the true monster or if his actions were truly justified. I blame Victor for not creating a female counterpart for his creation, causing the rest of his innocent family to be killed. But allowing these sacrifices also may have saved humanity from further destruction had both his creations decided to breed, creating a new race of super humans. At the same time, sometimes I feel that Victor is very dense because he leaves his loved ones alone, such as Elizabeth on their wedding night, and become utterly surprised when he finds them dead (even though the monster has already warned him that he will kill all his loved ones). I believe that Shelley has succeeded in creating Victor’s character, despite the failure of probability, due to the reader’s inability to truly categorize Victor’s actions as right or wrong. Because of this uncertainty, so many sides and opinions can be formed.

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