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An Education in Alienation

Reading _Frankenstein_ & Aristotle's _Poetics_

By D. J. ReddallPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 15 min read
Top Story - April 2024
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It might seem odd to conjure the ghost of an ancient Greek philosopher the better to try to understand and appreciate a 19th Century tale of thrilling horror with his help. I was moved to do so because I am the sort of silly idealist who believes that anything encoded by a human mind can be decoded by one, to echo David Lodge’s irascible Morris Zapp, provided sufficient energy and attention are devoted to the cause. After all, I have had the privilege and pleasure of teaching this novel to hundreds of students. When I have done so, I have repudiated charming customer service and power point karaoke in favor of close reading of the text and texts about it. The latter have both preserved and provoked a scholarly and critical conversation about tragedy in general and this novel in particular. Aristotle was the first to contribute a systematic theory of tragedy to this conversation, in the 4th Century BCE. Walking anachronism that I am, I understand it to be my duty to prepare my students to understand the text and said conversation in order, in however modest and provisional a way, to contribute to it themselves. If the aims of a university are not to preserve, create and disseminate knowledge, by these and other means, what could they possibly be?

My second motive sprang from the novel itself. As those who are acquainted with it will know—unlike those who have relied upon films or Wikipedia or Sparknotes for a palsied, partial rendition of some of it—its eponymous protagonist tells Robert Walton, an ambitious explorer (and also a failed scientist and poet manqué, in many ways, Victor’s double as well as his friend) who is making his way to the North Pole when he and his men stumble upon a shriveled, freezing vestige of the modern Prometheus, that he had an idyllic childhood in Geneva until his mother’s untimely death. She perished as a result of a selfless attempt to nurse Victor’s adopted sister and future bride (Freud starts snickering in the shadows at this point) through scarlet fever. Victor recounts her passing, and its effects, to Walton as follows:

She died calmly, and her countenance expressed affection even in death. I need not describe the feelings of those whose dearest ties are rent by that most irreparable evil, the void that presents itself to the soul, and the despair that is exhibited on the countenance. It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she whom we saw every day and whose very existence appeared a part of our own can have departed for ever—that the brightness of a beloved eye can have been extinguished and the sound of a voice so familiar and dear to the ear can be hushed, never more to be heard. These are the reflections of the first days; but when the lapse of time proves the reality of the evil, then the actual bitterness of grief commences. Yet from whom has not that rude hand rent away some dear connection? And why should I describe a sorrow which all have felt, and must feel? (Shelley, Frankenstein, 45).

This passage is doubly significant: it shows that, in the mode of retrospective exposition that is dominant in Victor’s story of his strange and fascinating experiences to the astonished Walton, he is alive both to the particulars of his subjective experience and also to the universal implications of same, which he crucially was not when those experiences were first had.

Moreover, it implies that Victor’s search for the secret of life and his subsequent infusion of same into a form that would be immune to accident, injury and disease was in part symptomatic of enormous hubris and vain fantasy but also of an attempt to preserve living beings from the kind of awful death his mother received as recompense for her altruism. Victor is by turns selfish and selfless, courageous and cowardly, a prodigy and a pompous prick. He is the very model of an Aristotelian, tragic protagonist.

His mother’s death precipitated his departure for University at Ingolstadt in Germany. Two figures most crucially shape his education: Professor Krempe, who ridicules Victor’s enthusiasm for the works of alchemists like Paracelcus and Albertus Magnus, as jejune folly, and Professor Waldman, who has a much more sophisticated and patient tone:

‘I am happy,’ said M. Waldman, ‘to have gained a disciple; and if your application equals your ability, I have no doubt of your success. Chemistry is that branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest improvements have been and may be made; it is on that account that I have made it my peculiar study; but at the same time, I have not neglected the other branches of science. A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics’(50).

Waldman admonishes his avid, preternaturally gifted pupil to be as thorough and comprehensive in his study of natural philosophy as possible, as opposed to merely attending to the fashionable ideas of the day or being guided by narrow specialization or crass careerism. Taken together, these passages explain my approach to the text as both an analyst and a pedagogue: it is important to attend to the history of the science to which one is applying oneself and to understand that literature, as Aristotle reminds us in his Poetics, “is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular”(Aristotle, Poetics, X). Victor was attentive only to the particulars in situ; in retrospect, he has come to appreciate their capacity to lead the mind upward toward abstract universality.

As I averred above, Aristotle argues that a tragedy must have a specific sort of protagonist, i.e., one who is excellent in some respects but fallible, such that the error or blunder that reverses the fortunes of this character and results in both pity and terror will appear necessary or, at the very least, probable:

A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty (XIII).

Victor Frankenstein is just such a character: possessed of that quintessentially Aristotelian virtue, intelligence, and the courage to apply it to discovering the secret of life. He is also fallible: when first the rheumy yellow eye of his creature opens, he flees from it in terror and disappointment, his dreams dashed, he abandons it:

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart (58).

As the creature’s own testimony to his creator will later reveal to both Victor and Walton, this was the real moment of hamartia, the great blunder, in Victor’s tragedy. Giving life to a creature he had assembled from the moldering remains he found in moonlit crypts and charnel houses was gruesome but astonishing work that produced a being with a monstrous frame and a rational mind; a heart fit for sentiment and also one innately drawn to virtue and repelled by vice:

These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honor that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time, I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing (122).

Herein the Daemon is giving an account of his piecemeal, surreptitiously garnered education by the Delacey family, the members of which he observes from his wretched hovel after his abandonment by his creator and his flight from Ingolstadt to a nearby wood, where they live in an exile precipitated by the selflessness of Felix Delacey and the contemptible xenophobia which ruined his beloved Safie’s father and moved him in turn to reject the idea that his daughter could marry a Frenchman. The Daemon is drawn to virtue and repelled by vice despite the ghastly circumstances he has faced to this point in his brief and improbable life. It is as a result of his sorry state that he will identify and empathize not only with the members of the Delacey family but also with characters about whom he reads in volumes he found in a portmanteau abandoned in the woods: Goethe’s Werther and Milton’s Satan and Adam alike, the latter because of their respective experiences as beings sui generis in the case of Adam and as an exiled fiend, though at least with fellow devils for company, in the case of Satan. Werther was a sensitive, neurotic artist, driven to suicide by unrequited love, which seems to inspire the creatures plan of action after his creator is dead and he indicates to Walton that he intends to immolate himself. The Daemon could have been good and noble had he received any education or companionship. Thus, it may be inferred that Victor’s real blunder is not creating, but abandoning the creature.

Having established that Victor is a suitable tragic protagonist given Aristotle’s criteria and that he suffers a reversal of fortune (peripeteia) after abandoning the Daemon (his missing of the mark or hamartia) I will now quickly confirm the presence of the remaining elements of Aristotelian tragedy in Shelley’s novel before offering what I believe is a controversial but promising assessment of the nature of catharsis as the telos, i.e., the end, goal or purpose of a tragedy by Aristotle’s lights, and its appearance in Frankenstein.

The reversal of Victor’s fortunes after the creation and abandonment of the Daemon is manifestly obvious to any careful reader of the text: he falls into a lengthy illness through which he is nursed by his friend Henry Clerval, the humanistic student of art, culture, literature and language to Victor’s STEM fields poster child, who will be an eventual victim of the Daemon’s murderous misdeeds along with William Frankenstein, Justine, upon whom the Daemon pins William’s death both literally and figuratively; Elizabeth, who will be slain on their wedding night and Victor’s father, Alphonse, who will die of grief once tidings of these other deaths reach him. The Daemon will conspire to leave Victor as bereft and miserable as he, the creature, was forced to be. He will educate his creator in alienation, as it were, as a means of securing revenge for the abandonment he suffered:

Shall I respect man when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and instead of injury I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. Have a care; I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your birth (147).

It ought carefully to be explained on the heels of this passage that the Daemon and Victor confront one another after the murder of William and the condemnation of Justine for that crime and that, having heard the story of the Daemon’s experience already cited above, Victor compassionates the creature and agrees to create an Eve to his abominable Adam despite his crimes. When Victor destroys the prototype of that companion because he cannot bear the sight of the creature’s ecstasy as it observes his efforts, the Daemon makes good on the pledge just cited and leaves Victor utterly alone in the world just as he, the daemon, has always been.

Victor’s fortunes have changed from favorable to unspeakably dreadful and, in retrospect, for Walton’s edification, he recognizes that he, and not the Daemon, is the author of his undoing and the destruction of those he loved: “Thus spoke my prophetic soul, as, torn by remorse, horror, and despair, I beheld those I loved spend vain sorrow upon the graves of William and Justine, the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts”(90). This adds recognition or anagnorisis to the tally of Aristotelian elements that are present in Shelley’s novel; more specifically, that form of anagnorisis that Aristotle explains, rather laconically, as follows: “This recognition, combined with Reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, Tragedy represents. Moreover, it is upon such situations that the issues of good or bad fortune will depend”(XI). It could well seem trite or facile simply to identify each of these elements in Frankenstein, but their presence in precisely the form and sequence delineated in Aristotle’s theory confirms not only the perspicacity and explanatory power of the former but also the elegant engineering and evocative power of the latter. Shelley’s novel shows, rather than simply proselytizing about in some windy way, the potential of tales told to modify who we are and what we make of ourselves and the world.

The tripartite structure of the novel, nested together like matryoshka, ought to be indexed at this juncture. Recall that the entire novel is framed by an epistolary exchange between Walton and his sister; those letters encompass Victor’s story, which in turn envelops the Daemon’s. The net effect of the whole on Walton will be catharsis, though a catharsis intrinsic to the heterocosmos of the novel, as opposed to an extrinsic, reader response sort of catharsis which conventional readings of Aristotle might move us to expect.

Catastrophe and catharsis are the last of the components that are present in both Aristotle’s theory and Shelley’s novel. Aristotle’s definition of the end of a plot is notoriously terse: “An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it”(VII). Victor, having finished his tale and despaired of finding and destroying his creation, delivers an address to Walton’s crew that confirms that he is still, though an emaciated and desolate wretch, big enough to contain contradictions; he has told the whole tale to Walton in a cautionary mode, even omitting the precise means by which he gave the Daemon life in order to keep his friend from trying to repeat his audacious experiment. Now that he has finished his story and is moments from death, he admonishes Walton’s men for wishing to give up their doomed voyage to the North Pole and sail homeward:

You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species, your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honor and the benefit of mankind. And now, behold, with the first imagination of danger, or, if you will, the first mighty and terrific trial of your courage, you shrink away and are content to be handed down as men who had not strength enough to endure cold and peril; and so, poor souls, they were chilly and returned to their warm firesides. Why, that requires not this preparation; ye need not have come thus far and dragged your captain to the shame of a defeat merely to prove yourselves cowards (117).

It does test both our patience and our credulity when Victor utters these words. However, this inconsistency is perfectly consistent with Victor’s darkly wise and rudely great nature, to echo Pope: as indicated in the discussion of his status as a tragic protagonist, if he were incapable of contradiction or calamitous blunder, would he be recognizably human and therefore evoke both pity and terror? He is catastrophically undone in the end, and his narrative has elicited pity and terror from Walton.

Those two ingredients combine to form catharsis, which is the end or goal of tragedy in Aristotle’s teleological terms. One might expect, pace McCulloh in his “Metaphysical Solace in Greek Tragedy,” a purely purgative, wholistic therapeutic manifestation of catharsis at the end of the novel:

Nor does Aristotle, in his defense of tragedy against Plato, avail himself of the argument that tragedy is one of the means of leading us toward a joyful view of the permanent and un changing. Rather, in the Poetics he agrees with Plato that tragedy arouses "negative emotions," but goes on to claim, against Plato, that it is in fact useful and healthy for people to have a good cry once in a while and get it out of their system (3).

This seems a rather insipid construal of catharsis to me and Husain, in her Ontology and the Art of Tragedy, smites such readings rather soundly: “My rejection rather pertains to assimilating the role of emotive factors in a tragedy to their role in rhetorical speechmaking. For in object-centering they are objective, qualitative aspects of the descriptive content of tragic action. The object, the tragedy itself, is prior to the audience’s subjectively felt emotion” (100). I read Husain as unequivocally endorsing a reading of Aristotle that locates catharsis in the tragedy, not exclusively, nor even primarily, in the experience of the audience. I am also convinced that Shelley’s novel represents it in the same form.

Walton is by no means pleased to do so, but having felt vicarious pity and terror as a result of Victor’s tale (and an imminent encounter with the Daemon with which the novel ends) Walton decides to abandon his quest for glory and return home—his ambitions have been subordinated to his sense of simple solidarity with other, sentient selves:

Margaret, what comment can I make on the untimely extinction of this glorious spirit? What can I say that will enable you to understand the depth of my sorrow? All that I should express would be inadequate and feeble. My tears flow; my mind is overshadowed by a cloud of disappointment. But I journey towards England, and I may there find consolation (220).

We can make of this what we wish extrinsically, of course, but it does amount to a representation within the descriptive content of the tragic action of an experience of catharsis that moves Walton to sacrifice selfish desire for the sake of others. He does what Victor could not and abandons his lofty, idealistic aspirations for the sake of preserving life and promoting its flourishing.

Tragic narratives are therefore not only shown by Shelley, and by Aristotle, to facilitate empathetic imaginative projection or augment our empathy for the other—they can also represent the aesthetic and intellectual effects of representation of that experience within themselves, making what they are and why evident to readers or onlookers who may not have, but wish for, comparable completeness. Frankenstein ought to have its due as a pioneering work of science fiction and thrilling, gothic horror, but what is most fascinating about it in my estimation is the fact that it represents, in a narrative, what narratives can do to change minds and lives.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S.H. Butcher.

Husain, Martha. Ontology & The Art of Tragedy: An Approach to Aristotle’s Poetics. Albany, SUNY UP, 2002.

McCulloh, William E. “Metaphysical Solace in Greek Tragedy.” The Classical Journal, Vol. 59, No.3 (Dec., 1963) pp. 109-115

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. First Published 1818; Penguin Books, Revised Edition, 1992.

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D. J. Reddall

I write because my time is limited and my imagination is not.

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  • Ricardo de Moura Pereira17 days ago

    Very goody

  • Flamance @ lit.29 days ago

    Awesome story I like it

  • Anna 29 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳🥳🥳

  • Paul Stewartabout a month ago

    This makes me want to read Frankenstein again. I loved this analysis. Higher than my understanding in many ways, but you still made it understandable. I loved every bit of this and sorry it took me so long to get around to it. Like Scott said below, it makes so much sense in explaining what great protagonists in tragedies and tales in general should be. I also like your final point - that narratives can impact the people hearing them, whether it's us reading the story or Walton deciding to change his plans based on Frankenstein's experiences and what became of him. You also defty described Frankenstein. What I hate, similarly to my hatred of most adaptions of Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula (bit of a theme there and an argument for a different time) is that they get the balance wrong with Frankenstein. He was an arrogance arsehole. Make no mistake, but as much as he was driven by pure ego and "achievement potential" he was also driven by the fact he wanted to make changes for humanity. He did get blindsided and was an arsehole again to his creation, but that aside...he walked the line between the two. Wonderful work, bud, wonderful! Congrats on this getting Top Story too, it's so deserved!

  • Scott Christensonabout a month ago

    "Aristotle argues that a tragedy must have a specific sort of protagonist, i.e., one who is excellent in some respects but fallible, such that the error or blunder that reverses the fortunes of this character and results in both pity and terror will appear necessary or, at the very least, probable:" this is a great observation!

  • neil jiohuabout a month ago

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  • Dana Crandellabout a month ago

    Incredible analysis and comparison, intelligently and eloquently written! Well done, and congratulations!

  • Caroline Janeabout a month ago

    Fascinating. I need to read this again to soak it in. Thank you.

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    Back to say congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Esala Gunathilakeabout a month ago

    It felt me. That's it. Thank you!

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    Whoaaaa, this was such an in-depth analysis of Frankenstein based on Aristotelian elements! I learned so manyyyyy new words from here and my favourite two being peripeteia and hamartia. Also, I have no idea why but while reading this, I kept thinking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

  • Kodahabout a month ago

    I read the original Frankenstein when I was like 9😅 It was complicated to understand so I eventually gave up and read it a decade later! Incredible analysis, DJ! 💌

  • Ameer Bibiabout a month ago

    Excellent story I really liked or enjoyed , you wrote it in a perfect novelistic manner

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