Essay: “Destiny and Honor in Frankenstein”
Fear is the most basic of all human emotions. It underlies the genre of science fiction horror. Shelley’s Frankenstein, creator of the genre, explores “destiny” as a basic fear that all humans face. The fear of not knowing our future destiny resonates in the Creature’s agonizing cry that he has no “destination.” For Shelley, destiny means that random, chance events determine life’s directions beyond our control. We cannot control the disorderly paths that destiny chooses for us, but we can choose to live daily life with “honor.” Choosing to live honorably in the face of fearful uncertainties and fatal misfortunes, according to Shelley, generates moral order and meaning in a chaotic world.
The idea that destiny determines the direction of human history apart from human wishes and divine godly plans was highly controversial in nineteenth-century England and Europe. As Enlightenment thinkers challenged sacred faith in heavenly providence, Romantic radicals like Shelley and the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer went further to form views on chaos-driven destiny that acts without divine purpose or plan. Both were deists, believing in human morality but disbelieving that the Creator of the universe intervenes in natural law and human affairs.
In The World as Will and Idea, published the same year as Frankenstein(1818), Schopenhauer replaced providence, a heavenly-run universe, with destiny, a universe designed by the Creator but run by a ghostly will that has no coherent goals as far as humans can tell. Individuals can do as they will, Schopenhauer says, but they can never escape from destiny’s greater will. Shelley knew Schopenhauer’s view partly from Ghost Books (1815), a five-volume collection of German haunted folktales edited by Schopenhauer and August Apel. While in Geneva in the summer of 1816 she and friends read German ghost fables from the collection. “Family Portraits,” one of them, depicts weirdly random forces dooming people to terrible ends. Germanic myths of fate that echo in Schopenhauer’s philosophy inspired fatalism in Shelley’s monster myth.
Frankenstein portrays trials and tribulations of a human world haunted by fears of destiny. For Shelley, destiny appears in the world as chaos and character. Chaos, or randomness not overseen by the Creator of the universe, causes irreversible disorder in human life. Character as destiny means that everyone’s personality is determined at birth and decides his or her final fate, an idea originated by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Despite belief in freedom of the will, humans cannot escape from the fact that outer chaos and inner character determine the course of life.
The idea that humans can never escape external chaos paints a fearful picture of existence. Justine Moritz’s plight portrays the extremes of this view. Destiny dooms Justine to an unjust death. Life suddenly turns chaotic for her as she is incomprehensibly charged with the murder of William. Her tragic fate results from a mass of chance factors beginning with the moment she was encouraged to leave her abusive mother and join the Frankenstein family, care for William, Victor’s creation’s ploy to make Justine look guilty, and then her Roman Catholic faith compelling her to falsely confess to murder because a priest insisted on it. Justine’s fate horrifies Victor but he chooses not to intervene, a reflection of the Creator of the universe that does not intervene in human matters. Victor’s choice to avoid responsibility highlights how inner character affects destiny. Victor’s character not only contributes to Justine’s fatal end, it also determines his own fatal destiny.
Shelley links the idea of “character is destiny” with advancements and setbacks in scientific knowledge. Walton and Victor represent two sciences that merge with their inner personalities: global exploration and biological invention. Walton explores the North Pole in hopes of finding magnetism and passage across a glacial ocean. Victors invents a human being from dead body parts in hopes of curing disease. They believe their quests for discovery arise from their souls and call them to grand destinies that will go down in history. In the 1831 edition of the novel Walton explains the calling as movement within his character more powerful than his own will. There is “something at work in my soul, which I do not understand,” he says, a mysteriously dangerous urge driving the “determined heart” and “will of man” (21,23).
What inner forces destine the “will of man” to frightening, unknown fates, Shelley asks, and “mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world”? (9). Personality drives fate. To investigate this Shelley uses a metaphor of angels lurking in Victor’s mind. At sixteen years old Victor suddenly quits studying science because it lacks answers to the meaning of life. In hindsight he believes he stopped because his “guardian angel” was warning him away from science before he entered an irreversible “storm” of destiny that was “hanging in the stars” and threatening to engulf his life in fatalities (42). The guardian angel’s voice was strong, but the “Angel of Destruction” and “Chance” was stronger. Going against Victor’s better judgement, the evil angel of destiny “decreed” his “terrible destruction” by coercing him a year later to resume pursuing science as a student at Ingolstadt University. As though written in the stars, a “chance” visit to Professor Waldman’s laboratory “decided my future destiny” (49). The destined fate, he says, was to “cast upon mankind” a Creature with its own “will” to create “horror” as if it was “my own spirit let loose from the grave” (77). In a moment of despair Victor says “some destiny of the most horrible kind hangs over me” (181). More despairing still is his revelation that destiny has a ghostly presence deep within his character from which he can never escape. Inescapable spirits of fate and random events, Victor says, are “the fulfillment of my destiny” (168).
The crisis of a life spinning out of control toward a fateful destiny culminates in the Creature’s plaintive cry, “What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?” (128). His woe underscores Shelley’s grand theme that the fears of not knowing our future fates, uncertain as to why “I” exist or what purpose “I” have in the world, are primal fears all humans face. But all is not lost, for the prospect of living honorably for the benefit of others gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless life.
Shelley believed that honor brings moral stability to a chaotic world. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley’s mother, denounces absolutist political power and lashes out against aristocratic English and European men for thinking their destiny is one of high social privilege determined by grand titles of “Honor” that they inherited but did not earn through honorable actions. Wollstonecraft calls “hereditary honors” an “artificial monster” of money-driven civilization. Shelley extends her mother’s argument to proclaim that true moral honor is available to everyone despite their lot in life, not just the wealthy. Honor earned through humanely good deeds renders “Honor” of social entitlement worthless. Mary’s own artificial monster expresses this democratic view when he says: “To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honor that can befall a sensitive being,” but to be dishonorable, base and vicious, is to be lower than a “worm” (119). The Creature reiterates honor’s high value when he tells Walton he was “nourished with high thoughts of honor,” but sadly dishonorable people destroyed them, plunging his life in chaos (221). For Shelley honor is selfless moral duty that benefits community life. Living honorably, as the Creature believes, makes good things happen for others for a better future.
Victor’s father exemplifies the “honorable man” ideal. Although aristocratic, he has not inherited a title of Honor but rather earned “honor and reputation” through his noble, self-sacrificing deeds in helping others (31). His honorable actions saved Caroline from a dreadful fate of perishing in poverty. The lieutenant on Walton’s ship also exemplifies the “honorable man” ideal by his “well known integrity” and “dauntless courage” (20). Realizing his fiancé loved another, he gave her and her lover money to marry and settle down so she would not be miserably “destined” to a life of sadness married to the wrong man (20). Acting honorably can bring happiness and moral order to others’ lives. Dishonorable acts, however, generate moral disorder. Safie’s father, a “traitor” to “honor,” twists Felix’s future into chaotic misery as he is forced to leave Safie and flee for his life (125). The episode of Felix’s sad fate caused by another’s selfish act of dishonor foreshadows the mutiny scene.
Victor’s speech denouncing the mutiny of Walton’s crew pronounces Shelley’s core theme: humankind’s highest potential is to prevail over fears of fate with the courage to act honorably in the face of unknown destiny. The crew cowers to their fear of fate, believing they can escape harsh destiny simply by returning to the comforts of home. “Cowards,” Victor calls them, a disgrace to Walton’s “honorable undertaking” of a grand mission of world discovery. Be brave men, he commands, “be men, or be more than men” fearlessly facing destiny head on and encountering “death” for the sake of a greater “honor” (214-15). Victor’s “honor is destiny” speech fails to work. He dies as honorability dies along with him on the ship. Walton laments, “I fear such shall be my fate; the men, unsupported by ideas of glory and honor, can never willingly continue to endure their present hardships” (215).
The final message expressed in Walton’s words of “fate,” “honor,” “willing,” and “hardships” is that nothing worthwhile can be accomplished in life if we run from the courage of honor that is necessary for accomplishing life’s tough moral missions. Frankensteinteaches that while we cannot control destiny, honor can make destiny morally meaningful to life.
- Victor says that random “events” led by “insensible steps” caused misery which “afterwards ruled my destiny” (38). What are the insensible steps that determine Victor’s destiny from promising scientist to a patient in a mental institution (198)?
- What random factors beyond his control change Walton’s destiny from making great discoveries to returning home a failure? What are Walton’s views on the moral values of honor?
- How does the Creature affect the destinies of Victor, Walton, the De Lacy family, Justine, Elizabeth, and Clerval? How does the Creature interpret cultural ideas of honor?
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One State / One Story: Frankenstein is an Indiana Humanities program and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in partnership with the Indiana State Library and Indiana Center for the Book. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.