Dualism in literature series: Frankenstein

Opposing forces abound in human nature; they conflict and compete for supremacy. Binaries such as good and evil, pleasure and pain, love and hate, success and failure, are common agents of dualism used by authors to highlight relevant social, cultural and political issues.

With this in mind, the next series of book reviews by Annette Ong will focus on the theme of dualism in literature, the first of which is perhaps the most famous of all dualist novels, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.

“I am thy creature. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous.”

I find it astounding that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just nineteen years old. There is no doubt the novel is a work of literary excellence. It is wonderfully written and well-deserving of all accolades. Unfortunately for Shelley, her career was overshadowed by her illustrious poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom many at the time regarded as the true author of Frankenstein – a telling reflection, perhaps, of the nineteenth century attitude towards women writers. Nonetheless, Mary Shelley’s novel is a masterpiece and set an impossibly high benchmark for gothic fiction.

The novel chronicles the woeful tale of Victor Frankenstein; a young, curious, ambitious and intelligent man on the cusp of great things. Beginning university to study science, he embarks on a journey of discovery that will ultimately lead to his ruin.

Victor’s creation becomes a diabolical monster: manipulative, evil and physically abhorrent. Simply referred to in the novel as “the fiend” or “the being”, he is cast from his master’s lab almost immediately after he was made, and left to fend for himself in an unforgiving world. He learns to speak and read from observing others. Living a lonely life; he exists on the margins, unseen by humans. Without sacrificing too much of the plot, “the fiend” embarks on a destructive course of evil brought on by harsh ostracism from those whom he desired as companions. Craving acceptance and love, he is denied at every turn. Victor, his creator, whom he refers to as his “master”, experiences the horror of his wrath as he exacts vengeance on Victor’s family and friends.

Shelley’s novel focuses on the dangers of opposing forces and the possible destructive consequences. Frankenstein’s monster is the result of specialised scientific discovery. By combining his knowledge and fervent ambition, Victor is powerful enough to give life. His experiment backfires and haunts him for the rest of his days. There is no comfort for Victor; he is crushed by the weight of guilt and remorse. His personal story comments on the greatness of science versus Christian morality. It begs the question, in the name of science, how far is too far? What are the consequences of playing God?

In “the fiend”, we see the conflict between good and evil. He imagined himself lovable, regardless of his detestable form. Sadly, he was wrong. Judged and excluded, his bitterness grew and violence becomes his way of life. He inflicts pain because he is in pain; however, this was not always the case. He once felt love, generosity and compassion. If he was not initially denied love, there would be no story to tell.

Mary Shelley has written a novel that leaves the reader questioning the capacity for good and evil in human nature. Although goodness reigns triumphant in the end, she allows “evil” a voice, a chance to state its reasons.

The novel is a tale of horror with all the hallmarks of exceptional gothic fiction. It is an intelligent and thought-provoking comment on science, duality, morality and human nature.



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