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Family, central to the upbringing of children, is responsible for the socialization and the well-being of future generations. The themes of family responsibility and abandonment play a big role in Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein, specifically in regards to Victor’s relationship with his creation. Within these themes of responsibility and abandonment are is the notions of children, family, and parental responsibilities, which were important within the family unit during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In these time periods, the family functioned as both a social and economic unit, sometimes, however, taking precedence of children’s well-being as abandonment, neglect and emotional detachment were common practices and experiences within the family. Freud, a well-known psychoanalyst, expressed opinions in regard to family functioning and childhood development. The manner in which families treated children within the context of the family unit and within civilization would be of particular interest of Freud, as he enjoyed analyzing society from an objective, third-party perspective.
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein deals with many different themes and transgressions. One primary transgression is one of abandonment. Drawing from the idea of Victor’s abandonment of his creation, is the notion of children, family, and parental responsibilities. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein sets out to explore experimental and questionable scientific principles in order to try and create a new kind of being. His scientific experiment is a success when he creates a composite creature of various human parts. Victor’s search for power and his strong sense of ego is largely a theme on the novel. On the other hand, however, so is exploration, of both Victor and the creature itself-posing important questions of responsibility and consequence. When Victor feels repulsion towards his own creations, his pride causes him to abandon his monster “child.” The unfortunate consequence of leaving his monster to fend for itself is a high price to be paid by both Victor and society. The family, central to the upbringing of children, is responsible for the socialization of future generations.
It could be suggested that Victor would have been wise to model his parental duties after those of his own parents. His parents exhibited a high level of devotion to him and his siblings. In the novel, Victor is proud of his father’s career in the public sector which he is noted as having successfully fulfilled with “honor and reputation” (pg. 33). He treated his wife well and worked hard to shelter her. Victor explains to Walton that “every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patient, of charity, and of self-control…” (pg. 35). Victor is even quoted in the novel as saying, “No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself” (pg. 39). Victor, unfortunately, fails to realize his responsibility and obligation toward his own creation, the consequences of this error are nothing short of a series of tragedies.
Although his childhood was blissful, he explains to Walton that he had a violent temper at times, as well as vehement passions, that “by some law in [his] temperature, they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to an eager desire to learn all things indiscriminately” (pg. 39). Despite Victor’s confessions regarding his own nature, for some reason Walton continues to see him as a good person. About Victor, Walton says, “what quality [is it] which he possesses, that elevated him so immeasurably above any other person I ever knew. I believed it to be an intuitive discernment; a quick but never-failing power of judgmentâ€¦” (pg. 30). On the other hand, his character is perceived by the monster through his view of Victor as merely a cold creator and an unloving abandoner. Comparing Victor to God and himself to Adam, the monster says, “Many times I have considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition” (pg. 132). The monster also outlines his perspective of his “birth” and soon after, his fleeing from the apartment. The creature was initially very confused. The creator recounts: “I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness: innumerable sounds rang in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted meâ€¦” (pg. 106). The reader experiences a sense of empathy for the monster, especially in regard to when he sees his own reflection in a pool of water. “At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bittersweet sensations of despondence and mortification” (pg. 116). Victor created a monster and left it to fend for itself in a world in which he does not belong, and it is therefore Victor who is responsible for the misery and thus the evilness of his own creation. Furthermore, the monster’s awareness of his own disconnect that exists between himself and the rest of the world becomes apparent in this quote. He knows he is being excluded, and despite being considered hideous, he is intelligent and seeks acceptance, but is rejected first by his creator, and again by the peasant family, who he learns to talk and interact with people from watching. But when the monster approaches the peasant family, hoping for friendship, they beat him and chase him away. Not only does the monster become cognizant of his own “ugliness” in the novel, but when others are also terrified by the way the creature looks, it causes him to feel even more discouraged and dejected.
Victor’s cautionary tale is shared with Captain Walton, whose vessel rescues him as he chases his creature over Arctic waters. When Walton tells Victor that he seeks the kind of knowledge that the death of one man is a small price to pay for the acquirement of, Victor tells Walton, “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification for your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (pg. 31). Even though it was too late for Victor himself to benefit from the lesson he learned, he wanted to pass his learning on to someone else. Too late to be a good example, Victor intends to pass on a warning to Walton.
For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the family functioned as both a social and economic unit. Sometimes the economic unit, however, took precedence over well-being of the children. For example, every part of the family was considered important for production and consumption. Thus, children were often sent away to earn money for their families, sometimes to different households. Not only were children not the center of the family, but they also weren’t the center of the family’s concern. Women were often subordinate to men as girls were less valued within the family unit than girls were. In this time, attitudes towards children and child-rearing were very different. “Infanticide, though illegal, was not unknown, abandonment was a common practice, and what we would consider neglect was more often the rule than the exception” (Sullivan, pg. 410). A high infant mortality rate was to blame for a lot of this behavior. Children who survived were viewed simply as assets or liability; seen in terms of a cost/benefit analysis. This level of emotional detachment was quite common. “With life so precarious for their children, any great emotional involvement with them was risky” (Sullivan, pg. 410).
With a lack emotional attachment towards children, coupled with parental neglect and abandonment of children, the welfare of children and families was placed on the backburner in lieu of commercial progress that was being made within this time period. Children were sometimes made to work in factories, performing tasks that were suited for the small frames and hands of children. It was not uncommon for kids to become seriously injured while on the job and then quickly replaced with another child, without attachment, nor medical or financial compensation. Respect for human life and dignity was at the mercy of progress and advancement. Fortunately, significant and long-lasting positive changes took place in the family during the nineteenth century. Families became more tied together by emotional bonds and family units became more child-centered throughout time. Women had fewer children, and they were more likely to survive. In fact, middle class children were no longer seen as just as asset, but rather “as a fulfilling ‘product’ of a good home” (Sullivan, pg. 523).
Psycho-analytic theories regarding childhood were developed by Sigmund Freud. Freud is a famous psycholoanalyst and a very influential thinker in the 20th century. Freud, who is best known for his theories on repression and the unconscious mind, is also known for writing “Civilization and It’s Discontents.” Written in 1929 and first published in 1930 as Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, meaning “The Uneasiness in Culture.” Civilization and It’s Discontents is both one of his most important, and most widely read books. In his book, Freud emphasized the centrality of childhood in forming personality, and discusses the different stages of development and the influence that childhood experiences have on adulthood. According to Freud, it is the first five years of a child’s life that are the most important in forming personality, and it is usually at the age of five that a human beings character has formed and cannot be subsequently changed.
In regard to the theme of parental abandonment in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and the common practices of neglect and abandonment on children during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Sigmund Freud would more than likely have an opinion on these practices in regard to family functioning and childhood development. “The last, but certainly not the least important, of the characteristic features of civilization remains to be assessed: the manner in which the relationships of man to one another, their social relationships, are regulated- relationships which affect a person as a neighbor, as a source of help, as another person’s sexual object, as a member of the family and of a State” (pg. 48). The manner in which families treated children within the context of the family unit and within civilization would be of particular interest of Freud, who would enjoy analyzing these relationships from an objective, third-party perspective. In fact, Freud is commenting on the nature of the family relationship as a “source of help… as a member of the familyâ€¦” (pg. 48). Children have a particular demand on them to be a source of help, which was especially true of offspring during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The demands reflect what is “civilized in general” (pg. 48).
In regard to parent’s relationship with their children, “â€¦the relationships would be subject to the arbitrary will of the individual: that is to say, the physically stronger man would decide them in the sense of his own interests and instinctual impulses” (pg. 48). Parents, as the bigger and stronger beings within parent-child relationships do, in fact, exert a high level of control over their children, much like in the conditions on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the role of children either as something to be abandoned, or put to work to make money for the family, was directly influenced by the needs of the parents, the survival of the family, and the demands culture placed on the family unit in terms of subsistence patterns and working conditions. During this time, many families were living at merely subsistence levels and had no choice but to live with poor working conditions, including putting small children to work in dangerous jobs.
The themes of responsibility and abandonment are important in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as well as during the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries in particular. Within these themes of responsibility and abandonment are is the notions of children, family, and parental responsibilities, which would be of particular interest to Freud who shared opinions on family functioning and childhood development. Family roles were clear during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries- roles for the purpose of survival, and dictated by the parent’s wishes. In Frankenstein, the level of relationship that Victor Frankenstein assumed with his creation was dictated by his own personal interest, leading him to leave his creation to fend for himself. Additionally, Victor’s decision of whether or not to accept adequate responsibility for his own “monster child” is determined again by selfish desires and results in the monster’s inability to form healthy relationships with people, leading to Victor’s creation eventually assuming unhealthy coping mechanisms, in place of human-like attachment. Some of these unhealthy coping mechanisms include stalking, threats, and killing people.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Ed. James Strachey and Peter Gay. New York:
W.W. Norton, 1989. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Ed. Maurice Hindle. London: Penguin, 2003. Print. Sullivan, Richard E., Dennis Sherman, and John Baugham. Harrison. A Short History of Western
Civilization. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. Print.
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