On the first page of Frankenstein there’s a quote from Paradise Lost that’s omitted, sadly, from some editions. The quote is this:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay,
To mould me man, Did I solicit thee
From Darkness to promote me?
Ignoring this quote is, I think, a mistake. Not only does it set the tone for the story, and not only is the quote echoed throughout the book, but thinking of Frankenstein through the lens of Paradise Lost provides a perspective that emphasizes one very interesting aspect of the story. See, Paradise Lost is, as we all know, the story of, well, paradise being lost. It’s the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise–from Eden.
Frankenstein, I want to argue, tells this same story over, and over, and over again. The entire story of Frankenstein is, in one sense, the story of a fall from Eden and the violent, stark aftermath of that fall. I may be, in arguing this, stepping outside the bounds of authorial intent (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Shelley did intend this), but from a Christian perspective, looking through the lens of Milton’s classic, I think these observations aren’t that far out there.
So what are the paradises and falls that occur in Frankenstein?
The first paradise in Frankenstein, I think, isn’t Victor Frankenstein’s. We often forget that the story doesn’t even start with Victor–rather, it starts with “R. Walton” writing letters to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. As an interesting sidenote, Allen Grove, a professor of English at Alfred University, notes:
“Shelley’s touch is subtle here, but through Walton’s sister, she has inserted herself into the story: Margaret Walton Saville–MWS–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.”
Regardless, Walton is detailing his exploration of the uncharted Northern seas. He’s taken with the thrill of adventure and discovery as he fulfills his dream of sailing through unknown waters.
In other words, he’s living in the paradise of his dreams. He’s happy and excited regarding what is to come. The only problem is that he’s lonely. He’s living his dream–living in his paradise–and yet he’s lonely. Maybe this is pushing it, but that seems to recall Adam’s own dissatisfaction with Eden–Adam lived in paradise, but he was alone. And that, as God said, was not good.
Walton soon meets a friend in Victor Frankenstein, and Victor begins to tell Walton his story. Here we see the second paradise emerge.
Victor paints the picture of his childhood as idyllic. He’s given free reign to explore and learn, and he immerses himself in reading outdated scientific works. In this we see a subtle set-up of another paradise. Not only is Victor apparently perfectly happy, enjoying life with his friends, but he also is plunging himself into mastering the works of outdated and incorrect scientific theories. He does master these theories and thinks he has gained an immense amount of scientific knowledge.
And then comes his fall. It’s small, brief, but significant. The first fall, I believe, portrayed in Frankenstein occurs when Victor meets his first professor of science at the university. Victor tells him the books and authors he has learned by heart, proud of his achievement. The professor responds like this:
“Every minute,” continued M. Krempe with warmth, “every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient? I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.”
Victor is devastated. He’s lost the paradise of knowledge he thought he had.
But his fall isn’t to end there. Because, as quickly as he falls from one paradise he enters another. He applies himself to new studies, becoming skilled in modern science. He begins work on the creation of a new life–the creature. This work doesn’t last long, though.
His complete devotion to this project is, in a sense, a paradise. He is fulfilling a childhood dream as well, just like Walton. He is creating life. Visions of his creation worshiping him, honoring him as a god fill his mind. And then he brings the monster to life and is revolted.
He was in a place of, in a sense, perfection. He discerned nothing wrong or harmful with what he was doing–in his mind he was in paradise. Then when he finally completes his project, he sees what the creature really was and his supposed paradise is lost.
But Victor’s fall isn’t complete. That happens when the monster kills his nephew William. Then, it seems, Victor’s innocence, Victor’s perfect childhood, is shattered by grief. It’s only expanded when someone else is blamed for William’s death and executed. Victor has fallen from paradise and finds himself lost in a world where he has unleashed destruction and evil.
But the creature has his own fall.
See, after Victor deserts him, the creature is angry and frustrated, but not murderous. He runs off, taking shelter in the woods until he comes upon a small hut in which lives the De Lacey family.
According to the monster, this family is, though they are poor, in paradise. They love each other, they get along, they care for each other. The monster, too, is in paradise, beginning to fancy these people as his friends. Although he doesn’t let them see him, he watches them all day and night. He chops firewood for them in secret, providing them with food and warmth.
The creature has a vision of coming into the hut and greeting the family, explaining all he has done for them, and becoming close friends with them.
The creature perceives no fault and no flaw. He is in paradise where he thinks he has friends, and he thinks the De Lacey family is also in paradise. And then, in what must be one of the most tragic moments of the book, the creature reveals himself to the family and they drive him off, revolted by his hideous appearance. The family is traumatized and so is the monster. He feels betrayed and alone–he’s run into reality and his paradise is lost.
And so is the family’s. Their trauma tears them apart, forcing them to move out for fear of the creature’s return. The creature watches as they pack up and leave, their perfection shattered by him. As they ride away he sees his innocence fade into the distance. In a moment of rage he burns their hut down, torching the last physical reminder of the paradise he lost.
Near the end of the story Walton also loses his paradise when his crew refuses to go on, forcing him to turn back under threat of mutiny.
Frankenstein is, it appears, the story of fall after fall. First Victor, then the creature, then the De Lacey family, and then Walton. In the rest of the story, after the fall of the creature, both Victor and the creature spend their time longing for what they’ve lost. The creature longs for the comfort of friends that he found in the De Lacey family. Victor longs for the return to the idyllic world of his youth through the destruction of the creature that destroyed it.
There’s a lot going in, thematically speaking, in Frankenstein. I personally wouldn’t dare to make the claim that the loss of Eden and the longing for its return is the main theme, but I think there’s enough evidence to support the conclusion that it is a theme.
Because even after all the characters have fallen from paradise they’re still haunted by Eden. Eden won’t let them go.
None of them search in the right way for this paradise, but all of them search. In some sense, it seems the story of Frankenstein is a retelling of the fall, and humanity’s subsequent striving to regain Eden. In some sense, it seems Frankenstein tells the story of us all, and that story is the story of longing for a land we lost.
Tolkien was right. All stories are about the fall. And they’re about the fall because our whole being is soaked in a visceral sense of exile from Eden. We long to return to that place.
Eden haunts us, and Eden haunts our stories.