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Guiltlessly Guilty

Frankenstein is a novel characterized by an unusually layered narrative structure. Narrators exist within narrators, narratives are passed from one character to another, and a distinct gap exists between the telling of the story and the historical unfolding of events. This patchwork narrative structure enables Victor Frankenstein to tell the tragic events of his life and to interrupt his tale with reflections on his fate. Initially, Frankenstein’s interruptive comments serve to insist that his destiny has been irrevocably determined and to deflect moral culpability for his actions. As the novel progresses, however, these metanarrative comments demonstrate his cognizance of his guilt, occurring with increasing frequency at moments in the tale in which Frankenstein exhibits escapist tendencies.

In the opening chapters of his narration, Frankenstein uses metanarrative comments to warn Walton of his (Frankenstein’s) doom and to frame his argument that he is not responsible for the tragedy he has experienced. These opening interruptive comments do not occur when Frankenstein exhibits escapist tendencies. Rather, they occur when he makes choices that he believes seal his fate. He describes his decision to study natural philosophy at an early age as “the genius that regulated [his] fate” (67) and “the fatal impulse that led to [his] ruin” (68). His decision to follow his father’s wishes and attend the University of Ingolstadt is memorable to him, for it was “the day that decided [his] future destiny” (77). To Frankenstein, these decisions are not choices; they are impulses that cannot be repressed. His fatalistic reflections in the opening chapters illustrate his acquiescence towards his fate and his ardent belief that he is not responsible for his — and others’ — misfortunes.

With the creation of the creature, however, it becomes increasingly difficult for Frankenstein to argue he is guiltless. Confronted with the monstrosity of the creature and his horrific deeds, Frankenstein attempts to escape his reality through the literal act of fleeing. However, his escapist tendencies cannot overcome his guilty conscience. Upon fleeing the courtroom after Justine’s conviction, he attempts to rationalize his silence about the existence of the creature. He interrupts his narrative, defiantly proclaiming to Walton, “The tortures of the accused did not equal mine; she was sustained by innocence, but the fangs of remorse tore my bosom, and would not forego their hold” (111). By comparing himself to Justine and passionately arguing that she is innocent, it would seem that Frankenstein accepts responsibility for his misfortune. However, he stops short of labeling himself guilty, implying that his belief in his cursed destiny still outweighs his moral remorse.

The execution of Justine still weighing heavily upon him, Frankenstein flees to the summit of Montanvert. His escapism is again futile; the creature confronts Frankenstein atop the mountain and tells Frankenstein his tale. Seeing the creature as sensitive, intelligent, and distinctly human augments Frankenstein’s cognitive dissonance. He can no longer simply deflect blame onto a soulless, unfeeling monster. However, the creature’s physical return, his confession of the murder of William, and his demand for a female companion all contribute to Frankenstein’s belief that he (Frankenstein) is cursed. The dissonance created by the creature’s return is evident as Frankenstein laments to Walton, “I was guiltless, but I had indeed drawn down a horrible curse upon my head, as mortal as that of crime” (187). Although Frankenstein still attempts to argue his innocence, his belief in a decided destiny is waning. In admitting that he drew his curse upon his own head, we see a new image of Frankenstein as a character aware that his choices carry consequence. However, his assertion that he is guiltless reminds the audience he is still unable to fully accept the realities of his creation.

In attempting to create a female companion for the creature who has destroyed his life, Frankenstein again attempts to escape his reality. After months of working on this new creation, however, Frankenstein freely abandons his pursuit. Destroying the female companion is a point of no return for Frankenstein; he realizes he can never rectify the terrible situation he has created. After the creature murders his best friend and wife, he finally abandons his belief in destiny and makes a conscious resolution. “My first resolution was to quit Geneva forever” (223), he tells Walton. For the first time, Frankenstein chooses fight over flight. In his tireless hunt for the creature, we see Frankenstein as a man who runs towards his reality, not away from it. Although he never describes himself as a guilty man, his decision to destroy the creature is a resolution that suggests he is finally cognizant of his guilt.

Frankenstein’s interruptive comments throughout his narration provide insight into his moral struggle to confront the catastrophe he has created. His inability to accept his culpability in the first half of the novel is reflected in his recurring tendency to flee in moments that are morally challenging. However, these escapist tendencies always fail Frankenstein. By forcing Frankenstein to confront his reality again and again throughout the novel, Shelley argues that it is impossible to outrun guilt. Through his metanarrative comments to Walton, we see Frankenstein gradually come to grips with this fact and accept responsibility for his tragedy.

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