Lessons in Unmanliness from Victor Frankenstein

by Jeremy Anderberg on February 26, 2014 · 22 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness

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Victor Frankenstein does not get much attention in popular culture. It is Frankenstein’s creation – a nameless monster (often mistakenly called Frankenstein) – in all his green, bumbling glory that attracts the attention and the horrified screams of people worldwide.

To the contrary of how film directors and producers have portrayed Frankenstein’s monster, Mary Shelley wrote the character as an intelligent and physically astute being. He wasn’t a stiff, monosyllabic beast with a flat head and a bolt in his neck. And while Victor Frankenstein himself is often mostly ignored in media portrayals, he retains the image of mad scientist. That’s about as far as we ever get in analyzing Frankenstein.

This is unfortunate, as some of the mistakes Frankenstein made along the way, mistakes which ultimately led to him losing everything he cared about – his brother, his best friend, and ultimately his wife – are incredibly instructive to any man who wishes to improve himself. After reading Shelley’s masterpiece, both previously and for this month’s AoM Book Club selection, my gut feeling was actually of sympathy towards the monster rather than Frankenstein.

While highlighting a character’s positive traits can be inspirational, it can also sometimes be quite educational to examine the ways in which he stumbles. So today we’ll take a look at Victor Frankenstein as a profile in un-manliness and explore what his flaws can teach us about what it means to be human, the importance of owning up to our responsibilities, and the danger in blaming anything other than ourselves for our mistakes.

Lesson #1: Unchecked Passion Can Be Dangerous

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The creation of the monster was a long process. It didn’t happen overnight. It was months and months of studying and experimental tinkering before the creation rose to life. Frankenstein notes while narrating his story, “I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.” His studies and his obsession “swallowed up every habit of [his] nature.”

While Frankenstein was away at college, he became utterly obsessed with finding out what the spawn of life really was. In spite of the insistence of his family and professors to give up this all-consuming pursuit he continued on. He did nothing with his time but study this science of human animation and tinker in his lab. He lost sight of any other thing in life that brought him joy…so he really did become the mad scientist that we all know from pop culture.

What’s telling is that when Frankenstein took breaks to go home, his passion would be tempered, he would realize what truly brought him joy in life, and he would be happy once again. But then he’d return to college, and continue in his madness. It was almost an addiction.

While passion today is touted as a necessary and driving force in our career path, if unchecked it can lead to losing the things we truly care about in life. The late Steve Jobs is often looked up to (heck, even worshiped) for his brilliant business acumen and product innovation. But his passion and obsession for his company led to him being an angry and temperamental boss, and a mostly absent husband and father. What is more important in life? I can’t offer a one-size-fits-all answer, but Frankenstein himself gives us a great bit of wisdom while reflecting on this passion of his:

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if not man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.”

Lesson #2: Giving Up the Ship Won’t Solve Your Problems

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One of my constant annoyances while reading the book was that Frankenstein incessantly blamed the ethereal forces of the universes for his problems. At one point, he comes close to giving up his pursuit of animating a lifeless object, only to be pulled back into his obsessions once again. Frankenstein notes, “It was a strong effort of the spirit of good; but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.” Later he blames “chance – or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which asserted omnipotent sway over me…”

Frankenstein felt he was at the mercy of the fates and had no trust in his own willpower to overcome his dangerous passions. He had what’s called an external locus of control – a belief that you’re not responsible for your behavior, that life happens to you, rather than you making it happen.

A resilient man, on the other hand, seeks to have an internal locus of control – the confidence that one is captain of his destiny and can pilot his ship wherever he wants it to go. He takes responsibility when things go awry and actively seeks to get back on course.

Everyone falls somewhere on a spectrum between the two perspectives, even changing depending on the situation. When we don’t believe we can solve a problem, we tend to assume the victim mentality and look externally to assign blame.

The reality, however, is that we have way more control over our lives and actions than we tend to think; when practiced, our focus and our willpower are incredibly potent tools for shaping our lives. Sure, circumstances will always have something to say, but if your life hasn’t gone the direction you thought it would, take action and don’t let it stay that way. One of our mantras here at AoM is that if you want to feel like a man, you have to act like one. And a man doesn’t blame his life on destiny or fate, he takes responsibility and assumes command of his actions. Which leads to our next lesson…

Lesson #3: When You Don’t Accept Responsibility, Your Mistakes Can Take On a Life of Their Own (Literally)

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After the monster rose to life, Frankenstein was horrified at his creation, and ditched. Plain and simple. He got out of dodge, ran home, and hoped that his perceived disaster would somehow remedy itself.

This is understandable. We’ve all run at one time or another from some problem we’ve created. And hopefully we’ve come to learn that running only escalates those problems, and they can truly take on a life of their own. Think of the snowballing lie where you’re spending more time and thought on the lie than the reality of the situation. And those instances usually come back to bite us in the rear even worse than had we owned up right away.

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What’s most frustrating about Victor Frankenstein is that he had multiple chances to take responsibility and own his mistakes and fix them, and each time he shrank like a coward and came up with excuses.

At one point early in the novel, the monster kills Frankenstein’s young brother and frames a woman in the village named Justine. She is caught and sentenced to die. Only Frankenstein knew the truth of the matter. He says, “A thousand times rather would I have confessed myself guilty of the crime ascribed to Justine; but I was absent when it was committed, and such a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman, and would not have exculpated her who suffered through me.”

His excuse is that the people in the village would not have believed his tale. How lame is that? And Justine is killed without Frankenstein uttering a word of truth.

When we create something awesome, we practically fall over ourselves to claim credit. But when we create a problem, our natural tendency is to slowly walk backwards while casually whistling the tune of abnegation and denial. But being a man means taking responsibility for all of our creations, both the good and the monstrously bad.

Humans are not perfect. Not by any means. But it’s within our power to correct the problems we create. And when we don’t exercise that power, our problems fester and only get worse. Think about the dentist. If you go every six months for regular cleanings, brush your teeth twice a day, and floss regularly, you’ll likely be just fine. But when you put off those appointments, when you slack on flossing, when you forget to brush every once a while, you end up being poked and prodded for two hours so they can give you a deep clean and fix the problem you created. Not fun. (If it seems like this is from personal experience, it is.) And that’s just with oral hygiene, let alone something far more serious.

Frankenstein at one point says, in regards to a potential solution to his monster problem, “I clung to every pretense of delay, and shrank from taking the first step.” Can’t we all relate? There are a whole host of reasons why ripping the band-aid off is a better solution than the slow peel. Most importantly, it’s the simple fact that a man takes responsibility for his life, and therefore the problems he’ll inevitably sometimes create.

I’ll leave this lesson with one final bit of advice from the reflective Frankenstein, “Nothing is more painful to the human mind than the dead calmness of inaction.”

Lesson #4: Loneliness Leads Us Down Unhealthy Paths

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One of the catalysts of Frankenstein’s unchecked and dangerous passion was simply that he was by himself at college. His friends and family weren’t around to give him balance and to temper his flame. It wasn’t until he could hear the voices of those closest to him that he realized how selfish and frankly, crazy, he was being.

“Study had before secluded me from the intercourse of my fellow creatures, and rendered me unsocial, but Clerval called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children… A selfish pursuit had cramped and narrowed me.” 

Author Mary Shelley notes that the theme of loneliness and its effect on humans was important to her in this novel. In Frankenstein’s case, it can be argued that it’s mostly his loneliness that led to the creation of the monster.

Loneliness also plays out in the monster’s life. He turns to killing because he’s so lonely – nobody accepts him, he has no companion, and even his creator has rejected him. At one point he tells Frankenstein that if he simply had a female mate, he’d stop killing and run away to never be seen again. Frankenstein, who should understand the perils of loneliness, rejects this idea, however. So not only did loneliness lead to the creation of the monster, the monster becomes murderous and kills everyone close to Frankenstein because of his own loneliness. One can’t help but think of the mass shootings of the last two decades, and how most are perpetrated by males whose profiles include words like “isolated” and “lonely.” Would things have been different, even in just a couple instances, if loneliness wasn’t as pervasive in their lives?

Humans are not meant to live solitary lives. Science has shown again and again the importance of friends – in everything from stress levels, to happiness levels, to life expectancy. What’s more telling, however, is simple life experience. As an introvert, I often just want to sit at home and hang out with myself and my wife, and I quite love working from home, alone in my office. When I spend time with friends though, there’s just something that happens inside that gives me a more satisfied feeling with life. There is simply greater joy in my day-to-day when friends and family are a regular part of it.

While it can be and is a difficult and messy endeavor, be sure you have friends and family you can turn to, and perhaps more importantly, who can keep you accountable when you get off track. Victor Frankenstein isolated himself, and paid dearly for it.

Lesson #5: Appearances Can Be Deceiving 

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This is the most heartbreaking lesson of all from the novel. The monster (for ease of identification, I’ve been calling it “the monster” the whole time – but it’s not really a fair assessment) is intelligent, reasonable, even caring. It strongly desires to interact with other humans and simply be loved. But, every single person he encounters shrieks and runs the instant they see him. He’s never even given a chance.

Frankenstein himself says, “Begone! Relieve me from the sight of your detested form.” The creature’s own creator refuses to see past appearances. Even later on, when having a discussion with the creature, Frankenstein observes, “I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred.” Frankenstein begins to have compassion, and to see past the ugly exterior, but in the end, his reliance on his senses takes over, and his heart doesn’t have a chance to respond.

The creature himself notes that “the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union.” What a sad commentary on how powerful appearances are. Sure, they are important in business and in first impressions, but to let appearances be the final say in any judgment is simply not giving someone their proper worth as a person.

The creature has feelings of joy, hope, despair – isn’t this what makes us human? Our commonalities on the inside as people far outweigh our differences and our appearances. Don’t allow what’s on the outside to have the final say.

Let Frankenstein’s tale serve as a variety of lessons in how not to act as a man.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bryan J. Oates February 26, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Wow… just imagine if God did that to his creations; Love this read, Jeremy. Informed me a lot.

Bryan J.
(Lacey, WA)

2 James February 26, 2014 at 8:47 pm

What a beautifully written reflection on Frankenstein. You sir made my day and left me with a lot to reflect on.

3 Stephanie February 26, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Wow, I thought I was the only one who thought ill of Victor Frankenstein. I got so angry reading this book in college that I wrote a blistering criticism on his lack of character. I despised him. Poor monster… his greatest tragedy was not being brought to life but being brought to life by that low life, short-sighted, self-centered jerk.

4 Jesse Reyes February 27, 2014 at 5:01 am

Jeremy, my good sir, although you have not received the feedback you deserve, this is a very well written reflection of the book. I will admit, I have never read the book, but having read this article gave me great insight. I too have been guilty of breaching moments in time where I have obsessed over work, hobbies, or practices, and neglected myself and loved ones. Its nice to gain perspective through your words.The topic of unmanliness is needed from time to time. Good stuff.

5 Kammes February 27, 2014 at 7:50 am

Victor Frankenstein was a manly guy in many respects (hard working, seeking advancement in knowledge at the cost of personal comfort, able to work independently, able to withstand unappealing sights and tasks to get a job done, respected by the learned – his professors, etc.). But somehow these great attributes became perverted and over-developed while others aspects of his life atrophied. He lost his family, first through detachment, then through through their deaths. His life story provides us with many lessons, as numerated in this article. Great post

6 Wade February 27, 2014 at 9:53 am

I have always felt pity for him. Although he earned the monster’s terrible vengeance, he didn’t exactly deserve it. This book also brings out great points on taking revenge, and the endless cycle that ensues.

7 Nikola Gjakovski February 27, 2014 at 11:05 am

“Nothing is more painful to the human mind than the dead calmness of inaction”. This is my favorite. I was 2nd grade when I read this book and I haven’t ponder it this way. Great panoramic view over Frankenstein and lot of lessons brought from the shelves.

8 Nate February 27, 2014 at 11:33 am

As a young chap in my mid 20′s I can really appreciate some of these points. I can say that I experienced a number of these points during my first two years out of college. The time when I really got to explore who I was. Good stuff.

9 w. adam mandelbaum esq. February 27, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Brilliant article. (I hope nobody from Universal is upset at the unauthorized use of film images). Great insight in any event, and a very unusual angle. Bravo!

10 Chris February 27, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Wow. Incredibly well written. Beautiful ending. Thank you.

11 Alex Z February 27, 2014 at 3:32 pm

The lessons are both many and profound.

“Ye are Gods,” Elohim (male. female, plural from Genesis), we are capable of incredible feats and incredible horrors. Such is the responsibility of housing a divine spark.

12 René Wilhelm February 27, 2014 at 9:50 pm

It’s very important to differentiate between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is when everyone you love left, even tough it was you who went away. Solitude is by choice, it’s the Marlboro Man, it’s just you and your thoughts, when you find your peace of mind to not care about no one else. Making solitude a virtue out of loneliness is not a bad idea, I guess.

13 Greg February 27, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Great work, Gave me a lot to think about.

14 Rob February 28, 2014 at 1:23 am

Great insight! A pleasure to read and learn a totally different point of view.

15 Matthew D Herrmann February 28, 2014 at 9:13 am

As a bit of real-life affirmation on the point of all-consuming passion; one of the members of Nixon’s administration (I can’t remember which one) said in an interview that they consistently pushed the line of acceptability again and again and again. For them, Watergate was a rather small step over the line; just one more push. It wasn’t until after the fact that they realized how far they had fallen.

I think Dr. Frankenstein (“pronounced, Fronkenshteen” Sorry. Couldn’t resist) because of his isolation and passion, was constantly pushing the boundaries, stepping just over the line each time, until he was so far removed from decency. It’s a cautionary tale on how good men can so easily do wicked things.

Thanks for such a thought-provoking article!

-Matt

16 weak stream March 1, 2014 at 5:53 am

One other thought: Real creativity does, unfortunately, require a certain amount of madness. The madness can certainly go too far but we need to be careful about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The spark of genius brings us to the edge of ourselves. And, ideally, makes the world a better place. I don’t think we should spend too much time criticizing Steve Jobs either simply because many people considered him difficult. His insights and accomplishments were impressive. I don’t think that going ‘too far’ is unmanly either. If anything, it’s probably more of a masculine foible than a feminine one. It’s just unfortunate. Camille Paglia had once said that there are no female Mozarts for the same reason that there are no female Jack the Ripper’s. It’s all madness, really.

17 Derek March 4, 2014 at 2:07 pm

I like this concept: Don’t just state what manliness IS. Show examples of what it is NOT. Keep articles like these coming!!

18 Dan March 5, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Very interesting piece. I completely agree with the friend part. Hanging out with the guys boosts my mood and helps alleviate the humdrum of life, but it’s very hard to make new friends as I get older.

I often invite guys from work or the gym to hang out, and they usually decline. Even guys who say they have nothing to do after work show little interest in meeting up to see a game or watch UFC. I’m in the dark about how to make new friends.

19 Lord Isaac Of Glencoe March 8, 2014 at 7:49 pm

Isolation does not always have to lead to loneliness. Much like how Rene Wilhelm stated above, one can be with at peace with solitude, not needing the “comfort” of others. Isolation can be percieved in two ways by the man within it. One is “trapped in isolation”, while the other is merely and mostly willfully “being the isolated”. Easy to see is the fact that our Mad Scientist was trapped within the isolation that must have felt like the innermost wave of cyclonic air that one sees just while teetering towards the walls that encompass the eye of a typhoon. His life and his ways unfailingly presenting him back to the limpid and familiar sense that was almost dutiful in his search for the lingering accomplishments he did not know he could achieve. Bloody good read your article was. I gaze for more to come.

20 Mike March 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm

I recently tried reading frankenstein, but I was so bothered by his lack of a backbone that I couldn’t finish the book. hard to identify with a character that literally created his problem, has a clear way to fix it and instead stuffs his head in the sand.
all the monster wanted was someone to care for him, and frankenstein denied him that relentlessly

21 Buddy March 15, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Important point you brought up about the mass shooters. Is there an article on AoM discussing that issue? Seems to me there is much to be said about it regarding manliness, a lack thereof, and our culture/society’s failings in that area.

22 Joey E April 4, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Finally finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago, and then I was gone on a mission trip, so I couldn’t comment earlier.

As we’ve worked with “at-risk” kids (many of whom have behavioral “challenges”), I was struck by the the line from the “monster” –> “I am malicious because I am miserable.”

I see the effects of this with the kids I work with. Not to remove personal responsibility, but we have to understand that many children have been conditioned to respond in certain ways, often out of survival.

Hurt people hurt other people.

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