A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Reflections on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley—and on Being Impulsive


(Note: These thoughts relate to the 1818 version of the text. Also, this post contains significant plot spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book and intend to, don’t read this post!)

When I read this book, I identified very strongly with Victor Frankenstein. His fiery thirst for knowledge and his tendency to act impulsively on the feelings of the moment both are qualities inherent in me; I’ve tried to cultivate the former and squelch the latter. Victor’s story is a lesson to me of the dangers of doing otherwise—of limiting my knowledge and letting my impulsivity control me.

It’s ironic that this work comes out of the Romantic period of literature, when emotion was favored over reason. Mary Shelley’s tale is Gothic and features a savage outcast, like other Romantic fictions, but I think she used her novel to depart from Romantic values by showing the triumph of reason over emotion.

In her novel, Victor Frankenstein is destroyed by his emotional impulsivity:

* In a fit of single-minded obsession he constructs and gives life to the creature (having unwisely turned away from studying the natural chemistry taught at his school to instead focus on alchemy and other ancient “sciences”—this is why I say he limited his knowledge)
In a fit of terror he abandons the creature
In a fit of self-piteous lethargy he silently lets Justine be executed for William’s murder by the creature
In another fit of terror he breaks his promise to the creature to make it a companion
In a fit of happy, blind love before his marriage he swoons into false security and does not realize that the creature’s angry threat was aimed at Victor’s bride.

All of these unthinking, emotional, impulsive actions (and inactions) lead to terrible consequences for Victor.

The creature, by contrast (and in contrast to the popular, cinematic image of the creature), is the one who reasons, plans, subdues his emotions, and is finally successful in accomplishing his goal of wreaking serious vengeance on Victor.

And as a final, bittersweet cap on the novel, the explorer Walton, after hearing Victor’s story, eventually decides to do the rational, not emotional, thing and turn back from his mission. Reason has won.

To drive this message home, Mary Shelley puts these words in Victor’s mouth, prophetically, towards the beginning of the book:

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility….If this rule were always observed; if no 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.”

This message is one I try to apply to my own life, since I share Victor’s weakness of impulsivity. I strive to express my emotions but keep my actions firmly under the reign of rational judgment.


7 comments on “Reflections on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley—and on Being Impulsive

  1. Witness
    September 27, 2013

    What an insightful, practical, interesting analysis. You’ve digested the book and made it your own in ways that I’m sure would have gratified Mary Shelley.

    I hadn’t made the link (rather, the disconnect) between the Romantic period and the countercultural theme of her story. She seems to have been quite the social rebel, in addition to being in conflict with some of the less rational authorities of her day. I wonder whether her endorsement of reason over emotion was conscious and deliberate, or whether the value was so deep in her that it blossomed unintentionally.

    Imagine being an innate rationalist during the Romantic period! I wonder how different that would be from being an innate rationalist now.

    Fiction is one of my favorite channels of learning, but I hadn’t, on my own reading, seen so clearly the points you have made so plain. Thanks for making Frankenstein so much richer and more accessible to me.


  2. psychologistmimi
    September 5, 2014

    so nicely put!


  3. Donna Mitchell-Moniak
    April 15, 2015

    This is a great post! I hope others read it and then turn to the original version of the story. The abridged versions of the classics mold them to modern preferences. The original story is one that is blatant in its characterizations of the mob, the creator, the motivation of the creator, and the creation that does as is intended as all creations do.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      April 15, 2015

      Thank you! Yes, I agree. There’s so much great “meat” in the original version that is lost in the revised/abridged versions, not to mention the movies, of course!


  4. Molly Gallagher
    April 19, 2015

    The quote that you put at the end of the article where did you find that in the book its a great quote and explanation of romanticism ?


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      April 20, 2015

      In my edition (photo above) it’s on page 37-38. Hope that helps. Again, other versions of the book are different and may not have that passage at all. But yes, it is definitely a great quote! Thanks for reading.


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This entry was posted on September 26, 2013 by in Discoveries from Learning and tagged , , , , , .
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