Frankenstein a cautionary tale of bad parenting
In this essay, I shall be examining the two main characters, Victor Frankenstein and the creature, and considering what Shelley could be telling us about parenting, child development, and education through their experiences. As a young child, it could be said that Victor Frankenstein is indulged and spoilt by his parents, and later on by his adopted sister, Elizabeth and his friend, Henry Clerval.
In the first chapter, as Frankenstein is recounting his story to the mariner, Walton, we learn that he was born into a wealthy family from Geneva, and lived in Italy for the first part of his life. His mother was the daughter of his fathers friend, and, therefore much younger than he. We are told that she was caring and dutiful, that she, "possessed a mind of an uncommon mould" (page 32), and had nursed and kept her own father during his illness until his death. Frankensteins parents are very much in love, and he was an only child for the first five years, doted on by them as we can see when he says, "they seemed to draw inexhaustible stores of affection from a very mine of love to bestow them on me." (page 33). Victors first recollections are of his, "mothers tender caresses", and his, "fathers smile of benevolent pleasure" (page 33). They regard him as being, "bestowed on them by heaven", and recognise that his future, "was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery". He also tells Walton that his mother and father felt that they, "owed" something to him because they had given him life.
At the age of seven, having moved to Geneva with his family, he meets Henry Clerval with whom he becomes great friends, although it is interesting to note that he chooses not to mix with the other local children. At the beginning of chapter two, Victor describes his childhood thus:
No human being could have passed a happier childhood than
myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of
kindness and indulgence. We felt that they were not the
tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents
and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed. (page 37)
But even though he was growing up in what could be perceived as an idyllic family, he comments to Walton that, "My temper was sometimes violent and my passions vehement" (page 37). He was also prone to, "become sullen" (page 37), but Elizabeth seems always to have been ready to soothe and comfort him, to,"subdue", him, "to a semblance of her own gentleness." (page 37) , and whilst Clerval is enthusiastically learning all he could about life, and the world around him, Victor is interested only in "the physical secrets of the world." (page 37.
We can see that Victor is very much left to his own devices without much direction from his parents, when he retells the events when, at the age of thirteen he found a book by Cornelius Agrippa which sparked his interest in alchemy. Even he recognises that his father should have given him more guidance when he tells how his father,"looked carelessly at the title page" (page 38), and merely dismissed the work as, "sad trash." (page 38) . He states that, if instead, his father had taken the time to explain that alchemy had been disproved, then, "It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin." (page 38-39). It seems that his father is not interested enough in what his son is studying, and takes little notice of what he is doing. Frankenstein says of himself, "I was to a great degree, self taught" (page 39), and that,
My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with
a childs blindness added to a students thirst for knowledge.
So without any supervision, he engrosses himself in his studies, concentrating on the more altruistic side of alchemy the secret of eternal life. Frankensteins first experience of real sadness comes when he is seventeen and his mother dies having contracted scarlet fever whilst nursing Elizabeth back to health. We are told that, "her countenance expressed affection even in death."., and he describes death as, "that most irrepairable evil;". This event appears to make him even more determined to find a cure for this "evil". There is now only Elizabeth to give a feminine balance to his life, but he leaves for university with Clerval, having agreed to his mothers deathbed wish that he and Elizabeth would one day marry.
At university in Ingolstadt he is persuaded that alchemy has been superseded by natural philosophy, and his aptitude for science impresses both students and tutors alike. However, having decided to try and create life by scientific methods, he isolates himself from any friendly support and advice he may have received from Clerval, and the professional opinions of his tutors. He is, of course, away from his family, and so works alone.
Shelley could be seen to be saying through Frankensteins tale, that parents love alone is not enough for a childs healthy development. Unless love is given together with discipline and guidance, the child is unable to develop into a well rounded adult who can be assimilated into the wider society, and have a balanced view of themselves and the world around them. Not only does Victor appear to be selfish and too introspective, he seems never to mature and develop self discipline, as his obsessional nature seems to show. The cosseting he has received as a child has led him to grow into adulthood with no true sense of responsibility for his actions. This is highlighted when, having created the creature, on seeing the contrast between his dream and the reality of the, "..miserable monster.(page 57), he flees from his apartment, and when, on returning, he realises that the creature has escaped, he remarks, "I clapped my hands for joy" (page 60). It is not until the desperate and unhappy creature has already murdered his young brother, William, and tells him his story, begging for a mate, that Frankenstein briefly feels the slightest responsibility for him. It is at this point in the novel that he thinks to himself,
and did I not as his maker, owe him all the portion of happiness
that it was in my power to bestow?
Shelley seems also to be showing the reader that self-education is not always a good thing. Unless supervised, the autodidact is in danger of gaining knowledge in a very narrow field, for instance, Frankensteins learning seems to be solely focused on science, without any education in morals, the arts, or social skills which would have helped him to mature and be a more social and compassionate individual.