Satan and the Creature in Shelley’s Frankenstein
In Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelly frequently alludes to, and elaborates on, themes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Throughout the novel she casts her characters in different roles from that great epic, exploiting the moral and philosophical significance such associations necessarily effuse to develop characters and intensify their relationships, specifically that of Creator to his Creation. The most obvious translation of Miltonic figures into Frankenstein is the association of Victor with God—though that scientist failed dismally in the duties which Milton’s God performs for his offspring—and his Creature with Adam. More noteworthy, however, andconstant, is Shelley’s similizing of the Creature with Satan, a connection she draws both explicitly, in the words of the Creature himself, and implicitly, through the evolution of his actions. In this nameless, beleaguered character, Shelly resurrects Milton’s Satan, and revises him. In the Creature she justifies Satan, and renders him the blameless, understandable antihero he couldn’t be in the didactic verses he sprang from.
Shelly wrote Frankenstein at a time when Milton’s legacy was enjoying revived popularity among writers, philosophers, and artists (Schock 2-3). The poet was lionized by proto-Romantics and Romantics to such an extent, in fact, that Shelly’s own mother in 1787 eloquently declared: “I am sick of hearing of the sublimity of Milton” (qtd. in Craciun 699). Particularly, Romantic-era literati had a fixation on Milton’s rendition of Satan: as Peter Schock explains, “Milton’s Satan assumes in the Romantic era a prominence seen never before or since, nearly rivaling Prometheus as the most characteristic mythic figure of the age. A more active and ambiguous mythic agent than the bound, suffering forethinker and benefactor of humanity, the reimagined figure of Milton’s Satan embodied for the age the apotheosis of human desire and power” (3). The historic origin of the “Satanist position” (Wittreich 816) of identifying with and celebrating the Devil is unclear, but Joseph Wittreich explains that a portion of contemporary Miltonists locate its inception in Lord Byron and Percy Shelley while another portion objects to perceiving these poet’s notions as explicit Satanism at all (816). Wittreich explains, “This is the tenor of their argument: taking as gospel Satan's preachments in hell, the Romantics, who read Paradise Lost with indecent haste, have succumbed to his temptation; their unguarded admiration invests in Satan an unqualified sympathy and embraces him as a thoroughly admirable moral agent. Thus Blake, Shelley, and their contemporaries are depicted as intellectually irresponsible, morally derelict, and critically impoverished” (Wittreich 828). Regardless of whether recognizable Satanism originated in these Romantic poets or elsewhere, Wittreich expresses something valuable in the idea that by viewing Satan as a hero Milton’s reader is ‘succumbing to his temptation.’ Stanley Fish writes at length about this temptation in the first chapter of his groundbreaking book Surprised by Sin. As Fish describes it, Milton purposely portrays Satan as magnificent and inspiring in the expectation that his reader will sympathize with the demon, and then turns on the reader and, speaking now through the narrative voice of the epic, condemns him for fulfilling this very expectation (9). Fish interprets Milton’s poetic chide for us: “I know that you have been carried away by what you have just heard; you should not have been; you have made a mistake, just as I knew you would” (9). For to Milton’s mind Satan, who has committed unprovoked a supreme act of blasphemy, deserves every “affliction and dismay” (Milton 1.57) Hell has to offer.
By this logic it is indeed “intellectually irresponsible, morally derelict,” as Wittreich puts it, to view Satan in a sympathetic light. Not so, however, if one removes the inaugural culpability that felled the character in the first place. This is just what Mary Shelley does in Frankenstein when she replicates Satan’s development in the unlucky but fundamentally blameless Creature. The similarities between these characters abound; the divergence characterizes the two reading experiences with entirely antithetical emotions.
The links that Shelley draws between Satan and the Creature of her text center on the most emblematic feature of these two characters: their criminality. Each of the two is introduced to the reader in a state that is wretched and pitiable, and which ignites within each a thirst to be avenged on his creator and to inflict suffering such as that which has been inflicted on himself. This ambition catalyzes the main events of both Paradise Lost and Frankenstein, positioning Satan and the Creature as the driving force, and the crux, of their respective texts.
When we first glimpse Satan, he has been cast off by God and lies “vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe” of hell (Milton 1.52), and when we meet Frankenstein’s Creature he is waking in a dim laboratory to behold his creator fleeing his presence, filled with “breathless horror and disgust” (Shelley). Both figures at the time of their creations are pure and good, and become evil when they are prompted to doubt the affection of their creators. In Milton’s epic, Satan initially ranks “of the first, / If not the first Arch-Angel, great in Power, / In favour and præeminence,” but waxes evil when he conceives a jealousy for god’s newly-begotten Son, whose supreme claim on the Father’s love he “could not beare…& thought himself impaird” (Milton 5.659-661, 664-655). Infuriated by this perceived ebb of love for him in his Creator, Satan challenges God and is subsequently banished to Hell. Similarly, Frankenstein’s Creature was created naive and mild, deriving pleasure from such trifles as the singing of a thrush and the clandestine gathering of firewood for ‘his cottagers’. “I was benevolent,” he explains at one point to his skeptical progenitor; “my soul glowed with love and humanity” (Shelley). He transgresses only after he learns from Victor Frankenstein’s diary of his creator’s abhorrence of him. It is this knowledge, combined with multiple rejections from other humans, which incites him to do what those rejections alone had not, and murder innocent William Frankenstein.
Both characters arrive at a crossroads of sorts a third of the way through their respective texts that rears the possibility of redemption and reform but serves conversely to spur each down a path to irredeemability and absolute villainy. At this crossroads, which hinges on Book Four of Paradise Lost and Chapter Seven of Frankenstein, both characters yearn to be included in mankind, but, learning that they are barred from it, determine instead to ruin it in belligerence towards their Creators. For Satan, this moment arrives when he understands how utterly he is excluded from the joys and privileges of God’s universe, embodied for him by the nascent human race, “whom [his] thoughts pursue / With wonder, and could love” (Milton 4.362-63). As he views Paradise for the first time, he is overcome by sensations of “envie” but also of earnest remorse, and he exhorts himself “O then at last relent: is there no place / Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?” (Milton 4.115, 79-80). It is Satan himself, however, who rejects the idea of reform because, he reasons, even if he “could obtaine / By Act of Grace [his] former state…ease would recant / Vows made in pain,” and he would sin again (Milton 4.93-98). This projected recapitulation of corruption is, like all events, already “known” by God, “therefore as farr / From granting hee, as I from begging peace” is the conclusion of Satan’s fleeting consideration of repentance (Milton 5.103-104).
Hence Satan never delivers a request to his Creator; Frankenstein’s Creature, on the other hand, does. The Creature’s opportunity for reform arrives when he asks Frankenstein to engineer him a companion, vowing that his lost “virtues will necessarily arise when [he lives] in communion with an equal” (Shelley). And while God can preempt the outcome of Satan’s unproposed proposition, Frankenstein cannot know what might follow the fulfillment of his Creature’s request: not having seen these previous virtues first hand, he doubts the Creature’s good intent. Thus the scientist denies his Creature in ignorance the redemption God would have denied Satan in wisdom, both to the same effect: Satan’s “evil be thou my good” is echoed in the Creature’s “I will revenge my injuries: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear” (Milton 4.110, Shelley). Subsequently the one commits himself to further evil via the ruination of Adam and Eve and the other via the the ruination of the extended Frankenstein family.
To understand the operative distinction Shelley fashions between her Creature and Satan, we must consider their acts through a lens of context and motivation. As cultural anthropologist Francois Flahault explains, malice can best be comprehended through an investigation of “the historical, social, ideological, organizational and other conditions which can trigger the logic of destruction and set it in motion” (qtd. in Butchart, 177). A look at these ‘conditions,’ especially the social one, in the lives of our fiendish characters provides insight into their fundamental principles, the underlying intentions where their vital difference lies. Satan, we learn from Raphael’s conversation with Adam, as well as from his own admission in Book Four, first acted evilly in reaction to an imagined lack of love for him in his creator, while Shelley’s Creature first acted evilly in reaction to a real lack of love for him in his creator. The one was purposeless, unprovoked; the other purposeful and legitimized. Later this disparity asserts itself in the objectives undertaken by the characters’ second evils, that genuine malice which is brought about through the deliberate decision expressed by each at his ‘crossroads’ moment. Here, Satan sins hopeless of any benefit proceeding from his crimes, other than perhaps the momentary gratification of causing pain in his creator. As he meditates on the act he is about to commit, the fiend admits that he does not “hope to be my self less miserable / By what I seek, but others to make such / As I” (Milton 9.126-128). The Creature, on the other hand, is driven to evil for its capacity of extortion, its utility in achieving a desired end. And what he hopes his malice will achieve, essentially, is his happiness in the existence of a companion, and arguably his creator’s happiness as well, for, as David Marshall explains, the eighteenth-century concept of sympathy suggested “putting oneself in the place of someone else, taking someone else's part—a general condition or act, related to the modern word ‘empathy,’ of which pity, compassion, and commiseration are only specific examples” (qtd. in Hustis 848). Bringing happiness to the Creature would then bring happiness to Frankenstein, if the scientist were truly ‘putting himself in the place’ of his creation. But of course he is not, and “the monster’s transformation from failed Adam to fallen angel to malignant devil is the result of the neglect of his all too ungodly creator” (Lewis 280). By replicating Satan without this innate ill-intent of his, and with the desire for serenity and virtue which he wholly lacked, Shelley resolves for the sensitive reader that moral dilemma Fish observes in Paradise Lost. It is by this subtraction and addition, this amendment to the “conditions which…trigger the logic of destruction” in Satan, that she truly justifies the antihero and renders him, incarnate in the Creature, worthy of the acclaim he receives.
This exquisite interaction between Frankenstein and Paradise Lost lends to the whole of Mary Shelley’s novel an oppressive air of tragedy, for the Creature, like Satan, is left at the close of the text with imminent doom looming over his head. Readers at the time would have been aware of the extended Satanic analogy Shelley has drawn, and noted the uncomfortable distinction it produces at the end of the novel: while the prospect of Satan’s punishment at “the Judgement” (Milton 10.81) is a welcome remediation to our lingering sensitivity to the demon’s offense, the Creature’s professed intent of suicide (“I shall collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame”) elicits doubt and even disappointment. For if “Milton forces us to acknowledge the personal relevance of the Arch-fiend’s existence” (Fish 22), Shelley brings that existence yet a degree closer to our experience by making the Creature pitiable, perhaps even lovable. Are we, as readers, lead to feel dissatisfied with Shelley’s promotion of sympathy the way we are with Milton’s prohibition of it? Having sympathized with the Creature in the full Romantic understanding of the word, and put ourselves in his place, are we not then doomed along with him, bound to feel about the course of Shelley’s plot the regret which the Creature feels about his string of ruthless murders? In mourning the fact that in fate, as in inception, the Creature mirrors Satan, we find ourselves mourning the perversion of innocence by hardship. Ironically, the perversion of innocence is Satan’s cardinal offense; in addition, then, to being a reiteration of Satan, the Creature also becomes a victim of the arch-fiend, or of what he stands for. It is the Creature’s stirring regret, in the face of this victimization, that serves to redeem him minutely in the reader’s eyes, and grants the character a rare opportunity for individuality: his expression of ambivalence and remorse over his blasted innocence occurs in the first scene in which the Creature appears in real time, through the narrator’s eyes and not those of his Creator, who is now dead. Freed for a moment here from his likeness to Satan, and from the conflict with Frankenstein which occupied so much of his existence, he appears to us suddenly an “apotheosis of human desire and power,” to repurpose Schock’s characterization of Satan’s heroic appeal. The Creature shows his “desire and power,” however, not solely through his significant malice, but also through his yearning for a happier life, his furious, undying ambition. In his own right, he too is an antihero.
Butchart, Garnet C. “Malice by François Flahault, Liz Heron.” Cultural Critique, no. 63, 2006, pp. 177–181, www.jstor.org/stable/4489251. Accessed April 13 2017.
Craciun, Adriana. "Romantic Satanism and the Rise of Nineteenth-Century Women's Poetry." New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation, vol. 34, no. 4, 2003, pp. 699-721, EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2048/login?url=http:// search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2004395003&site=ehost- live. Accessed April 8 2017.
Fish, Stanley E. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. U. of Calif. P, 1971.
Hustis, Harriet. “Responsible Creativity and the "Modernity" of Mary Shelley's Prometheus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2003, pp. 845-858. www.jstor.org/stable/462510. Accessed April 15 2017.
Lewis, Paul. "Victor Frankenstein and Owen Warland: The Artist as Satan and as God." Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 14, 1977, pp. 279-282. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu: 2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1977107587&site=ehost-live.\. Accessed April 8 2017.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The John Milton Reading Room, Dartmouth U. www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/pl/book_4/text.shtml
“Romanticism: More Satanic Than Satanism: Part 3 of 3.” thesatanicscholar.com, March 22 2017. thesatanicscholar.com/category/romantic-satanism/#fn16. Accessed April 8 2017.
Schock, Peter A. Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley, and Byron. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. panOpen, 1818 ed. sunyrockland.panopen.com/reader#/courses/1570/books/4197/chapters/ 2003c9d2f39c8/pages/e00712fc-6452-4d11-91f4-e6de7a1aa524/paragraphs/ 1HpHHIyw8C3WdBFmzJPigpIAdPo-Aa4jTo6eFAYu6tdw_47?_k=y2sn0n. Accessed 17 April 2017.
Wittreich, Joseph Anthony. “The ‘Satanism’ of Blake and Shelley Reconsidered.” Studies in Philology, Vol. 65, No. 5, Oct., 1968, pp. 816-833, www.jstor.org/stable/4173623. Accessed April 9 2017.