Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the Repercussions of Overindulging Children
Length: 3350 words (9.6 double-spaced pages)
Mary Shelley teaches us all well the long range effects of spoiling a child to the extreme in her novel Frankenstein. Set in the mid-19th century, the novel details the life of Victor Frankenstein and the monster he created. However, it also serves as a model of the ultimate repercussions of overindulging children. This is an issue too few parents bother with today. As their own parents did their best to provide well and ensure a better life for them, today's parents are of same mind, regardless if they had a "lacking" childhood or not. Consequently, their own children are given the best clothes and toys, and are sent to the best daycare centers, pre-schools, schools and colleges. Like Victor, many grow into self-centered,self-serving adults. Victor, as the first child, spent the first years of his life as an only child,born into an aristocratic family and showered with affection."I remained for several years their only child ... [T]hey [his parents] seemed to draw inexhaustible stores of affection from a very mine of love to bestow ... upon me" (Shelley 16).
He is a boy who wanted for nothing, and who was wholly and completely indulged, allowed to do as he pleased. "[T]hey [his parents] were not tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed" (Shelley 19). Victor is more than the apple of their eye; he is the center of their world. "I was their plaything and their idol ... whose future lot ... was in their hands ... as they fulfilled their duties towards me ... I was guided [by a belief] ... that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me ... I was their only care."(Shelley 16)
All of this, while seemingly idyllic, gave Victor a sense of godlike importance, "bestowed on them [his parents] by Heaven," (Shelley 16) like a gift from God. Everything in his life revolves around him, and the only thing that really matters in the world as he perceives it, is himself and his happiness. Even when his parents adopt a beautiful, young orphan girl, Elizabeth Lavenza,he interprets it as an action intended to entertain and satisfy him. His mother, Caroline, reinforces this belief when she announces, "I have a pretty present for my Victor"(Shelley 18), and he willingly accepts her as his new toy, " mine to protect love and cherish .
.. a possession of my own ... she was to be mine only."(Shelley 18); all of this bolstering Victor's sense of his own importance.
While he claimed to have loved her,"no word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me - my more than sister."(Shelley 18) he projects a sense of superiority towards her."Elizabeth was of a calmer, more concentrated disposition ... I (italics mine) was capable of ... more intense application ... more deeply smitten with thirst for knowledge ... She busied herself ... contemplated ... I (italics mine) delighted in investigating their causes" (Shelley 18). She is simple, he is brilliant.
Many child psychologists today are expressing concerns over the ramifications of overindulging children. In "Wimpy Parents From Toddler to Teen- How NOT to Raise a Brat," Dr. Kenneth N. Condrell, child psychologist and family therapist, emphasizes the importance of teaching children a strong sense of responsibility, worth and values. Otherwise, the results will be children who often are inconsiderate and demanding. "Early on, it's vital youngsters learn to respect authority, the rights of others and the consequences of their actions"(Spina 2). According to Dr. Erik Erikson, known to many as the Father of Psychosocial Psychology, there are eight stages of human psychological development, and that before one can successfully move onto each next stage, conflicts at the prior stage must be resolved. Failure to accomplish this often results in these conflicts continuing to affect later development. "If development is to proceed in a positive healthy fashion, the ego must adapt to the continually changing demands of society. When the ego fails fo make the necessary adjustments, resolution of the crisis is negative ... even crippling"(Stone 40). Additionally, according to Erikson's theory, at each period of development a new skill surfaces and combines with the prior skill. Together they allow the individual to proceed to the next step of growth. Victor is not required to adapt to anything, thus crippling all further stages of development.
Dr. Jean Piaget, authority and pioneer of developmental psychology, had a similar opinion: that psychological development is like physical and can only further proceed if the previous stages have been mastered. Also, according to Piaget's studies: "At approximately ... 10 or 11 years ... children's moral thinking undergoes ... shifts. [Y]ounger children base ... moral judgments ... on consequences ... [O]lder children base ... moral judgments on intentions"(Crain 105). There are no examples of Victor having had to atone for any transgressions which would have enabled him to confront and master the concept of consequences. The resulting failure to accomplish this, ill prepared him for the next stage of "older child," where his inclination for basing moral judgments would be on intentions. He is incapable of considering any consequences of his actions because he never mastered that skill. Therefore, the idea of taking responsibility for his actions is not in his mental vocabulary. Even though he continues to grow intellectually, his emotional development is thwarted at the stage of preadolescence, and each following stage is commensurately mutated.
Having been given no limitations as a child, the limits of nature are inconsequential to Victor's pursuits. That his attentions are turned to divining "the secrets of heaven and earth ... (and the ) physical secrets of the world,"(Shelley 19) should comes as no surprise, as well as his desire to transcend natural law. "Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through ..."(Shelley 32). His ambitions run wild, with no consideration of anything other than himself, because that is the limit of his understanding.
By nature we are social animals and must be taught at an early age social skills, so that we may know how to interact, live and work with others. According to Erikson, during adolescence, individuals must tackle "establishing a new sense of ego identity - a feeling for who one is and one's place int the larger social order ... [they become concerned that] that one might not look good to others or meet other's expectations"(Crain 155). This is another aspect of psychological development which, as well provides a sort of safety net, because when people feel alienated or are isolated, there are no safety checks for their behavior. Early on, Victor has no desire to socialize with others, and is not prompted to do so by his parents. "It was my temper to avoid a crowd, and to attach myself fervently to a few. I was indifferent, therefore to my schoolfellows in general"(Shelley 19). This is also reflected in his interests which, by their nature do not include others. "[N]either the structure of languages, nor ... governments ... nor politics ... possessed attractions for me"(Shelley 19). By allowing Victor to limit his associations with other children to Elizabeth, his private possession and Henry Clerval, who is only interested in make believe adventures, Caroline and Victor's father failed to foster and cultivate any social skills, so that by the time he set off for the university at Ingolstadt, at the age of 17, his need for detachment is carved in stone. "My life had hitherto been remarkably secluded and domestic; and this had given me invincible repugnance to new countenances ... I believed myself totally unfitted for the company of strangers"(Shelley 25).
When the concept of "unlimited powers" is presented to Victor by Professor Waldman at Ingolstadt, it reverberates with his prior ideas of "raising ghosts,"(Shelley 22) and he is positively aroused, his "thirst for knowledge" (Shelley 18) evolving into an ambition of achieving fame. "[W]hat glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but violent death." (Shelley 22) His desire for knowledge for its own sake mutates into a drive for glory. "[M]y mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose ... far more, will I achieve ... explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation," (Shelley 28) and he decides to create a new being. However, being incapable of considering the consequences and ramifications of this act, as Kim A. Woodbridge said in her essay, The Birth of a Monster, "Victor never considered whether this creature would even want to exist"(2). He discloses to Robert Walton, "I began the creation of a human being. ... I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature ... eight feet in height ... proportionately large"(Shelley 32). Thus, unable to conceive of the ramifications of his immediate actions, instead of "raising Lazarus," he razes the dead, raiding graveyards and morgues. "[D]abbl[ing] among the unhallowed damps of the grave ... collect[ing] bones from charnel-houses and disturb[ing] ... the tremendous secrets of the human frame. ... The dissecting room and slaughter-house furnished many of my materials." He clearly has no respect for authority (raiding graveyards is a serious offense), the consequences of his actions, or the rights of others, all earmarks of one who has not effectively progressed beyond the "younger child" stage, and whose "older child" as well as adolescent stage are bereft of this critical building block.
Even though he admits to being disgusted by his actions, "[O]ften did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation," he is never disgusted enough to quit. "[U]rged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased ... I brought my work ... to a conclusion" (Shelley 33). Blinded by ambition and without any safeguards, his objective mutates into an obsession generated by ego and pride. "A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs."(Shelley 32) Like the adolescent stage described by Erikson, his only concern is for himself and how he appears to others. He also asserts that if he " could bestow animation upon lifeless matter,"(Shelley 32) he might be able to "renew life where death had ... devoted the body to corruption,"(Shelley 32) but he never explains how or why he later "found it impossible" (Shelley 32). He justifies his acts by his intent, and Victor's pursuit of bringing life to lifeless matter again displays a disregard for authority, the rights of others and the consequences of his actions.
While he claims to have taken "infinite pains and care" while assembling the first being of his new species, "His limbs were in proportion ... his features ... beautiful ... his hair a lustrous black and flowing ... his teeth of pearly whiteness.", he also goes on to say, "His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath,"(Shelley 35) which contradicts his own appraisal of the care he took. So when the Creature comes to life, Victor is horrified by its appearance,and runs out of the room. "Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bedchamber" Shelley 35). When the Creature seeks Victor out, "a grin wrinkled his cheeks ... one hand was stretched out," (Shelley 35) like a child looking for reassurance, Victor abandons him: "[B]ut I escaped"(Shelley 35).
Victor's level of emotional maturity can be described as that of an Older Child/Adolescent without any comprehension of consequences. Like many adolescents, he rationalizes his acts by their intention, and his main concern is for his reputation. He is only capable of viewing the Creature in terms of himself and how it reflects upon him. Therefore, he sees it as a symbol of his failure, not a child or anything for which he is responsible. Like a child himself, he runs away, unable to face what he has done, hoping the Creature will disappear or better yet, die, all the while pretending nothing had happened (again like an adolescent). When Victor comes by his old childhood friend, Henry Clerval, he admits only to having been preoccupied with work, saying that now it is finished, and that he has no further prior commitments. "I have lately been so deeply engaged in one occupation ... I have not allowed myself sufficient rest ... I am at length free"(Shelley 37). He leaves the Creature to fend for himself, alone in the world, a few days old.
Victor is ill-equipped to become a parent, and in rejecting and abandoning the Creature, Victor predisposes him to antisocial or sociopathic behavior, as many parents have done throughout history. Most have assumed that as long as they did not actively abuse their offspring, no harm was done. However, it has recently been discovered that neglect is at least as harmful to a child as physical abuse. According to Sherri Oden author of The Development of Social Competence in Children, it is important, even imperative for infants to have social contact and interaction at a very early age. "Babies who lack human interaction may 'fail to thrive'." (1) As well, she goes on to say "A growing bonding attachment, marked by strong mutual affect ... is critical to the child's welfare and social- emotional development."(1) Other research as well has shown that empathy, the foundation of human morality, "evolves naturally during a child's earliest years" and "is biologically wired." (Herbert 2) It has also been shown in primate studies, our closest non-human relatives, that empathy does not further develop unless it is reinforced and cultivated. According to the Harlows, (1959)
[M]onkeys raised with no mother were incapable of forming lasting affectional ties and paid little attention to (their) offspring or reacted aggressively toward them. (Harlow and Harlow, 1961) ... monkeys reared in isolation were denied opportunities to learn the rules of social behavior. ... [T]hey were denied the all-important physical contact so necessary for normal ... psychological and emotional development.(Jurmain 188)
Victor is incapable of concerning himself with the well being of the Creature as he has never been taught to be responsible to anyone. As Jessica M. Natale has pointed out in Victor Frankenstein: An Absent Parent/The Creature: The Abandoned Child :
Victor is not doomed to failure from his initial desire to overstep the natural bounds of human knowledge ... it is his poor parenting ... failing to follow through, (1) and she goes on to say, " thus he created a "monster" through his absence of nurturing and love for his progeny ... Frankenstein did not take into account that he would be responsible for the goal of his studies ...only concerned with the means rather than the ends of (his) ambitio(n).(2)
The Creature means nothing to Victor, in fact he never gives him a name or any sort of identity (which he also fails to do in his entire narration for his father). As far as he is concerned, the Creature should have never been born. He is a gross mistake for which Victor sees no need to apologize. Victor is not sorry for the results, but rather angry, and this anger is expressed as if it is all the Creature's own doing. Like the egocentric child Victor is raised to be, he bears no culpability, and it never occurs to him that he owes any debt to the Creature for having created him in the first place. He is incapable of drawing from the same "inexhaustible stores of affection from a very mine of love,"(Shelley 16) that his own parents bestowed upon him, because what he learned from their parenting style is what is due him and not what is due others.
As time passes, the Creature goes on to commit several violent acts, all of which affect Victor in that the violence is directed towards Victor's loved ones. Later, the Creature admits they were done in vengeance to Victor and the townspeople who rejected the Creature. Ironically, Victor gets the chance to meet the Creature while on his way home to be with his family, after his younger brother is killed. As he approaches his father's house, he sees in the distance a figure eight feet in height. It occurs to him that it could be the Creature and in a moment surmises that he, the Creature is William's murderer. Confronting "the daemon,"(68) he denounces him, "Devil ... do you dare approach me? ... Begone, vile insect! or rather, stay that I may trample you to dust! ... Abhorred monster! Fiend that thou art! the tortures of hell are too mild a vengeance for thy crimes. Wretched devil! you reproach me with your creation; come on then, that I may extinguish the spark which I so negligently bestowed."(68) This is the first open acknowledgement of his deed, but he still offers no remorse or contrition. Instead, Victor attacks. "I sprang on him, impelled by all the feeling which can arm one being against the existence of another(Shelley 68).
Surprisingly, the Creature engages Victor in conversation and explains his life and actions for the past year. He also gives Victor the opportunity to atone for his neglect and indifference by requesting that Victor create a mate for him. "My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create ... You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being" (Shelley 104). As well, he is given the chance to save his remaining loved ones, for if he fulfills the Creature's request, it will cease any further violence, and leave the proximity. "If you consent, neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again ... acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment ... The picture I present you is peaceful and human" (Shelley 105). "[T]he love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes ... my virtues will necessarily arise ... with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to the chain of existence"(Shelley 106). The Creature, an intelligent being, is only asking for what we all desire in our heart of hearts, companionship and acceptance.
Unfortunately, Victor, being who he is, is incapable of fulfilling this request and the Creature goes on a vengeful rampage, destroying everyone that Victor has ever claimed to hold dear to him. "I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept, and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing. I have devoted my creator ... to misery"(Shelley 165). Victor's response is revenge, "[I] prayed that I might have him within my grasp to wreak a great and signal revenge on his cursed head,"(Shelley 147) and he lives only to kill the the Creature. This shows how Victor's ego has now surmounted his common sense and logic: He built a superior being, eight feet in height, brilliant in intellect and physically "invulnerable to any but violent death," (Shelley 22) and he expects to be able to crush him?
This is the real price of spoiling a child to the extreme, not the immediate consequences, but the adults they develop into when they join society. Many parents consider the rearing of their offspring to be a private matter and "nobody's business." However, these offspring eventually join the society, and most will become parents themselves raising their own offspring, ad infinitum. What happens to poorly parented children is a matter that affects everyone and much more attention should be paid. Caroline and her husband would have done well to consider the type of individual they were creating when they chose to indulge Victor so liberally. In turn, he became a negligent parent, and set the stage for a violent antisocial being. Who knows what the Creature will teach others whom he might embrace, and what they will teach their own? So the real question becomes not who was the monster, Victor or the Creature, or who has the right to create a life, but rather, who created the first monster, Caroline or Victor?