Shelley and Milton: Literary Parallels
Starting at a young age, human beings are constantly tempted by their own curiosity. A young boy can be told a thousand times not to touch a hot stove, yet the child will keep trying to touch it until he gets burned. Humanity comes with endless questions, whether they be “Who am I? How did I get here?” or “Why can’t I touch the stove? Will it really burn me?” Regardless of the question, humans are constantly searching for the answer. In this case, the child went against the authoritative command in order to completely understand the reasoning behind the order.
The child’s curiosity is what gave him the answer but in the end still left him with a burned hand. The pursuit of knowledge is perfectly human, but there are natural limitations one must not cross. Frankenstein is all about crossing that invisible line; Walton, Victor, and the monster have all done it in search for their true identity, for the answer to the question, “Who am I?” Through the use of allusion and the depiction of culture and language, Mary Shelley uses Paradise Lost as an analogy for the identities and relationships of her characters in Frankenstein. The novels Frankenstein and Paradise Lost are structured very similarly through diction. The reason for this is due to the fact that “Mary Shelley is engaged in a continual dialogue with Milton, expressed by direct and oblique allusions to Paradise Lost” (Tannenbaum 101). In Frankenstein, Victor exclaims, “Oh! How unlike it was to the blue seasons of the south” (Shelley 209).
Sound familiar? Shelley’s wording was an intentional allusion to Milton’s “O how unlike the place from whence they fell” (Milton 75). Walton’s character also says something similar to what Satan says in Paradise Lost. Both of the characters were describing their men, Walton portraying them as “noble and godlike in ruin,” (Shelley 214) while Satan depicting them as “majestic though in ruin” (Milton 305). Diction is key in allusion; it allows the readers’ minds to subconsciously integrate the outside source into the literature at hand. Shelley, however, did not only connect Walton to Satan through her word choice, rather she also alluded to the fallen angel’s identity. Frankenstein begins with letters from the explorer Captain Walton, who “has been inspired since early youth to satiate an ardent curiosity about the unknown regions of the earth” (Goldberg 29).
Walton’s intense desire to know the unknown does not only refer to parts of the earth, but also to parts of himself and his identity. Right of the bat, Shelley provides a Miltonic allusion to a character in Paradise Lost by writing the curious identity of Walton. By leaving his hometown in pursuit of knowledge, Walton is the unruly angel that leaves “Heaven” in a fall towards a narcissistic exploration, returning “chastened but not saved, not an Adam but only another Lucifer of finishing stature” (Lamb 310). Walton’s thirst for knowledge took over his sanity and caused him to obsess over the supremacy of wisdom, as he said in his letter, “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of knowledge which I sought for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race” (Shelley 29). Walton was so inhabited by his curiosity for the all-knowing that he was willing to let his crew members die in the process of this exploration. He let his curiosity get the best of him, as he became monstrous in his search.
This thirst for knowledge and discovery was more than just for personal satisfaction; Walton, like Satan, was truly in search for omnipotence. Similar to Walton, Victor Frankenstein is also accused of sinning “against the moral and social order” (Goldberg 33). After the death of his mother, Victor was determined to create life, as he devoted all his time towards animating a lifeless corpse. Victor’s creation goes beyond natural restriction, and his “scientific research, like Walton’s exploration, is described as a revolt against the father” (Lamb 310). Only God has the power to create life in his own image.
When Victor created the monster, the monster’s appearance was a reflection of Victor’s heinous psyche, rather than physical image. Victor tried to identify himself with God by creating life, “convinced that a new species would bless him as it’s creator,” (Goldberg 30) but ironically reflects Satan, as he tries to outsmart the one true creator, God the Father. At first,Victor does not believe he is one to blame for all the destruction his creation has caused. It was not until he met Walton that Victor finally admitted that he was no God, yet another Satan, for Victor said, “Like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell” (Shelley 214). Not only is this a direct allusion to Paradise Lost, but also this reveals that, like Satan, Victor isolated himself in search for knowledge and immense power.
What could be more powerful than the ability to create life from death? This was Victor’s mindset when beginning his research, yet once he witnessed the horror and sin generated by the monster he created, Victor saw that same evil in his own reflection. Not only did Victor suffer from the monster’s actions, but he is also a casualty of his own hubris for “at the end of the novel, Frankenstein’s self delusion reveals him to be the victim of his own egoism, and thus he becomes more like Milton’s Satan than he himself realizes” (Tannenbaum 105). Victor is the creator of the monster, but that does not necessarily make him the master. Both Satan and the monster are unnamed and “possessed of a questionable identity” (Lamb 311) in the beginning of both novels. Although the monster never truly received a formal name, he was constantly referred to as the Devil or demonic in Frankenstein.
The unknown names are what initiate the questions of identity in both characters. Once the monster realized the betrayal through his own existence, he grew malicious towards all the Adams of the world and his creator. The monster, like Satan, unleashed chaos towards paradise, as he proclaims, “I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me; and, finding myself sympathized with, wished to… spread havoc and destruction” (Shelley 138).
In Frankenstein, the monster was at war against Victor, his creator. In Paradise Lost, Satan was at war against God, his creator. These parallels are no accident; Shelley purposely set up the foundation of the monster’s identify to allude to the identity of Milton’s Satan, as the monster tells his creator, “I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; But I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed” (Shelley 103). Reading Paradise Lost and associating the characters with his own identity is what caused the monster see the evident parallel. The monster would have never understood his true self prior to his discovery of language, which assisted him in learning to accept his similar identity to the fallen angel through the culture he read and studied in isolation.
The monster’s perspective is derived from “the central episode of the novel” in which the monster confronts Victor on the glacier and shares his side of the story (Seed 334). During this period of isolation, the monster spent the days reading novels he called “a true history” (Shelley 132) in search for knowledge of his identity. One of the novels the monster refers to is Paradise Lost, as he read it as if the events in the novel were real-life occurrences and the characters were true historical figures. Like many readers, the monster put himself in the shoes of the characters while reading; he pictured himself in the novel and realized he was not too different than the character, Satan. The monster explains this to Victor on the glacier saying, “As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feeling and conditions.
I foundmyself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read” (Shelley 131). To his dismay, the monster was unlike Adam, because the monster was created prone to rejection and to his fall; Adam’s own actions were a misdeed, while the monster’s existence was the only betrayal. The monster noticed the disparity between his condition and that of the human race. He was jealous of humankind and therefor miserable, as he states, “Many times I consider Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me” (Shelly 132). Since the monster read Paradise Lost as a historical document, the story became a cultural basis that differentiated social standings and individual identities.
The monster saw himself in the Satan character from Paradise Lost, and since he believed this was the “true history” he also believed he was destined to become the literary persona. The monster read Paradise Lost as a “chronicle of self, in which he searches for the lineaments of his own identity,” more so than for the actual events. This knew knowledge of character and the societal condition led the monster to his acceptance of identity. This compliance toward his predetermined status was threatening in a way, because “the more he [the monster] learns about the nature of good and its dependence upon social intercourse, the more he recognized the impossibility of immersing himself in it” (Goldberg 36). When he grew knowledge about what it meant to be good, the monster realized he can never be good, because good is defined by a societal standard and the monster had only been rejected by society. The more the monster read Paradise Lost as an identification of social standing, the more he realized that he did not belong in society nor did he fit in among the human race, as he said, “Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was” (Shelley 133).
It was during this moment of study that the monster recognized the fallen angel in his own reflection. It was during this moment of solitude that the monster understood Milton’s misunderstood character. It was during this moment of discovery that the monster accepted the fact that he was inevitably created for destruction, for “the Apple of knowledge bears within it the acrid seeds of punishment” (Goldberg 30). Like Satan, the monster also experienced a fall towards his identity, uniquely a fall into language. By understanding the language and reading the novels he perceived as histories, the monster became aware of the similarities between the arch-angel and himself, as shown in his narrative.
In his article, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Milton’s Monstrous Myth,” John B. Lamb discusses the influence of language in the monster and how this influence became his fall. Lamb states, “The monster’s text, which announces his self-identification with Milton’s Satan, is surrounded by other texts that suggest that the tropes allowing such self-identification exists prior to and independent of his own ‘birth’ or fall into language” (309). The monster’s fall into language led him to the realization that there are Adams of the world and there are Satans, and everyone must fall under one of the other. Reading Paradise Lost as a cultural handbook, the monster’ view of identity is very black and white, since “language is the monstrous, a limiting and limited taxonomy, a preestablished cultural hierarchy that defines all the possible definitions of self—here, Adam or Lucifer” (Lamb 312). Satan fell into hell, while the monster fell into language; both falls have similar consequences as they each reveal the identity of the fallen character and form acceptance of this newly disclosed knowledge.
As Lamb articulates, “What the monster’s narrative reveals is not that one can master self through language but that self is mastered by language and the hegemonic forms enclosed within it” (312). Language has the power to influence, whether it be used to strengthen a man up to greatness or to dig up the hole in which he will fall in is up to the reader. Questioning existence and reason is inevitable. Searching for knowledge and wisdom is human. Both Milton and Shelley brought this to life in their writing through characterization and the impact of knowledge and language.
Mary Shelley described “a world that contains no absolutes, no truths beyond the evidence of the senses” (Tannenbaum 113). In a world of “no absolutes” it is not unusual to have various interpretations of one character. Unlike the monster’s idea of identity, the world is not a black and white society of only Adams and Satans; there are endless possibilities when defining a character, none of which are set in stone. Knowledge is generated by human curiosity and is exactly what created the parallel between the characters of Frankenstein and Paradise Lost. None of Shelley’s characters—Walton, Victor, the monster—were inherently monstrous; only they were reaching out to touch wisdom beyond human restriction and ended up getting burned.