“A man who as a physical being is always turned toward the outside, thinking that his happiness lies outside him, finally turns inward and discovers that the source is within him. ” A quote from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the man responsible for the birth of existentialist thought. Existentialism is the theory that individuals are independent beings and are free to exercise their own free will. It focuses on questions such as: Do humans have a predetermined essence or do they live completely free from restrictions?
If a divine creator does exist, what is its true nature? And whether the universe is indifferent to human existence. This paper takes a deeper look into existentialism and how it can apply to literature. Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, tackles the most prevalent existential problems humans face: a reason for existence and the relationship between man and the universe. Frankenstein explores a science-fiction approach to the creation of life but questions still arise whether the creature can be viewed as a human.
Physically, the creature cannot be viewed as a human being and instead gives off the exterior of a monster. “Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm” (Shelley 46). Being made from solely from the limbs of decay, the creature more or less feigns that of a human. Though the creature is born through means that defy natural logic, he has shown human qualities numerous times throughout the novel.
As the creature is speaking to Victor, he shares his experiences while in his chamber. “It was dark when I awoke; | felt cold also, and half-frightened… as it were instinctively, I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish nothing; but feeling pain invade me of all sides, I sat down and wept” (Shelley 92). Right after birth, the creature is immediately enveloped with a considerable amount of emotions; deep complexities that are only prevalent in humans. Later, he tells of his time spent living next to a distressed family.
While thinking to himself, he discovers the root cause of their hardship: the lack of food, which he had been eating for himself. “I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of their store for my own consumptions; but when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained, and satisfied myself with berries, nuts, and roots, which I gathered from a neighboring wood” (Shelley 100). This quote proves that the creature had developed a conscious which influences his decisions.
A trait that extends beyond only striving for survival. Mary Shelley explores the concept of humanity and the belief that it does not lie in outward appearances, but within the mind and heart. Because the creature possesses these qualities, he is capable of questioning his own existence. Humans throughout history have attempted to place meaning on the major aspects of life to assure our suffering is complemented with purpose. The idea of God as the ultimate creator dominated all beliefs for a majority of humanity and guides many to this day.
The article, “Beyond Existentialism: Kierkegaard on the Human Relationship with the God Who is the wholly Other”, examines belief within a Christian perspective: “We understand our relationship with God by looking to how the exemplary figures of Scripture related to God. By this means, we construct an idea of the Christian life that we can then apply to our own existence” (Torrance 3). This quote highlights the relationship between God and man and the requirements to living a meaningful life. To many, God gives meaning to things that would otherwise be meaningless. As a Godly being, one is capable of transcending human capability.
The article, “Metaphysical Intersections in Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Theistic Investigation of Scientific Materialism and Transgressive Autonomy”, explores Shelley’s philosophy on creation deeper, “In her view, humans can only invent by using materials drawn from a preexisting, created universe. God, on the other hand, creates from void or ex nihilo. Out of nothingness God creates the raw materials from which all other things are created” (Hogsette 3). Because God is not an entity that can be observed or measured, it can exceed logic and achieve beyond what is humanly impossible.
Victor Frankenstein can be viewed as a false God figure who gives life to the creature, yet rejects any responsibility to provide moral guidance or grant purpose. “The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two year, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body… but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being Thad created, I rushed out of the room” (Shelley 51).
This is one of the earliest examples of Victor’s lack of commitment as his attempt to play the role of God haunts him. The creature damns his creator in an act of rage after realizing that his suffering holds no meaning and if society does not accept him for his outward appearance, he will forever be bound in this reality. “Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed” He continues, “From that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to this insupportable misery” (Shelley 121).
His relationship with his creator had given no value to the creature’s life and he accepts this realization. He uses his anguish as an attempt to create a stronger purpose for himself; promising revenge. As a free individual, one can now pave their own path without external interference. The quote from “Metaphysical Intersections in Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Theistic Investigation of Scientific Materialism and Transgressive Autonomy” explores Shelley’s philosophy on creation deeper, “Man need no longer be in awe of his creator; he need no longer even feel grateful for being created.
He can turn his back on God with a good conscience and set about charting his own course, seeking out ways to remake an imperfectly created world, even to change his own nature for the better” (Hogsette 2). Looking within an existentialist lens, this quote acknowledges that man is no longer dependent on a divine entity to create his or her own destiny. Without a being to create purpose within aspects of life, humans are forced to harness their suffering and find their own subjective meaning in life. Human significance along with the belief that humans possess free will is a major concept explore through an existentialist view.
The universe provides only uncaring indifference to human existence. The article, “Evolution and Existentialism, an Intellectual Odd Couple, states, “There is no Platonic form of the person, no ideal self of which our corporeal reality is a pale instantiation. Rather, we define ourselves, give ourselves meaning, establish our essence only via our existence” (Barash 1). There is no predetermined self, and humans themselves are responsible for establishing their purpose. Though the creature lacks purpose from his creator, he is a being with the conscious possession of free will.
The article, “Early Sartre on Freedom and Ethics”, explains free will, “The foritself is free whenever it makes conscious decisions to act in the reasons-sensitive pursuit of ends, which are not given to its consciousness at the time of decision from outside it, but are rather determined by that consciousness” (Poellner 5). Though the creature possesses his own independent will, he is as prone to internal crisis as he is self-liberation. A problem many who lose faith regularly challenge. With a universe that seems ever so expanding, individuals may question their purpose and wonder if existing has any significance.
Existentialism stresses that people are their own beings and are relatively free from outside influence. Humans are free and independent individuals who must make their own choices with responsibility. Freedom is the ability to act without restraint and as one gains more freedom, a general apprehension, or angst, for the potential consequences is supplemented. The article, “Anxieties of Knowing”, states that: “The experience of anxiety or dread is a fact of our complete freedom to do something that includes the most terrifying possibilities and triggers our feelings of dread” (Peters 2).
Similar to someone fearing the outcome of an event, angst refers to a rooted insecurity from one’s actions. Victor is the prime example of someone who demonstrates such behavior. After realizing the creature’s actions resulted in Justine’s execution, Victor thinks to himself, “I shunned the face of man; all sound of joy or complacency was torture to me; solitude was my only consolation -deep, dark, deathlike solitude” (Shelley 80). His fear of what could potentially happen to him if he revealed his responsibility over the creation prevents him from acting.
He instead hides from this aspect of what makes a human completely free. With the freedom to make choices without restraint comes the burden of responsibility and consequence. This can result in an anxiety inducing feeling that influences decision making. Existentialism had influenced many 20th century western thinks and still plays a major role in philosophy today. Thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Sartre are the most prominent figures within the movement.
Humans are identified as beings with conscious thought and possess the ability to make their own choices free from outside influence. With free choice, it is then possible to create a subjective personal purpose which one can follow on their own. Frankenstein is only one of the many examples of literary works that explore philosophical concepts such as existentialism. Mary Shelley uses science-fiction to create a being that goes through his own crisis and emphasizes that an existential purpose is very much an important aspect of human life.