Sometimes the simplest interpretive detail can give us amazing insight into a classic book. A question as basic as “who is the protagonist?” can often unlock the whole story and help us avoid unfortunate misinterpretations.
A teacher reminded me of this idea recently as she described her latest literature assignment. She had instructed her students to compare Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. These two famous stories have some striking similarities and make a great combination for literary discussions and essay assignments.
In Jekyll & Hyde, a good doctor creates a potion that will allow him to separate his evil impulses from his good nature. He tranforms himself at will into Mr. Hyde, a misshapen dwarf who is the embodiment of Jekyll’s basest desires. By giving Hyde full reign to do evil in secret, Jekyll hopes to purge his good nature of evil and enjoy an easy conscience. As time goes on, however, Mr. Hyde grows stronger and bolder, eventually appearing unbidden and threatening to take over Jekyll’s good nature permanently. In the end, the terrified Jekyll is finally consumed by the ever-growing Hyde and both are destroyed.
In the other story, the young scientist Victor Frankenstein discovers the secret of life and creates a living soul with his own hands. The Creature horrifies him and he violently drives it away. The Creature wanders in the wilderness and suffers similar rejection at the hands of every person it meets. Eventually the Creature returns to confront Frankenstein, demanding that the scientist create a bride with whom it can share companionship. Horrified, Frankenstein refuses and the Creature wreaks its revenge, eventually destroying everyone that Frankenstein loves.
A Common Interpretation
My teacher friend intended to guide her students toward a commonly held opinion about these stories that can be summarized as follows. First, Jekyll & Hyde presents a view of human nature that Christians can support. Since Hyde’s evil ultimately springs from within Jekyll’s own heart, the story is a commentary on original sin and human depravity. It serves as a chilling reminder of the Scripture that warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Christians obviously approve of this theme and can applaud Stevenson for his skill in illustrating it.
Shelley’s Frankenstein, however, is another matter according to this common interpretation. Frankenstein’s Creature, with whom Shelley’s readers are led to sympathize, is innocent and pure at the moment of his creation. The cruelty of the world around him, especially at the hands of his creator, destroys his native benevolence, turning him into an evil monster. The evil that men do comes from the outside influences of a wicked society, the story seems to suggest. Far from a commentary on original sin, Frankenstein is a tirade against the idea. Christians generally disagree with this perspective and so condemn the story and its author, charging Shelley with promoting a non-Christian worldview.
First Things First: Who Is the Protagonist?
It is easy when taking this tack to get ahead of ourselves. In our eagerness to judge literature from our Christian perspective, we often jump to evaluate the themes of a work before we ask and answer the fundamental structural questions. For example, “which character is the protagonist?”
In a discussion of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde, this question produces dramatic results.
In Jekyll & Hyde, there can be little doubt about the identity of the protagonist. The story is a simple, straightforward account of the career of Henry Jekyll – his faulty assumptions, his mistakes and their terrible consequences. The fact that Hyde is inseparable in the end from Jekyll reinforces the idea that he alone is the protagonist (though he has two distinct personalities). This conclusion supports the common interpretation of the story – that human nature is flawed and that its darker elements emanate from within.
What about Frankenstein, however? Who is the protagonist in Shelley’s tale?
To answer this question, we might start by looking at Shelley’s own words on the cover – Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
This title reveals two very important details that often escape notice. First, Frankenstein is not the name of the monster, as in many movie versions of the tale; it’s the name of the young scientist who creates him. Second, the reference to Prometheus recalls the Greek myth about the man who stole fire from the gods – who reached above his station to usurp the prerogatives of deity.
Before we even open the book, then, we find the following answer to our question about the protagonist from Shelley’s own pen: This is a story about Victor Frankenstein, who in his pride and overreaching ambition tried to make himself like God and was destroyed. The primary focus of this novel is not the Creature’s innocent nature, but Frankenstein’s guilty one!
A Different Interpretation
Suddenly, the story takes on a whole new meaning. Frankenstein’s soliloquies on his ambition to cheat death, his obsession with his dark experiments, his horror at the misshapen monster he has created, his refusal to create another one and the disaster that follows – all of these elements chronicle the destructive consequences of that most original of all original sins, the sin of pride.
Though Frankenstein’s Creature occupies an important place in the story and is a very sympathetic character, he is not the primary character. Shelley created him as a foil for Victor Frankenstein, to empasize the latter’s pride, ambition and arrogance by magnifying their destructive effects on innocent life.
Once we answer the protagonist question, we are led to interpret Frankenstein as a dark commentary on human nature very similar to Jekyll & Hyde. In fact, we may find Shelley’s story more powerful because it is more specific: whereas Henry Jekyll’s original sin is a general, nameless evil, Victor Frankenstein is destroyed by a specific aspect of his fallen human nature.
Some Christians correctly interpret Frankenstein’s Creature as an example of the Romantic view of human nature popular in Shelley’s time. They often follow a good interpretation with a bad one, however, when they charge Shelley with promoting this view. If Victor Frankenstein is the protagonist, the novel raises some serious objections to the Romantic idea. He himself is a Romantic, and the story of his destruction can be seen as a warning against that philosophy’s excesses.
If you have a mind to assign Jekyll & Hyde to your students this year, consider having them read Frankenstein as well. The two stories really do make for a great comparison. But don’t forget to ask the fundamental questions before you rush to judgment. You might be surprised at where the answers lead!