The Master and the Slave
No other literature quite highlights the danger of becoming a slave to your own invention(s) like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Victor Frankenstein’s selfish search for knowledge, he creates a being that he is not ready to take responsibility for and it is his downfall. The creator/creation relationship is always there, for Frankenstein will always be the creator and the creature will always be the creation; however, there is a power shift that occurs between them in Volume II when the creature asks Frankenstein to create a mate for him. From there, the connotation leans more toward that of a master/slave dynamic.
A definition in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) states that a “slave” is “One who is completely under the domination of, or subject to, a specified influence” (oed.com). Victor certainly falls into this definition when creating the creature’s female companion, or at least it’s not until then that he starts thinking “chains and darkness were the only objects that pressed upon me” (p.202). Several times, he refers to his predicament as his “slavery”. Conversely, the creature later refers to himself as a “slave, not a master” (p. 222) as he laments over Frankenstein’s corpse. This is profoundly interesting, not because neither sees themselves in the master role, but because earlier, when the creature confronts Victor about destroying the mate, the creation calls his creator a slave! The power dynamic at its most uneven here, he ends the threat, “Slave! You are my creator, but I am your master- obey!” (p.172). The creature blames his behavior on compulsion, “… an impulse, which I detested, yet could not disobey” (p. 222), during his confession to Walton in the final moments of the novel. The creature could not allow Frankenstein any happiness because the scientist could not show his own creation the same kindness. Now that his creator is dead, the urge to ruin his life or have any power is gone; the creature is left with only guilt and retrospection.
In a way, the creation is a slave to existence as well as to his creator. It would certainly fit under one of the OED’s definitions “The condition of being entirely subject to some power or influence” (oed.com); the power or influence being life itself. In his first moments, the creation was cast away into a superficial world that would never accept him. Forced by humanity to only travel by moonlight, the creature spurns his creator and curses the day he was given life; his very existence haunts him. However, upon his climactic meeting with Frankenstein on the mountain summit, “Life,” the creature says, “…is dear to me, and I will defend it” (p.102). The creation lacks the constitution to kill himself until the very end. In life, Frankenstein was his only hope for happiness; in his creator’s death, nothing is left for the lonesome creation. The power dynamic notably shifts again. In death, Victor holds the power as he was the master key to the creature’s happiness. Without Frankenstein, the creature is nothing. It seems only fitting that his life is presumably ended. That way, they are finally equal, creator and creation, only in death.
The second female creation would seemingly fit into the OED’s primary definition of a “slave”: “One who is the property of, and entirely subject to, another person, whether by capture, purchase, or birth.” (oed.com). The master/slave relationship for her would exist between both Victor and the creation; in the case of the mate and the creature, she is a slave before she is created. For example, in the creation’s plea to Frankenstein to create a companion, he explains his plan of living off the grid with his new companion; her solitary fate is sealed before she even exists. It is supposed she would not have a say in the matter as this is the sole point of her existence; so, already the master/slave dynamic exists between her and the creature. Say she was given the opportunity to voice her opinion, and she did indeed not want to go. In this event, it could be surmised that this could put Victor in the same position he is in now. She would be a slave, as the first creation is now, to Frankenstein as she would rely on his knowledge to fashion her a companion to her liking.
Being that Shelley was a Romantic and the Industrial Age was on the horizon when she wrote Frankenstein, it would be fair to hypothesize that Victor’s hasty innovative obsession with creating the first creature is Shelley’s way of warning against reckless innovation and industrialization. It can certainly be read as a warning against delving into the unknown; there are some places that humans just aren’t meant to go. It’s always been a problem with our species to want to understand everything. “Knowledge is powerful” is a dangerous phrase for an obsessive but ignorant person like Frankenstein; it made him think he could play God. Frankenstein’s story highlights one horrific, albeit fictional, way how one can become a slave to their own inventions. Perhaps Shelley hoped that readers would learn from Victor’s devastating story, run from innovation, and flee back to nature.
- Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1818. Print.
- “slave” Def. 1a. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press.Web.
- “slave” Def. 2b. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press. Web.
- “slavery” Def. 3b. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press. Web.