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The Real Byronic Hero. Identifying the Byronic Hero in Frankenstein

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2012 21 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. “Introduction”

2. “Seeking Byronic Qualities in Frankenstein”

3.1. “A Byronic Monster”
3.2. “The Corrupted Master Victor”

4. “Master and Slave – or Slave and Slave?”

5. “Conclusion”

6. “Works Cited”


“How can I see so noble a creature destroyed by misery without feeling the most poignant grief?” (Shelley 26).

Since the Byronic hero has been introduced by his eponym George Gordon Byron, he has often been reused in literature. In fact, he especially was a popular villain in Gothic literature. The Byronic hero was impersonated by humans, vampires, or just some other monsters. However, he always showed more or less the same characteristics and often served as an abstract symbol.

Frankenstein is probably Mary Shelley’s most famous novel. The two most important characters Victor Frankenstein and his Monster have been interpreted many times, often with the conclusion that Victor’s Monster is only a schizophrenic reflection of Victor himself. For the sake of completeness I will include Victor’s possible schizophrenia in this term paper. However, I do not want go into this topic too deep, or even argue on the definiteness of this split personality as this would go beyond the scope of the discussion.

It was only natural for Mary Shelley to use the concept of the Byronic hero for her Gothic horror novel Frankenstein as Lord Byron was one of the participants in the circle reading and inventing horror stories in Geneva. Byron notoriously had a strong effect, especially on women. Therefore, it is no surprise that Mary Shelley applied her perception of the confrontation with Byron on the character that originated at the same time. Mary Shelley then wrote her novel under the influence of the Byronic hero and created her own “dark hero” in Frankenstein.

Frankenstein accommodates at least one, if not two Byronic heroes. In this paper I want to identify the Byronic heroes in Frankenstein, and – if existent – argue on their function in the novel and their importance beyond.

Seeking Byronic qualities in Frankenstein

In 1812 Lady Caroline Lamb – although maybe involuntarily at this time – laid the foundation for the definition of the Byronic hero with her famous quotation that Byron is “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” (cf. Groper 132). These few words already include the most important features of the Byronic hero in literature. Such a character usually is mad in terms of his passion. While Dracula, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, works off his passion by sucking blood out of beautiful young women, the Byronic hero in Frankenstein does not care for such matters. The madness of Victor Frankenstein clearly lies within his studies and the fanatic approach to animate dead matter. When Robert Walter in Frankenstein for instance says that “[o]ne man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which [he] sought,” Victor instantly responds: “unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught?” (cf. Shelley 27).

In her book entitled The Female Romantics: Nineteenth-century Women Novelists and Byronism, Caroline Franklin remarks about the occurrence of the Byronic hero in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

Mary Shelley adapted the Byronic hero to illustrate the autocratic heritage of Bonapartism tainting European liberal and nationalist movements after the Treaty of Vienna. Byron himself had led the way in identifying his own Gothic anti-heroes with their author and both with Napoleon Bonaparte. Like many other Romantic writers, Shelley conveyed fascination with Bonaparte even while censuring his myth, through her ambivalent allegory of the modern Prometheus in Frankenstein” (Franklin 4).

It is important to note that the Byronic hero does not only possess features of Byron himself, but also of Napoleon Bonaparte. Franklin furthermore writes that “Byron was an inspiration behind the two most popular Gothic villains in the nineteenth century: the aristocrat as vampire and the utopian projector, Victor Frankenstein, who unleashes a monster” (36). She sort of divides the Byronic hero into two categories defined by the aristocratic vampire – perfectly illustrated in Bram Stoker’s Dracula for instance – and the creator of life (and demigod) Victor Frankenstein, who brings knowledge to the humans. Even though Victor is called the modern Prometheus, he never really reveals the secret of giving life.

However, there seems to be a problem with the definition of the characters in Frankenstein concerning their Byronic nature. I explicitly use the plural “characters” here as Victor does not seem to be the only Byronic hero in Frankenstein; or is he? Both Victor and his monster seem to possess different Byronic features, and maybe together they are one complete Byronic hero. In fact, Victor’s abomination was often interpreted as a kind of schizophrenic reflection of Victor himself, which therefore would argue for the two characters being only fully Byronic when united. Erinç Özdemir for instance remarks that “[w]hat some critics see as the schizophrenic division of Victor's psyche, symbolically embodied by the split between Victor and his creature, remains irreparable within the terms of the dream, and is gradually extended to the whole novel in the death of all of Victor's beloved ones” (Özdemir 150). Victor generally represents the Byronic hero as he possesses most of the features of the “anti-hero.” However, Victor’s creature also seems to hold some Byronic features. If we see the creature as a symbolic reflection of Victor’s schizophrenia, Victor would be chasing the other half of his Byronic nature most of the novel. In this case, the Byronic hero would be hard to recognize as Victor never really catches up to his monstrous other half. Özdemir also remarks with the help of Levine that “[o]n a fundamental level, the motif of double in Frankenstein signifies the dualism of mind and body, which is a form of cultural schizophrenia (Levine, 1998: 36)” (Özdemir 152). The dualism of mind and body in Frankenstein then would be perfectly illustrated through Victor as the fanatic mind, and the creature as the body with its supernaturally developed muscles. Furthermore, the Monster “is Victor’s double and acts out that part of himself that Victor represses” (Morrison and Stone 100). The Monster is Victor’s executive authority, performing according to Victor’s subconscious mind. It is also remarkable that the two characters seem to complement each other in terms of their attitude. Marklund remarks that “[t]he two, Victor and the monster, complement each other in the areas they are not able to fulfill themselves. Together they constitute a being that is whole, that possesses all kinds of human traits, both good and evil” (Marklund 6-7). However, they do not only complement each other, they also seem to share some of the typical Byronic features and the effects. While Victor mostly performs in a Byronic way, the Monster suffers from the negative effects of being Byronic. Victor is egoistical, but still loved by his family and accepted by society, while the Monster is kind, but rejected by society and even his creator.

Özdemir notes that according to Levine, "[t]he devil and the angel of the morality play are replaced by a modern pre-Freudian psychology that removes the moral issue from the metaphysical context—the traditional concepts of good and evil—and places it within the self. Morality is...replaced by schizophrenia" (1998: 34)” (Özdemir 151).Even though the monster turns evil due to the rejection by society, initially it is very kind and thoughtful, while Victor has a very selfish attitude as he does not even account for his actions, especially the creation of his schizophrenic foil. Concerning the change of the monster Marklund writes:

As in the case with Victor, the character of the Monster is neither one-dimensional nor easily labeled. The Monster does commit heinous crimes: he murders Victor’s little brother William (who is only a little boy), he frames the servant girl Justine for the murder of William (which results in her being condemned to death), he murders Victor’s best friend Henry Clerval and the wife and great love of Victor, Elizabeth. It is quite apparent that the Monster holds a great amount of anger and bitterness, but he was not “born” with those qualities. (Marklund 7)

Despite the vast quantity of misdeeds, the monster is not evil by birth, as he starts to commit these crimes because he is constantly rejected. Eventually the Monster blames his creator Victor Frankenstein for his miserable state due to the fact that Victor has made him “wretched beyond expression” (Shelley 97).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is littered with contrasts and complementary characters. Among the most prominent features of the Byronic hero is his unpredictability as well as a certain degree of vicissitude, which perfectly fits the occurrence of these contradictory characters, who in fact seem to complement each other. These contradictious elements usually are also responsible for the attractiveness of the Byronic hero. Stefanie Krüger remarks in her essay entitled “The Attraction of Gothic Villains in 19th-Century Literature” that the Byronic hero “is represented as a torn melancholic who, due to his mental disposition, cannot but commit villainous deeds. The same, says Brittnacher, accounts for the Gothic villain: He is attractive because he is terrible and melancholic” (Krüger 4). In Frankenstein both Victor and his monster are terrible and melancholic. Victor is melancholic because he regrets his deeds, and wishes he could undo the creation of his abomination – although he never really takes responsibility for it. This lack of confrontation with the creature and the evasion of responsibility intensify his melancholic state. The creature on the other hand is melancholic because it is rejected by society and it has no like-minded fellow. The monster especially is in desperate need of love when it urges Victor to create a female monster. The denial of love is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaption Bram Stoker’s Dracula, when Dracula comes home from war and his love is dead due to an evil intrigue. Afterwards, Dracula thinks Mina is the reincarnation of his deceased wife and tries to seduce her. However, he never again experiences the love he once had, which reflects the fate of the Byronic hero. Just like Dracula, Victor’s monster is denied his love. Furthermore Victor experiences a quite similar fate when his wife is killed by his own creation. Even the names resemble themselves, as Victor’s great love is named Elizabeth and Dracula’s wife in Coppola’s film adaptation Bram Stoker’s Dracula is called Elisabeta. The only difference is that Dracula first loses his beloved wife and then becomes a monster, while Victor first creates his monster – which kind of causes him to become a monster as well – and as a result loses his love.

Erica Roth in her article entitled “Burke’s Sublime in Walpole’s Otranto and Shelley’s Frankenstein” remarks that the Byronic hero – among other elements – is used to illustrate obscurity and horror:

Supernatural beings, the Gothic villain, and the Byronic hero—“an agent of terror”—are all “character types” that inspire obscurity and create horror, because “this iconography [of dark and obscure figures] has haunted various critical representations of the rise of the genre”

(Evans 5). The reigning emotion over readers of Gothic literature is curiosity, transformed into fear. In addition, while specific characters exhibit or create terror, themes function in this way as well. Themes of death, power, and love all play a role in the creation of a Gothic novel. Essentially, the Gothic novel was popular because of the emotional, yet pleasurable toll it took on its readers through different literary techniques. (Roth 60)



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real byronic hero identifying frankenstein



Titel: The Real Byronic Hero. Identifying the Byronic Hero in Frankenstein