Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Fruit of the Enlightenment

June 28th, 2023 | 13 min read

By Noah Wing

William Godwin once said that “it is absurd to expect the inclinations and wishes of two human beings to coincide, through any long period of time. To oblige them to act and to live together, is to subject them to some inevitable portion of thwarting, bickering and unhappiness."

This section from his Political Justice refers to the institution of marriage. Being a disciple of Enlightenment thinking, Godwin rejected tradition and focused on the individuality of the human experience from a philosopher’s point of view. Yet, after marrying Mary Wollstonecraft, he found himself at the beginning of a series of ironies that haunted him till the end of his life. The union of the Enlightenment philosophers began with Wollstonecraft’s pregnancy with Mary Godwin, who later became Mary Shelley.[1] Wollstonecraft died because of complications in childbirth, leaving Godwin with two children (one from Wollstonecraft’s former relationship with Gilbert Imlay).

Later, when Mary was sixteen, Percy Bysshe Shelley—and his wife, Harriet—came to visit Godwin, who had been the Enlightenment hero who had influenced his own writing. Two years after the meeting, Mary and Percy eloped and fled to Switzerland accompanied by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairemont, and left behind Harriet, who later committed suicide. The trio eventually met Lord Byron and John Polidori at Lake Geneva in May 1816.

Here the renowned campfire took place, and Lord Byron challenged the company to a competition to see who could write the most horrifying ghost story. The only two stories that would be finished were Polidori’s Vampyre and Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley was a child of the Enlightenment, a native daughter bound to ideals of anarchy and progress. In running off with her husband, Shelley did not rebel against any of Godwin’s philosophies, since he himself wrote, “Add to this, that marriage, as now understood, is a monopoly, and the worst of monopolies. So long as two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous." Yet Godwin married Wollstonecraft because he slept with her and she conceived a child, which means Mary was an infant of the Enlightenment’s philosophers and its philosophy. She lived out these ideals in her marriage to Percy Shelley, and thus wrote Frankenstein. Mary’s upbringing and Percy’s sadistic nature surely led to her torment, inflicting upon her the necessity to reflect in ink the guilt of her life and her parents’ lives.

On the foundation of guilt, Frankenstein introduced the horror genre to the canon of literature and established that horror needs guilt to conjure a story of loathing—a tale that reveals a longing for judgment. Frankenstein’s monster has haunted the soul of many readers since 1818 because of his deformity, and Shelley injects her guilt from her own sin, which stemmed from her rejection of the moral order, onto him. This guilt sprung from many events: Harriet Westbrook’s suicide was the main one, along with the deaths of Shelley’s children. Shelley felt responsible for these deaths, not because she had a direct hand in them, but because they were the fruits of her rebellion. This guilt is implied in historical accounts of Shelley’s life as well as her characters in Frankenstein, particularly Victor Frankenstein and his monster. Strong parallels between Victor Frankenstein and Percy Shelley are revealed in the novel, as well as scenes of monologue from the monster where he confesses his guilt and shame. The question is whether Frankenstein or his monster reflect the haunting guilt oozing from the bog of Enlightenment anarchy. Victor Frankenstein reveals Shelley’s guilt through the many scenes in which he avoids conflict, clambering for a romantic cure in the sublime experiences of the world, while the monster reveals her guilt through a façade of innocence being a cover for his murderous rampage. Yet it is the monster who sees Enlightenment thinking as the reason for his miserable life; the monster receives Victor’s guilt, and both receive the guilt of their creator—their author—and therefore reflect it. The dæmon is the fruit of the Enlightenment, according to Shelley.

As Victor falls into darkness during his time at Ingolstadt, Shelley depicts what men do when they give in to Enlightenment ideals and reject the moral order as she and her husband did. Victor begins to study natural philosophy, using chemistry and physiology to create his monster from the fragments of corpses and cadavers. He forgoes sleep and sufficient food to complete his work and isolates himself for two years. During the young doctor’s obsession, he lusts for a glorious breakthrough that will satisfy, yet rebels against the elementary laws of nature. Victor begins to hunt for fragments of bodies, and while not explicitly written in the text, he mangles corpses to discover secrets of the human frame that bring him sadistic pleasure. He is driven by the desire to unveil the unknown, that which is forbidden because God deemed it unnatural.

In Victor’s descent into darkness, he says he has a transcendent purpose for his experiment to create a man: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me." This passage says Victor desired to make a man with his own hands because of his desire to have his own creation praise him. The young doctor is twisting an essential element of the Christian faith, which is that all glory is to be given to God alone, for He is a jealous God. In the same way, Victor seeks to partake of this glory. And in so doing, he will fulfill the Enlightenment goal to remove tradition in all respects and certainly the tradition of the Christian faith.

Victor’s Promethean attempt to create life and therefore win his own glory separate from any creator is Shelley’s summary of the Enlightenment. The rest of the novel reveals her guilt for actions for which she feels responsible. And as with all ideologies and beliefs, men sow what they reap. Shelley chooses a loathsome monster as the fruit of Victor’s decadence because this being’s actions and dialogue reflect the guilt of Victor’s choices but also reflect Shelley’s. The monster unveils Shelley’s guilt for her own sins and decisions, while Victor represents the ideal Enlightenment man, and no one represents this ideal man more than the romantic poet Percy Shelley.

It is no surprise to see parallels between Percy Shelley’s poetry and Victor’s lines in the novel. Both men deal in romantic descriptions of the sublimity of nature. Shelley does so in his poem about Mont Blanc: “In the calm darkness of the moonless nights, / In the lone glare of day, the snows descend / Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there.” The romantic poet is enraptured in ecstasy and awe when looking at the mountain, which is the sublime experience of nature according to the romantics. Percy Shelley releases his soul to his overwhelming feeling at majestic sights, for in his romantic Enlightenment ideals he is to live a life of discovering the self and its transcendent meanings found in desires and impulses.

In Frankenstein, there is a similar scene of the sublime landscape of Mont Blanc, yet Shelley’s writing reveals more about this sort of image. The scene begins with Victor arriving in Geneva during a storm. Shelley writes, “I saw the lightnings playing on the summit of Mont Blanc in the most beautiful figures.” Here is an exaggerated image of terror and beauty with the raging storm and the rising mountain. But later in the scene, something appears amid the beauty and sublime emotion: “A flash of lightning illuminated the object and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy dæmon, to whom I had given life.”

Mary adds an element to the scene of Mont Blanc that her husband is blind to in his poem. Percy captures what it feels like to view the majestic mountain, and this is fine. It is good poetry. Yet the struggle lies in attempting to critique Percy’s work opposed to critiquing his life because even if readers know the history of the Shelley family, they are not supposed to judge a poem based on the author’s personal issues. The reader must critique the poem Percy wrote, not the poem he should have written. But the scene in Mary’s novel reveals the guilt. Tainting the sublime scene is the dæmon, the fruit of the Enlightenment and the creation of Victor. Both Percy’s poetry and Mary’s prose are parallel in romantic imagery, yet Mary sees the sublime scene differently. As she writes the novel, she cannot help but see the monster lurking in the foreground because if Victor has parallels to Percy (a fact on which many scholars agree), then Mary sees the fruits of her ideology through the storm and scenery while Percy is blind. This couple chose to live out these ideals, and in that choice, conceived guilt because of their sin.

This guilt resides mainly in the monster. Victor runs to an archaic ruin before facing his guilty conscience and the monster battles his inner conflict, hence revealing the thoughts of the author. The first scene of dialogue with the dæmon indicates Shelley’s feelings toward Enlightenment thinking are contradictory and full of wishful thinking. In the scene, the monster stands before Victor on the slopes of Montanvert to face his master and request a wife, but before demanding a mate, he says this to Victor: “Remember that 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. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good—misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous." The reference to the fallen angel is clearly Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost, implying that the monster has found Satan akin to himself. The three works of literature that the monster finds in his hovel with the DeLacey family all point to the character development of the monster, but none compare to the effect of Milton’s epic, particularly his antagonist. The monster’s relating to the devil suggests that he sees himself as an outcast, and his struggling through questions of whether he is born wretched or innocent plague his conscience so that he chooses to take revenge on his creator, Victor, because he doubts that he can become a good man. And because he doubts that he can transcend his monstrous deformity, he chooses to embrace it and take hold of his deserved revenge.

Shelley’s wishful thinking comes out in the dæmon. The monster says he was a saint before misery made him a fiend. This is the error of humanism, for in this error the monster must reckon with his murdering William, as of this point in the novel, and with this thinking he will proceed to kill Henry and Elizabeth. If the rock upon which he builds his life is a wishful thinking that he is good, then what of justice and ethics regarding the murders of so many? How can the monster think he is justified in his wickedness?

Dostoevsky says that "Literature is a picture, or rather in a certain sense both a picture and a mirror; it is an expression of emotion, a subtle form of criticism, a didactic lesson and a document.” This definition states that all literature is more than just a story but is inherently didactic, even if Shelley said in her preface to the novel the following: “The opinions which naturally spring from the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in my own conviction; nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind.” Clearly, she desired that no one accuse her of criticizing the Enlightenment or her husband or parents. But in examining Dostoevsky’s definition of literature, the reader must conclude that Shelley is revealing something—maybe even criticism—toward her Enlightenment views and her life resulting from those views. Hence it is impossible for her to say nothing critical in Frankenstein, and especially about the dæmon. So in deconstructing the scene on the slopes of Montanvert, the reader must notice that Shelley is indeed saying she wants to believe that man is inherently good, that the Enlightenment is inherently pure. When she writes that the dæmon relates to Satan, she must be claiming that Victor creating the hideous creature made something pure though ugly. But how should the reader interpret the feelings of guilt the monster manifests throughout the novel? It is evident that the monster feels shame for his murderous actions in future sections and then must decide whether to repent or wallow.

Yet before the reader sees the guilt the monster feels in later scenes of the book, he must first see the guilt he inflicts on Victor and therefore the reader himself. The monster not only reflects Shelley’s guilt in the novel by feeling it himself, but also by inflicting it on Victor. The relationship between the creator and his creation is key to the conversation surrounding the Enlightenment in the novel.

On the shores of Ireland, after Victor destroys the corpse of the monster’s bride, the dæmon says to his creator, “‘It is well. I go; but remember, I shall be with you on your wedding-night.’" Nothing the monster says is clearer. This desire to plague his creator reflects the guilt Shelley possesses, because if literature is a mirror, as Dostoyevsky says, then it is possible the monster is reflecting her unshakable guilt. Since Victor must experience a life of misery after fulfilling his Enlightenment impulses, then the monster must reflect Victor’s guilt for his transgressions; but if the young doctor parallels Percy Shelley, then the author is commenting on something related to her husband, or herself. The answer is found in the author. For even if she wrote Victor as a representative of Percy, she is tied to him, and therefore feels his guilt, shares his sins. The monster haunting Victor is a depiction of how Mary’s guilt haunts her, for she would have felt responsible for the suicide of Harriet Westbrook, even if Percy is also to blame. Mary knows that even in her following Percy to the destructive end of humanism she is also an accomplice and feels the weight of this responsibility. Therefore, her ink works to cope with this guilt as she seeks catharsis.

The death of the monster unveils more of the Enlightenments horrors, for as he stares upon his dead master, he says the following:

Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment. Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of bringing forth. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No crime, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine.

The dæmon is pondering the meaning of his existence. He concludes he is the most filthy, miserable wretch to live, and this may be true. His existence sprang from the delusions of a man seeking sadistic pleasure in the mangling and fabricating of human segments; thus, the fruit reaped was miserable. Sin infected Victor’s offspring, and from this disease comes a hideous transformation until death is the only cure. The monster claims he once longed for love and devotion, seeking honor and virtue, but because of his hideous nature and vice he became animalistic. Hence, if Enlightenment thinking rejects tradition and the moral order, it produces a lack of foundation and order, and when Victor chooses to ignore fundamental laws of nature and make human life with his own hands, he produces an offspring infected with this lust. And when the monster lives, he carries on the disease, worsening as his life progresses, becoming less like a man. And though less human from birth, the infection within his being brings a further decadence, so that in the end, he is an animal. This is the end of the Enlightenment thinking that Shelley reveals in the monster. The dæmon is the final stage of man choosing reason over created order.

Yet there are critics. Film director Guillermo del Toro finds a haven in Frankenstein and claims it is the reason he loves monsters. The following excerpt is from The New Annotated Frankenstein. “I read it in one sitting, and by the end of it, I was weeping. It was my Road to Damascus. It illuminated the reason I loved monsters, my kinship with them, and showed me how deep, how life-changing, a monster parable could be—how it could function as art and how it could reach across distance and time and become a palliative to solitude and pain . . ..” In this quote, del Toro ignores the Enlightenment influence on Shelley’s work because he is a disciple of this ideology. This subjective interpretation of the text defenestrates Dostoevsky’s standard for literature, and this is the common misinterpretation; but the narrative of the novel has a nuanced way of handling the dæmon, since it claims that he is inherently good, but murders innocent lives, making room for the monster to tell some partial truths. When del Toro claims that the novel becomes a palliative of solitude and pain, he is sympathizing with the monster, who simultaneously relates to Satan. It is possible del Toro feels he was born innocent and the world in its cold grasp made him lonely and dejected—so he finds solace in monsters.

Del Toro continues to speak of the monster romantically, saying, “And we hope that then he might recognize in our eyes his own yearning. And that perchance we can walk toward each other and find meager warmth in our embrace. And then, if only for a moment, we will not feel alone in the world." But what should the reader make of this yearning? For del Toro is implying he is alone like the monster, feels his pain, has his doubts. This is disconcerting, if true, because Shelley, while using pathos with the monster often, writes scenes in the novel in which the monster decides to act upon his loneliness, wreaking vengeance upon his enemies: “I knew that I was preparing for myself a deadly torture; but I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse which I detested, yet could not disobey. Yet when she died! . . . . Evil thenceforth became my good.” The dæmon consciously acts upon his loneliness and understands he is evil, so if del Toro finds rest in the embrace of the monster, this is truly terrifying. He has made peace with the warning sent by Shelley: the monster, a mirror who causes the reader to reflect upon human nature and what happens when man rejects the established moral order. When man chooses to reject his created order, he digresses from a sentient man to a ravenous beast.

And to say readers should relate to monsters like Dracula or Grendel, as if London should open its arms wide to a ravenous blood-sucking demon or Hrothgar’s Hall should welcome the ancient beast to sit beside its roaring fires, is absurd. A monster such as the dæmon can have sympathetic qualities, but this is what makes him more evil. He is the diseased child of a man who sought to gratify a lust, and therefore is a monster despite his human qualities, for if Shelley wrote Frankenstein without any didactic lesson, readers should flee from this work because it contains the sympathies of sadism. Art is didactic and revelatory. Shelley, though claiming otherwise, unveils the truth of the Enlightenment through the monster, its child, its pathogen, its fruit.


[1] To avoid confusion and to aid readability, I am breaking convention when referring to Mary and Percy Shelley. When referring to Mary alone and in circumstances in which it will not affect clarity, I use “Shelley.” When referring to Mary and Percy together or in close proximity, I use first names.

Noah Wing

Noah Wing has poetry published in "The Mill" and has written for the Toledo City Paper. He has taught at private schools as well as lead various writing workshops. He lives in Toledo with his family.