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Jonathan Kim

Frankenstein and Faust

Honour states in Romanticism that the only constant and common factor in [romantic
artists] ever-shifting attitudes and scales of value was belief in the importance of individuality
(22). A comparison of characters from Goethes Faust and Shelleys Frankenstein would
support this claim. Although there are innumerable differences between the two works, their
focus on the individual is irrefutable. The romantic heroes Faust and Frankenstein both cause
more harm than good in their respective stories. This is partly because they are both self-
absorbed individuals that seek out the extraordinary and supernatural. Although they share
similar attributes and goals, there are many differences within these similarities. In the process
of seeking their desires, they collide head-on with their human limitations. The results are a
display of the destructive nature of uninhibited desires.
The major difference regarding self-absorption between Faust and Frankenstein can be
seen when comparing their view of scientific and empirical knowledge. Faust believes that all of
the knowledge that he has accumulated from studying books for the past decade has no value.
This is a sign of his dangerous uninhibited desire for the extraordinary. Unlike Frankenstein,
Faust is unable to see how empirical knowledge of the physical world could be useful. His
attention is focused completely on himself; everything he does is for his own benefit. He is
consuming knowledge in an attempt to satisfy his own hunger for the truth and does not
acknowledge how beneficial he could be to society. He recounts the shame he feels for running
around with his father when he is young and taking part in the deaths of villagers during the
plight of fever. He focuses on his own guilt rather than using the knowledge he has since
attained to solve the problems of disease. In contrast to Faust, Frankenstein does think of other
people and how they could benefit from science. Frankenstein in this way is less self-absorbed.
He talks about helping people and the positive effect he could have on them. However, his
thoughts are not completely selfless even when it comes to this. When he talks about curing
disease from mankind he says, Wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the
discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but
a violent death (18). Frankensteins focus is drawn to the glory he would receive from
accomplishing a commendable act, rather than the goodness of the act itself.
Both Frankenstein and Faust are on a quest for something beyond the ordinary, striving
for an ideal that wrestles with human limitation. Both are able to touch upon the world of the
supernatural, but are ultimately held back by their human limitations. To summarize
Frankensteins desire: The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest
research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to
me, are among the earliest sensations I can rememberIt was the secrets of heaven and earth
that I desired to learn (13). Similar to this desire for the divine, the narrator of Shelleys Ode
to the West Wind narrator says Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! /I fall upon the thorns of
life! I bleed! (52-53). Though the narrator also wants transcendence, he, unlike Faust and
Frankenstein, realizes that he does not have the power to lift himself from the thorns of life and
instead asks for the help of the West Wind. Faust forgoes asking for help and successfully
conjures the earth-spirit with his own obtained knowledge, but his initial reactions to the spirit
are cries of disgust rather than elation. Horrid sight! (13) he says, Away, intolerable sprite!
(13). The spirit in turn calls him out as a shrinking, cringing, writhing worm (13) and tells him
he is not an equal, slapping him with the reality of his human limitations. Faust collapses saying
Not thee? /Whom then? /I image of the Godhead (14). This proclamation of him being image
of the Godhead is a showcase of Fausts narcissism and his insatiable desire to be godlike.
However, he resigns quickly afterwards and declares O Death! I know it!tis my Famulus
(14). His inability to overcome his human limitation results in his wretchedness.
Frankensteins experience is not so different. When he is successful in bringing his
creature to life, he reacts in a similar fashion to how Faust reacted to the earth-spirit.
Frankenstein recounts that the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust
filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out (24). But
here he is confronted by his own human limitations. He is unable to suppress his instinctive
human reaction of fear at the sight of the monster. Subsequently, he negates responsibility for
his creation, which is an act of selfishness. Because of how ugly the creature is to him, he
irrationally runs away from his own creation. Abandoned from birth, his creation is unjustly
labeled as an abominable monster from the very start. In The Nightingale, Coleridge cries out
against this kind of mislabeling. He declares that the man, whose heart was piercd/ With the
remembrance of a grievous wrong, /Or slow distemper or neglected love (16-18) falsely labels
the nightingale as melancholy bird. Mans feelings are misguided and are unfairly projected
onto nature. Doing so is an act of absorption in ones own feelings. Frankensteins case in
regards to his creation is similar. He mislabels his creation as a waking demon and creates a false
representation of it in his mind. He is the monsters only possible source of companionship and
fails to fulfill this duty because of his fear. If he were able to control his emotions and reactions,
the problems that plague him later on would never have sprouted. Instead, he foregoes
responsibility in an act of selfishness and incites a wrath upon the world that ultimately kills him
and his entire family.
Human limitations have driven revolution, technological progress, and an expansion of
awareness of the surrounding world. In an attempt to overcome human limitations, progress has
been made. But in the case of Frankenstein and Faust, their desires lead them to challenge their
human limitations and they are unable to overcome them. Both Frankenstein and Faust are
driven to a state of wretchedness and despair caused by their quest for higher knowledge.
Frankensteins life transitions from a happy childhood to a constant torment of guilt and hate that
essentially arises from his selfish act to negate responsibility for his creation. Faust on the other
does not succeed in his quest for knowledge like Frankenstein, but he does experience the
supernatural. He comes to the brink of suicide, but divine intervention prevents him from doing
so. Ultimately, the stories of Faust and Frankenstein can be seen as warning against selfishness
and unchecked desires. Shelley moralizes to the reader through Frankenstein. A human being
in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a
transitory desire to disturb tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an
exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your
affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly
mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind (23). This
idea is continued by saying that the great tragedies such as the annihilation of civilizations would
not have occurred if the desires and passions of individuals did not overthrow peaceful and calm
thinking. Faust and Frankenstein are incredible specimens of the extremes of human
individuality and desire. They prove to be subjects worthy of complex meditation and the
lessons that can be learned from their mistakes will be relevant as long as the human condition