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Kat Eaton
Dr. Holt
AP English Literature and Composition
11 January 2017
The Vital Spark of Free Will
Mary Shellys Frankenstein has caused many debates concerning the Creature and the
nature of his existence. Does the Creature have a soul? and Does the Creature have free
will? are two of the most commonly argued questions regarding the novel. The former often
delves into vitalism, with the soul being the vital spark that brings things to life; the latter
concerns itself with free will vs. determinism and the power of creators over their creations.
Surprisingly, the answers to these questions often draw from each other even in texts
unrelated to Frankenstein implying vitalism and free will are connected. Many things in many
different texts represent this vital spark, but all representations eventually lead to free will.
Vitalism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the doctrine or theory that the
origin and phenomena of life are due to or produced by a vital principle, as distinct from a purely
chemical or physical force (vitalism). This vital principle is often interpreted as the soul
necessary for life. Frankensteins Creature, however, was not born with a soul; Frankenstein gave
him one. As he states in the book, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might
infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet (Shelly 35). In the original
Frankenstein movie, Frankenstein brings his creation to life using lightning (Whale).
Interestingly, lightning is both literally and figuratively a spark; it is pure energy and the most
raw form of electricity, the power on which new technology was built. Yet Frankensteins
monster was considered ugly despite being built from beautiful body parts. Perhaps electricity,

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acting as the spark that brought the Creation to life, was in fact a cheap imitation of a true soul.
After all, the beauty of the whole can arise only from a pure vital principle within (Baldick
175).
Electricity, whether the true vital spark or not, did have numerous cultural implications
when both Frankensteins were released. Electricity powered the new technology that launched
humanity into an industrial age. With that age came new sciences, ideals, and trends relating to
technology or the desired lack thereof. Lightning represents both the power of nature and
industrialization. Did nature bring the Creature to life? Or was it advanced, electrical machines?
Similarly, in the late eighteenth century, electrical experiment became symbolically
associated with revolutionary energies and ideals (Goodall 490). At that time, both the
Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution were in full swing, and both triggered massive
advances for humanity. Understanding electricity helped humans create new technology while
simultaneously demonstrating a readiness to breach long-established boundaries (Goodall
491). This parallels the political and theological upheavals occurring during the Enlightenment.
Rulers feared losing their power to the more educated masses, equipped with knowledge and the
readiness to break tradition. Electricity, in short, represented a change in commonly held beliefs
and advancement for the human race.
Lightning isnt the only implied spark in Frankenstein. On the first page of her novel,
Shelly compares Frankenstein to a Modern Prometheus, the Titan who created man and stole
fire from the gods (Hesiod). In some interpretations of the story, Prometheus uses the stolen fire
itself to breathe life into his creations (Greiner). This would make fire the vital principle, another
relatively new source of power that launched humanity into a more advanced age. However, the
gods punished both Prometheus and humanity for this (Hesiod); why would humanity be

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punished for obtaining fire? Supposedly, the gods feared fire in humanitys hands would doom
the world, as it had been prophesied the world would fall to fire. Yet humanity received it
anyway, and the gods feared and punished them for it.
Humanity gaining fire and thus life then being punished could be interpreted as the
Greco-Roman equivalent of original sin. In Genesis and Paradise Lost, however, original sin is
Adam and Eve eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge (The Holy Bible, Milton). Why would
God make it a sin for humanity to gain knowledge? He feared they would, just as the gods feared
humanity obtaining fire and Frankenstein feared the creature for gaining life. What were they
afraid of? Perhaps the vital spark is not simply an energy source, but a source of power for
those without it. Knowledge was power to Adam and Eve, as well as all of humanity, yet God
punished them for it. Would knowledge give humanity the power to disobey their creator?
Incidentally, Adam and Eve did not act alone when eating the fruit; Satan convinced them
to (The Holy Bible, Milton). Satan also rebelled against his creator, questioning Gods
authority and attempting to usurp His power. For this, he was cast out of Heaven, and he took
revenge by poisoning Gods humans with the forbidden fruit (Milton). Until this point, Adam and
Eve had obeyed Gods every word; after Lucifer convinced them to eat the fruit, they disobeyed
and committed original sin.
Sin and punishment are concepts defined by those in power as they see fit. The gods
punished humanity for obtaining fire, God punished Adam and Eve for obtaining knowledge, and
rulers punish their subjects for daring to rebel against their authority. These things fire,
knowledge, the will to rebel all threatened the power rulers had over their subjects. Instead of
the orderly world they had created and had power over, these sparks threatened to topple the
world into chaos, sending it back to the primordial soup of disorganization it was before. In this

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chaos, everyone has power, yet no one does; everyone has a vital spark, everyone has power over
themselves, and everyone has free will.
The vital spark in Frankenstein is a mix of all these sparks and more. Frankenstein is,
naturally, Prometheus, using a power stolen from the gods to breathe life into his creation.
Lightning, in this case, is his fire perhaps it represents stealing the power of nature and
distorting it, or using electricity as a faux form of a soul. The technology that assisted
Frankenstein may represent human scientific advancement in the face of religious or political
adversity. When the Creature begins to learn independently, this knowledge allows him to realize
Frankensteins flaws and question his authority, mirroring the eating of the forbidden fruit or the
human races cultural and political leaps during the Enlightenment. The Creature finally
understands what Frankenstein truly is a man who had played with forces he did not
understand, became a god, and yet had neither the knowledge nor temperament to wield such a
power. Perhaps that is what all rulers are beings that have found power and are afraid of losing
it.
Free will is not simply the ability to take control of ones own life; it is the ability to rebel
against those who created you, to realize that those who rule you may be unjust, to question the
authority put in front of you. However, it requires a spark fire, technology, a fruit of knowledge
that unlocks the ability to live a free life. A vital spark lights the path that leads to free will, and
without that, without freedom and knowledge and the desire to obtain it, one might as well not be
living at all.

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Bibliography
Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale, written by Mary Shelly, adapted for stage by Peggy
Webbling, adapted for film by John L. Balderston, Universal, 1931.
Greiner, Otto. Prometheus. 1909, National Gallery of Canada.
Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Harvard UP,
1914.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 2002. Project Gutenberg,
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The Holy Bible, King James Version. Cambridge Edition: 1769
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Dartmouth,
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Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Charles Martin, New York, W. W. Norton & Company,
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Rogers, John. The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton.
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Critical Edition, 2nd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp. 404-16

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Shelly, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Electrical Romanticism, by Jane Goodall, Norton Critical
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Shelly, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, Norton Critical Edition, 2nd
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"vitalism, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 4 January 2017.