Keats on Frankenstein
At around the same time that Mary Shelley was writing her novel, Frankenstein (1818), John Keats was penning letters to his friends and family on the subjects of Imagination and Negative Capability. In particular, there is a profound association between chapters three through five of Frankenstein and Keats’ February 1818 letter to his brothers George and Thomas Keats. By looking at Keats’ views on the subjects of Imagination and Negative Capability and applying them to the creation of the monster in Shelley’s novel, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the novel, the two main characters, and their significance. The resulting conclusion is arguably one of irony: that is, Frankenstein’s monster is truly a monster only because that is how he is perceived by his creator.
Keats argued that “the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth”(Richter 336). Keats is claiming that art needs intensity brought forth by imagination to evoke sensations of Beauty and Truth in the work. It needs to incorporate all the creator’s depth of feeling and innate relationship with nature in order to be appreciated. However, to accomplish this, it must be endowed with the “identification and ‘greeting of the Spirit’ of its creator” (Bate 262). Yet this was not Victor’s purpose in creating the monster. He set off on a quest for new truth in the sciences, but he did so arrogantly, ignoring the necessity of projecting the very deepest of his spirit and feelings into his creation. His motivating thought is that “no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as [he] should deserve” his monster’s devotion (Shelley 39). His creation came forth with an egotistical desire for power and importance in mind, rather than a divine benevolence for his newly-created life-form. He bestowed none of the love he, himself, was raised with onto the creature. As Keats might have predicted, the creation became a mere “unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited in which to bury its repulsiveness” (Richter 336). Thus, when the monster came to life, it was only a repulsive being. For Frankenstein “the beauty of the dream vanished and breathless horror and disgust filled [his] heart”(Shelley 42). He created out of reason, with his mind dedicated to the science of his creation, failing to apply the real intensity of imagination and the depth of feeling necessary to help himself and others see the possibility of beauty in the new creation. For if the creator could not appreciate his work, it was unlikely that anyone else could either. That means Frankenstien, first, had to gain understanding of the creature’s imperfections and accept them. Because he was unable to do this, the monster seemed just that: monstrous.
It seems, therefore, that Frankenstein lacked an essential element: Negative Capability. Keats describes this concept as the point when a “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Richter 336). This acceptance of humility and imperfection is necessary to discover truth. However, Victor states that his “imagination was too much exalted by [his] first success to permit [him] to doubt of [his] ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man” (Shelley 38). Victor is unable to conceive of his own infallibility, so he is unable to accept it in his creation. It is “by grasping sympathetically the over-all significance of the object, [that] the ‘power or passion’ is able to cooperate… to go the full distance with its potentialities, omitting the irrelevant… and conceiving the object with its various qualities coalescing into the vital unity that is the object itself” (244). It is not truth that makes the object; it is the power, passion, and imagination put into the object that gives it significance. The significance is the resultant intensity, which makes the object one of Beauty and Truth. Keats suggests that this idealism comes to “those who delight in sensation rather than hunger… after Truth” (Bate 239). It is perhaps, Victor’s very quest for truth that caused his misery in the end. He sought merely to discover a new form of life, rather than to attain the “reconciliation or union of man and nature that constitutes knowledge” (238). It is Victor’s “irritable reaching after fact & reason” that denies him the possibility of seeing Beauty and real truth and knowledge in his own creation; he sees only horror.
So, in the end, Victor’s lack of empathy and connection with the monster
destroyed its “vital unity,” and the monster became the horror
Frankenstein first believed it to be, eventually destroying everything he loved.
Perhaps if Frankenstein had put more imagination than science into his creation,
he would have been better able to see it as a thing of beauty. In time, that
very end would have been a more lasting truth than the one he originally sought
out with his creation. Thus, Keats principles applied to this case prove their
accuracy as the events unfold in the novel.
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1963.
Richter, David H. ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin's. 1998.
Shelly, Mary W. Frankenstein. A Bantham Book with a forward by Diane Johnson, New York: Bantham Books. 1991.
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