Torture in Frankenstein

Here I will attempt a formalist approach to Frankenstein by examining the theme of torture throughout the text. Though “torture” is often used metaphorically by Frankenstein as he describes his sufferings, it first appears in an almost literal sense near the beginning of his story when he asks, “Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I…tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?” (81). This reference to the practice of vivisection is historically accurate; dissecting an animal while alive to observe how its organs function was a common practice in England at the time by those interested in physiology (see the article linked below). Yet the fact that Frankenstein uses the term “torture” rather than vivisection suggests it is not a morally neutral scientific pursuit. Perhaps he has projected this moral realization from his present self back onto his past, or perhaps he realized that vivisection was wrong even at the time. The latter seems more likely, since he mentions a sense of “horror” even as he conducts his experiments.  The comparison between “living animal” and “lifeless clay” convey also a sense of waste: that which has value is destroyed to benefit a worthless cause.

A prolonged irony of Frankenstein is that the title character’s torture of animals is reciprocated by a metaphorical torture of his own. Every time he describes his own suffering with that term it hearkens us back to its first use in describing his own behavior, creating if not a sense of justice, at least a structural pattern and a sense of reciprocity. For instance, when Justine is at trial Victor says, “During the whole of this wretched mockery of justice, I suffered living torture” (103).  Notice that the term “living” is, strictly speaking, redundant–something must be living to be tortured. But it is not truly redundant, because through its emphasis on the living status of the recipient of the torture, it recalls Victor’s vivisection earlier in the narrative.

Victor uses the term “torture” metaphorically four or so more times throughout the text as the primary metaphor for his continual suffering.He includes several other forms of torture besides vivisection–Victor compares the task of collecting materials for the wretch’s mate with “the torture of single drops of water continually falling upon the head” (168) and his repeated shocks at the loss of family to “the turning of the wheel” which “continually renewed the torture” (183). Yet he is haunted by his initial torture of animals through live dissection. He reports that “sometimes a kind of insanity possessed me…” and “I saw continually about me a multitude of filthy animals inflicting on me incessant torture, that often extorted screams and bitter groans” (160). In this nightmare the role of torturer and tortured is reversed from the beginning of the story, creating symmetry within the narrative and deepening the irony that now Victor must endure the suffering he once inflicted.

The use of the adjective “filthy” in the above quotation is interesting; why are the animals he imagines filthy? It recalls his earlier description of his laboratory as “my workshop of filthy creation” (81).  It also recalls his creature, who is described as “the filthy daemon” (99) and “the filthy mass that moved and talked” (158). The creatures of his nightmare are filthy because his own creature is filthy. Indeed, Victor’s fear of torture seems closely related to his creature. He says “no torture shall ever extort consent from me” to make a mate for the creature, and quickly reiterates that “you may torture me, but I will never consent” (156).  The creature is the means by which Victor’s torture is inflicted.

One might interpret these mentions of torture as evidence of a preoccupation on the part of the main character rather than of the text itself. Yet it is not his preoccupation alone; many other characters in the text mention it. For instance, Elizabeth says that “when one creature is murdered, another is immediately deprived of life in a slow torturing manner…” (108). The wretch says that when Felix thought of his father and sister wasting away in jail, “this idea was torture to him” (140). The theme of torture is not related to Victor alone, but is rather a larger theme that permeates the story. It even appears in the conclusion, when the wretch tells Walton that he will “ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames” (221).

So, what are we to make of this theme of torture? A biographical critic might look for clues in Shelley’s life. Perhaps the theme of torture reflects the debate on vivisection prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, or indirectly reflects Percey Shelley’s vegetarianism and concern for animals (see second source for discussion).

However, as formalists we will disregard these biographical contexts and instead look for intratextual sources of meaning. We might first comment on how the theme of torture contributes to the form of the novel, permeating the narrative and providing a unifying image which repeats itself throughout the story.  We might say the variety of the appearances of torture–as vivisection, hyperbolic metaphor, and nightmare–contributes to the variety of the work’s local texture. We can also point out a central irony: Victor’s punishment for torture is to be tortured himself.

However, this irony carries with it a tension between justice and injustice. Torture is the evil for which Victor is punished, but it is also his punishment. How can justice accomplish its purpose by reciprocating the evil it fights against? This leads to several followup questions. Are we allowed to relish Victor’s torture, if we believe he deserves punishment because he inflicted torture? Is the creature’s torture of his maker justified, if he seeks to punish his maker for his own suffering? These questions would be interesting to a moral or philosophical critic; for our purposes we will only note that they create a tension sustained through the novel to its end, contributing to its semi-classical tragic form.


Dissecting the Living: Vivisection in Early Modern England
Frankenstein’s Science: Experimentation and Discovery in Romantic Culture, 1780–1830


2 thoughts on “Torture in Frankenstein”

  1. Power here in bringing together all these textual invocations of torture—physical and mental, literal and metaphorical. In fact, that might be one of the great issues (a moral issue, a literary issue, and an ideological issue) raised by torture in this novel: how should we assess the competing claims about physical and mental torture—about physical violence and mental suffering? We might think of Victor assuring us that he suffers more than poor, doomed, Justine, or of the creature telling us about all his sufferings, and going out and killing quite innocent people.

    If Romanticism claims that emotional sensitivity gives you a special entry into discourse, the structure of the novel, in which three male characters complain about and compare their suffering while others die painfully, are executed for crimes they didn’t commit, threaten mutiny because they’re frightened for their lives) seems to test out this claim. Torturous, or at least tortuous (the words share a word root) indeed.

    1. Symmetry, reciprocity, the contours of rationality and justice. Oh my! Quite a resonating account.

      Does the fact that injustice can be employed toward just ends undermine the concept of justice? I don’t see that problem – especially since you seem to have already established a give-and-take relativism in the pattern of justice. No?

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