Difficulties associated with defining the origins and the effects of evil in human nature have constantly been a source of contention among authors. Adhering to a Christian belief in original sin, St. Augustine of Hippo characterizes evil as a disease that consistently infects humans. Mary Shelley, whose views are a product of 18th and 19th century Romanticism, also asserts that man cannot escape the effects of evil. Instead of attributing evil to original sin, however, Shelley expresses the sentiment that evil dwells in the external world and inevitably corrupts humanity’s innocence. Augustine’s Confessions and Shelley’s Frankenstein demonstrate a common belief that when men leave desires for love and achievement unguarded against obsession, evil perverts pure motives and produces destructive consequences.
A desire for benefitting from Augustine’s potential for monetary success causes his father to offer advice that is a detriment to his son’s spiritual well-being. Reflecting on his sixteenth year of life, Augustine admits to having warring passions for love and lust raging inside of him. Augustine’s recognition of the dangers that stem from allowing lustful desires to remain and increase prompts him to seek the guidance of his father. Monetary gain, not Augustine’s spiritual state, is at the forefront of his father’s priorities: “But this same father did not care what character before you I was developing . . . so long as I possessed a cultured tongue-though my culture really meant a desert uncultivated by you, God” (26). Viewing these priorities through Augustine’s central doctrines of evil shows their skewed nature. G.R. Evans summarizes the disorienting effects of evil as seen in the Augustinian framework by contesting:
Everything Augustine has to say about evil must be read in the light of one central principal: that the effect of evil upon the mind is to make it impossible for the sinner to think clearly, and especially to understand higher spiritual truths and abstract ideas. (29)
A disconnect arises, therefore, between wanting to cultivate intellect without concern for the spirit. Augustine’s father fails to realize that man can only achieve his highest intellectual capabilities by setting his mind primarily on God.
Without a proper view of affection, Augustine’s search for love leads him to an entangling obsession with lust that inhibits his vision of God’s glory and his ability for conversion. Augustine’s self-awareness of the destructive nature his desires have is striking. Instead of representing sexuality as a fulfilling pursuit, Augustine calls himself a prisoner of the physical actions he commits: “To a large extent what held me captive and tortured me was the habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire” (107). Augustine is an addict of sexual pleasure and cannot will himself to break free from its hold. In his review of Augustine’s stance concerning sexuality, Mathijs Lamberigts concludes, “His Confessions reveal, moreover, that he was aware of an interior conflict: the human person is capable of controlling his or her body, but not his or her self” (182). Even though Augustine understands the nature of his battle with sin, until he correctly orders his affections, evil passions continue to increase.
Augustine’s unsuppressed desires for affection surpass the physical bounds of lust and infect all aspects of his life until he cannot even enjoy simple pleasures. Striving to gain the praise of others by capitalizing on his intellectual aptitude, Augustine relocates from Carthage to Rome. James J. O’Donnell classifies this move as a quest for “Academic prestige, the emptiest of glories . . . a matter of reputation rather than reality; Rome had a reputation stretching back for centuries” (5). When Rome fails to satisfy Augustine’s desire for academic acclaim shortly after the move, ambition drives him to take a position at the imperial court in Milan. Augustine cringes while travelling to deliver a panegyric for Valentinian II that he has laced with lies to gain greater societal standing. Observing a drunken beggar sitting alongside the road allows Augustine to see the cost of his pursuit. Upon seeing the man enjoy the “carefree cheerfulness” of alcohol, Augustine assesses, “True joy he had not. But my quest to fulfill my ambitions was much falser” (97). Augustine views his situation of striving for success as absurd but cannot simply come down from his carriage, drink, and be content. Instead, prestige tethers him to his position, and he chooses to decline the happiness of relaxation for the anxiety of ambition.
Augustine believes that the only antidote through which humans can combat the sinful desires that lead to unfulfilling obsession is a surrender of the will to God. Commenting on Augustine’s tenets of human sinfulness, Lyell Asher asserts, “Pleasure becomes sinful, says Augustine, only when we gravitate more . . . downward toward creations rather than upward toward the creator” (238). In a rhetorical assertion of his dependence on God, Augustine proclaims, “Without you, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?” (52). Filled with frustration stemming from his bondage to sin, Augustine descends to a state of spiritual emptiness. Augustine is only able to experience full spiritual transformation through despair. While still lamenting his frailty, Augustine retreats to a garden in Milan with his closest friend Alypius. Augustine leaves Alypius for a time of solitude and hears a child’s voice calling out “pick up and read” (152). Taking this to be a sign from God, Augustine returns to a bench near Alypius, opens a Bible, reads Paul’s exhortation to the Romans not to engage in immorality, and instantaneously converts. Augustine admits to slipping into sin when his affections waver after conversion, but he proclaims freedom from sinful obsession by offering his soul to the Lord for steadfast guidance.
Robert Walton’s pursuit of the North Pole in Frankenstein, like Augustine’s quest for love, at first appears to be a worthy endeavor, but passion for exploration consumes him and obscures his vision of reality. In the initial letter he addresses to his sister Margaret, Walton seeks to ensure her of his safety and inform her of the expedition’s progress. Even though Walton has dreamt of reaching the Arctic Circle since childhood, he is uncertain of his goals’ worth. He writes, “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight . . . what may not be expected in a country of eternal light?”(Shelley 5-6). Fervent expectation of the incomprehensible distorts Walton’s thinking. Commenting on the progression of Walton’s passion, Arthur Patterson asserts, “As his ambition grew . . . his goal became an Arctic grail quest, his scientific voyage became a spiritual pilgrimage by which he sought to transform the mundane into the miraculous” (91). Walton’s childhood fascination with voyaging evolves into an obsessive experiment in exploration that offers an enticing reward of glory but ultimately leads to self-destruction.
Walton tragically remains steadfast in his resolve to reach the Arctic Circle, which deprives him of the ability to create lasting relationships. Although Walton believes that his intellectual capabilities can provide him with a life of wealth and tranquility, he refuses the lure of luxury. Walton’s ability to forfeit a life of probable ease for potential glory is admirable, but his inability to create lasting relationships in the midst of obsession is troubling. Unable to foster friendships at sea, Walton grieves, “I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine . . . I bitterly feel the want of a friend” (10-11). Friendship, therefore, is the second grail that eludes Walton. As Walton understands, his pursuit of earth’s end requires all of his energy and extracts him from the “common pathways of men” (14).
Originally intending to eradicate death by creating what eventually becomes the monster, Victor Frankenstein’s motives for scientific experimentation are deceptively pure. While still feeling the sting of his mother’s death, Frankenstein commences his creative work and defends his efforts as attempts to eliminate the “elemental foes of our race” (24). Commenting on Victor’s defense, Mary Poovey notes, “To the young scholar, this energy seems well directed, for Frankenstein assumes that his ambition to conquer death through science is fundamentally unselfish” (85). Problems do not arise simply because Frankenstein desires to destroy disease but because he becomes obsessive with reaching the goal. He lives with a singular focus that does not allow him to take pleasure in life. Furthermore, the comments of Frankenstein’s professor Waldman convince him that “The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind” (54). The blessing this man of science offers Frankenstein gives him assurance to pursue the self-destructive curse of creating the monster.
Passionate in his creation of a being that will transcend the bounds of humanity, Victor tragically neglects friendship-an element essential to his own humanity. The close relationship that Walton yearns for during his exploration is the same type of bond that Victor has achieved with his adopted sister Elizabeth. Victor describes the tie he shared with Elizabeth before his endeavors commenced as the epitome of a proper friendship: “Harmony was the soul of our companionship, and the diversity and contrast that subsisted in our characters drew us nearer together” (36). A relationship that forms stronger bonds in the midst of disagreement rises above the elemental evil of pride. The relationship proves powerless, however, against Victor’s scientific obsession and disengagement. Recognizing the numbing effects of his work, Victor mourns, “I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (62). David Ketterer notices the tendency of ambitious men to neglect relationships and comments, “Frankenstein, like many artists and scientists, becomes involved in his work to the extent that the external world of nature and human relationships loses its influence” (34). Victor’s scientific obsession and neglect of his closest friend not only deprives him of basic human emotional needs but also damages the lives of others.
The monster’s violence kills those closest to Victor and demonstrates that one man’s misguided obsession can corrupt the lives of many and leave the obsessed without hope. When Victor refuses to care for him, the monster unleashes his brutal force. In seeking to remove disease from earth, Frankenstein is aware that he “render[s] man invulnerable to any but a violent death” (42). Ironically, the monster uses the violence for which Victor could not account against his creator. Victor’s young brother William represents the idealized innocent child of romanticism and dies beneath the monster’s crushing force. After hearing news of his brother’s death, Victor cries out, “To die so miserably; to feel the murderer’s grasp! How much more a murderer that could destroy radiant innocence!” (90). Victor’s final speech before his own death at the monster’s hands is one of exhortation to Walton. He has recounted the course of his demented desire and concludes, “Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (296). In this admonition, Victor creates a case for the possibility that even the most innocent of pursuits can give birth to inconceivable corruption. The seemingly pure desires for love and achievement that drive Augustine, Walton, and Frankenstein’s actions prove tragic when unguarded determination transforms into obsession and perverts the will. Although Augustine and Shelley differ in their beliefs concerning the origins of sin, their agreement on two of its properties provides readers with useful warnings. Both posit that evil inevitably affects all of humanity to varying degrees. In addition, they agree that the extent to which evil can corrupt is dependent on human action. Either man can pursue his misguided ambitions and experience the corruption of evil or he can surrender his will and reap a life of tranquility.
Asher, Lyell. “The Dangerous Fruit of Augustine’s ‘Confessions.'” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66.2 (1998): 227-255. JSTOR. Grove City College Lib., Grove City. 15 November 2008 .
Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Evans, G.R. Augustine on Evil. Great Britain: University of Cambridge Press, 1993.
Ketterer, David. “Thematic anatomy: intrinsic structures.” Blooms Major Literary Characters: Frankenstein. Ed. Harold Bloom. Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004. 33-54.
Lamberigts, Mathijs. “A critical evaluation of critiques of Augustine’s view of sexuality.” Augustine and His Critics. Eds. Robert Dodaro and George Lawless. London: Routledge, 2000. 176-197.
O’Donnell, James J. “Augustine the African.” Grove City College Class Handout. .
Patterson, Arthur P. “Frankenstein’s Self-Centeredness Leads Inevitably to Self-Destruction.” Readings on Frankenstein. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: The Greenhaven Press, 2000. 90-99.
Poovey, Mary. “‘My Hideous Progeny’: The Lady and the Monster.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 81-106.Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: Random House, Inc, 1993.