Heroism generally has been associated with qualities such as courage, determination, self-sacrifice and risks taking. Heroes are known to have qualities beyond human capabilities hence are seen as superhuman: someone between God and human always referred to as a demigod.
Moreover, a hero is most of the time seen as reflecting the ideals of the community or a country and as a person who has performed a thing that other people have not achieved but they wish they had. Mostly, heroes are known to engage in extraordinary and unique actions. Heroes may be noticed while still alive or long after they have passed away. The way they conduct themselves is always perceived as a source of moral teachings or even institutional legends. However, it is recognized that heroism lies in the eyes of the beholder meaning that one person may view someone as a hero yet in the eyes of another that person may not be a hero. On the other hand, a villain is usually a character in a novel, film or in real life who is usually devoted to causing wickedness and heinous crimes in a novel, film or in the society. Some villains may have powers beyond human comprehension but they use them to cause havoc in the society hence very few, if any, would wish to emulate their wicked tendencies.
Thus even though they may engage in extraordinary and unique actions, the only thing that villains can inspire in the people in the society is to rise up and defeat such characters. Villains are like heroes, they may be alive or dead but their deeds are still noticed and institutionalized. Due to the thin line that separates a hero and a villain, many characters in the society and even in films or novels may be considered something in between. This is because their actions do not qualify as heroic or heinous. In the novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, Doctor Victor Frankenstein does ideally stand out as neither a hero nor a villain, he is something in between.
Some actions of Doctor Victor Frankenstein are heroic while some of his deeds are heinous. Even though he sets out to find and destroy the monster that he created, he knows that the challenge he is facing is much great. This is because the beast he created murdered his own brother William. It calls for courage that is only seen in heroes for a man like him to face such a creature so huge and that he himself confesses is frightful (Mary, 180 – 190). However, all these rage, confusion and fear of the monster would not have occurred if he had not abandoned the beast he created. Actually, the heroic courage that Doctor Frankenstein shows in his futile attempt to destroy the monster in greatly driven to exert revenge for the death of his brother. The courage that epitomizes heroes is not driven by feelings but is inborn. This is why heroes are born courageous, if not, the courage builds in them not from the urge to exert revenge but from the urge to defend the society from evil which makes them villain.
The heroic determination, self-sacrifice and risk taking of the doctor can be quite inspiring to many but understanding the reasons behind such show of heroism, one would conclude that Frankenstein is no hero but just a man out to correct the mistakes he made in his quest to form something unique. He studied and achieved his child dream while at the university. This is where he achieved his childhood dream of making a natural wonder by developing a secret technique to fill inanimate bodies with life. When he finally achieved this, the resulting creature became his worst enemy killing people close to him like his brother William, his wife Elizabeth Clerval, his brother’s nanny, Justine, and his father. After all the grief that his own creation gives him, he vows to pursue the monster until one of them finishes the other.
He is determined and risks his own life by facing a monster that the first time they met for a duel defeated him hands down. He even decides to stay outside and wait for the monster while his wife Elizabeth sleeps remains safe in the house. This shows how determined he was to kill the monster (Mary, 145 – 200). However all show of heroism is driven by the urge to correct his mistakes earlier. Heroes’ determination, self-sacrifice and risk taking tendencies are not driven by the urge to correct their mistakes but to protect the society.
Hence, he is just trying heroically to defend himself and the society at large from his own monster. All in all, Doctor Frankenstein may pass as a hero or a villain for that matter depending on the observer since the definition of a hero is ambiguous, it depends on each and every critic of the life and times of the doctor. Indeed the manner in which he tried correcting his mistakes was heroic; he showed superhuman courage, determination and self-sacrifice character that ought to be emulated by many.
However, the motive behind his actions were not born of a hero but of a man being remorseful for the mistakes he made by first creating a monster and then abandoning it. Moreover, the fact that he could fathom the idea of making a phantom; an extraordinary creature for no apparent reason makes him a villain.
Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text (Oxford World’s Classics). New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.