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Thinking in Print: The Frankenstein We Forgot

Victor Frankenstein pays dearly for playing God in Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, and by the end he, his creation and his entire family are dead. Well, everyone except Ernest. The Frankenstein middle child is miraculously spared from the creature’s murderous rampage, but why? Did Shelley forget he existed, or does Ernest’s survival have a deeper meaning?

In the 1818 novel, Ernest is described as being “afflicted with ill health from infancy...and...incapable of any severe application.” His health improves as he matures, and while his later life is unknown, Elizabeth encouraging him to be a farmer in Chapter Five suggests he chose to work alongside nature growing crops — a sharp contrast to Victor, who rivaled nature by playing God. Thus, Ernest being spared is a narrative tool that shows a peaceful farm life is a better choice compared to controlling nature as Victor did. 

Yet, the 1831 version of Frankenstein does away with Ernest’s illness and instead gives him ambitions of being a soldier, which can be read as him choosing a valiant life protecting others or mercilessly slaughtering his fellow-creatures on the battlefield. Either way, the soldier life isn’t an obvious contrast to Victor like being a farmer is. Why then did the creature spare him?

Looking into Ernest’s handful of appearances, we see him welcoming Victor back from Ingolstadt in tears and explaining that William, their youngest brother, was murdered. He addresses his father as “Papa” while Victor uses the more formal “father,” painting Ernest as more childlike than Victor. Yet childish innocence didn’t save William from facing the creature’s wrath, so it hardly applies to Ernest too.

Victor does little to fill the reader in on Ernest’s reaction to the many murders within their family. After his father’s death, Victor is institutionalized and not freed until he comes to his senses. When Victor is released, he remarks that Ernest still lived before leaving home and chasing his creature until his death in the Arctic. While relating his tale to Walton, he gives no final words to send back to Ernest. No apologies or farewell. As far as we know, Ernest was left to rebuild the Frankenstein legacy without ever knowing why it was ruined in the first place. 

Perhaps the brothers had a falling out Victor never mentioned to Walton? Victor admits to bringing up his creature during fits of hysteria, so maybe he admitted his creation to Ernest and his brother didn’t believe him? Perhaps Ernest thought that Victor was crazy and was glad to be rid of him? After all, Ernest would have had to either orchestrate Victor being institutionalized or do nothing to stop it. 

Near the novel’s end, Victor was obsessed with avenging his dead family and suffered hallucinations, in which their ghosts encouraged him to press onward. Being dead, Victor had complete control of them in his head and could use their memory to justify his actions. But not Ernest. Ernest remained alive and actively suffering from Victor’s actions. Destroying his creature would avenge those murdered, but it wouldn’t change Ernest’s opinion of him. In that regard, leaving Ernest alive to feel the pain of Victor’s actions would forever be Victor’s burden to bear, and perhaps the creature’s greatest revenge of all.

Charlene Pepiot is a senior studying English at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Charlene know by emailing her, cp872117@ohio.edu.

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