The Power of a Name…
by David Allen Lea
What exactly is a name? A name seems like such a simple thing, a mere label designed to identify a person. Names are so much more, though. Names contain the very essence of who a person is. A person’s name when spoken aloud, may cause people to smile. A person’s name, when spoken aloud, may cause people to shiver in fear. Names can arouse many different emotions in many different people. The names chosen by writers play an important role in their work and how people react towards the characters found within it. A perfect example of a work in which the character’s names play an important role in creating who they are is in Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein. The names chosen by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein nearly perfectly empower and embody the characters upon which they reside to portray the timeless theme that pride comes before a fall. Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, The Monster, Alphonse Frankenstein, and Henry Clerval all have names that generate deep resonating emotions when heard by those who have read Frankenstein. These names have served as beacons of light to readers throughout the decades since Frankenstein’s 1818 publication. Each name contains its own story and also a valuable lesson from which all who read Frankenstein can learn.
The first character that readers come upon in Frankenstein is Robert Walton. Robert is an inquisitive explorer aspiring to explore the furthermost reaches of the Arctic Circle. Robert states his desire to explore the unexplored realms of the Arctic Circle: "What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?" (Shelley 1). This inquisitive nature found within this explorer brings Robert and his crew near the brink of destruction. Robert is an old English name that means "bright or shining with fame" (Rule 216-217). This name perfectly embodies Robert Walton’s spirit to explore the unknown and lay siege upon the claim that he was the first to venture into new regions not yet explored by men before him. Mary Shelley uses Robert Walton as Victor Frankenstein’s foil. Robert sees through Victor Frankenstein’s story of prideful exploration into the unknown that his own journey is vain. Near certain death and destruction are averted as Robert gives orders to his crew to return home. Robert, "bright and shining with fame," decides that the cost for his heart’s prideful desires is a price that he is not willing to pay.
Young, ambitious, reckless, sorrowful, these are all words that describe a man destroyed by his pride; this man is Victor Frankenstein. Victor is a Latin name that means "conqueror" (Rule 238). Victor Frankenstein’s pursuit is to conquer the unknown realms of science and lay claim to the fact that he was first to arrive there. Victor states his desire to claim the unknown realms of science when he says:
So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation." (Shelley 33)
A hideous creature known as "The Monster" is birthed from Victor Frankenstein’s prideful endeavor into the unknown. Victor finds himself trapped in an emotional quagmire every time that he encounters his creation. "Frankenstein openly acknowledges that the most he can feel toward his creation is a fleeting sense of ‘compassion’ and a temporary urge to ‘console’ him, impulses which are quickly overwhelmed by disgust, ‘horror,’ and ‘hatred’" (Hustis 848). Victor’s "Monster," along with himself and others, is led down a dark spiraling path of pain and misery. Victor does conquer a realm of the unknown; however, Victor later regrets having paid such as hefty price for his claim to this new territory of natural science. Success costs Victor his wife, his father, his friends, his emotional stability, and in the end his own life. Just as the old proverb states, Victor Frankenstein falls into pride and in the end takes the fall for it.
Going through life without a name, is this possible? No, it is not possible. Sooner or later a label will be placed upon a person. A name is a descriptive device used to identify who an individual is. Victor Frankenstein creates a nameless creation; however, it does not take long for this creature to attain the label of "The Monster," and a few other select names. "Frankenstein and the other humans variously call it monster, fiend, daemon, and devil" (Brown 153). This label remains far from the creature’s true nature, though. Victor’s aborted creation possesses a heart of purity and good will toward others. "The Monster’s" desire to love and help others can be seen in "The Monster’s" desire to help young Felix when "The Monster" says:
I found that the youth spent a great part of each day in collecting wood for the family fire, and during the night I often took his tools, the use of which I quickly discovered, and brought home firing sufficient for the consumption of several days." (Shelley 99)
Abandonment and repeated rejection taint the beautiful heart of Victor’s externally ugly creation. Bitterness, hatred, and pain eventually take full control of this tortured being. "Throughout the novel there is a strong sense of an Edenic world lost through Frankenstein's single-minded thirst for knowledge" (Teuber). "The Monster" perfectly describes "The Monster’s" outside appearance, and in the end near perfectly explains the inner nature of the creature. While very bitter and enraged, the creature still possesses a small glimmer of the loving being that it once was. The pride of Victor, "the conqueror," Frankenstein leads ultimately to the downfall of this creature and its once-tender heart.
Pride: It is amazing how quickly it can corrupt even the lives of the innocent. One such innocent victim is a man by the name of Alphonse Frankenstein. Alphonse is an old French name that means "noble and ready" (Rule 127). "Noble and ready" is such a perfect description of Victor Frankenstein’s father. Alphonse is a man who is always ready to help out those who are in need. Alphonse Frankenstein’s nobility and readiness are most powerfully seen through his never-ending quest to uplift the spirits of his disheveled son Victor. Victor Frankenstein speaks of his father’s attempts to uplift his spirits when he says:
My father observed with pain the alteration perceptible in my disposition and habits and endeavored by arguments deduced from the feelings of his serene conscience and guiltless life to inspire me with fortitude and awaken in me the courage to dispel the dark cloud which brooded over me." (Shelley 77-78)
There is an old saying stating that actions speak louder than words. This old saying is very true of Alphonse and his love for Victor. If Alphonse were never to tell Victor "I love you," it would still be evident through his actions towards Victor. Sadly, Victor’s prideful ways ultimately lead to the death of Alphonse Frankenstein. "He [Alphonse Frankenstein] dies of an apoplectic fit, brought on by grief shortly after learning of Elizabeth’s murder" (Randel 474). Overcome with grief and despair, Alphonse Frankenstein passes away, leaving yet another casualty due to Victor’s prideful experimentation with the unknown.
Finally, we examine the name of Henry Clerval. Henry Clerval is one of Frankenstein’s sanest characters. Henry is not filled with prideful ambitions, nor is he a selfish gentleman. Selfless, faithful, pure, kind, loving, would all be adjectives that could be used to describe the young Henry Clerval. Henry is an old German name that means "Ruler of a home, or private property" (Rule 181). If one were to refer to Henry Clerval’s mind, body, and soul as his "home," then they would be perfectly correct in saying that Henry is the ruler of his home. Unlike his best friend Victor, Henry is able to keep his desires, wants, and his body under control. This control that Henry possesses is exactly the kind of control that Victor Frankenstein is in need of. Henry Clerval constantly keeps Victor in check throughout the entire novel by keeping a positive outlook on life. Victor expounds upon Henry Clerval’s state of mind when he states:
Alas, how great was the contrast between us! He was alive to every new scene, joyful when he saw the beauties of the setting sun, and more happy when he beheld it rise and recommence a new day. He pointed out to me the shifting colours of the landscape and the appearances of the sky. "This is what it is to live," he cried; "how I enjoy existence! But you, my dear Frankenstein, wherefore are you desponding and sorrowful!" (Shelley 143)
As with Victor’s father, Alphonse Frankenstein, Henry Clerval is destroyed by the devices of Victor Frankenstein’s prideful and reckless endeavor into the depths of the unknown.
For thousands of years, it has been understood and acknowledged that pride comes before a fall. In 1818, Mary Shelley welcomed millions of readers into her microcosmic world called Frankenstein, so that people could see this timeless truth realized before their very eyes. Masterfully chosen names, attributes, and characteristics are intricately woven together to portray Shelley’s horrific portrait of pride and how it can affect the lives of all who lie within its destructive grasp. For nearly one hundred and eighty six years, Frankenstein has remained a strong reminder to the human race of our own destructive qualities; only time will tell if Frankenstein’s immortal message will continue to resonate with the many generations to come.
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Forum on Fiction 36.2 (Spring 2003):
Hustis, Harriet. "Responsible Creativity and the 'Modernity' of Mary
Shelley's Prometheus." Studies
Randel, Fred V. "The Political Geography of Horror in Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein." ELH: Journal
Rule, Lareina. Name Your Baby: Origins, Meanings, Nicknames,
Famous Namesakes, PLUS A
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. 1818. Lackington, Eng.: Bantam, 2003.
Teuber, Andreas. Mary Shelley Biography. 13 Nov. 2004<
David Allen Lea, at the time of this writing a sophomore majoring in Early Childhood Education, wrote "The Power of a Name" for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class during fall 2004 semester. Mr. Lea is also a member of Phi Theta Kappa and Welcome Hill Baptist Church.