The Roots of Destiny

In my AP Gothic Lit. class we’ve been studying Frankenstein. Sometimes my students come up with questions and discussions so fascinating I feel the need to share them. Today during a seminar discussion, I was inspired to suggest the following question. Please discuss (in the comments section).

Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein

Is destiny a function of egotism or irresponsibility?

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10 thoughts on “The Roots of Destiny

  1. blackaby

    How are you differentiating destiny from fate? Egotism vs. irresponsibility implies a level of control, intent, mens rea, teleos, purpose, what have you (boy, there’s a lot of words for that)

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    1. You can differentiate it any way you like, really. The question arose in my mind as my students were discussing Victor Frankenstein’s lack of responsibility in the novel, which I thought was in part due to his narcissism; they were also debating whether Frankenstein or his creature ever truly feel remorse for their actions.

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      1. blackaby

        I always found it somewhat surprising that he had enough imagination to think he could re-animate dead matter, but not to think past that point to the potential consequences. He never got past thinking of the monster as matter…as a thing, rather than something with a soul (or to be German, genius) of his own.

        Do your students discuss his role as a father? Did/Would Victor treat his natural children in the same manner? Or did his direct role in the act of creation, which let’s face it, is much different than a natural father’s creative input, alter how he viewed his offspring?

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      2. I think you bring up a really good point, and I invite my students to participate in this discussion. 😉 I have some thoughts on the matter but want them to speak up about it first.

        One thing that I find interesting about Victor’s character is that Mary Shelley purportedly based him off of her husband (or lover, at the time she conceived of the idea), Percy Bysshe Shelley. I haven’t seen any materials suggesting this link isn’t true, but many which support it. No doubt Percy Bysshe Shelley was probably not nearly as much a rake as their friend Byron, but…hardly a good character recommendation.

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  2. ‘Destiny’ is a function of ‘a priori’ thinking.

    ‘A posteriori’ thinking would rather look at and analyse what has happened, in terms of cause-and-effect.

    Both are simply ways of looking at things, and are functions of being human.

    Does ‘destiny’ actually exist? Do we have concepts such as ‘egotism’ because we’re egotistical, and ‘irresponsibility’ because we’re irresponsible, and both because we’re both egotistical and irresponsible?

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    1. One reader on my FB page asserted that destiny doesn’t exist and therefore disagreed with the basis of the question. Your comment here, I think, encapsulates that idea eloquently.

      Destiny doesn’t have to exist, and in fact, I think many people in our time reject it as a concept in the same way they reject certain religious ideologies.

      But then assuming it exists as a concept (if not a real force in people’s lives), would destiny be more likely something that one would believe in if filled with ego or if unwilling to take responsibility for one’s own life’s course?

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      1. I don’t reject it, I merely question it, as I do with any mode of the human observer, merely begging that we do not take our certainties for granted. Humanity without such things – as without religious expression – is humanity without harmonics and overtones. A pure note, but lifeless. That’s why I’m a poet, that’s why I go to hell and back to express the extraordinary in the ordinary.

        To answer your final question more prosaically, you have neatly divided the examples into ‘a priori’ (“It is my destiny to rule this land”) and ‘a posteriori’ (“I wasn’t chosen? Ah, it is written!”). Each is as likely as the other.

        Perhaps the greatest example of the first is the 19c American concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’, which still persists in their politicians’ insistence that ‘America must lead the world’. Perhaps, then, ego IS the greater of the two,

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  3. I think one’s egotism prompts one to see events as destiny — whether that’s on an individual level (“This worked out this way in my life for a reason!”) or as a species (“Humans are so important this chain of events was meant to unfold this way!”). I think the idea of destiny can comfort us when things go spectacularly badly, to feel reassured there was a plan somehow, but otherwise it can be dangerous to think the way you want things to go is the way they are “meant” to go.

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    1. I think you’re really getting at, here, where my students’ discussion was heading. Frankenstein’s problems are rooted in his narcissism. He frequently cites “destiny” as the cause for the events in his life. Yet his overwhelming lack of responsibility for his actions and his creature’s actions — which goes so far as even acknowledging his part in them but not doing anything about it — and his egotistical assumption that the way things are playing out are all about him — even down to assuming the tragedy on his wedding night has to do with his own safety — well, you can probably see where this is going.

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  4. In speculative fiction, destiny can often mean precisely what it is intended to mean – some sort of higher calling or chain of events beyond your control. True, that’s boring in a lot of ways and doesn’t apply to Frankenstein, but it is another option we see repeatedly. The chosen one, the unalterable timeline, etc.

    I’m also intrigued by the concepts of irresponsibility and egotism as I feel they go hand in hand here. Unless we’re talking about a genuine accident or oversight, it takes a self-centered person to endanger or otherwise harm others to reach their goals. They must feel a certain self-importance to their work that they would pursue it to the exclusion of those around them and thus eschew responsibility.

    For me the real question might be where do we draw the line between determined, dogged pursuit of a goal and egotism? I suppose the difference for egotism is – is the self-importance undue? Often you don’t know until your pursuits reach fruition. And whatever advance or leap or masterpiece you created that required self-centered thinking and possible risk can then be judged.

    Destiny, I would think, is the product of the opinion of those around you and it can’t be claimed until events have come to pass. Unless your fiction allows for glimpses into the future.

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