Compare and contrast the ways in which the writers of 'Frankenstein' and 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' encourage the reader to apportion blame for the crimes committed in the novels.

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Compare and contrast the ways in which the writers of Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray encourage the reader to apportion blame for the crimes committed in the novels.


        Throughout Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray, Mary Shelley and Oscar Wilde influence the way in which blame is apportioned to certain characters for the crimes committed in order to communicate the underlying themes and morals of the novels.  The apportioning of blame is necessary in both authors’ examination of the causes of criminal behaviour, particularly the common ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate.  Throughout the novels the authors question and criticise the motivations of their protagonists, contrasting the concept of an intrinsically evil being with one who is born innocent and later corrupted.  Both authors strive to expose the essential duplicity of existence: the concept of the shades of light and dark contained within humanity, but also of how the expectations and pressures of society can force a person to lead a double life.  It is particularly interesting to compare the characters of Frankenstein’s monster and Dorian Gray in light of this, as despite their obvious differences both are depicted as committing horrific crimes.

        Both authors link physical appearance to an assessment of character. The initial physical description contributes to how a reader would immediately respond to a character, and therefore how they would later apportion blame.  Dorian is described as ‘certainly handsome’ with ‘frank blue eyes’, ‘crisp gold hair’ and ‘something in his face that made one trust him at once’.  The use of such positive language is important in shaping a reader’s perceptions of Dorian, particularly with a lexical choice that implies honesty, openness and integrity.  Wilde’s contemporary audience would have appreciated the concept of physiognomy that is explored in The Picture of Dorian Gray: the concept that ‘sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face’.  Just as Wilde portrays Basil to be incapable of believing that Dorian has any ‘secret vices’ due to his ‘bright, innocent face and marvellous untroubled youth’, so the reader is led to believe that Dorian, at least at the beginning of the novel, is a true innocent, and can therefore not be entirely blamed for his later crimes: rather, the blame rests with his corruptors.

        Part of the initial response to the monster is formed by the narrative just prior to the awakening of the monster.  This is stilted and jumpy due to excessive punctuation and contains dark, bleak images, creating a tense atmosphere and already leading the reader to form a fearful and less sympathetic reaction to the monster – ‘It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out’.  This impression is furthered with the first physical descriptions: the monster is as different as possible from Dorian Gray, with ‘watery eyes’ set in ‘dun white sockets’, a ‘shrivelled complexion and straight black lips’.  If the same physiognomic criteria are applied as above, this negative description would imply that the monster should be blamed for his crimes, as his ugly soul is reflected in his ugly visage.  However, Shelley subverts reader expectation in continually juxtaposing negative and positive descriptions, including references to the monster’s ‘lustrous black’ hair and ‘teeth of pearly whiteness’; this contrast between ‘beauty’ and ‘disgust’ creates conflict in the reader’s mind, indicating that the character of the monster cannot be entirely to blame, but that there are shades of good and evil contained within him at this early stage.  Moreover, this conflict creates an insecurity in the mind of the reader, perhaps causing a questioning of initial judgements and stereotypes surrounding this character.  Interestingly, Shelley goes on to describe the monster as almost childlike, with ‘one hand stretched out’, muttering ‘inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks’.  Although the monster is not beautiful, he takes on all the innocent qualities of a baby at this juncture: like Dorian, he is portrayed as entirely naïve, and therefore entirely corruptible.

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        The structure of Shelley’s novel further serves to create doubt in the mind of the reader as to the truth of this initial description.  The use of the framed narrative structure means that the novel could be considered to contain three first person narrators, allowing different perspectives to be expressed.  Jane Bathard-Smith raises the point that Frankenstein’s narrative is ‘deeply biased’, and that the inclusion of the monster’s account gives the reader ‘the chance to respond to him directly, without being influenced by a manipulating intermediary’.  Certainly, the character of Frankenstein is shown to have a repulsion to his creation ...

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