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The Fallen Angels: An Analysis of Religious Allusions in The Sorrows of Young Werther and Frankenstein

By Edited May 5, 2016 0 0


Religious allusions abound in both Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novella The Sorrows of Young Werther and Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In the former, religion is depicted through Werther’s love of nature and his suicide, while in the latter, religion is depicted through comparisons with Adam, Satan, and Prometheus. By vividly illustrating Werther and Victor’s descent into Hell, Goethe and Shelley warn of the danger of forsaking and betraying God.

In Frankenstein,Victor’s belief that he can emulate God by creating life results in his punishment by his demonic monster and ultimately his damnation. The monster compares Victor to God when he tells him “I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel” [3]. This reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost shows that instead of considering himself as the first member of a new race of men, the monster believes that he has much more in common with Satan, God’s antithesis. Although the monster exhibits some of Adam’s characteristics, such as asking his creator for a female companion, he repeatedly tells of his similarities with Satan. He explains that, like the Prince of Darkness, when he “viewed the bliss of [his] protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within [him]” [3]; even more strikingly he later states that “I like the arch-fiend bore a hell within me” [3]. Certainly his vicious murders of William, Clerval and Elizabeth as well as his cunning framing of Justine smack of Satan’s work. The monster’s choice of suicide method, self-immolation, also illustrates a closeness with the fires of Hell. Such a malevolent creation is part of Victor’s punishment for betraying God. In addition, Victor’s damnation in the after-life is symbolized by the Arctic landscape in which Walton’s ship is trapped. Dante’s Inferno describes the ninth and innermost circle of Hell, reserved for those who have committed betrayal, as a lake of ice in which the sinners are frozen [1].  The parallel Shelley draws between this symbolism and Walton’s high hopes for the “country of eternal light” [3] generalizes the pejorative portrayal of Victor to every Enlightenment thinker’s quest for scientific illumination. Lastly, the novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus,also highlights Victor’s betrayal and punishment. In Greek mythology, Prometheus created mankind out of clay yet he is better known for stealing fire from the gods, a theft that allowed mankind to progress but for which he was brutally punished. By creating his monster Victor managed to both “animate the lifeless clay” [3] and advance mankind at once. This overreach purloined an ability meant to remain divine and would cost him dearly.

  In The Sorrows of Young Werther, Werther’s lust for Charlotte replaces his love of God’s creations, resulting in his suicide and damnation. At the beginning of the novel Werther is absorbed by the beauty of nature, considered by the Romantics to be the work of God. Werther states that “[nature] alone is inexhaustible, and capable of forming the greatest masters” [2], thereby attributing his own talents and achievements to God. However, when he notices Charlotte and his lust for her begins to build to increasingly irrational levels, he forsakes God, instead preferring to sin by coveting his neighbor’s wife, a direct violation of the Tenth Commandment [4]. His heart is no longer “disposed to receive the benefits [of] Heaven” [2] and therefore he no longer possesses “the strength to support evil when it comes” [2]. In response to his sinning nature wilts; as the story progresses in Book 2 the season changes from summer to fall and then to winter, symbolising God’s disapproval. Werther too wilts as he turns from his faith; he writes that “as nature puts on her autumn tints it becomes autumn with me and around me. My leaves are sere and yellow” [2]. Wilhelm, observing this deleterious process unfold in the letters he receives, apparently encourages Werther to focus on religion; this suggestion can be inferred from Werther’s letter of Nov 15: “I thank you, Wilhelm, [...] for your excellent advice [...] I revere religion – you know I do” [2]. Yet this potential salvation is essentially ignored and Werther’s decline continues to the even graver sin of suicide, an act that violates the Sixth Commandment [4]. The fact that the book’s last sentence states that “no priest attended” [2] Werther’s funeral removes any doubt that he is damned.

Dante in Hell

Though both Werther and Victor committed unforgivable crimes against God, their crimes differ in both nature and degree. Out of lust for Charlotte, Werther is drawn away from God and forsakes Him, but recognizes this fact, writing that when nature’s “ beauties [...] are ineffectual to extract one tear of joy from my withered heart, I feel [...] like a reprobate before heaven” [2]. He continues to “drink deeply of the draught which is to prove my destruction” (66) while being tormented by the memories of “those bygone days [when he] waited with patience for the blessings of the Eternal, and received his gifts with the grateful feelings of a thankful heart” [2]. His helplessness is confirmed when Wilhelm offers him the possibility of redemption by suggesting that he turn to religion. In response, Werther claims that he is a “creature oppressed beyond all resource [...] about to plunge into inevitable destruction [due to] its inadequate strength” [2]. This weakness is what leads to his suicide, a sin which, according to Inferno, would place him in the seventh circle of Hell (lust alone is only a second circle crime) [1]. Goethe portrays Werther’s crime as a primarily passive one: he is lead astray by the alluring Charlotte and is helpless to save his soul by returning to his love of God’s creations.


On the other hand, Victor betrays God by creating life, and pursues this goal with an intense, unyielding zeal; he recalls that “a resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” [3]. Much like Werther he turns his back on God: his “eyes were insensible to the charms of nature” [3] and he does not “watch the blossom or the expanding leaves – sights which before always yielded [him] supreme delight” [3]. His health, like Werther’s, then begins to disintegrate: “every night [he] was oppressed by a slow fever” [3]. Most importantly, Victor does not recognize the horror of scouring graves or the disgusting form of his creation, rather he sees the inanimate body as beautiful up until the very moment he infuses it with life. Furthermore, when the monster gives his creator a chance at redemption by requesting a female companion, a request which, if granted, would transform the monster from Satan into Adam, Victor refuses irrationally, destroying his work “with a sensation of madness [...] and, trembling with passion” [3]. Contrary to Werther’s crime, Shelley portrays Victor’s as a highly active one; his hubristic creation of life and his obstinate refusal to remedy the situation, despite the murder of his friends and family, allow the monster’s wickedness and power to flourish. Victor is at last overtaken by his evil creation; at the end of the novel the monster kills him, completing his plunge into the deepest circle of Hell.

In conclusion, both Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus illustrate the dire consequences of violating God’s laws. Werther’s lust and Victor’s hubris lead them inexorably to damnation as their love of nature and their health are stripped away, exposing them to the torments of evil. By the end of their declines, beyond salvation, Hell welcomes them both, as it does for all men who forsake or betray God.

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  1. Dante Alighieri Inferno. New York: Norton, 2007.
  2. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe The Sorrows of Young Werther. Radford: Wilder Publications, 2008.
  3. Mary Shelly Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Buffalo: Broadview Press, 2012.
  4. "New International Version." Bible Gateway. 2/03/2014 <Web >

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