existentialism: jean paul sartre

an opportunity to explore philosophy through dr. victor frankenstein

prometheus homepage

about this site 

letter the fourth

chapter the fourth

images of the creature

poetry explication: thomas moore

contemporary authorship: m. a. lamb

shelley's letters 

minor character analysis

modern adaptations: walt and warhol 

a review of a review 

works cited


MAN simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. 

Existentialism is a Humanism

 Jean Paul Sartre

the full text


          this first premise of existentialism anchors one of the most pivotal works in 20th century french philosophy. written by sartre in the mid-1940s, a time which parallels shelley's frankenstein in terms of revolution and uncertainty, the essay outlines the belief that humans are entirely responsible for their own actions, and that there is no external agent acting on behalf of humankind, individually or as a collective. as sartre explains, this condition places a tremendous weight on every human and his choices, resulting in anguish, despair, and forlornness (translated as 'abandonment' in this particular version).

          after the creature was assembled and animated, victor notes his disparate feelings: 

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I has deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and the breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room...unable to compose my mind to sleep...this was the commencement of a nervous fever, which confined me for several months. (volume i: chapter four)

          this piteous display by a previously astonishing man of science is perhaps the most perfect example of the reality of anguish in shelley's text. it had been a dream of frankenstein's to regenerate dead tissue, a feat that would undoubtedly foster both selfish and altruistic gains. the difference between victor's excitement before his creation and his devastation after illustrates extreme disappointment, but that diagnosis is not complete: "disgust filled my heart" and "breathless horror" are not sentiments that indicate that he was merely let down. further, victor relates that it takes him several months to quell the feeling that arises in him with the creature's animation, but for the rest of the novel, he is unable to wrest control of his own life; or, more precisely, because he is so callow and impotent, he does not recover from the event in a way that allows him to make the decisions necessary to destroy the creature.  

          if the creature's existence is the physicalization of frankenstein's ambitious pursuit, then victor is experiencing sartrean anguish: "When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility" (Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre). given this context, it is irresponsible of victor to succumb to this anguish after he acts, because anguish is a condition--not a result--of action. in other words, victor's problem is not that he feels ashamed or scared or frustrated after he builds his creature and unleashes it; the problem is that he fails to recognize that his actions may have tremendous implications for all of humankind, and that he is never affected by the anguish that necessarily results by way of this burden of consequence. as sartre notes, any major decision should be preceded by the thought:  

Everything happens to every man as though the whole human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct accordingly. So every man ought to say, 'Am I really a man who has the right to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do.' [...] Now it is anguish of that kind which existentialism describes, and moreover, as we shall see, makes explicit through direct responsibility towards other men who are concerned. Far from being a screen which could separate us from action, it is a condition of action itself.