Henry Clerval: Frankenstein's Better Half

"Can any man be to me as Clerval was...?" -Victor Frankenstein 

Henry Clerval is the closest friend of Victor Frankenstein and his double. Clerval’s presence in Frankenstein’s life as well as his character traits render him more lofty, idealized, effeminate and, as such, complementary to Frankenstein’s emotionally tumultuous, grim personage.

Throughout the course of the narrative, Frankenstein spends the greatest amount of time alone with Henry Clerval than any of the other characters. Clerval is with Frankenstein “constantly” throughout his childhood, both at school and during the afternoon, and though he cannot go with Frankenstein to Ingolstadt immediately, it is Clerval who visits Frankenstein while he is there, and then is confined with him, nursing him to health for “several months” (Shelley 23, 45). They later tour England together, until Victor decides to isolate himself again in Scotland (133). Clerval has the ability to restore Frankenstein, for it is Clerval who “calls forth the better feelings” of Victor’s heart (52).

Frankenstein describes Clerval in a very exalted manner, often describing Henry’s personality in contrast to his own, reinforcing Clerval’s role as Victor’s double. From the beginning, Clerval is elevated. Victor describes his friend as possessing “singular talent and fancy,” having a knack for the literary arts, as he from a very young age remembers acting plays “composed by him” (22-3). Clerval is a patron of the works of the “aerial poets,” a fanciful, youthful man with a “refined mind” who is Frankenstein’s “benefactor” or even his “beloved” (29, 144, 151). The doubling effect between the two friends is created by Victor’s mention of Clerval as “the image of” his “former self” (129). Yet the sameness is apparent in the expressions of difference between the two, also: “Alas, how great was the contrast between us! He was alive to every new scene; joyful” (125). Clerval is everything Victor praises and, thus, desires to be; Clerval, Frankenstein remarks, is apt at “expressing the sensations that filled [his] soul” (52). His friend expresses what he would feel more purely were he not hampered by gloomy circumstance.

Frankenstein’s relationship with Clerval is much deeper than his relationship with any other character in the novel. When Clerval is first mentioned as a participant in Frankenstein’s childhood, he remarks that he and Elizabeth “were never completely happy when Clerval was absent” (23). When Victor leaves for Ingolstadt, Clerval “bitterly” laments that he cannot accompany him, and up to this point Frankenstein makes little mention of Elizabeth without also mentioning Clerval, who he mentions is “constantly” with the couple (29, 23). Moreover, Frankenstein writes of the “mutual affection” that makes him sensitive to the “slightest desire” of his companions, Clerval included. And though Frankenstein is fixed on marriage to Elizabeth by his mother’s dying wish, the consummation of that wish will kill Elizabeth; and although he claims not to perceive the threat of death toward Elizabeth, he still puts her in the danger of the monster’s wrath by marrying her. He is definitely conscious of the threat when he remarks: “I will consecrate myself, in life or death, to the happiness of my cousin” (156). Elizabeth’s comparative worth to Clerval finally diminishes when Frankenstein remarks to his father, after his friend’s death, that: “some destiny of the most horrible kind hangs over me, and I must live to fulfil it, or surely I should have died on the coffin of Henry” (148). His horrible destiny is not to happily wed his cousin, but to kill the monster. His esteem and love for Henry outweigh that which he feels towards Elizabeth.

The homosocial relationship that exists between Victor and Henry belies the narrative providing an alternative to the static, bland, uninspired relationship between Frankenstein and Lavenza. As far as Shelley has provided evidence, no man or woman can be to Victor as Clerval is.