The Meaning and Origin of ‘I Ought to Be thy Adam; but I Am Rather the Fallen Angel’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of a famous quotation from a classic work of Gothic literature

Here’s a question for you. What is the name of the ‘monster’ in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein?

a) Frankenstein
b) He doesn’t have one
c) Adam

The correct answer is b), and (at a push) possibly c), but never a). Frankenstein, of course, is the name of the creator of the ‘monster’: Victor Frankenstein is a student (not a medical doctor, so not ‘Dr Frankenstein’ strictly) who undertakes to create a living, breathing being from the various body parts he finds, animating it with life through various scientific experiments.

(Note another oft-repeated fallacy: in the book, he doesn’t use electricity. Although Shelley knew about galvanism, she did not utilise this in the book.)

Even the term ‘monster’ has been frowned upon for some time, given its negative connotations of the obscene and the menacing. So the word ‘Creature’ has supplanted it in many instances. In his introduction to a recent Oxford World’s Classics edition of Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein: or Frankenstein: or `The Modern Prometheus’: The 1818 Text (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection), Nick Groom has made the case for another term: Being.

Technically, the being whom Frankenstein creates doesn’t have a name as such, but there’s a telling passage which reveals much about both how he views himself, as well as the influences on Shelley’s novel:

Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

‘I ought to be thy Adam’: the Creature is referring to the Creation story from the Book of Genesis, but a few chapters later he will tell us how he discovered a portmanteau or case within the woods, which contained several books. One of these books is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic retelling of the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

To the Biblical account, Milton adds lots of background, so that Satan, who disguises himself as a serpent to tempt Eve to defy God and eat the forbidden fruit, was once an angel in heaven until he was expelled by God. So there are two ‘falls’ in Paradise Lost, with one fall (Satan, the ‘fallen angel’) precipitating the second (Adam and Eve). And the Creature quickly seizes upon the parallels between his own situation and that of Adam, the first man, in Milton’s epic poem.

And clearly, in referring to the ‘fallen angel’ in contrast to ‘Adam’ (‘I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy’), the Creature is alluding not to the Bible but to Milton. The Creature tells Frankenstein about how much Milton’s poem affected him:

But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect.

So although the Creature identifies with Adam, the only similarity he can identify between him and Milton’s Adam, aside from their shared status as a created ‘first man’, is their alienation from all other beings. But Adam is isolated because he is, at least at first, the only human being in the world; the Creature, who sees other human beings as his kin, is isolated in spite of the fact that he is not the only human being in the world.

Of course, his origins are somewhat different from those of other humans, but the key point which Shelley underscores throughout Frankenstein is that it is not the Creature’s difference which alienates him from other people, but Frankenstein’s shunning of his creation. The Creature is alone, a second Adam, not by default but by design, or rather by negligence.

He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

In the Book of Genesis, God nurtured Adam and was conscious of not leaving him on his own without ‘help meet’ (Genesis 2:18-20). He creates the beasts of the field and fowls of the air (in Genesis 2, contrary to what chapter 1 appears to imply, God created animals after he had made man), and called upon Adam to name them. And then, of course, God created Eve from Adam’s rib so he would have human company. But where, the Creature asks his creator, is his Eve?

But it was all a dream; no Eve soothed my sorrows nor shared my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him.

Frankenstein does agree to create a female mate for the Creature, but then he destroys the female creature in disgust, further igniting the Creature’s anger.

‘I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy’: this quotation neatly explains why the Creature turns into the ‘monster’ he becomes. In all of these references to Adam, the Creature is likening himself to the Biblical first man, rather than claiming this as his name.

And ‘ought’ is the key word: the Creature cannot rightly claim himself as a second Adam, because Frankenstein has failed to play his role as God, nurturing him and finding him companionship. Instead, he has become Satan: another fallen angel. Frankenstein is Paradise Lost brought down to earth.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

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