In her most famous novel, FRANKENSTEIN; OR, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley imagines the voice of the doctor whose ambition and surgical skill drive him beyond medical research and into the realm of creation:
I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines . . . than an artist occupied by his favourite employment. . . . I became nervous to a most painful degree; the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellowcreatures as if I had been guilty of a crime.i
Since 1818, readers have sympathized with the ambition of “artist” Dr. Victor Frankenstein while recognizing that “his favourite employment,” designing a creature of his own, spirals into an obsession and costs the lives of those closest to him.ii Well over a century later in 1945, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote of an artist with a different obsession in “Leaf by Niggle.” On the surface, “Leaf by Niggle” seems a trivial story: it concerns not murder and vengeance but rather “a very ordinary and rather silly little man” who gets hardly a peaceful moment to devote to his life’s work, a mural of a giant tree.iii A paintbrush can hardly do the damage of a scalpel, but Niggle, too, risks elements of his humanity towards his “fellow-creatures.” Each character is ambitious, and each character’s ambition feeds his pride, misdirecting his talent, narrowing his vision to target a single selfish goal, and numbing his concern for how his actions affect others. Each takes a journey leading towards the resolution of his obsession, but in the end, only Niggle is saved. To find where their paths split, one must start with the vice that motivates them.
Anyone looking for the source of Frankenstein’s pride would do well to read his diary. He reflects on his childhood, saying, “I believed myself destined for some great enterprise. I deemed it criminal to throw away . . . those talents that might be useful to my fellow- creatures.”iv It is hardly a crime to be self-aware; Frankenstein, after all, grew up as one of the brightest students in Geneva and soon won recognition for his contributions to science. Nevertheless, his great mind, weaned on ambition, yearns for more once the doctor realizes the true scope of the scientific field. Frankenstein itches to exercise his superior intellect in the name of human advancement. Possessed by pride, he sets off on his own to conceive a brainchild that will in some unspecified way help others and in a far more definite way glorify the brain behind it.
Many would expect such a genius to be proud— Frankenstein is accomplishing wonders, after all—but what of an unknown painter? Niggle leads a simple life among simple people content with their chores and cottages and market runs, but he wants something more. “He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees,” writes Tolkien. “He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of dewdrops on its edges. Yet he wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.”v Like Frankenstein, Niggle does not broadcast his project, but unlike the doctor, Niggle is not waiting for a final reveal. His is an introspective pride, and he can do without external confirmation if he could just get this one painting right. Niggle “took a great deal of pains with leaves, just for their own sake. But he never thought that that made him important.”vi Perhaps he does not think himself important, but he certainly feels entitled to spend his time on the mural rather than on others. This town knows as well as any that stinginess with time is the hallmark of self-absorption.
Frankenstein, too, allows his project to consume attention that should belong to others. “My eyes were insensible to the charms of nature,” he writes later about the onset of his obsession. “The same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent.”vii In his youth, even in his busiest years of study, the doctor did not neglect his love for nature or forget his devoted family. As the project grows and demands more of his time, however, it reduces him to a shadow of his former self. Soon Frankenstein is at the mercy of his ambition, channeling his energies into one creation while ignoring the other—made up of human beings and the earth they inhabit—that he used to love above all else.
Perhaps Niggle once loved people, too. We only know that he starts off the story alone and as a bit of a crab, with “the sort of kind heart . . . [that] made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything, it did not prevent him from grumbling.”viii For the most part, he works like the other industrious villagers without complaint, but soon he becomes a recluse, hoarding his time for the mural and becoming reluctant to help those in need. Neighbors who come to the door are met by a man who is “thinking all the time about his big canvas, in the tall shed that had been built for it out in his garden (on a plot where once he had grown potatoes).”ix In a village of contributing citizens, Niggle is known for being the one who stands on a ladder not in the garden but before the living room wall, and for being the one who uses canvas and paint for art instead of house repair. As he becomes more and more possessive of his painting, he looks upon guests as intruders robbing him of time he must devote to the only thing that matters.
More important than Niggle’s civic and neighborly duties is “the journey.” Everyone prepares for this journey, though they do not decide when to leave; rather, someone comes to pick up the traveler, and he or she should have packed their belongings by then. Niggle, of course, procrastinates: “Now and again, he remembered his journey, and began to pack a few things in an ineffectual way: at such times he did not paint very much.”x Preparation for the journey counts as no more than another interruption of the ultimate task, the completion of the mural. He would much rather concentrate on how to shape his surroundings to conform to his individual vision. The journey is abstract, distant, and compliant with a will outside of his own. That Niggle ignores the journey proves his obsession is, in some ways, as rooted as Frankenstein’s; yet the respective obsessions of Niggle and Frankenstein differ in a key way.
Frankenstein’s pride in his own brilliance spurs him to create something out of nothing. No longer satisfied with his place in the universe as a partaker of creation, he seeks to become a creator himself and stand on the same plane as the Creator of the Universe—in the Christian worldview, God Himself. Frankenstein appears to succeed in his attempt at self-deification, animating a creature that begins life as benign and fiercely intelligent. But the monster that teaches itself to read in three languages and quotes Paradise Lost soon turns vengeful from lack of love, taking the lives of several innocent people and leading his maker into the Arctic for a final standoff. The fact that Frankenstein dies before he can destroy the monster emphasizes the futility of his ambition: the lesson is not that he or another should try again and avoid the same mistakes, but that no one should try at all. His project failed not because of faulty methodology or empirical imprecision, but because of egocentric motives. No one should play creator out of self-absorption or discontent with the state of the world.
Niggle, on the other hand, does not create for the sake of self-glorification but paints for the sake of creation. Unfortunately, he goes about it the wrong way, obsessing about how he can capture the essence of a leaf and placing great pride on his ability to do so. Still, he only wants to mirror the creation he sees. Though he becomes wrongly possessive of his replica, Niggle’s fixation reflects admiration for nature’s beauty. Consumed by a prideful desire for perfection, he does not manage to finish his tribute before he is whisked away on his journey. Luggage-less and pining after his mural, he boards a train and travels through a tunnel to a place where he is sentenced to centuries of menial labor (much like Frankenstein’s years spent figuratively “doomed by slavery to toil in the mines”).xi At last Niggle faces judgment by a jury of disembodied voices. One merciful voice defends him, noting how the artist grudgingly helped his neighbors when he wanted nothing more than to paint. The jury rules to release him, and Niggle walks into a beautiful field where he finds “the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch.”xii He is humbled by the Tree, a living creature he could never have created. Indeed, he fell short of imitating it in two dimensions. The Tree embodies what he tried so desperately to capture, and instead of rekindling pride in the painter’s imagination, it inspires admiration for the giver. As he wonders at its beauty Niggle exclaims of the Tree, “It’s a gift!”xiii Though he could neither acknowledge his own imperfections nor recognize a greater Creator without some sort of latent humility, Niggle has not earned this gift. He is saved because he knew at heart he was not creating for himself. The Bible abounds with references to God’s forgiving spirit, such as this excerpt from Titus: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”xiv Niggle knows his life does not merit redemption, but he accepts the gift through grace, knowing it will bloom in ways he could not have foreseen.
When we find in “Leaf by Niggle” that acceptance is the key to salvation, we realize that there is some hope for Frankenstein. In his last days of life, ravaged by sickness but still seeking the destruction of the monster, he feels his mind returning to the scenes of nature he once adored. An explorer who takes Frankenstein aboard his vessel observes of the ailing man, “Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seem still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth.”xv Perhaps a man so far gone down the tunnel of obsession, so eager to meet death and find an end to his suffering and guilt, might not see the remedy to his former pride. But perhaps this final thought means he has found something of the creator in the starry night sky.
i. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (London: Collins, 2010) 44.
ii. Shelley, 44
iii. J. R. R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966). 100-120) 102.
iv. Shelley, 189.
v. Tolkien, 100-101.
vii. Shelley, 43.
viii. Tolkien, 100.
ix. Tolkien, 101.
x. Tolkien, 100.
xi. Shelley, 44.
xii. Tolkien, 113.
xiii. Tolkien, 113.
xiv. Titus 3:5 (NIV).
xv. Shelley, 18.
Sandy Fox ’16 is from Washington, D.C. She is a Linguistics modified with German major.
art, beauty, grace, hope, J.R.R. Tolkien, literature, love, Mary Shelley, mercy, pride, salvation, science