One of the biggest, but most basic, misconceptions in literature is that Frankenstein = Frankenstein’s monster.
To clarify, Frankenstein (apart from being the title of the novel) is the surname of Victor Frankenstein, who happens to be the scientist responsible for creating a nameless monster – and regrets it for the rest of his life.
In my other post on tone, mood and atmosphere, I briefly touch on the context of this novel, specifically about the conditions that fertilised Mary Shelley’s imagination for this incredible, timeless work. I mention that Shelley wrote Frankenstein in a friendly ghost story writing challenge with her lover, Percy Shelley, and their acquaintances at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where they stayed in the summer of 1816.
Beyond the Gothic arras…
But a more zoomed out, thematic approach to this novel’s context is the tension between science and religion; specifically, in the 19th century’s overarching concern with whether science or faith provided the best way to understand the human condition.
On the scientific side, there were heated public debates between physicians about the link between body and soul, a lingering fascination with esoteric ideas like galvanism and physiognomy, and a pervasive climate of scientific interest which led up to the iconic publication of Darwin’s On the Origins of Species in 1859. Even in Frankenstein, Victor’s desire to understand “the principle of life” presages Darwinian efforts.
Yet looming over this intellectual zeitgeist was the constancy of religion. Before biology and chemistry came along, people relied on the Genesis story to explain the origins of the human species. God created Adam, then Eve, and their fall from grace marked the start of mortal manhood.
The best literary response to this narrative is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but Shelley’s Frankenstein offers its own, unique twist on this Creation tale. Instead of God creating a man who then goes on to sin at the egging of his female companion, we now have a man creating a monster who sins apparently because he has no female companion.
So, in a way, we’re led to re-evaluate Eve’s culpability in Adam’s fate – had there been no Eve to introduce Adam to the forbidden fruit, would Adam not have sinned on his own anyway, out of solitude and loneliness – like Frankenstein’s monster?
Perhaps one of the most rewarding angles we can take in our reading of this novel, then, is to examine the humanity of something deemed so monstrous and inhumane. Is Frankenstein’s monster really such a demonic character, or does Shelley intend for us to sympathise with this creature – who had never asked to be made in his state in the first place?
Let’s now consider 3 key ideas to understand the pathos in Shelley’s characterisation of the monster.
Key idea 1: Goodness is inherent; evil is acquired
The first idea we see from the monster is that goodness is inherent, whereas evil is acquired.
Perhaps there’s a hint of paternal influence here: William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father, was a political philosopher who believed in the perfectibility of human nature, and in man’s natural benevolence. The monster is a stripped-down projection of human essence, and when we hear his story, we realise that he wasn’t always an evil murderer of man. He is capable of kindness and generosity, as when he secretly cuts wood for the De Lacey family out of a compassionate wish to lighten their burden.
It’s only after continuous shunning from society and abuse from others – including Felix, the son in the De Lacey family, and a village rustic who shot him in the arm – that the monster is driven to anger and violence over his desperate situation. As when he exclaims –
This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound which shattered the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness which I had entertained but a few moments before gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth. Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind. But the agony of my wound overcame me; my pulses paused, and I fainted.
Notice the string of intense emotive diction here: “miserable pain”, “hellish rage”, “inflamed by pain”, “eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind”, “agony” etc. These words reflect that the monster is capable of great feeling, but what makes him more human than beast is his ability to reflect on the injustices of the world, and to ponder over the illogicality of his unjust treatment.
This sentiment is reinforced by the irony of the word “recompense”, which technically means reward but is here used ironically, because rather than being rightfully rewarded for saving the girl, he is punished instead with pain. There’s also multiple connotations to the repeated “pain” reference, as the monster suffers the physical pain of the wound, but more importantly, the emotional pain of cruel rejection and his inability to change the conditions which agonise him.
Another example of the monster’s inherent goodness is his refusal to retaliate when Felix De Lacey strikes him violently. As he recalls, he “could have torn him limb from limb, as the lion rends the antelope. But my heart sank within me as with bitter sickness, and I refrained.”
The analogy of the lion rending the antelope shows the monster’s capacity for animalistic brutality, but the fact that he refrained from hurting Felix is a sign that goodness and magnanimity do not necessarily come with civilised conditioning.
We see, then, that Shelley portrays the monster as an inherently good creature, and his later murders of William and Henry Clerval are a result of his goodness being continually repudiated by the humans around him.
Key idea 2: The difficulty and limits of empathy
One of the biggest questions posed by this novel is how far we can empathise with those who are radically different from us. Shelley explores this through the extreme juxtaposition of a man highly conditioned by civilisation (the scientist Frankenstein) and a monster completely removed from civilised conditioning.
Even with the monster being Frankenstein’s own creation, Frankenstein can’t really bring himself to understand the difficulties of being an ugly creature. It’s almost like a beautiful person can’t ever truly appreciate the challenges that ugly people face, or when people of one race – for all their good intentions – won’t ever fully understand the unique problems that those of another race may face in life. The reason for this inability is largely superficial: Frankenstein, and by extension, people in general, are prone to making judgments based on what they see on the surface.
When Frankenstein first sets eyes on the monster, his emphasis is on just how repulsive the monster looks, and this focus on appearance paralyses his ability to truly engage with his creation. As when he says –
I perceived, as the shape came nearer (sight tremendous and abhorred!) that it was the wretch whom I had created. I trembled with rage and horror, resolving to wait his approach and then close with him in mortal combat. He approached; his countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity, while its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes. But I scarcely observed this; rage and hatred had at first deprived me of utterance, and I recovered only to overwhelm him with words expressive of furious detestation and contempt.
The word “perceived” poses an ironic contrast to the parenthetical interjection “(sight tremendous and abhorred!)”: in fact, Frankenstein doesn’t really “perceive”, which requires conscious awareness and understanding. He simply ‘sees’ – as indicated by the word “sight” – but what he sees are all skin-deep.
Other examples of visual imagery include references to “its unearthly ugliness… too horrible for human eyes” and “I scarcely observed”, but they all serve to highlight a central irony, namely that physical sight does not lend true clarity, and no amount of 20/20 vision can compensate for a lack of insight.
We tend to be blinded by our visceral response to things, and by our natural bias against what we find aesthetically unpleasant. This is perhaps also why the old Mr De Lacey is the only character whom the monster can speak to without being judged – because he’s actually blind.
Key idea 3: The necessity of companionship and community
A primary cause for the monster’s monstrous behaviour is solitude. Specifically, social isolation.
Just as humans are social animals, so the monster needs companionship and community. He kills William and frames Justine as a reaction to the hurt he feels from being rejected by his own creator, shunned by the De Laceys, and attacked by the village rustic; and he murders Henry Clerval and frames Frankenstein as retaliation to Frankenstein’s refusal to grant him a female companion.
In the monster’s plea for “a creature of another sex”, we realise that he is an ‘incomplete Adam’, and the way to right his perversity is a basic human need – to have his own Eve. As he cries –
“I intended to reason. This passion is detrimental to me, for you do not reflect that you are the cause of its excess. If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them a hundred and a hundredfold; for that one creature’s sake I would make peace with the whole kind! But I now indulge in dreams of bliss that cannot be realised. What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself; the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me. It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless and free from the misery I now feel. Oh! My creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite the sympathy of some existing thing; do not deny me my request!”
Beneath the lofty rhetoric is a touching cry for help, and in his asking for “the sympathy of some existing thing”, Shelley activates her reader’s sympathy for an unlikely candidate of pathos, thereby fulfilling – beyond the page / diegetic realm – the monster’s request. The hyperbolic register of “I should return them a hundred and a hundredfold” and “I would make peace with the whole kind!” underscores the monster’s desperation and desire for kindness, which isn’t given to him because he looks grotesque.
Meanwhile, the measured, parallel syntax and preemptive phrasing in the monster’s speech (“I demand… but as hideous… but it is all…”, “It is true… but on that account”, “Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless…”, “let me feel gratitude… Let me see that I excite…”) reflect the monster to be a composed, reasonable character, despite the obvious emotional turmoil he feels within. All this adds to our sympathy for the monster, and in turn, casts Frankenstein in a comparatively unflattering light as a cruel architect of misery.
Interestingly, the monster’s ask of just one partner suggests that contentment doesn’t necessitate social acceptance from many, but the absence of any acceptance from fellow man could lead to a destructive psychology.
Given Mary Shelley’s elopement with Percy Shelley despite his marriage, there’s perhaps a hint of subliminal messaging here: as long as we find our true companion, the bond of a partnership is all that’s required.
It’s worth considering, too, that the monster has always sought the friendship of his creator, as suggested by his sorrow over Frankenstein’s dead body at the end of the book.
This again tells us that the monster is not, at his core, malicious, and that his murderous actions are but an unfortunate result of a shallow, unforgiving world.
Check out my other blog posts and videos on fiction below:
- How to analyse prose: reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’
- The problem of good and evil in ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’
- On marriage in fiction: reading Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ and L. P. Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’