Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” is a seminal work of horror and science fiction; it is the story of an unorthodox act of creation, of a monster which torments his miserable creator. Through her story Shelly makes strong commentaries on a number of subjects, of which one of the most striking is a commentary on the nature of mankind. She puts forth the idea, and reinforces it through the development of the plot, that mankind is capable of both good and evil. Like mankind, Frankenstein’s creature is also demonstrated to be capable of both benignity and malignance; indeed, even the negative aspect of his character, shown through his quest for revenge, has a parallel in the actions of his human creator. Thus, through her commentary on mankind’s nature, Shelly demonstrates the ‘humanity’ of the creature; his actions and his nature are like those of mankind. With this in mind, an important recognition is formed: if the creature’s evil is exacerbated by the injustice brought upon him, perhaps he isn’t the monster in this story.
The creature’s story of observing a human family provides Shelly with the opportunity to comment upon the nature of mankind. It is through his observations and interactions with this family that Shelly demonstrates the positive and negative aspects of the human character, and the human capacity for both good and evil. The positive nature of mankind is illustrated by the actions of the two young cottagers, who “several times… placed food before the old man when they reserved none for themselves” (114). Their actions demonstrate the human capacity for selflessness and further illuminates the cottagers’ kindness. When the monster reflects on their actions, saying that, “this trait of kindness moved me sensibly” (114), it is shown that he identifies with and continues to be moved by such kindness in a positive way. The creature’s capacity for good is demonstrated by his positive perception of the cottagers’ good qualities; his positive association with these qualities are a reflection of them in his own character. Going further than just praising the cottagers’ good deeds, the creature demonstrates his own kindness by also stopping his consumption of the family’s food, for he sees that they are often left hungry, and beginning to take the family’s tools to cut wood for them. These actions are intended to help the family, and they thus illuminate the creature’s selflessness and desire to please. Indeed, he says himself that he thought “that it might be in my power to restore happiness to these deserving people” (117). Far from being a purely evil and malignant being bent on destruction, Frankenstein’s creature is shown to be a caring, selfless being who wants to bring happiness. His capacity for goodness is strongly illuminated.
The positive commentary on the goodness of mankind is further reinforced by the creature’s observations of the family. He hopes to reveal himself to them, saying that, “when I contemplated the virtues of the cottagers, their amiable and benevolent dispositions, I persuaded myself that when they should become acquainted with my admiration of their virtues, they would compassionate me and overlook my personal deformity” (133). The creature is commenting upon the ‘virtues’ of the cottagers, including their ‘amiable and benevolent dispositions’; through these comments on the characteristics of the cottagers, Shelly is further demonstrating the kind and good nature of mankind. The creature’s ‘admiration of their virtues’ also further illuminates the positive nature of the creature’s character, which again is reflected in him through his positive reaction to these good qualities. He hopes that his admiration of their virtues would elicit compassion in the cottagers and allow them to overlook his physical gruesomeness; he is counting upon the kindness and good nature of mankind to allow him to reveal himself. That he trusts in the good nature of mankind means that he perceives mankind as good, and his statements on the matter confer to the reader that same perception. However, the creature also begins to question mankind’s positive nature by asking “was man, indeed at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” (114). His readings present him with the idea that mankind is capable of both good and evil, benignity and malignance. By having the creature ask these questions, Shelly is putting forth the such an idea. She wants the creature, and the reader, to recognize that there exists a capacity for evil in mankind, despite their positive actions and traits which had been demonstrated throughout the creature’s story. The idea that mankind “appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived as noble and godlike” (114) is supported by the creature’s experiences with humanity through his interactions with the family.
The creature does not think that the family could turn away someone who “solicited their compassion and friendship” (133); as demonstrated earlier, he hopes that the good nature of mankind would allow them to accept him despite his form. However, when he finally reveals himself to the family they quickly reject and attack him. A “fatal prejudice clouds their eyes” (136) and causes them to mistreat a being who only wants companionship and kindness. The negative side of humanity is thus demonstrated; they act ‘vicious and base’ towards the creature for no reason other than his deformity. That they refuse to overlook the creature’s physical appearance despite the kindness of his character means that the creature was mistaken in his hope that they would show him compassion. By having the family fail to live up to creature’s expectations, which were formed around his faith in the goodness of man, Shelly is demonstrating that mankind’s kindness and goodness is indeed fallible. Like the creature, the reader’s faith in mankind’s goodness is shaken; humanity has demonstrated that it is not always capable of compassion and kindness. The family’s reaction to the creature allows Shelly to reinforce and bring credence to the idea that man could be ‘so virtuous and magnificent’ but also be ‘vicious and base’.
The creature desires companionship, and his misery is derived from his loneliness. He says that he “admired virtue and good feelings and loved the gentle manners and amiable qualities of my cottagers, but I was shut out from intercourse with them” (123). Quotes such as this demonstrate that, though he is also capable of the kindness in mankind’s character, he is unable to be a part of human society and thus unable to receive such kindness. Shelly makes it very clear that the creature’s greatest desire is companionship and positive interaction with mankind, and by doing so further illustrates the kind and compassionate aspects of his nature. He seeks friendship, not destruction. Yet the mistreatment he receives by the human brings out the negative aspects of the creature’s character; he asks “was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity ort assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies?” (138). He vows “ever-lasting war against the species” (138) and that his “sufferings were augmented also by the oppressive sense of the injustice and ingratitude of their infliction. My daily vows rose for revenge – a deep and deadly revenge, such as would alone compensate for the outrages and anguish I had endured” (143). This desire for revenge is what causes the creature to commit acts of murder and torment Frankenstein. Like with mankind, it is shown that the creature has the capacity for great evil, and indeed he carries out to the fullest his own ‘vicious and base’ actions. Of course, this comes in contrast to the positive aspects of his nature, which were illustrated and reinforced by his earlier praise for mankind.
It is in the actions of Victor Frankenstein that an important parallel is developed between mankind and the creature. Prior to his act of creation, Frankenstein experiences happiness and companionship with his family, with Elizabeth, and with his close friend Clerval. This is all lost when the creature, driven by his desire for revenge, kills those Frankenstein holds dear; recounting the pain caused by the creature’s actions, Frankenstein says that “a fiend had snatched from me every hope of future happiness: no creature had ever been so miserable as I was”(201). The isolation and desolation Frankenstein experiences prompts him “to pursue the daemon, who caused this misery, until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict. For this purpose I will preserve my life: to execute this dear revenge” (206). Thus, the negative and malignant side of Frankenstein’s character is illustrated by his desire to seek revenge against the creature. It is in this desire for revenge that a parallel is developed between Frankenstein and his creature. Both of them are initially of a good and kind nature but are driven to seek revenge, which in turn brings out the negative aspects of their nature, because they are left isolated, in misery, and feeling a sense of injustice. Their quest for revenge is in response to the evils which have been inflicted upon them.
The parallels between the nature of mankind and the nature of the creature, and the creature’s quest for revenge and Frankenstein’s quest for revenge, demonstrate that an extreme similarity exists between mankind and the creature. By having him be capable of both good and evil like mankind, by having his evil exacerbated through revenge like how it is in his human creator, and in that his quest for revenge comes from the same sense of injustice and misery that Frankenstein’s does, Shelly is demonstrating the ‘humanity’ of the creature. He is not a purely evil being bent on nothing but destruction, but rather a being capable of kindness and desiring companionship which is driven to evil because of injustice. He acts, and reacts, exactly like the humans of the story. With this in mind, an important recognition can be developed: if the monster is capable of good as well as evil, and thus isn’t a purely evil being, and if his quest for revenge is developed from a sense of injustice and misery, then perhaps he isn’t truly such a monster, or isn’t the monster of the story. After all, his evil is the same as that of his creator, as it came from their quests for revenge. Indeed, his evil is a reaction to the evil and injustice mankind inflicts upon him in the first place, despite his desire for companionship and kindness. If we do not consider Frankenstein a monster despite his evil quest for revenge, then can we consider the creature a monster too? After all, if he is driven to evil only after suffering it, as is the case with his creator, then perhaps the true monster in the story is the group which inflicts that evil in the first place: mankind.
Through the creature’s observations and interactions with mankind, Shelly develops a commentary on mankind’s capacity for both good and evil. They are capable of extraordinary kindness and compassion, as the family’s interactions demonstrate, but are also capable of ‘vicious and base’ evil, as shown by the way they mistreat the creature. The creature is also shown to be capable of both good and evil; the praise he gives to the humans for their positive actions and the charitable deeds he secretly commits for the family is a reflection of his own good and kind character, but the revenge he vows against mankind and the murders he commits are clearly a demonstration of the evil he is capable of as well. Of great importance is the parallel between Frankenstein’s actions and the actions of his creature; they are both driven to revenge because of evils committed against them. The similarity of the creature’s nature and of mankind’s nature is striking: they are both capable of good and evil and that evil is exacerbated by injustice committed against them, as seen in the case of the creature reacting to his isolation and rejection and Frankenstein in response to the murder of his friends and family. With this in mind, a new perspective on the actions and nature of the creature can be developed: it isn’t he who is the monster, for he is acting in response to injustice. Rather, that monster is mankind, which inflicts injustice in the first place and sets the evil of the story in motion.
Poor monster. He has a face not even a mother/ mad scientist could love… but at least it comes with a heart of gold. Or does it? We'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt—but, when it comes down to it, we'd be pulling out the mace and pressing the panic button on our cellphone if we saw him in a dark alley. So, let's start with the bad.
And it's really not pretty. Check out how Victor describes him:
His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (5.2)
Monstrous? We'll say. And when you take a closer look at this description, the real horror seems to be the contrast: flowing black hair and white teeth juxtaposed with his shriveled face and "straight black lips." We don't exactly blame Victor for running out the door, but we do have to point out that Victor has already revealed himself to put a little too much emphasis on appearance. (Check out his "Character Analysis" for more about that.)
Unfortunately, Victor isn't the only one who's terrified of the monster on sight. The sweet, gentle family he's been spying on in the forest falls to pieces when they see him: Agatha faints, Safie runs away, and Felix beats him with a stick (15.37). Not a good beginning. Even Walton, who knows the whole story, can't deal: "Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face," he says: "I shut my eyes involuntarily" (24.56).
Okay, so we've established that he's ugly. But we haven't established whether he's actually a monster—or whether he becomes a monster because "where they [i.e., all people everywhere] ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster" (15.26)
Heart of Gold?
When the monster describes himself, it's all sunshine and light. He has visions of "amiable and lovely creatures" keeping him company (15.11); he admires Agatha and Felix as "superior beings" (12.17); he describes himself as having "good dispositions" and tells De Lacey that "my life has been hitherto harmless and in some degree beneficial" (15.25); and he uses "extreme labour" to rescue a young girl from drowning" (16.19). But no matter what he does, his actions are always misinterpreted. Felix and Agatha think he's come to attack their father; the public assumes he's trying to murder the young girl instead of rescuing her; William Frankenstein assumes that he's going to kill him.
The moment he's accused of trying to murder the girl is a real turning point for the monster.
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. (16.19-20)
Essentially, Shelley seems to be saying that we (society) get the monsters we deserve. By neglecting and shunning people with socially unacceptable appearances or behaviors, we create mass murderers. (Hm, sounds surprisingly like an anti-bullying PSA.) If we accept the monster's word—that he was born good and made evil—then one of the book's major moral points is that we as a society have a responsibility to reach out to our outcast members.
In Victor's "Character Analysis," we suggested that Shelley wrote him based on the Romantic ideas of her husband and his friends: an individual who went beyond society's norms to bring enlightenment back to us poor mortals. And we saw how well that worked out for Victor. But what if we saw the monster as a Romantic figure, too? Check out his description of himself:
I was dependent on none and related to none. The path of my departure was free, and there was none to lament my annihilation. My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred. (15.5)
If you leave out the bit about the "hideous" person, this is a pitch-perfect description of a Romantic hero: a radically independent dude who won't let the man tell him what to do, a kind of superhero who sets out to solve the mysteries of life. (If you want to hear this theory with more $10 words, check out this 1964 article.)
And if you want more proof that Shelley may have intended the monster to be heroic, check out this description of his strength:
I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. (13.17)
Monster? Maybe. But if you closed your eyes, he'd sound a lot like a better version of humanity.
But being a superhero isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's lonely at the top, and not just because the monster is "shunned and hated by all mankind" (17.5). He's shunned and hated by all womankind, too: "Shall each man," he says, "find a wife for his bosom, and each beast have his mate, and I be alone?" (20.11). Even our cold hearts are touched by this plea. He begs Frankenstein to make him a mate, and he really seems sincere when he says that he's just planning to move to South America and eat "acorns and berries" (17.9).
(Quick Brain Snack: Percy Shelley advocated vegetarianism—and having the monster say that he does not "destroy the lamb and the kid to glut [his] appetite" (17.9) sounds a lot like he really is a superior form of human, doesn't it?)
Essentially, the monster has no community. Even Satan, he says, had fellow fallen angels—but the monster is totally alone. No wonder he has a death wish.
Adam or Satan?
If you're feeling pretty conflicted about the monster right now, that's because he's supposed to be essentially dualistic. Is he good or evil? Is he a lesser type of man, or a greater type of man? Is he Adam—or is he Satan?
The Adam/ Satan duality is super important, because one of the monster's favorite books is Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost, Milton suggests that Satan is jealous of Adam for having Eve and a sweet garden to live in. Sounds a lot like the monster, right? Sure. Unless we think of him as a better type of man, and as (along with Mrs. Monster) the founder of a new breed of ugly but heroic creatures. Look at the way he describes his plan for the future:
I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man and will ripen our food. (17.9)
Eating berries, living in the "wilds," sleeping in the leaves, not to mention being "created" rather than born: it sounds a lot like Book 5 of Paradise Lost. So, which is it?
Well, both. The whole point (we think) is that the monster is both. He's both good and bad. He's a little scientist, trying to figure out the secrets of life—and then setting fire to the ants he's been studying with a microscope. (Figuratively, folks.) He loves people, but he hates them. He wants to run away and live in the woods, and he just wants his mommy to love him. In other words, he's a lot like us.
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