My wife and I were wanting to read a book for Halloween and decided to read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. For those of you who have never read the book, it is NOTHING like you might expect from seeing most of the movies supposedly based on the book. I highly recommend the book to those of you who have an interest in Gothic horror (though it is not that scary) and especially those who have an interest in the personal and social psychologies of evil. Please continue below the fold for further discussion (spoilers ahead).
Much of Mary Shelly’s novel was unexpected. The most unexpected for me was the nature of the “monster.” He was described as being hideous in form, though this was not elaborated at all. He was noted to have black lips and gray eyes. However he was imagined in the Mrs. Shelly’s mind, he was universally held to be so disturbing in form that one could not sustain one’s gaze at him. This much was not unexpected, but how different his behavior was! He was very intelligent. He had a great capacity for kindness, empathy, and self-sacrifice. He had great patience as he hid in his hovel and observed “his cottagers.” He had a desire to please and to ease the burdens of others. His strength and agility were superhuman. He was fast and nimble — able to leap and climb up ledges that no human could follow. Instead of some lumbering, poorly communicating giant, in the novel we see a superman — intelligent, feeling, kind, moral, eloquent, strong, cunning, and swift. If he had been handsome, he would have been a superhero, a leader of men. Instead, he was hideously ugly, but what difference does that make? Surely, such a superficial trait doesn’t matter that much, right?
The second most unexpected thing about the novel was how little of it was about the “monster.” Most of the book is about Victor Frankenstein himself. Victor was a man who seemed to have everything going for him. Handsome, rich, well-educated, surrounded and loved by family and friends, trained in the latest scientific and philosophical teachings, proud and self-assured, Victor was a Gothic Prometheus. In his pride, he grasped the power to be the giver of life, and in his human weakness he destroyed both his life and the life of his creation. As noted above, his creation was extraordinary. It was marred by only one superficial weakness. Yet Victor saw his “monster” as a horror. Similarly, all humans who saw the “monster” reacted with horror, disgust, and violence. Even those who had blessed him and received his good ministrations (“the cottagers” with the exception of the blind father), rejected him and drove him away on seeing him.
The heart of the story centers around the “monster’s” rejection by humanity despite all of his efforts to show his affections and kindness to others. Faced with rejection and violence, the “monster” grows in anger toward those who rejected him. He lives alone, and in his loneliness becomes angrier and angrier with Victor. Even so, he still searches for a way to live a meaningful life. He approaches Victor with an offer. If Victor will create a female for him, he will go into exile and live out his days estranged from all but the one creature who may accept him. Victor initially refuses but then accepts the proposal. As the years go by, the “monster” awaits his mate until one night he confronts Victor, who then fears that the monster will go back on his promised exile or will have offspring that will torment man and destroys the female he was creating. With this, the “monster’s” rage is released and the full scope of Victor’s curse is determined.
Who is the “monster” in this story? Certainly Frankenstein’s “monster” did many evil, violent deeds. Yet, at the end of the novel we see that he has suffered for his evil. All of his admirable qualities were overwhelmed by his anger, and his human kindness, empathy, moral sentiment, and lofty ideals were polluted by base, evil rage. On the other hand, Victor (along with the rest of humanity), treated the “monster” cruelly even while the “monster” treated them kindly. He gathered wood for “the cottagers” so that they would not be burdened by this along with their other work. Still, they drove him away and abandoned their cottage after they saw him. He saved a drowning child and was shot for his efforts. All he wanted was to be accepted and to have people he could love and who could love him. Victor (standing in for humanity in general) could not love, accept, or even trust his creation. Even after hearing about his creation’s efforts to find acceptance and his pain of loneliness, he could not bring himself to provide his creation comfort. Of course, Victor had his reasons. The “monster” had killed Victor’s brother (and would kill more family members over time). The “monster” could have lied about going into exile. The “monster” could have children who could oppress the humans. All of these could be good reasons not to help his creation, but by refusing he only heaped up fuel for the fiery anger than burned in the “monster’s” heart.
In one way, Frankenstein’s “monster” is monstrous in the novel. But in many, many ways, he is the most human (both for good and for ill). The humans on the other hand are very human in their anxiety, superficiality, and self-interest. In this way, they helped to create “monster.” I believe that Frankenstein is a novel made to convict us. I believe that Frankenstein’s “monster” was really the victim of this novel. Victor and humanity are the real monsters. And if we side with the fear, distrust, and rejection of others shown in the novel, we, too, are the monsters.