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In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the definition of the monstrous is both entirely obvious and entirely ambiguous. Frankenstein’s creation, often dubbed ‘Frankenstein’s monster,’ is at once both innocent and murderous; corrupted and corrupting. The discrepancy between the different aspects of his nature can be read in the very definition of the word monster as it has developed over time. The definition of ‘monster’ is “Originally: a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance. Later, more generally: an imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening” (OED). This definition is particularly apt in studying the monstrous in Frankenstein, as it demonstrates the extent to which the creature labeled a ‘monster’ is construed to be something morally and physically disturbing because of its combination of elements from numerous animal forms.
Being “of great size and ferocious appearance” alone would not constitute cause for moral connotations about the creature, and yet the present monstrosity also encompasses fear. It is this fear that ultimately makes the creature a monster, rather than his appearance or any innate moral compass. This essay will seek to demonstrate how Frankenstein’s creature is used to explore morality through his creation and animation, his namelessness, loneliness, and death. Finally, it will examine possible connections between Shelley’s characterization of Frankenstein and the creature, as the two are inextricably linked—not only by their relationship as creator and created, but also according to their logic, their desires, and the consequences of each of their choices throughout the novel.
Firstly, the way in which Frankenstein assembles his creature is a substantial and significant part of the novel and should be closely examined. Frankenstein’s own life is put entirely on hold while he obsesses over the dark and mysterious discovery that he has made. After he makes his discovery about the creation of life, Frankenstein says, “Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate lifeless clay?” (Shelley, 46). The phrase, “the horrors of my secret toil” heavily emphasizes Frankenstein’s isolation and obsession, as he put himself under such immense stress with the scientific project that he frequently became ill. The secrecy of his project also shows how he cut himself off from his family and friends, not even writing home or attempting any social activity or life outside of his own study.
In this, he loses sight of humanity, and as such he loses sight of beauty. This results in the utterly fragmented identity of his creation. At the moment of its animation, Frankenstein says, “How can I… delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God” (60). Despite Victor’s greatest efforts to create something beautiful, it is clear that he focused too much on the task at hand, and upon each individual part of his appearance, rather than on the holistic nature of his creation. Victor has essentially focused more on the scientific side of his creation than upon his responsibility, as its creator, to also endow a sense of humanity. The creature is not only comprised of corpses, but of animal parts, and while he has taken care to ensure that “His limbs were in proportion,” he has entirely ignored the importance of the body as a whole, which is made up of parts that do not match. As such, he has created a monster. This foreshadows the way in which Victor, by focusing solely on the scientific endeavor and not its results, essentially causes the creature to become the monster that he perceives it to be. This will be further discussed with regards to the effects of loneliness on both Frankenstein and his creature.
Another important aspect of the Frankenstein’s act of creation is that it encompasses both birth and death in one terrifying spectacle. As Frankenstein has not been able to manufacture a body himself, he has instead relied wholly on taking various body parts from both animal and human corpses in order to piece a body together. This means that while the body is comprised of the dead, it is also the birthplace of new life. The irony of this is not lost upon the narrating Frankenstein, seen in the previous quote: “I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay” (46). The culmination of both death and life in this strange creature is another aspect of its fragmented identity.
Throughout Shelley’s Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s so-called monster is given a slew of insulting and hateful names. These are given to him by the villagers who chase him away, and more notably, by Frankenstein himself. The creature is never ascribed a name, instead being referred to as “creature,” “fiend,” “spectre,” “demon,” “wretch,” “devil,” “thing,” “being,” and “ogre” (Baldick). The lack of a name given to the creature does not only demonstrate that Frankenstein does not consider him human, though much criticism offers perspectives on this. It is true that it shows the dehumanization of the creature by its creator, but this also forces any critics or readers to similarly dehumanize the creature in discussion of him. By denying him a name, it is impossible for any essay or discussion to fully embrace the human and highly intelligent aspects granted to the creature. The repetition of these abstract and possibly overreaching terms emphasizes a lack of identity that is by no means manifest in Shelley’s characterization of the creature. The creature has a distinct personality and development arc throughout the novel, and yet is never referred to inhuman or personal terms.
This informs much of the reader’s perspective of the creature, both inciting sympathy and becoming an obstacle to relation to it. Names such as these, especially those such as “devil,” also have broad moral connotations. While the creature may be truly “monstrous” in appearance, being comprised of so many and such various parts, large and apparently frightening, nothing of his character or morality can be derived before Frankenstein has already effectively dubbed him as evil.
This heavy emphasis on appearances as contributory to perceived morality acts in stark contrast to the way in which Elizabeth’s character is first introduced. Victor’s parents adopt Elizabeth entirely because she is physically beautiful. Frankenstein narrates, “They consulted their village priest, and the result was that Elizabeth Lavenza became the inmate of my parents’ house—my more than sister—the beautiful and adored companion of all my occupations and my pleasures” (4). Frankenstein also comments that “Everyone loved Elizabeth” (5). In this way, appearance and perceived character are inextricably linked, and while this works in Elizabeth’s favor, in the case of Frankenstein’s creation it means that he is instantly perceived to be inherently evil because of his outward appearance. While horrific, this appearance is the fault of Frankenstein himself and reflects more on his own ideas of beauty and the necessity of scientific progress than it reflects on the genuine character of the creature himself. It is only through this presentation of his character that the creature is perceived to be, and eventually becomes a monster in the later sense of being “large, ugly, and terrifying” (OED), as he could otherwise have been simply defined in terms of size and the variety of his body parts.
These, as well as other factors, ultimately contribute to the corruption of Frankenstein’s monster. While many critics suggest that his immorality may indeed have been somehow innate, it is far more convincing to study Shelley’s Frankenstein as a presentation of how nurture is more important to the development of character that nature. The creature is first abandoned at birth, then chased away by the only people he comes into any kind of contact with—people he comes to trust, and, in a way, love—and finally denied the chance at companionship. He is ultimately alone, the only creature of his kind in existence, and hated and feared by all humanity. While Frankenstein understandably did not have the power to alter the opinions and perceptions of others, he nonetheless had ample opportunity in which to take responsibility for his creation and to teach it morality and show it companionship and love. It is only when these opportunities are repeatedly forsaken than the creature becomes, morally speaking, a monster. The creature himself argues this point, pointing out, “No mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses,” and saying to Victor, “I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam but I am rather the fallen angel… I was benevolent and good, misery made me a friend… what hope can I gather from your fellow creature… they spurn and hate me” (78). Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the creature’s character that is being highlighted here is that he is so completely aware of what he lacks, and how he is different. He is aware that he lacked a mother, who may well have provided his education, unconditional love, and companionship. Similarly, he has read Paradise Lost, which provides a detailed analysis of what it means to be loved by one’s creator and be given a companion. God loves Adam despite his sin and provides him with Eve as a wife and partner, which are both denied him by his own creator, Frankenstein.
The creature’s initial abandonment by Frankenstein is shortly afterward followed by his rejection from the family he learns to love. After the creature leaves Frankenstein’s apartments, he wanders in the woods until he eventually comes across a family upon whom he can spy and learn from. From these people, he learns not only how to communicate, but how to relate to other people. With them, he begins to form some semblance of a life of routine and safety: he is safely hidden and knows that he is in no danger and able to provide for himself, and works out a life for himself around the family’s routine. By watching them, the creature eventually begins to feel as though he is a part of this family. He also begins to feel this because he has been long providing for them, leaving them firewood that he collects in order to show his gratitude for being able to share in their life and home, even if they are not aware of his presence. It is precisely because of this connection that the monster feels so utterly betrayed by their rejection. His response to the rejection of this family is initially to rail at Frankenstein, saying, “Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed?” (176). This quotation shows that the creature has a conscience, and is able to regret his actions. He blames Frankenstein for creating him, as well as for abandoning him, and the fact that he describes the act of creation as “wanton” shows that he does not believe it was a just or wholesome use of science.
Continuing to reflect on the rejection that he faced at the hands of this family, the monster then recalls, “I continued for the remainder of the day in my hovel in a state of utter and stupid despair. My protectors had departed and had broken the only link that held me to the world. For the first time, the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom” (178). The creature’s utter despondency shows his deep emotional connection to the family. In a sense, because he was never raised by a parent or creator, the family had become like a parental, guiding figure to him, showing how to coexist with others and how to live in a way that Frankenstein had so completely neglected. This is highlighted by his calling them “protectors,” as this word implies an active role of protection. However, the family had not even been aware of the monster’s existence while acting as his protectors, and this shows both the extent of the creature’s desperation for companionship and the pain of rejection by those he hoped would continue to protect him.
This is a milestone moment in the development of the monster as a truly monstrous character, as his appearance frightens the family and villagers to the extent that they chase him away. They believe him to be dangerous, and therefore morally corrupt, despite the fact that he is, in reality, extremely young and impressionable. Their fear of him inspires the creature to become something he can be sure of a monster. “This then was the reward of my benevolence! …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” (179). This passage shows the final transition of the creature from innocent, desperate new-born, to a dejected creature seeking to cause pain and enact revenge. However, this transition was not necessarily permanent, as the creature still asks for the chance to begin anew, and offers to show mercy and become benevolent once more, should Frankenstein create for him a companion. The creature proposes that Frankenstein embark on this new project of creation, saying, “If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them a hundred-fold… I would make peace with the whole kind” (119). This shows that just as the creature has been willing to punish all of humanity for the crimes of his creator, he would also be willing to forgive “the whole kind” if one human were to show him kindness—even if only under extreme duress.
Despite the crimes and wrongdoings of Frankenstein’s monster, it is very problematic to characterize him simply as a monster in the moral sense. While his aspect is clearly repulsive, his physical manifestation is by no means reflective of personality, until he is treated as though it must be. Indeed, Lancaster observes that “Frankenstein’s Monster represents a less threatening version of the social outsider… because the Monster’s identity disconnects him from humanity” (133-34). This suggests a total reversal of conventional depictions of monstrosity, as the creature is presented as a sympathetic character, rather than as inherently evil.
Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s shadow: myth, monstrosity, and nineteenth-century writing. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Lancaster, Ashley. “From Frankenstein’s Monster to Lester Ballard: The Evolving Gothic Monster.” The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, 2008, pp.132-148.
“Monster.” Oxford English Dictionary. Accessed online at www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/121738.Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 2nd ed. New York: WW Norton & Co, 2011.