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.
does-the-monster-have-a-name-The Monster's Timeline
Opposing forces abound in human nature; they conflict and compete for supremacy. Binaries such as good and evil, pleasure and pain, love and hate, success and failure, are common agents of dualism used by authors to highlight relevant social, cultural and political issues.
With this in mind, the next series of book reviews by Annette Ong will focus on the theme of dualism in literature, the first of which is perhaps the most famous of all dualist novels, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.
“I am thy creature. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous.”
I find it astounding that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just nineteen years old. There is no doubt the novel is a work of literary excellence. It is wonderfully written and well-deserving of all accolades. Unfortunately for Shelley, her career was overshadowed by her illustrious poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom many at the time regarded as the true author of Frankenstein – a telling reflection, perhaps, of the nineteenth century attitude towards women writers. Nonetheless, Mary Shelley’s novel is a masterpiece and set an impossibly high benchmark for gothic fiction.
The novel chronicles the woeful tale of Victor Frankenstein; a young, curious, ambitious and intelligent man on the cusp of great things. Beginning university to study science, he embarks on a journey of discovery that will ultimately lead to his ruin.
Victor’s creation becomes a diabolical monster: manipulative, evil and physically abhorrent. Simply referred to in the novel as “the fiend” or “the being”, he is cast from his master’s lab almost immediately after he was made, and left to fend for himself in an unforgiving world. He learns to speak and read from observing others. Living a lonely life; he exists on the margins, unseen by humans. Without sacrificing too much of the plot, “the fiend” embarks on a destructive course of evil brought on by harsh ostracism from those whom he desired as companions. Craving acceptance and love, he is denied at every turn. Victor, his creator, whom he refers to as his “master”, experiences the horror of his wrath as he exacts vengeance on Victor’s family and friends.
Shelley’s novel focuses on the dangers of opposing forces and the possible destructive consequences. Frankenstein’s monster is the result of specialised scientific discovery. By combining his knowledge and fervent ambition, Victor is powerful enough to give life. His experiment backfires and haunts him for the rest of his days. There is no comfort for Victor; he is crushed by the weight of guilt and remorse. His personal story comments on the greatness of science versus Christian morality. It begs the question, in the name of science, how far is too far? What are the consequences of playing God?
In “the fiend”, we see the conflict between good and evil. He imagined himself lovable, regardless of his detestable form. Sadly, he was wrong. Judged and excluded, his bitterness grew and violence becomes his way of life. He inflicts pain because he is in pain; however, this was not always the case. He once felt love, generosity and compassion. If he was not initially denied love, there would be no story to tell.
Mary Shelley has written a novel that leaves the reader questioning the capacity for good and evil in human nature. Although goodness reigns triumphant in the end, she allows “evil” a voice, a chance to state its reasons.
The novel is a tale of horror with all the hallmarks of exceptional gothic fiction. It is an intelligent and thought-provoking comment on science, duality, morality and human nature.