The Monstrous In Frankenstein


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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or; The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818, is a product of its time. Written in a world of social, political, scientific and economic upheaval it highlights human desire to uncover the scientific secrets of our universe, yet also confirms the importance of emotions and individual relationships that define us as human, in contrast to the monstrous. Here we question what is meant by the terms ‘human’ and ‘monstrous’ as defined by the novel. Yet to fully understand how Frankenstein defines these terms we must look to the etymology of them. The novel however, defines the terms through its main characters, through the themes of language, nature versus nurture, forbidden knowledge, and the doppelganger motif. Shelley also shows us, in Frankenstein, that although juxtaposing terms, the monstrous being everything human is not, they are also intertwined, in that you can not have one without the other. There is also an overwhelming desire to know the monstrous, if only temporarily and this calls into question the influence the monstrous has on the human definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes ‘human’ as being ‘Of, belonging to, or characteristic of mankind, distinguished from animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright posture.’ (OED). The term ‘monstrous’ is described as ‘The condition or fact of being abnormally developed or grossly malformed.’ (OED) Yet, we as humans define ourselves not just on biological terms but socially and spiritually too. In Frankenstein the Monster, who by his very label and beginnings implies a perfect example of monstrosity is, in fact, articulate and erect yet is still not considered human in the traditional sense. It is his eventual spiritual and social malformation that fully defines him as monstrous.

Even as language plays a huge part in the definition of human, as taken from the OED, the narration, and thus language, in Frankenstein also helps to define the terms ‘monstrous’ and ‘human’. As the monster discovered, language is intertwined with culture (Brooks 594). He is on the side of nature, a deformed creature of appearance, and upon catching sight of his reflection understands not to show himself to the cottagers, of whom he yearns to win the love of, for fear of them fleeing (595). He is ‘excluded but learning the means, by which to be included’ (595) with language. It is the novels stark definition of monstrosity through physical appearance not through acquisition of language that starts the catalyst for corruption of the Monster spiritually and mentally.

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Yet, the monstrous can not be easily classified through physical appearance alone.

The age old debate of nature versus nurture is a theme that runs strongly through the novel. Shelley defines ‘human’ and ‘monstrous’ through examining the nurturing relationships of the characters, for Frankenstein’s lack of parental role with his creation, is ‘monstrously’ neglectful. We see Caroline, Frankenstein’s Mother, nurturing Elizabeth, his sister, back to health, in which his Mother looses her own life as a result and Clerval, his closest friend, nurtures Frankenstein through his illness. The De Lacey's nurturing home also becomes a source of nurturing love for the Monster, as he begins to return their love, and complete truly ‘human’ acts of kindness towards them; for instance; leaving firewood and clearing snow in the winter (Shelley 83). Each nurturing act contrasts strongly with Frankenstein's monstrous neglect of the Monster's needs. Although Frankenstein receives the human quality of love in all its forms, from his family and friends, he never fully gives it in return, so obsessed is he with his creation. However, the Monster easily gives his love to the cottagers and through his expressed wish for companionship shows that his capacity for love is great. ‘He requires love in order to become less monstrous, but as he is a monster, love is denied him.’ (Oates 546). Shelley is thus blurring the lines between the definitions of monstrous and human by questioning if monstrous is when one is unable to be loved or unable to give love.

On the outskirts of scientific and moral forbidden territory roams the monstrous (Cohen 3) Patrolling the boarders with striking images of what may happen if we ever crossed them. Robert Walton, the frame narrator, and Frankenstein are connected through this desire to cross the borders, either physically into a region that may bring death, or through discoveries in science that bring moral monstrosities. These characters are another example of how Shelley’s definitions of the terms ‘human’ and ‘monstrous’ are intertwined in Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s relentless pursuit to cross into the forbidden destroys lives, the opposite of what he was trying to achieve. Conversely, Walton wisely takes the path that Frankenstein refused, returning home when reaching the boundary of almost certain destruction, in his quest for the North Pole. Shelley allows us to see, through the frame narration of Walton and his epiphany to return home, that Frankenstein’s hubris pursuit of knowledge leads to his downfall. ‘I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the ideas of their effects... Oh! My friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognize me in that state of degradation.’ (Shelley 167) Walton see’s that Frankenstein’s quest for knowledge, his isolation from those who love him, led to the destruction of himself and those he loved and so turns back from the brink of his own destruction. However, it is only after Frankenstein dies, that he fully accepts that it is the right decision, as if the monstrous in Frankenstein can be defined as an influence on human actions.

Not only does the monstrous protect against the unknown, it stands along side of us, representing something ‘other’ to ourselves (Cohen, 6). Traditionally the term ‘human’ could be defined through ‘monstrous’ being everything human is not. Just as the Monster in Frankenstein kills William, Justine (although not directly), Elizabeth and Clervel he does not view it as murder, but as justified revenge against his creator. ‘Have a care: I will work at your destruction, not finish until I desolate your heart, so that you curse the house of your birth.’ (Shelley 111). This defines the monstrous as being able to roam outside the boarders of moral convention. However, Frankenstein puts a human persona on the definition of monstrous, we see the Monster yearning to be human; he learns language and craves love, and conversely Frankenstein as being monstrous; his neglect of his duties, family and friends to the point of destruction of them all. Again, Shelley interweaves the definitions of the two terms through showing that the monstrous is human and the conventional definition of human can incorporate monstrous.

The strong bond found between Frankenstein and his Monster is traditionally known as the doppelganger effect (Oates 550), where a living person has a ghostly double haunting him. Here Shelley illustrates that the definitions of ‘monstrous’ and ‘human’ are often just parodies of each other. The Monster represents Frankenstein’s dark side and Frankenstein is the creature’s haunting darkness, both denying the other happiness. They are inextricably entwined with each other, often resembling that of a mind which is torn over a decision; running backwards and forwards from each other, never coming to a safe conclusion. When considered as one person, the combination of Frankenstein and his Monster represents a true definition of human. To express and express and experience that of love and to be loved, joy and compassion, to feel and express the full range of emotions from love of humanity to the need for hateful revenge, desire for knowledge, happiness and fear of death.

Frankenstein, defines the terms human and monstrous through questioning what constitutes them. Love, compassion, a sense of justice defines human yet these same qualities can be found co-existing along side the monstrous. They are terms that represent good and evil but unlike the clear cut definition of good and evil Frankenstein shows us that the human and monstrous are interchangeable. As shown in Frankenstein, our fascination for the monstrous leads us to be influenced by it. So although we define human as being everything the monstrous is not, the monstrous is also part of the definition of human.


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