Thursday, September 15, 2011

I, Human-Alex Kane

Biologically speaking, human beings are social creatures that have relied on fellow members of their species to survive since the era of hunting and gathering. Being social creatures, human beings have language; an incredibly advanced and complex form unparalleled by any other species. This ability to compose and comprehend language in such a manner is something that is integral to being human, but that alone cannot distinguish the species. Technologically, neurologically, and psychologically (with respect to humans’ degree of self-awareness) speaking, humans are again unparalleled, but there must be more to the definition of being human than just this. A computer, albeit a highly advanced one, is capable of speaking, hearing, and problem solving, but all can agree that a computer is far from human. To be human, in my opinion, is to possess compassion; that is, the ability to give it and the need to receive it, with respect to other humans. An individual may be deemed not human or a “monster” when he commits an act so abhorrent that it breaks the moral code which his fellow man has agreed upon; an act that exemplifies his lack of compassion. This can be seen in the most extreme circumstances with individuals like Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

Following this logic, Victor Frankenstein’s creation is far from a “monster”. In fact, he feels and embodies that aforementioned compassion which is distinctly human. When, eventually, the creature confronts Victor in the mountains with all his mastery of the English language, he appeals to Victor’s compassion saying, “Will no entreaties cause thee to turn a favourable eye upon thy creature, who implores thy goodness and compassion?”(Page 107). In this same incident, the creature describes how initially he “was benevolent and good” (Page 107). Taking this into account, when, earlier in the story, Victor (via Walton) recounts the first moments of the creation’s life stating, “…one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me…”, we now know that this was a complete misinterpretation on Victor’s part (Page 55). The creation wasn’t attempting to attack Victor, but was seeking his compassion, as a child does with outstretched arms towards his mother.

Let’s consider the comparison of Victor and his creation to God and Adam, respectively. This comparison was not only detailed in class by Dr. Johns, but is explicitly stated by the creation on page 107. This comparison may not be solely for the purpose of illustrating the extent of Victor Frankenstein’s power, but also to show that the creation is like Adam in that both Adam and the creation are human. More so, I interpret the God and Adam comparison to mean that the creation is even more human than Victor; that Victor is the exception of the two with respect to their humanness because is God, obviously, is no human being.

Alternatively, if we agree that Victor is human, then there is evidence within the text for the creation’s need for compassion equal to that of Captain Walton and Victor. During the episode in which the creation is recounting his experience observing the cottagers, he remarks of how he looks forward to the day that he would “first win their favour, and afterwards their love” (Page 125). The creation desired to be liked and loved by the cottagers, not so different from the feelings that Captain Walton communicates to his sister when he writes, “I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as a romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavor to regulate my mind” (Page 6). And both of these cases are akin to the feelings of Victor Frankenstein who, after much time in solitude and misery, states that grasping Henry Clerval’s hand made him feel “for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy” (Page 56). All three of these individuals yearn for and are enlivened by human compassion for the very reason that all three of them are human beings.

We have to keep in mind that during the period that Frankenstein was written and published, Western civilization was quick to deem foreign populations subhuman. This can be seen with individuals who worked in the field of scientific racism, such as Charles White who believed that “each race was a separate species”[1]. Considering this, we must understand the bias and cultural influence which have affected Victor Frankenstein and Captain Walton, through whom the story is being told. I believe that Victor Frankenstein’s creation is a human whose misery has hindered his compassion, but not altogether destroyed it.


All Quotes From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dover Publications, except:

[1] John P. Jackson, Nadine M. Weidman Race, Racism, and science: social impact and interaction, Rutgers University Press, 2005, pp. 39–41


  1. I’m not exactly sure how these peer reviews are supposed to be structured, so for this first one I’m just going to trace out your argument and make some suggestions regarding how you present it.

    Your thesis is that the monster is human because he has and needs compassion, which is a defining characteristic that separates humans from all other species.

    Here are the postulates that you use to prove your argument:
    1. The monster needs compassion, especially from his creator, Victor. This shows he needs compassion and is human.
    2. Make reference to the comparison of the monster to Adam, this comparison shows the monster is human because Adam is human.
    3. Compare the monsters need for compassion to that of Victor or Walton, since they are human it follows that the monster is too.
    4. Make a historical reference to show that Walton and Victor may present the monster as subhuman.


    I like your thesis that the monster is human because of his compassion. It is a concise and focused answer to question, however I feel that the flow of your supporting arguments, which are supposed to lead us to this confusion, could use a bit of improvement. Postulate (1) is very well developed and very convincing to the fact that the monster needs compassion. Personally I feel you should leave out the paragraph about the comparison of the monster and Adam (postulate 2), it doesn’t do anything to add to your thesis that the monster is human because of his compassion. Next you develop the humanity of Victor and Walton by showing examples of their need for compassion, but I feel as a reader I had already accepted these two characters as human so this was unnecessary digression. Finally you make a historical reference to show the rampant racism of the time period. While I like this part of your essay a lot, it doesn’t really support your thesis, but if you’re attached to it I would leave it in since it is very well done.

    So basically my suggestion is to further develop postulate (1) and cut out postulates (2) and (3). After you remove (2) and (3), I would fill in that space by developing the other half of your thesis: that the monster is human because he has compassion for others. You do a very good job showing the monster needs compassion, but there isn’t anything to show us that the monster is compassionate himself.

    One last note: I would remove the sentence about Hitler and Hussein, it seems counterproductive to bring up humans who have no compassion when your thesis is that humans are defined by the fact they have compassion. Maybe I am misreading this, but as it is written it confuses the argument.

  2. An aside about Anthony's response: it is fantastic, and a good example of what someone might do, at least part of the time, to receive an outstanding participation grade. In other words, it is deep into A territory (just so everyone has a good example).

    Now, to carry on from what Anthony said. He mentions that bringing up Hitler and Hussein is problematic, because "it is counterproductive to bring up humans who have no compassion." I want to think about this as a way of exposing what I see as a range of issues here.

    First - when you use a historical example, it had better be correct. So - is it true that Hitler and Hussein were human beings without compassion? They both did, from contemporary American point of view, very bad things - but does that mean they never had compassion? People *liked* Hitler. Churchill himself *liked* Hitler. He was smart, funny, charismatic, compelling, and by no means heartless (I understand) *unless you were the "wrong" sort of person*. I know less about Hussein, but the man wrote romantic novels - which probably means he had some kind of empathy for *somebody*.

    Why do I go on about that? Painting with a broad brush on topics you know little about is almost always a mistake. Hitler and Hussein may be *evil* - but that doesn't mean they had no compassion for anyone, at any time.

    How different is Frankenstein? How different, for that matter, is Clerval, who literally aspires to conquering and subjugating India? Are they compassionate men?

    But one might say that mentally ill people might, under some cirtumstances, have no compassion (true sociopaths, severely autistic people, etc.). Does this man they aren't actually human?

    From another angle, though, some biologists would argue that altruism (surely close to comapassion) is biological in its origins - see E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, for instance, which does a lot with this topic, arguing, for instance, that African wild dogs are deeply altruistic.

    Here's *my* question: how hard did you think about whether humanity is properly defined through compassion? I believe that you thought about it some, and I believe that you mostly succeeded in talking about the role of compassion in the novel (Anthony has some nice details). But the definition itself seems unjustified, as the issue of Hitler and Hussein might reveal.

    That doesn't mean it's a bad definition - it just means that some serious kinks would need to be worked out for it to work well.