Thursday, October 13, 2011

Revised: Is the Monster Human?

            When people hear the word Frankenstein, they automatically associate it with an image of a towering monster.  And based on his physical description alone he does indeed sound intimidating and hard to relate to.  But upon further investigation one finds that the monster is so much more than just a grotesque being.  According to literary theorist and philosopher Kenneth Burke, the definition of man is a being who desires to be more than what he is currently.  In his words, man is “rotten with perfection” (Burke).  In addition to Mr. Burke’s definition, I would also like to include that humans make decisions based on emotions rather than instinct alone.  Based on these definitions, I would have to conclude that Frankenstein’s monster is human.

When Burke mentions that humans are rotten with perfection, he means people are never fully satisfied with their current condition.  This is an applicable definition because it addresses a characteristic that is specifically human and set apart from any other living thing.  Also, it describes aspects that can be related to the monster as well as to Victor and other humans in the novel.  As humans we express the desire to change ourselves to something different.  We are often dissatisfied with what we have and what we are.  And while there is oftentimes merit and goodness that comes with progress, disaster is also a possible outcome.  This is distinctly a human quality because other living things do not express a need or want to be different from how they naturally are.  Trees do not wish to be taller just as sharks do not want to be vegetarian.  Even if they did, they do not act in a way that would suggest different.  Rather, nonhuman organisms go about their lives content with how they are as they were made. 

Victor Frankenstein himself is an example of wanting to be more than he is.  As a human, he does not possess the power to grant life.  That is solely the power of God.  But by engaging in his experiments and creating his monster, Frankenstein acts out in defiance of the norm.  He was trying to become greater than he was and success gave him joy.  He recounted his achievement, stating, “The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture.  After so much time spent in painful labor, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires was the most gratifying consummation of my toils” (pg 47, Shelley).  Frankenstein was so caught up in his eagerness to complete his experiments that he did not stop to appreciate the full ramifications of his efforts until too late: he’d created something beyond his power to control. 

Likewise, Frankenstein’s monster’s desire was to be like everyone else and to be accepted.  The monster expressed his discontent with his very existence.  The majority of his story is spent trying to improve it.  From the very beginning the monster is abandoned by his creator, Victor.  Unaware as to why, the monster makes an attempt to get close to him.  Victor, disgusted by the sight of him, ran from him but the monster followed. According to Victor, “His eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me.  His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.  He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me” (pg 54-55, Shelley).  Victor may have assumed the monster’s intentions were malevolent, but it seems more like the actions a child would have for their parent.  He was smiling at Victor and being uneducated, he communicated his joy in nonsensical noise like a newborn.  After he was abandoned by Victor and forced to live in exile, the monster conveyed his anguish, saying, “Am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me” (pg 107, Shelley).  Just like any human being would, the monster felt emotional distress from being unwanted, especially by Victor.  But as he encountered other people, he began to understand that his physical appearance repelled others.  He recounted his tale about the De Laceys, saying, “I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers- their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! …When I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification” (pg 124, Shelley).  Realizing that he could do little to fix his appearance, the monster went about improving himself in other ways to detract the focus from his deformity.  He figured, yes, he was hideous to look at, but if he could act, talk and walk like other humans they would be able to overlook his difference.  His major attempt at this was with the De Laceys and the rejection devastated him.  Similar to Frankenstein’s attempt at progress, the monster’s attempts led to disastrous results.  In this case, his desire to belong caused him to become emotionally distraught and turn into the savage that society labeled him as. 

            In addition to wanting to be more than they presently are, humans have the knack to act out on their emotions.  Animals and other living things do not possess this trait as their actions are purely out of necessity for survival.  The Turk demonstrated this when he tried to break his word to Felix.  Despite the kindness the De Lacey’s had shown him by freeing him from the death penalty, the Turk purposely deceived Felix into believing he would give him Safie’s hand in marriage.  He never intended for Felix to marry Safie, but he kept up the act to serve his own interests.  Once he escaped prison, he tried to drag his daughter out of the country.  His actions were self-serving and malevolent.  It was what he wanted and he did not care that his daughter was in love with Felix.

            In a similar fashion, the monster also reacted in a way that was based on his emotions.  He was as kind towards the De Laceys as the Turk was cruel.  When he realized that the De Laceys were poor and short on food supply, the monster decided to stop sneaking portions from them.  This was an act of generosity, for it served him no benefit to stop stealing.  Rather, it meant he would have to look elsewhere for sustenance.  In order to do something he deemed kind and good, the monster chose to sacrifice his comfort for the sake of others.  In addition to doing so, he even went out of his way to helping his “friends”.  By helping Felix chop the wood, he allowed the De Laceys leisure time together.

When even his kindness resulted in rejection, the monster stopped trying to fit in.  Instead, he began to hate the fact that he was the only one of his kind.  He cursed Victor for bringing him into an existence he did not ask for, and one that was unwelcomed at that.  He declared revenge against mankind and Victor. The monster first succeeded in doing so when he murdered William Frankenstein.  In retrospect, he noted, “I gazed on my victim, and my heart swelled with exultation and hellish triumph: clapping my hands, I exclaimed, ‘I, too, can create desolation; my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him” (pg 160, Shelley). The monster did not become violent until after he experienced it from Felix and the others who attacked him on sight.  In his rage, he committed murder in order to hurt Victor.  This is yet another instance of his humanity.  Animals kill for survival, but the monster’s actions demonstrated how man can kill out of anger and hatred.

When all is said and done, however, the monster may have been satisfied with getting even with mankind, but he was still miserable.  Nothing had changed in his efforts.  He was still hideous, people still feared him to no end, and having given up on trying to win mankind’s love he had resolved to inspire terror and anguish.  This did nothing in the long run to assuage his lonely existence, so he reacted as any other human being would: he desired a mate to keep him company.  His reasoning was not animalistic.  He did not want a mate in order to procreate.  Rather, his motivation was purely based on the fact that he did not want to live out the remainder of his days alone in a world that cursed his presence.  According to him, “If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion; the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes…I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded” (pg 166, Shelley).

            Despite how physical appearances can make it seem easy to judge the monster as an abomination, upon further investigation it can be seen that he is in fact human.  He is rotten with the desire of reaching his definition of perfection all the while being guilty of making decisions based on his emotions.  Like Victor Frankenstein, he shares the desire to become more than he already is.  Like the Turk, his actions are emotion driven, not solely instinct.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Definition of Man The Hudson Review Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1963-1964), pp. 491-514 The Hudson Review, Inc.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Illustrated. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1934. 105,  121, 124, 150, 151. Print.



  2. I don't know why my google account won't let me post comments, but the above comment is mine (Estella)

  3. Burke's definition is interesting, compact, and highly applicable (unsurprisingly) to literature. I do wish you'd contextualized it within his work, at least briefly.

    Do you think that animals don't make decisions on emotion? I think drawing a line between instinct and emotion (at least for some animals) is very problematic: we might do well to understand emotion as a mechanism by which instinct operates. I'm basing that idea on the limited primatology that I've read - take, for instance, De Walt's *Chimpanzee Politics*

    In the 3rd paragraph - doesn't Victor demonstrate that, in fact, human beings *can* create like? Also, is it really true that he can't control the monster? I'd say that he refuses to even try, which isn't quite the same - the monster seems to beg, at points, to be controlled.

    The monster may very well want to be more than he is, too - it's an interesting argument. But you go about it somewhat clumsily. "He figured, yes, he was hideous to look at, but if he could act, talk and walk like other humans they would be able to overlook his difference." Arguing that wanting to walk & talk makes him want to be more than he is bothers me - because these things come *very* easily to him. Why, then, should we take them as a sign of his being "rotten with perfection?" I'm not even saying that you're wrong - but *to me* it seems like it's simply his nature to easily learn to walk and talk, that in fact it comes far more easily to him than to most people - and you're not really *arguing* your case here.

    "When even his kindness resulted in rejection, the monster stopped trying to fit in." - does this mean that the monster has ceased to strive for perfection? That is, has he ceased to be human? To me, that's what your argument implies, but you're making the opposite argument - I wish you'd thought through his behavior here a little more.

    I'd disagree with the premise that animals kill only for survival, and that animals cannot be malevolent. Is a cat's territoriality a matter only of survival? How about power struggles among horses, or dogs, or chimpanzees, or baboons? It's not that you're obviously/necessarily wrong - but you're making big claims about animal behavior without the slightest shred of evidence. Why? Your discussion of emotion brings the essay out of focus - you would have been better off with a more detailed discussion of whether the monster consistently seeks to be better than he is. For instance, what do you do with the big chase scene across the arctic? Does that show the monster's humanity, or his refusal of humanity?

    Along the same lines - is Victor human by your definition? Does he consistently seek to be better?

    Don't get me wrong - your premise is extremely interesting, and when you focus on it, your writing as a whole is extremely interesting, too. But you aren't focusing enough on the text - in particular, the parts toward the end of the novel, *after* the monster's massive turn toward violence, which really challenge us if we attempt to understand him as "rotten with perfection."