Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Creature’s Attempt at Humanization

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TitleMary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Creature’s Attempt at Humanization
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After the cottagers reject the creature, he leaves his hovel in great despair. He then comes across William. He says

At this time a slight sleep relieved me from the pain of reflection, which was disturbed by the approach of a beautiful child, who came running into the recess I had chosen, with all the sportiveness of infancy. Suddenly, as I gazed on him, an idea seized me that this little creature was unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity. If, therefore, I could seize him and educate him as my companion and friend, I should not be so desolate in this peopled earth. Shelley 144

The creature, still desperate in his loneliness, is hoping that William’s youth will allow him to accept the creature, as William is so young that he will not yet be prejudiced. The creature’s thought is that the prejudice against him is something that is learned or perhaps taught by society. The idea is that William has not been alive long enough to have been affected by other people’s prejudice. The creature hopes to form William into his companion. He continues:

Urged by this impulse, I seized the boy as he passed and drew him towards me. As soon as he beheld my form, he placed his hands before his eyes, and uttered a shrill scream; I drew his hand forcibly from his face and said, “Child, what is the meaning of this? I do not intend to hurt you; listen to me.”

He struggled violently. “Let me go,” he cried; “monster! ugly wretch! you wish to eat me and tear me to pieces — You are an ogre — Let me go, or I will tell my papa.”

“Boy, you will never see your father again; you must come with me.”

“Hideous monster! let me go. My papa is a syndic — he is M. Frankenstein — he will punish you. You dare not keep me.” Shelley 144

William reacts with the same horror as all those previously. The creature attempts to explain that he intends no harm, but William’s reaction is that of strong rejection. In fact, he assumes the creature’s motives are to eat and destroy him. As Gigante pointed out, he is afraid of literally being consumed by the creature. He bases this solely on the way the creature looks. He also threatens to get his father. Again, the familial ties that the creature cannot have are brought up. William feels he is in trouble so he desires to get his father. He also mentions that his father is in a position of power, pointing out even more levels within society that exclude others. William’s rejection of the creature implies that it is not only that society teaches people to be prejudice, but that there is an instinctual prejudice against the creature. Despite William’s youth and innocence, he sees the creature and reacts extremely negatively. William should not have learned to be prejudiced at this point, but reacts the same way as all the others. The creature cannot overcome this inherent characteristic of humans that appears to reject him.

These scenes all illustrate that the creature’s physical appearance is crippling to him. All who see him are horrified, and assume the worst of the creature. His creator who spent almost two years constructing him, villagers, and youth alike all reject him. His figure is so horrifying that people seem to be genuinely unable to look at him. It goes further than that though. Shelley seems to be implying an inherent quality in the creature that makes him unacceptable to humans. Victor’s initial reaction is that the creature is an “it”. Even De Lacey, who cannot see the creature, seems to be excluding him from humanity by the way he speaks. William’s reaction to the creature shows that the rejection is instinctual, and not something that is learned. Despite the creature’s attempts to enter society, he is a singular being and therefore outside of humanity. He is unnatural, and therefore lacks human nature. He is excluded based on these facts, but he tries to overcome this prejudice by acquiring the ability to speak. The creature attempts to create relationships through language, and hopes that this will allow him to overcome the barrier created by his physical appearance and become a part of human society.

Chapter Two: The Creature’s Acquisition of Language

Despite being met with fear and aggression, the creature still greatly desires to form relationships with humans. He is intelligent so he understands that his body is ugly and frightening, and he longs for a way to make people look beyond his appearance so that he may enter society. The creature becomes aware that people communicate through sounds, and decides that he must gain this ability before presenting himself to any more people. His hope is that this knowledge will allow him to be accepted.

The creature discovers language when he is observing the cottagers.

His reaction is the following:

By degrees I made a discovery of still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communication their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. Shelley 115

Here the creature is realizes that people can communicate. He is able to understand that the sounds people make are a way of relaying thoughts and ideas to others. What the creature finds most interesting, however, is that these sounds can cause different emotions in the person listening. He finds this power to be “godlike”. The fact that these sounds can create different expressions and emotions in others is fascinating to him, and he sees it as a kind of mystical power. The creature greatly desires to understand this form of communication, and it is easy to see why. Thus far the creature has been met with fear and violence. He is now witnessing that certain sounds create certain reactions, and is hoping to understand how this works. The creature’s desire is to be able to join these people, and therefore wants to learn how to create a positive reaction in them. He hopes learning this form of communication will achieve this goal. He is trying to overcome what separates him from the humans and sees these sounds as a way to humanize himself.

To further make this point, the creature goes on to say the following:

I easily perceived that, although I eagerly longed to discover myself to the cottagers, I ought not to make the attempt until I had first become master of their language; which knowledge might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure; for with this also the contrast perpetually presented to my eyes had made me acquainted.

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: at first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I become fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity. Shelley 116-117

The creature is explicitly stating his hope that gaining knowledge of language will allow him to make the cottagers overlook his physical appearance. He is also noting here that by watching the cottagers he is constantly reminded of their difference in appearance. Watching them, he sees that they are beautiful. Then he views his reflection in a pool, and he is terrified. Much like humans respond to him, the creature is startled by the image. In fact, he too rejects it. He does not believe what he sees, and has to convince himself of the truth. This greatly upsets the creature, though he realizes in hindsight that he was not yet aware of just how crippling his appearance would be to him. At this point he still hopes to be able to learn a way to be recognized by humans, but by the time he is telling his story he has realized that he will never be accepted.

Maureen McLane explores whether or not literature is a plausible means of humanizing the creature in her essay Literate Species: Populations, "Humanities," and Frankenstein. She writes the following:

Shelley's corporeally indeterminate but decidedly literate monster asks us to consider whether literature-taken in all its bearings- was or is indeed a useful "line of demarcation between" human and animal. The fate of the monster suggests that proficiency in "the art of language", as he calls it, may not ensure one's position as a member of the "human kingdom." Shelley shows us how a literary education… presupposes not merely an educable subject but a human being. McLane 959

Due to the fact that the creature’s knowledge of language does not allow him to enter society, McLane feels that literature is not a useful way to differentiate between human and non-human in the novel. She feels that a literary education “presupposes…a human being” according to Shelley. So even though the creature is trying to use literature as a way of humanizing himself, it is futile because he would have to have been a human in the first place. Studying literature and language cannot make something human.

In her article, McLane is concerned with what kind of literature the creature reads in the novel in the process of his self-education. She notes that “When he embarks on his own tale of the ‘progress of [his] intellect’ we soon discover that his learning involves not the ‘science’ of ‘modern chemistry’ (or any other natural science) but rather the ‘godlike science’ (107) of ‘letters’ (114)” (McLane 70). McLane is noting the difference between Victor and his creation. Victor’s studies have been scientific, while the creature’s studies have been in the humanities. McLane goes on to say that “The differential status of "letters" (the monster's material) and of natural philosophy (Victor's domain) illuminates how "the idea of the humanities" increasingly delimited and defined itself against natural science” (McLane 970). This view of the conflict between Victor and his creature implies that each is symbolic of what they study. This idea is that the conflict between them is about science versus humanities. I find that this simplifies the struggle in the novel too much, and does not do enough to explain the plight of the creature. Victor’s studies in science take root in his desire to test his own boundaries. Victor wants to find out what he is able to do with his knowledge, and also to surpass those in his field. The creature’s motivation seems more innocent to me. The creature’s desire to educate himself is to become a part of society, and to be recognized as human. While both desires begin with a desire to be recognized, Victor’s is to surpass humans while the creature’s is to become human.

McLane’s finds problems with the argument, but notes the following:

What this simplification allows, however, is an opportunity to explore the novel as a diagnosis of the embodied use and abuse of different knowledges. The novel proposes, in its history of the monster, a remedy for the horrifying body which science has produced -- the humanities. McLane 71

I definitely agree that the creature attempts to make up for his appearance through his acquisition of speech and the ability to communicate. McLane’s extrapolation from this idea is that Shelley proposes that the study of humanities is trying to fix the consequences of studying science. This makes sense to me. Before the creature’s narrative portion of the novel, Victor narrates his own story. When Victor tells his story, he comes across as arrogant and also wrong for pursuing his scientific endeavor as he does. The result of his research is something considered as hideous by all, including Victor. Then the creature tells his story, and it describes his realization that he is aesthetically different from humans and that humans find him ugly and terrifying. His narrative goes on to describe, his realization that people communicate through speech and that this is something he must master if he wishes to be a part of society. Here the creature realizes how important language is, and clearly hopes it will be the factor that allows him to enter society despite his physical appearance. Science gave the creature his life and body, but he hopes that gaining knowledge of language will allow him to better his situation.

McLane had mentioned the “use and abuse of different knowledges”. Victor abuses his scientific knowledge when he endeavors to create a living being. The creature’s education though does not appear to be an abuse of knowledge. He has the desire to converse with people and be a part of their society. Language and literature are ways of humanizing himself. As I explained in Chapter One, however, this fails the creature. He is rejected by the cottagers and then by William, despite his ability to speak to them. His grasp of language though does convince Victor to hear his story. Upon seeing the creature, Victor’s response is to try and get rid of him. After hearing the creature request that he listen to his story, Victor is moved by his eloquence. Victor states that “…I weighed the various arguments that he had used, and determined at least to listen to his tale. I was partly urged by curiosity, and compassion confirmed my resolution” (Shelley 104). This illustrates the persuasive power of language. The creature had noticed that when the cottagers would communicate with each other they could elicit emotional responses from the other person. This is what the creature desired, and here he is able to evoke compassion in Victor. After the creature has finished telling Victor his story, Victor states the following

His words had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred. Shelley 149

So while the creature’s physical body still causes feelings of horror in Victor, it is clear that his story has caused Victor to feel compassion. Victor wants to console the creature and debates giving into the creature’s request for a mate. Victor says “I had no right to withhold from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow” (Shelley 149). While Victor eventually denies the creature a mate, it is evident that the creature’s persuasiveness has affected Victor in this conversation. The creature learned how to effectively portray his situation and was able to evoke an emotional response in Victor.

To further look at language as relation, I would like to look at Peter Brooks’ discussion on this in his article Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts: Language and Monstrosity in Frankenstein. Brooks states that “In any specular relationship the Monster will always be the "filthy mass"; it is only in the symbolic order that he may realize his desire for recognition” (Brooks 593). This is once again stating that the creature’s appearance causes him inevitable rejection. Recognition can only come in a symbolic form. He can never be human, but he would like to be considered a part of the community. He would like companionship. He notes that in the conversation I just mentioned between the creature and Victor, the creature has established his first relationship. It is through language that this relationship was made possible. Only through the creature’s testimony was Victor able to feel compassion for him. Brooks says the following:

The close of his narrative suggests the importance of language as relation. In arguing that Frankenstein must create a female monster to be companion to the male, the Monster asserts that only in communication with a similar being can he ‘become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded’ (p. 149) Brooks 593

The creature has realized that despite his ability to communicate with humans, they will not accept him. So he desires another being that is analogous to his own being. With another being that looks similar, the creature would be able to simulate the aspects of human life that he has desired. He will have companionship, and will not be met with fear and hatred. Because of the fact that he is the singular being of his kind, he is excluded from “the chain of existence”. If he has another being of his kind, he will have someone to converse with.

After the creature relates his story to Victor, Brooks notes the following:

…that language springs from passion rather than need: need cannot form the necessary social context for voiced language since its effect is to scatter men; and need can make do with the barest repertory of visual signs, gestures, imperatives. Passion, on the other hand, brings men together, and the relation of desire calls forth voice. It is hence no accident that what language first reveals to the Monster is human love. And it is again no accident that his rhetorical plea to his creator ends with the demand for a creature whom he might love. Brooks 594

Brooks is saying that voiced language is not a necessity. People can function and survive on only a few gestures. It is because of passion and desire that language was developed. Since language is born out of passion, it is able to portray the emotion of love to the creature. The creature then uses his acquired speech as a means to express his desire for a mate that he can love, and will also love him.

Brooks goes on to say that

The Monster's initiation in language, then, unerringly discovers language to be on the side of culture rather than nature and to imply the structures of relation at the basis of culture. The discovery is a vital one, for the side of "nature" is irreparably marked by lack, by monsterism. Brooks 594

Brooks suggests that the reason language is not able to humanize the creature is because language can only aid in making relations based on culture and not nature. Learning how to communicate does not change the creature’s nature. The creature’s nature is still designated as “monsterism”. Therefore language was not enough to humanize the creature.

Once again we are seeing that the creature’s problematic body cannot be humanized. In Diana Reese’s article
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