Last semester, I studied the book Frankenstein as part of my Prose Fiction course. It. Was. Amazing.
There are so many things that I didn’t know about the author, the book and its many incarnations, that it’s embarrassing. But alas, this painstakingly written essay, earned me an A and stands as proof of my utter respect for this literary gem.
The question: "I am malicious because I am miserable.” Do you agree with the Creature’s self-assessment?
And my response…
Television is becoming less ‘Cosby’ and more corrupt. Scriptwriters are creating protagonists that use villainous means to get to a noble end. Breaking Bad’s Walter White is a drug dealer. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer. Scandal’s Olivia Pope is an adulteress. And we empathise. After all Walter is dying of cancer, Dexter at the age of two witnesses his mother brutally murdered and the President is sexy after all. The popularity of these shows rests not only in the perfect casting and movie-like cinematography but in the carefully conceptualised character development. In her most famous work, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley introduces her readers to this provocative concept, when her Creature, says, “I am malicious because I am miserable.”
She begins the story by giving us a look into the fevered mind of Victor Frankenstein.
“One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?”
With every book of natural science and philosophy he secures, Victor contrasts himself from his friends, family and contemporaries. But his healthy respect for nature soon turns into an obsession. He desires to decode the melodies of the nightingale, eavesdrop on the conversations between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans when they met but never mix and pursue nature in her hiding places. Victor Frankenstein wants to be God.
"A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption."
After two years of careful obsession, Victor finally completes his experiment. However, in the most magnificent display of postpartum depression, he abandons his creation and sets into the motion the misery of both their lives.
“I beheld the wretch - the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed and 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, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs.”
Unattended to and unloved, the Creature wanders into the fresh world alone. He has no parent to instruct him to keep his hands out of fire, give him comfort as he collapses in tears at a riverbank or help him understand the mosaic of his senses. Though Nature attends to him without judgment, feeding, sheltering and guiding him with her celestial light, it is still a difficult and unfortunate childhood.
After escaping an attack from angry villagers, the Creature finds safety in the hovel of a peasant family. By watching them over several months, he receives an education in language, history, music and even love. He describes his introduction to the emotion with the words,
“I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature: they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions.”
Many believe that children are born uncorrupted and the world surrounding them informs their personalities and experience. A child born in Spain would instinctively begin speaking in a Spanish accent. It can even be said that if a child were to be raised by cripples he or she would not be inspired to walk. But do these same rules apply to a creature that was not essentially born but created? The pages of the text show that Mary Shelley believes that it is indeed so. The familial love he learns from the family inspires him to commit daily acts of kindness. He confesses,
“I longed to discover the motives and feelings of these lovely creatures…”
There is even a beautiful moment when he cries while hearing De Lacey play his guitar. Like a teenager, he battles with low self esteem and body image issues, even comparing himself to Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost,
“Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”
Though Victor consistently refers to the Creature as a wretch and vile insect, these moments in his timeline prove that he is not so, at least not in the beginning. Like the heroes of modern day television, the Creature’s controversial actions are inspired by pain and desperation. He introduces himself to De Lacey but is attacked by Felix. He saves a drowning girl but is shot. He then introduces himself to young William Frankenstein, who like every other human rejects him. The child is inadvertently killed by his hands, thus beginning his descent from a creature into a monster.
In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, The Joker wants to watch the world burn; there are no motives for his ‘hellish sports’. Frankenstein’s Creature however recognises that it is a lack of love and companionship that causes him to lash out monstrously.
“My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor.”
It seems that he is well acquainted with the romantic idea of androgyny. In Plato’s Symposium, humans were created, one half male and the other half female. Because of this physiology, they were able to reproduce quickly and at will. This intimidated the gods, who cast a spell, separating humans into separate male and female beings and condemning them to a life in search of their other halves. The Creature understands the beauty of this concept and believes that in his other half he will find peace and completion. Despite his mistakes, he shows yet again his affinity for goodness. Upon meeting Victor for the first time after his birth, he articulates,
"You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do; and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse to concede."
Victor acquiesces. The Creature will finally have the fellowship he was always denied because of his appearance and nature. However as Victor is close to completing the Creature’s mate, he begins to regret his decision saying,
“A race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict his curse upon everlasting generations?”
Then in a most horrific scene he destroys the female creature, putting him second to Darth Vader, as fiction’s Father of the Year. He believes that he is doing mankind a favour, but what he actually does is cause the Creature’s the most debilitating heartbreak. Children are like mirrors that reflect the treatment they receive from their role models. So too, the Creature who is like Victor’s child, reflects the loathing and rejection he receives from him and retaliates. After his mate is destroyed the Creature exacts revenge by killing Victor’s best friend and wife. In the documentary, Mothering Monsters, Professor Anne Mellor, surmises that the problem began with the fact that Victor went against nature to father a child without a mother. Despite lacking maternal instinct, Victor does have the capacity to love, he does have the capacity to understand, but chooses not to. This begs the question: Is Victor Frankenstein the real monster in the book?
To say that the Creature is a just a monster, is to discredit Mary Shelley’s sympathetic and layered characterisation. Like modern day scriptwriters, she allows us to take a deeper look where we would have casually cast judgment. The next time we hear a mother defend her convicted son by saying, ‘he was a good boy’, we can now ask ourselves: What if he was a good boy? What if the police gunned down his father in a case of mistaken identity? What if this causes his family to spiral further into poverty leaving him no choice but leave school to find a job? What if a charismatic community leader convinced him to that there was an easier way to make money? What if in the moment before he killed a prominent state attorney, he thought to himself that this would be his final job? What if his last words to the magistrate before serving his life sentence were, “I was benevolent and good, and misery made me a fiend,” would we then empathise? If every convict uses this excuse, it does not give them the right to be excused. It does however, give them a right to be heard.