This piece was written for an Honors Preceptorial. It is an essay in the original form of the word. To essay is to think through a topic from multiple perspectives and not come to a definitive conclusion. In order to better understand something, you have to consider all aspects and every idea that comes to mind, even if they make you uncomfortable. Especially if they make you uncomfortable. Nothing that I have written here should be taken empirically factual. They’re merely perspectives to make you think about the way you view the world.
Note: I refer to the person Victor Frankenstein creates as “Karl”. He is a human being and deserves a name.
What is a monster? On the most basic level, a monster is a being considered abhorrent for any reason. Moreover, it is a being that does not hold sacred our most valuable of commodities, life. In our culture, serial killers are viewed as monsters because they take lives, break the laws which govern us, and break an ethical code impressed upon us by our parents and/or religions. At the same time, we sentence murderers to death with the justification that we are protecting lives, we make the decision that their lives no longer have the same value as a human life, now that they are monsters. On the other hand, we view soldiers as heroes because the lives they end are not valued by us, they are the enemies, the monsters in that situation because they have done something to threaten our lives. To the people on the other side of the occupations and the wars, our soldiers are monsters, controlling their lives and killing their loved ones.
What makes something a monster is its culture’s perspective and influence. There is nothing inherently monstrous as there is nothing unnatural unless we create it as such. “Whatever falls out contrary to custom we say is contrary to nature, but nothing, whatever it be, is contrary to her. Let, therefore, this universal and natural reason expel the error and astonishment that novelty brings along with it”(Of a Monstrous Child). Montaigne believed that all differences were normal and natural, it was only our perceptions of them that made them seem monstrous.
We see something as monstrous because the unfamiliarity and dissimilarity to what we perceived as “normal” frighten us. We label them in an effort to distance ourselves, the ordinary, from them, the monsters. To convince ourselves that they are something we could never become. This is apparent when a serial killer is arrested and the investigators delve into their background. The goal is not to discover how this person became a monster but to uncover the signs friends and family missed. To prove that the monster was hiding within the person all along.
In Of Cannibals, Montaigne said he saw that “there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country”. This is the same way that monsters are created not from reality but from our mind’s belief that differences are to be feared. The settlers looked at the natives eating the flesh of a dead loved one as barbaric because it was different than what they were accustomed to. This is the way that the “normal” people see the monsters but to the monster, they are the way they are supposed to be.
The boy in Of a Monstrous Child was seen as a monster because his appearance was unpleasant. However, his behavior was normal because that is how he was treated. He didn’t know he was different. Montaigne believed that there were no monsters only errors in perception which lead us to believe that the way we are is correct and anything other than it is wrong. He said that nothing which is created by God can be called unnatural. What we perceive as monstrous is based on societal norms. Our culture decides what we see as normal but that perception is not reality.
In Of a Monstrous Child, Montague also speaks of, “a herdsman in Medoc, of about thirty years of age, who has no sign of any genital parts; he has three holes by which he incessantly voids his water; he is bearded, has desire, and seeks contact with women”. Again, this man although he is physically unable to have sex has not lost the desire for it. His physical body and emotional states are not one in the same. “Those that we call monsters are not so to God, who sees in the immensity of His work the infinite forms that He has comprehended therein; and it is to be believed that this figure which astonishes us has relation to some other figure of the same kind unknown to man”(Of a monstrous child).
We’d like to believe that we’ve become more accepting of deformity when in reality, we’ve found ways to make the abnormal fit into the mold of normalcy. Had Victor Frankenstein lived today, he might have taken his creation to a plastic surgeon. To find a way to normalize him so that his form would acceptable within society.
In many cases, a monster is created by society’s influence. Perfectly normal children are raised to hate and kill based on race or religion. The Nazis, the KKK, the Westboro Baptist Church and innumerable other political and religious organizations have brainwashed their followers into believing that to be black, Jewish or gay is monstrous. These people are monsters on the inside even though they remain unchanged externally.
Children are conditioned to become monsters in another way as well. Bullying and harassment cause a child to make the decision between being a victim and fighting back. A child who is harassed or bullied and does not find help will often, like the creation in Frankenstein, seek ways to hurt the ones who have hurt him or her. Barring that, they will seek to make others as miserable as they are in order to elevate themselves or to not be alone in feeling that way. In rare cases, these feelings and actions lead to large-scale attempts to make society pay, school shootings. In these cases, the children are often seen as monsters, no longer victims as they have stepped outside the societal norms for reaction. They ended lives we saw as precious but they saw as monstrous. “Am I to be thought the only criminal when all human kind sinned against me?…Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on”(243). The responsibility for these incidents lies not in the individuals who bullied or teased, nor even with the parents, teachers and community members who did not prevent it. It does not lie in the violent media that is so easy to blame because it already lies at the edge of acceptance. It lies in the long-standing belief the “kids will be kids”, they’ll grow out it, etc… For the children involved, it was a living hell and they saw no other way out. As a culture, we have led them to this act by another societal belief that it is not our place to get involved but when they are pushed too far, we force them to take the blame. We remove their label of human as we’ve removed their humanity and put them away as monsters.
Shelley presents us with two potential definitions of monster: one monstrous in form, the other monstrous in action. She gives us the background on each to show how an ordinary person can become a monster but also how someone who is monstrous in form is not inherently monstrous in action. Shelley forces her reader to confront his or her perception of what a monster is and why.
Neither Victor nor Karl began as a monster internally and by the end are both the opposite of what Victor says is the perfect person, “A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule”(83). This is the reason for giving the reader full back-stories, to show the monstrosity is not an inheritance.
Shelley shows us that Victor began as a normal boy from a happy family “no creature could have more tender parents than mine”(64), and slowly lost his humanity to the desire for success. Karl, though outwardly deformed, began with feelings of nothing but love for the world. He was cold and hurt but still saw the beauty in his surroundings, “the old man, who, taking up an instrument, began to play, and to produce sounds, sweeter than the voice of the thrush or the nightingale. It was a lovely sight, even to me, poor wretch!”(134).
The responsibility for Victor becoming a monster rests in part on his father, who allowed him to continue his pursuit of unrealistic scientific knowledge. “If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me, that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science had been introduced, which possessed much greater powers than the ancients”(68). But also on the society that taught him to pursue the loftiest of gains, that placed scientific advancement on a pedestal. Victor was encouraged to leave home and distance himself from his family and humanity as a whole in order to devote his life to the creation of a life but this alienation from his humane side leaves him unable to connect with his creation on an emotional level, “It was a most beautiful season; never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vine yield a more luxuriant vintage: but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature. And the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and who I had not seen for so long a time”(83).
His creation is viewed as terrifying, not only because of his sheer size but because he does not fit into Victor’s idyllic world. Victor’s life is painted as flawless from the beginning with the first hint of pain coming at the time of his mother’s death, he is emotional unprepared for this and soon escapes into a world where he will not have to deal with it, “The time at length arrives, when grief is rather an indulgence than a necessity; and the smile that plays upon the lips, although it may be deemed a sacrilege, is not banished”(72-3).
Victor’s creation, I will refer to him as Karl, begins his life afraid, cold and in pain. He is treated from his first moment of recognition with nothing but repulsion and angry violence, “the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted. The whole village was roused; some fled, some attacked me, until, grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons, I escaped to the open country” (132). Though he was physically more than capable, he did not react with violence or anger as one might on appearance expect, but fear. “Here then I retreated, and lay down, happy to have found a shelter, however miserable, from the inclemency of the season, and still more from the barbarity of man”(133). When he first encounters the kindness of the DeLacey family, he is drawn to it and the opportunity of learning it provides. Upon the realization that the family is struggling to support itself, he takes it upon himself to act compassionately and to assist them in any way possible, gathering firewood at night and depending on what the forest provides as sustenance. It is only after he treated with anger by the family he has come to love that he reacts with violence and even then only toward their house. The first murder he commits is an accident and he feels profound guilt for it. It is not until Victor, his creator, refuses him another of his kind to love that he reacts with intentional violence toward another living creature, even then he is racked with pain and guilt to his dying day. “do you think that I was then dead to agony and remorse?… A frightful selfishness hurried me on, while my heart was poisoned with remorse…My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine”(241).
Shelley places this in stark contrast to Victor who seems always to have his best interest in mind above all others. He is given all the love and acceptance necessary to pursue science to his heart’s content. His experiment does not go as planned, “a new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs”(82), and he abandons it, not telling anyone in an attempt to save his own reputation. He believes Karl to be dangerous, “its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon to whom I had given life…He was the murderer!” (103), though there is no evidence to support this, and does nothing to protect society from this threat. When the man he has created asked him for but one thing, someone to love, he is at first sympathetic, “I had no right to within from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow”(171). Ultimately, he destroys Karl’s love in front of him, “I thought with the sensation of madness on my promise of creating another like to him, and, trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged. The wretch saw me destroy the creature on whose future existence he depended for happiness, and with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, withdrew”(191). After this event, Victor gains a conscience for what his actions have done to his family, “a thousand times would I have shed my own blood, drop by drop, to have saved their lives; but I could not, my father, indeed I could not sacrifice the whole human race”(209). He feels guilt for the pain he has caused his family but not that which he has caused Karl, as he is merely a “Monster”. When Karl threatens that he “will be with [Victor] on [his] wedding-night. (193), Victor assumes that his own life is in danger as it is the one he values above all others. He does not protect Elizabeth and in this way is partially responsible for her death.
While Victor is responsible for not preventing Karl from becoming violent, his actions are as much an effect of his society’s traditional view of what it normal and its fear of what is not. Had Victor stayed with Karl, taught him language, shown him love and understanding, he would no doubt have matured into a gentle, loving, and caring individual. However, there is nothing Victor could have done to change the community’s view of him, he would have to have remained sheltered. Even with the love of his creator and the Frankenstein family, he may still have longed for another like himself and a place to belong.
Monstrosity is not a natural state of being but rather a state of mind, of the self, the other or both. “Monster” is a convenient label for something we do not understand or cannot place within the realm of our understanding. For something that does not value life, or the same lives we do. We must use this label in order to distance ourselves from it. A monster is something a “normal” person can never be and once labeled a “monster”, one can never be normal again. Monsters are created in the part of our minds that cannot accept differences for what they are. The responsibility for how a monster behaves lies not in its form but in its treatment by others and in the way we are culturally conditioned to separate ourselves from things that are different or outside the norm.
As humans, we perceive human life to be the most important and that is why the disregard of it is such a threat. But to other species, we are the monsters destroying their habitats to create our own and killing them to save ourselves. From a certain perspective, we are all “monsters thirsting for each other’s blood”(103).