Rousseau's Theory of Natural Human in Frankenstein
While reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I not only noted that the monster changed when it began to be introduced to society, but also the ways in which it changed. I couldn’t help but relate these changes to the Theory of Natural Human. Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his Theory of Natural Human in 1755. This theory covers a great deal of ideas, but I will relate those which apply to Frankenstein.
First, a major aspect of Rousseau’s theory states that natural man, uncorrupted by society, has a type of natural goodness that is similar to that of an animal’s. This is to say that innate goodness is not the same kind of goodness which we relate to when using the word. This type of goodness is actually neither good nor bad, but good in a sense of self-sufficiency. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein relates to this when the monster is first brought to life. As he described in chapter seven, the monster wanders as it learns and adjusts to being alive. When it discovers hunger, it begins to search for food, as any animal would innately do. When in need of shelter, he continually seeks a better, safer place to stay up until he resides by the cottage. These are all based on self-sufficiency, and the monster acts with the natural goodness which Rousseau describes is evident in natural man.
Although Rousseau has this idea of natural man, a more important aspect of his theory is that of what society’s impact on natural man is. Rousseau states that society has a negative influence on men. This influence involves a sort of transformation that changes the innate self-preservation and use of reason into pride. This pride is described as “artificial”, and encourages man to take a step away from reason and become more concerned with comparison to others. In doing so, this pride allows people to go about their “bad” ways. Rousseau states that this transformation leads to fear and instead of gaining pleasure from self-sufficiency, allows man to gain pleasure from lesser aspects of others, whether it be pain, weakness, or in a more modern sense, standing in society.
This transformation described by Rousseau is highly evident in Shelley’s Frankenstein. When the monster begins to live alongside the cottagers, he slowly learns to compare himself with them. A key passage where he begins to compare himself is when he gazes into a pool of water. He states, “At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and 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” (Shelley, 124). When the monster realizes how different and grotesque he appears when compared to the cottagers, he is aware that he will always be compared to as being lesser as far as looks are concerned. The monster is also very aware that the voices of the cottagers are much more delightful than the voice he possesses. It would appear the only status that the monster has over average man would be his great speed, stature, and strength. These, too, are comparisons being made while he is exposed to society.
As I previously stated, the pride that develops, according to Rousseau’s theory, leads to finding pleasure in the downfall of others. This is evident much earlier than in the monster’s description of his history, when it is discovered that William has been murdered. Although Justine is eventually held guilty for the crime, the reader and Victor are fully aware who the true murderer is. Justine poses a question during her trial, regarding the purpose behind the murder: “Did the murderer place it there? I know of no opportunity afforded him for so doing; or, if I had, why should he have stolen the jewel, to part with it again so soon?”(Shelley, 86). This question is posed without knowledge of the murderer. However, the purpose of the murder is made clearer when one considers Rousseau’s Theory of Natural Human. The monster’s revenge on Victor Frankenstein is certainly fueled by the monster’s pleasure in the pain of others. The monster could gain nothing but this pleasure from the murder considering how he set up ultimate tragedy upon Victor and those close to him with the planting of William’s possession.
The presence of this theory in Frankenstein allows us to read the novel differently, keeping in mind how a “Natural Human” can be manipulated by its surroundings and its exposure to society. Considering that this transformation made by the monsters catalyzes the story, we should embrace these changes, as without them, the novel would lose much of its action. That being said, I don’t believe that the presence of this theory creates problems, but rather allows us to view one philosopher’s explanation of why Frankenstein’s monster behaves the way he does. The idea of a “Natural Man” is mostly an idea, and rarely present in life (except for the rare instances of feral children). As such, Frankenstein can be an appropriate model to how Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Natural Human would behave during Mary Shelley’s time, and we can only imagine how such a being would behave in modern society.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1934. Print.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes. Discours sur les sciences et les arts. Paris : GF Flammarion, 1992.