Thursday, January 24, 2013

“Human by Nature: Is Frankenstein’s Monster Human?” – Taylor Hochuli: Blog Essay #2, Prompt #1


                The difference between man and monster is deliberately addressed by Mary Shelly in her novel Frankenstein. A creature made of human body parts is put together to create what she refers to as “the monster” for the rest of the novel. Yet, we see this monster speaking fluently and telling a gripping story of how he came to live in a world that had only been cruel and inhospitable. The grotesque figure is balanced out by an emotional side seen through his long narrative and final thoughts before killing himself. However, this emotional being torments his master by killing everyone he cares for, yet in the end the reader feels pity as the monster recites how his vengeance was only spurred on by the scorn of his creator. The monster seemingly walks the line between man and monster throughout the novel, playing with the readers sympathies. This makes answering the question, “Is the monster human?” all that more difficult. Ultimately, Frankenstein’s monster is not a human by definition, but can be considered a human by his capacity for thought, morality and his emotional capacity.

                In order to develop a deeper understanding of what being human means, one must start with the simple definition of a human being. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines human as, “a bipedal primate mammal of the genus Homo” (“Human” 2012). In other words, a human must belong in the biological classification of a human in the animal kingdom. This includes being evolved from past species and being born from another human.  Even this is a shaky definition because scientists continue to argue whether the term “human” refers to more or less specific groups of the genus Homo (Smith 2012). For example, does a Neanderthal count as a human or does it just refer to the current human race? At what point is the cut off for being a Neanderthal or primitive man? This argument continues to rage on, and for the purposes of identifying the monster as human, it has relatively little importance. The drive of all these scientific definitions circles around the idea of evolving from another human. A good summation of what puts Frankenstein’s monster outside of the scientific definition of human is exhibited in the 1999 movie Bicentennial Man. When an android applies to become recognized as a human by a world council, one member denies him with the response, “We have to face the undeniable fact that no matter how much you may be like a human being, you are not part of the human gene pool. You are outside of it entirely.” (Bicentennial Man 1999). Although the monster is far from being an android as described in the book, he is undeniably outside of the human gene pool. The monster certainly has physical human traits since “his limbs were in proportion” and has internal organs like a “work of muscles and arteries” beneath his yellow skin (pg. 35, Shelly 1994). However, the monster is not actually born and is not completely genetically related to the human race. So the monster can be called human-like, but does not fit the strict, scientific definition of a “human.”

                Definitions are usually deeper than just the definition one finds in the dictionary. Whether it is a symbolic, cultural, or other meaning, the true definition includes much more than what is on the surface. One can correctly argue that Communism is a system of beliefs created by Karl Marx about the lower class overturning the upper class to create a fair society, but there is so much more to the term. It includes a rich history, bringing even more feelings and aspects of Communism that a definition could never completely cover. Such a concept is described by Martin Heidegger when discussing technology. He says that, “Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology,” and goes on to point out that the definition of the word tree do not separate out all the different types or elements of a tree (Heidegger 1954). Dr. David Smith from the University of New England points out that scientific definitions are often not as accurate because terms like “human” are part of a “folk-category” (Smith 2012). The definition is unclear because it determined by people and does not have a strong tie to science. He uses the example of the term “weed” which applies to some plants but not to others. There are, “no biological properties,” that determine what is a weed and what is not; the definition is not so scientific (Smith 2012). Although the term “human” is rooted in science, there is a deeper meaning to the term that Frankenstein’s monster embodies. The reader sees the emotional side of the monster through his monologue about his first months of life and his confessions at the bedside of his dead creator.

The “folk” definition of being human includes the idea of being part of the human condition: mortality. A commonly used definition removing androids or gods from being defined as humans include the, “one defining human characteristic…our awareness of our mortality” (Vaknin 2001). Such is used to explain what a human is because the, “scarcity of time gives rise to ambition and creativity” (Vaknin 2001). The monster matches this definition, although just barely. The creation is mortal, but can survive in, “the desert mountains and dreary glaciers” and the cold Arctic which nearly kills his creator (p. 69, Shelly 1994). The monster does allude to the fact that he can die to take away the “spark of life” his creator gave him and he sacrifices himself in the end by burning himself alive to finally end his torment (pg. 165-166, Shelly 1994). With this mortality, he devotes his life toward revenge against his creator who abandoned him. Although it is a terrifying ambition, it is a true ambition caused by his mortality, making the monster human. Another identifying characteristic of being human is a higher intelligence. This is used to distinguish humans from lesser animals or creatures. The creature is certainly intelligent, mastering language and history in a year where it takes most humans at least a quarter of a lifetime to reach his level of knowledge. One might consider this over intelligence as non-human since it is above the levels of the regular populous, but it is intelligence much like a human’s anyhow. He is not smart enough to create life like his creator so there is a limit to his intelligence and makes him seem more human.  The final part of the essence of being “human” lies in morality and choices. This poses a challenge since humans are known for “their behavioral unpredictability” and moral shortcomings (Vaknin 2001). When acts of immense cruelty are performed such as the genocide in Germany or the Stalin regime in Russia, the leaders can be described as inhuman. Instances of violence and anger are seen as less than human, yet even the most human characters have such traits. Frankenstein has his own feelings of violence toward the monster to the point of trying to shoot it after the death of Elizabeth. Yet, Frankenstein is undeniably human. The monster has feelings of anger and rage along with appreciation of nature when learning about the world. His anger is promoted by the mankind’s treatment toward him and only makes him seem more human. His emotional changes from immense loneliness to rage to appreciation show he has the moral characteristics common to humans. Therefore, Frankenstein, although not of the human gene pool, exhibits the essence of being human with his mortality, intelligence, and clear emotional capacity.



Works Cited:

Bicentennial Man. Dir. Chris Columbus. By Isaac Asimov. Perf. Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, and Sam
                Neill. Touchstone Pictures, 1999. DVD.

Heidegger, Martin. "The Question Concerning Technology." Heidegger: The Question Concerning
Technology. Georgia Tech, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2013. <http://lmc.gatech.edu/~xinwei/classes/readings/Heidegger/heidegger_techquestion2.pdf>.

“Human.” Merriam Webster Online, Merriam Webster, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1994. Print.

Smith, David L. "Philosophy Dispatches." What Does It Mean to Be Human? Psychology Today, 16 May
2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/philosophy-dispatches/201205/what-does-it-mean-be-human>.

Vaknin, Sam. "On Being Human." Malignant Self Love. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

2 comments:

Roger Sepich said...

Taylor,

Once again, you have a detailed, well-written essay here that definitely has plenty of information in it.

I liked that this time you presented a clear argument in a thesis statement - that the monster isn't a human by definition but is if you consider its mental capabilities. However, in the body of the essay I thought you took a very roundabout way to support your argument. In my opinion, there was just a little bit too much going on in the middle two paragraphs with references to robots, communism and weeds all taking me away from what the meat of your true argument is. As an educated reader, I already understand that the concept of what makes a human 'human' is a complicated one, so the analogies seemed unnecessary.

I really liked your first and last paragraphs because they seem much more focused on explaining the question at hand, and I think if the entire essay exhibited this kind of clarity, it would have helped the piece as a whole. Your writing style and prose have the quality needed to write good essays, so don't change too much. I'm just suggesting that if you would find a way to narrow your focus when writing, I think that your essays would benefit greatly.

Adam said...

Minor point: it's a preconception - not part of the text itself - that the monster is made up of sewn-together body parts.

I'm not really sure what this means: "Ultimately, Frankenstein’s monster is not a human by definition, but can be considered a human by his capacity for thought, morality and his emotional capacity." Doesn't this mean that really you *do* think the mosnter can be defined as human? I think you're contradicting yourself.

Your second paragraph is rather muddled, because you aren't really adopting a definition *as your own*. You are working with some imprecise biological definition of humanity, but it's not clear whether you really agree or disagree with it - your approach is muddy, in other words.

Your discussion of folk vs. scientific definitions is interesting, and shows promise - but it also makes most of what came before irrelevant. Bicentennial Man is an interesting text to relate to Frankenstein (note that in that text, *legal* definitions are of central importance - how humanity is defined it through law, first and foremost. As interesting as it is, though, there really isn't a coherent argument here - certainly not one rooted in both a clear definition of what humanity is and in the text of Frankenstein. Instead, this essay (really not an essay yet - the argument isn't clear enough to be there) mostly traces out the difficulties of definining the term in the first place. That in itself is a worthy task - but for that to have worked well, you probably should have *begun* with Smith, and done a better job of explaining your focus on "folk" categories or definitions.