Thursday, January 24, 2013

Is the monster human? Brian DeWillie prompt 1

"Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection" Kenneth Burke has defined what it means to be human in his essay Definition of Man. This definition, to me at least, uses somewhat confusing language but was explained in the Wikipedia article on this subject. More simply put, man is defined by his ability to use symbols as communication, understanding of negation (a creation of language), separation from nature by his own techniques, existence in different social structures, and his pursuit of bettering himself. These four (main) ideas form a basis by which we can judge if Victor Frankenstein’s monster is indeed a human.

Clearly, the monster uses language to communicate with Victor. When he is living in the hovel by the De Lacey’s cottage, he hears Felix “utter sounds that were monotonous” [p.119] which he later found out was Felix reading aloud. Over many months of observing the family, he makes a discovery that “these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds.” [p.121] It is difficult for him to pick up the language at first with limited access to viewing what they are talking about but soon learns words such as fire, milk, bread, and wood. He spent more months just trying to learn how to communicate using their language and as we see when he confronts Victor on the glacier, he masters the use of language. The understanding of negation, which Burke says does not exist in nature and is a characteristic of language, is important in the sense that morality stems from the idea that there are things we should not do. We can see a sense of morality in the monster from his retelling of his hatred of himself after committing the murders of (specifically) Clerval and the others.

The monster’s use of technology is not well known. When he first leaves after being created he discovers a fire left by some beggars and uses it to keep warm. He is able to deduce that dry wood was needed to maintain the fire, and he uses it to cook food, although it never mentions that he learns how to create a fire. Additionally, he lives in a hut for a while which was constructed of wood, and he uses stones and wood to cover ways which he might be seen as well as carpets the ground with clean straw. Apart from these examples, he seems no different than an animal in the sense that he travels on foot and uses hunter/gatherer techniques for finding food.

We see that the monster recognizes that there are different social stratifications. When living in the hut behind the De Lacey’s, he notices that they are unhappy, and he learns that one of the main causes for this is their poverty. He understands this social status makes it difficult for them to provide for themselves as well as their father and so he no longer takes food from them when they are gone. The monster can also be seen in a social class of his own. Because of his grotesque features, humans will not even talk to him and immediately assume he has malicious intentions. Despite his attempts to speak and reason with the De Laceys and William, he is unable to change his labeling as a monster.

Finally, we can look at the monsters goals of improving himself. At first, it seems as though the monster would fit this description. He lives behind the De Laceys and dedicates his days to learning their language and learning how to communicate with others. He seeks moral improvement by helping the De Laceys because they are poor rather than taking their food for his own well-being. Finally, he makes a plan to try to ease himself into society by slowly convincing individuals that he is a well-intentioned creature. I think, however, that he ultimately fails at striving for self-improvement. Once he has been shunned by society too many times, he becomes obsessed with exacting revenge on his creator. He no longer seeks to better himself; rather, he only exists to bring down Victor to his level of misery.

By this definition of what is human, I would say that Victor Frankenstein’s monster is not a human. Altough he has many human qualities, based on his abandonment of self-improvement and dubious use of technology, he does not fully fit this definition. 


Karen Knutson said...

Hello, I don't understand why you do not consider the monster a human by your definiton and argument. You have hown that he has a sense o morality, and can communicate. Also, I find that to be a weak definition of humanity. There are many oher animal species that communicate, bees by their waggle dances, primates, pretty much every animall is able to communicte with its species. Also, the monster is ble to use the technology of his time very well. He can read, and there was most likely a low literacy rate ack then. Also this is the late 19th cntury and there wasn't a whole lot of electricity yet, so books were a pretty high form of tech back then.

(Also a lot of mammals have social structures). Eusocial insects (bees, ants), primates, dogs, lions etc.

Adam said...

I like your definition (no surprise). I think it might have been better to focus on part of it, though, rather than the whole, at least for a rough draft. It's odd to discuss how helpful wikipedia was without explaining *how* it was helpful, incidentally...

I thought you did a good job, given space constrains, engaging with Burke's definition. Simultaneously, though, you miss opportunities for a deeper engagment, because you're trying to do so much.

Example: you make the insightful point that the monster is essentially in his own social class. But if he exists parallel to, or outside, ordinary human hierarchies, doesn't that arguably mean that he is *inhuman*, because he does not take part of the human hierarchical order? After all, his behavior (especially his vengeance) is wholly disruptive of the social order, rather than seeking for a place within it.

This is a rich definition - fertile ground for a deep engagement. I think you could do 20 pages on why and how you might use this essay to interpet Frankenstein. This is an interesting, worthwhile start, but I would have liked it better if you had engaged with part of the definition, rather than the whole, but in greater depth. Even if you had really asked what it *means* or why it matters that the monster is partially but not wholly human by this definition, you would have done better: rather than mechanically presenting the definition and responding to it, show us why it *matters* that the monster does or does not measure up to the definition...

I think that his abandonment of self-improvement could be easily related to the fact that he doesn't really fit into human hierarchies, incidentally..

That being said, this is certainly one of the best (because most interesting) responses to this prompt I've ever gotten.

Karen's response, incidentally, shows some reasons why we might prefer a more biological definition, or at least why we might want to relate a philosophical definition like Burke's to more scientific ones...