Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Monster as a Human

Is Victor’s Monster Human?
               As times change, so too must our definition of things. We live in an age where the traditional idea of the family unit is being rethought, where our idea of what is and is not technologically possible changes every day, and what we view as acceptable in our society is in a state of constant flux. So, taking a more modern perspective, I argue not whether or not Frankenstein’s monster is human but rather, how could he not be? It is worth noting, I fear, that this argument may end up hinging on one’s political beliefs more so than any other factor.
               For starters, let us examine the monster as a sum of his parts. The monster is made up solely of human parts, “Scrounged,” as Shelley describes them from various graves. If one takes the argument that being human (not necessarily being possessed of “humanity”) means being made up of human flesh and bone and having a human brain, the Monster is decidedly human. I liken this to the practice of calling a dead body “he” or “she” rather than “it” as many societies are prone to do. Whether living or dead, the body still belongs to a human thus we, as a society, imbue it with a certain removed humanity, still referring to it by a gender specific, possessive name. If the Monster is made up of dead human flesh, it is no different than any other dead body (aside from the fact that it is something of an amalgamation) and should therefore be referred to as one.  
               Once Victor manages to imbue the Monster’s flesh with life, it is worth mentioning that what was once a dead human body is now, well, alive again. All of the Monster’s biological processes are functioning well enough to sustain his life. While his motor skills and mental abilities are not yet developed, this would be expected with any human who has just been brought to life or, “born.”
               Many people, myself included feel that what truly separates humans from animals is their capacity for high reasoning and complex emotion. As the Monster’s mind develops, the reader sees him display both of these abilities time and time again.  In chapter thirteen, the Monster asks, “When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, the, a monster, a blot upon the earth from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” (Shelley, 110). This particular passage is important for two reasons. He displays acute reasoning skills (all things considered) by deducing that he is the only “monster” on earth. It shows that he has observed and processed his surroundings with enough intelligence to conclude that he, despite being made of the same biological material as everyone else, is somehow different. In itself that is an intelligent deduction but does not display his full humanity. In calling himself, “a blot upon the earth from which all men fled and whom all men disowned,” he shows that his conclusions have had an emotional effect on him. He feels isolated. Lonely.
               As if this were not enough, in chapter sixteen, the monster provides a definitive declaration of existential suffering. “I am alone and miserable,” he says simply (Shelley, 129). It is possibly the simplest of quotes but it tells the reader everything they need to know. The Monster is intelligent enough to recognize his feelings for what they are and is eloquent enough to give voice to them.
               Taken as a whole, it is only logical to conclude that Victor’s monster is human. He is made of identical building blocks to all other humans, operates by the same biological principles (once reanimated), reasons the way that other humans do and to a level that not all are capable of. Most of all though, he feels the same existential pain that other humans feel. Such experiences are part of being a human. 

1 comment:

Adam said...

Jackson - the first paragraph is vague but also interesting - I like the direciton, but you could have been more precise.

Minor point: it's a preconception - not part of the text itself - that the monster is made up of sewn-together body parts. Note the contrary evidence we might find in the description of the assembly of the female monster...

"Many people, myself included feel that what truly separates humans from animals is their capacity for high reasoning and complex emotion." - this is vague, and problematic in the light of what we know, e.g., about Chimpanzees. Defining "high reasoning and complex emotion" in a way that excludes chimps but includes us is actually pretty tricky - you don't bother to definine what you even mean by "high" or "complex" here.

Note: his understanding of himself as a "blot" provides evidence for his humanity, as you say. It also provides evidence, perhaps, that he is aware that a contrary, exclusive definition of humanity exists. What is it?

For what it's worth, I actually think that defining humanity by way of existential suffering is the best idea you have here. I would have loved to see an essay on this topic. It's precise, insightful, and focused enough to really defend in relationship with the novel. Maybe you can boil down "complex" emotion and "higher" reasoning to the capacity for existential suffering?

Overall: I expected something much more clear and precise about the political dimensions of how we define humanity. That is, our politcs provide our definitions - I thought that was your approach. That was a fine, if vague idea. The existential suffering thing was very clever, if a late arrival. The vaguer (non)definition of "complex"/"higher" wasn't as good. Regardless, focusing throughout on either the political or existential woudl have been a good approach. As it stands, this essay is a worthy source of ideas/revisions, but lacks a true focus throughout.