"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" [Burke p. 491] 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 more simple terms in the Wikipedia article on this subject. “Burke's definition maintains that man is distinct from other creatures by the virtue of his use of symbols to communicate, his understanding of negation, his separation from nature by his own techniques, his existence in differing social structures, and his goal to become better than he presently is.”[Wikipedia] These five ideas, along with a biological definition of a human, 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 and others that it encounters. When he is living in the hovel by the De Lacey’s cottage, he hears Felix “utter sounds that were monotonous” [Shelley 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.” [Shelley 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, it is assumed he has mastered all aspects of language including reading, speaking, and writing. The important thing to consider about man being a symbol-using animal is that these symbols define our reality. “Take away out books, and what little do we know about history, biography, even something so “down to earth” as the relative position of seas and continents?” [Burke p. 493] This is important to Frankenstein because I think that his knowledge of language allowed him to learn more about the world beyond his immediate surroundings. For example, the monster was able to learn about South America and its lack of human colonization. He is able to use this knowledge to, at first, persuade Victor to make him a mate to live with. By looking at this clause alone of Burke’s definition, the monster could easily be considered a human.
Understanding negation is an important aspect of being a human. It is also a derivative of a human’s ability to use symbols (language). [Burke p. 498] Burke also says that negation does not exist in nature. He uses the analogy of a table – A table is just that, but we could go on forever describing what a table is not. [Burke p. 498] I think this is relevant to the monster because in his learning of language, he is soon able to correlate words with things. This allows him to say what each thing is and is not. The most important aspect of the negative as it applies to the monster is that morality is based off of negative thinking. Burke quotes from Emerson’s Nature which says, “all things shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments.” The Ten Commandments are all generally worded in the same way: “Thou shall not.” To use an example applicable to Frankenstein, the sixth commandment is you shall not kill. Rather than state all the things that a person can or should do, it lists killing as something which should absolutely not be done, and other activities are good to do (so long as they don’t interfere with other commandments). The monster does understand this idea of negation. A child may disobey their parents and not always follow the “thou shall not” rule but they still understand the idea of it. [Burke p. 500] In the same way, the monster commits great atrocities by murdering several of Victor’s friends and family, however he is able to feel the emotions of regret and remorse for committing these acts.
“Even the most primitive of tribes are led by inventions to depart somewhat from the needs of food, shelter, sex as defined by the survival standards of sheer animality,” [Burke p. 503] and the monster is no exception to this. 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, we can assume that the monster would have this knowledge after he gains the ability to read and understand books. 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. Even though he did not construct this hut himself, I think it justifies his use of technology. The important thing to remember when talking about the monster’s use of technology, however, is that he is prepared to shun all of it to go live in South America with (hopefully) his mate. He would disconnect completely with all civilization and technology to go forage for food and not interact with anyone in the jungle. Although you can argue that language is a form of technology [Burke p. 505] what would this imply about the mate that Victor would build for the monster? It would be shown how to do everything only from the knowledge that the monster currently has. It would now be like the monster that Victor made is the caretaker of this new monster. Considering his promise to move to the jungles of South America, I would consider this to be no different than some sort of mother animal raising their young, and that certainly can be used as an argument that the monster is not human.
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 or possibly considered outside of the social classes of humans altogether. 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 in the eyes of the humans he interacts with and even his creator. Another point arguing that the monster is outside of a social class is that he chooses not to act human. The way he was created was almost super-human and it can be seen that he has incredible strength, speed, and intelligence. A quote from a paper discussing the humanness of bionic augmentation struck me as relevant to the monster’s situation. “In spite of advances in biomechanics that in many cases far exceed the capabilities of their human prototypes, these devices are, by design, functionally attenuated in a deliberate attempt to retain…their humanness.” [Morales p. 4] The details of the creation of the monster are somewhat ambiguous but one might assume that because the monster was of such great size, more than just parts of scavenged humans were used in its creation. The monster could be considered a re-built human like The Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin [Morales p. 2] or Adam Jensen from the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution. They both had terrible life-threatening injuries and when they were saved, bionic implants were used to enhance their abilities. I have not seen any of The Six Million Dollar Man, however using Adam Jensen as an example, I think a big difference can be seen with the monster. Jensen says throughout the game, to a point of being repetitive, “I never asked for this.” The game is based around making choices of how to accomplish your missions, with the ethical, non-violent, and human choices centered on using timing and distractions to sneak past obstacles. Another ways of playing the game focuses on enhancing your “augmentations” in order to just blast away everything in your path. I believe that in this game, you can choose whether to act like a human and choose not to use your augmentations as an advantage or you can let them take over and thus let them dictate how you act in certain situations. The monster’s humanness, or lack thereof, can stem from the fact that his bionic features are super-human and he chooses to use them as such.
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. At first he basically “gives up” on improving himself by saying he will move to South Africa. He turns away from technology, and thus any hope of learning new things. When Victor stops the creation of a mate for the monster is really when the self-improvement completely stops and even regresses. The monster becomes wholly focused on getting revenge on Victor and completely loses all interest in trying to connect with other humans. It resorts to extreme acts of violence, and although the monster says it is tormented by having to do this, he still continues because it is something that it must do for revenge on its creator.
A human is not just one of these things but fits into all of these definitions at once. By this definition of what is human, I would say that Victor Frankenstein’s monster is not a human. Although he has many human qualities, the monster lacks several qualities as well. The monster abandons technology, avoids the social structure of humans, and has no goals of self-improvement. Though the monster was made in the human image, it failed to actually be a human.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1934.
Burke, Kenneth. “Definition of Man.” The Hudson Review Vol. 16, No. 4 (1963): 491-514. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.
Morales, J. “Humanity in the Bathwater: Restoration vs. Augmentation in Bionic Design.” Virtualmo. 18 May, 2010. Web. 2 Feb, 2013.
“Definition of Man.” Wikipedia. 30 Jan, 2013. Web. 2 Feb, 2013.