Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Frankenstein and the Human (Prompt 3) - Carmen Condeluci

The Essence of the "Monster"

               What does it truly mean to be human? The answer might seem obvious at first, with a biological explanation being the simplest solution, but it becomes less clear when we look past mere physical classifications. When ignoring the human form, we are left with only human consciousness. Philosophers have pondered for hundreds of years what the true meaning of human consciousness may be, with conjectures ranging from as bleak as the Socratic requirement of rational ability to Descartes’ dualism of self. Today, modern science attempts to uncover the workings of our consciousness through psychology, and to further define true human nature. One of the founding fathers of the science, Sigmund Freud, once defined the “deepest essence of human nature” as consisting of the aim to satisfy basic needs such as self-preservation, need for companionship, aggression, and an impulse to seek out pleasure. Although Freud’s analysis may appear lacking in depth, these mechanisms of human consciousness provide an ample basis for classification of a being as “human”.
                With this set of requirements in mind, let us examine the “monster” from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. From the moment Victor animates the creature, it is conscious of itself and its surroundings, even commenting later on the “strange multiplicity of sensations” that overtook it all at once (Shelley 57). This fulfills the first true requirement of humanity: the possession of consciousness of self and surroundings. The monster further explains its confusion as it attempts to make sense of the strange world around it, eventually seeking out for shelter, food, water. After waking the next morning, the monster comments that it covered itself in some of Victor’s clothes for warmth, and later finds and tends to a fire which it uses to better its food supply. Before it has even left the area surrounding Ingolstadt, the monster has shown that it cares for its own life through its successes in self-preservation. It even comments on the safekeeping of its own life when it confronts Victor later on top of Montanvert, saying, “Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it,” (Shelley 56).
                The monster continues its story by telling of the family of cottagers that it happened upon. It expresses a strong desire to become companions with the family, even referring to the ones it stalks as its “friends” while it discreetly assists in the cottagers’ labors. The monster makes it no secret that it in its every intention to one day join the cottagers, with it lamenting, “I formed in my imagination a thousand pictures of presenting myself to them, and their reception of me,” (Shelley 63). Eventually, the monster comes forward to its “friends”, only to be cast away by their horror and violence towards its hideous form. All of the monster’s efforts to join the cottagers, as well its confrontation with them, speak towards its great need for companionship and love, yet another component of Freud’s essence of human nature. Furthermore, the rejection causes the monster to enter a state of incredible rage, destroying parts of the forest and setting the cottager’s hut ablaze (Shelley 75). This showcases the monster’s ability to display aggression, as does his sworn vengeance towards Victor and the eventual murder of his brother William. Later still, when the monster is shot after trying to save a young girl’s life, it swears eternal hatred towards mankind.
                Not all of the monster’s apparent humanity is seen purely in tragedy. It mentions numerous times throughout its story that it finds great pleasure in appreciating the beauty of the natural world around it, such as delight it finds in listening to the songs of birds (Shelley 58) and the joy it experiences on the first day of spring, on which it even sheds a tear of delight. The monster even comments, “I felt emotions of gentleness and pleasure… revive within me,” proving that it can, in fact, possess and express emotions of not only hatred, but also of happiness (Shelley 76). However, the monster also pursues pleasure with its hatred through its sworn revenge on Victor. After the monster successfully strangles William, it expresses a feeling of triumph and superiority, giddy with the knowledge that it can oppress the creatures that scorn him. Whether its pleasure is brought by joy or vengeance, the monster clearly shows its impulse to lust after it.
               By utilizing Freud’s basic criteria, it can be seen that the monster certainly possesses the “essence of human nature”. It feels pleasure when it sees the beauty of nature and does everything it can to keep itself alive, even in the face of a gunshot wound. The monster longs for the companionship of others, and becomes enraged when it realizes that dream will never become a reality. Beyond Freud’s criteria, the monster shows through his tale to Victor a level of introspection and realized self-loathing that only the brittle psyche of a human could experience. It is through the “monster’s” humanity that it becomes apparent that it is truly more human than those with whom it longed for companionship and met it with horror and cruelty.

"Freud - Essence of Human Nature." Science and Philosophy. Web. 04 Sept. 2013.


Adam Lewis said...


First of all, I found your blog to be well thought out. There are a couple places, I'm sure you'll find them, where the wording is a bit off and tripped me up, but minor typos aside, very well written.

I also related a bit of Frankenstein to Descartes and other psychologists, though more generally, but I like your definition better than mine because it is more concise, I left a lot open to further questions. You took some of the same roads that I explored as well, biology, consciousness, and emotion.
The nice thing is that you obviously read beyond the first half of the book whether you realized it or not. I think we have different versions because my page 75, for example, is only as far as Victor visiting the site of William's death upon returning home and by page 75 of your book the monster has already set the hut on fire. This isn't a bad thing, because it allowed you a longer and more in depth glimpse into the monster's psyche that I didn't get until I finished the book this week, which made it very difficult (the reading ends before the cottage account is over!)

The great thing about taking the psychological perspective is that you have a lot to draw on should you decide to make this one of your revisions. Not only can you delve further into Freud if you so choose, the man had books upon books of ideas on human nature, but you could also regress it to someone that Shelley would have been familiar with. Freud was born in 1856, well after this book was published and could not have affected her views. This is an idea I had myself, after posting my blog, as a possible revision/addition. I think this will give us a good idea of whether or not Shelley herself thought her creation was human. Beyond that, you can go further in modern psychology and explore the ideas of Jung and Adler as Freud's contemporaries or even more modern psychological ideas.

Adam Lewis said...

Well you are either very lucky or very unfortunate because I replied to the post immediately after mine, not before. So you are either welcome or I'm sorry...

Joseph Hastings said...

I believe that you know what you're talking about, you definition of what makes a human a human was very good, and I believe you can go a lot farther with it. As said from the the person that first commented you can probably elaborate more on Frued. You did a good job using examples from the text and siting them, showing that you know what you're talking about. You did a very good job on your first prompt and this could be an easy revision for you.

Adam said...

Without disagreeing, exactly, with Freud (although I'd be much happier with a direct citation here!), it troubles me that this definition works for pretty much any animal. "self-preservation, need for companionship, aggression, and an impulse to seek out pleasure" -- Cows do these things!

Surely life is precious to the monster, and surely it is conscious - although the juxtaposition of these two things shows how awkward your definition is. Why couldn't it be put into a coherent sentence?

One miss here, given your emphasis on companionship, is that the monster tries to make William his companion before murdering him. I still object in principle, since (for instance) cows and ants seek companionship too, but I think noting that would have made a nice quick addition to your essay.

The emotions you discuss in the next paragraph barely relate to your definition. I understand that pleasure-seeking is important here, but isn't the aesthetic appreciation of nature a highly specialized *form* of pleasure-seeking? This, in fact, could have helped you to a narrower definition of specifically human nature, I think.

Overall: You call this Freud's definition of human nature, although it's broad and you don't actually cite Freud at all. You wander away from it - the most specific and interesting part of the essay, in fact, is when you abandon this definition for the more specific discussion of an aesthetics of nature. Your use of the novel is fine, and you are certainly able to discuss the monster ably - but the definition is both lacking and very inconsistently used.