Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Prompt 3: Frankenstein and the Human

           It is interesting that we, as humans, have such trouble defining what it means to be human.  This has been the focus of many great works of fiction, including Frankenstein and a novel we will later read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  It may seem like there is an easy answer here.  A human is a being that prescribes to the rules and forms coded in our DNA.  In other words, the measure of a being can be explicitly defined by this code, the blueprint which created them.  As such any two beings (from Earth) can be perfectly compared by the similarities and differences in their genetic code.  There is, of course, a spectrum of traits and mutations we must take into account.  For example, a person with Downs Syndrome is most definitely human, despite having an entire extra chromosome.  This is, in my opinion, the only realistic definition of what a human is.  But here we encounter a problem: this definition does not encompass unrealistic entities, such as the Frankenstein monster.  So, in order to discuss the question of the monster’s humanity, we must expand our definition of humanity.  This, I believe, is one of the purposes of Mary Shelly’s novel.  To show us a special case for which our current ideas about humanity are unsatisfactory.
            Depending on your point of view, the Frankenstein monster may or may not fit into my definition of a human.  On one hand, he possesses a human genetic code, or more accurately, the genetic code of multiple humans.  This is not problematic as the vast, vast majority of our DNA codes for traits not only common to all humans, but to most Earth-born life.  On the other hand, his genetic material was not used in his creation (as far as we know).  So here we have a life-form that is, for all intents and purposes, human, but was created completely artificially, without the use of human gametes.  Here we see that the answer to our question of the monster’s humanity is somewhat ambiguous.  We can find no definitive answer without further specifying our definition.
            At the time this novel was written we had no idea how life was formed.  As such, the questions brought up by this great work cannot be answered scientifically.  Nor should they be.  What I believe Mary Shelly is really asking is if the monster is similar to us intellectually and emotionally.  To stick with traditional metaphors, does he have a human soul?  In my humble opinion, the answer to this is a resounding yes.  Throughout the novel it has been demonstrated that the monster is kind, sensible, and above all, empathetic.  He has to capacity to think, learn, and love, as demonstrated by the feelings he has and the kindness he shows toward his cottage neighbors.  We can plainly see that he has many of our strengths, but does he possess any of our flaws?  Can he be as violent, irrational, and vindictive as the humans who condemned Justine?  Or Victor, the man who groundlessly leaps to the conclusion that his creation, which he abandoned at its birth, is responsible for the death of William?  So far, there is little evidence that the Frankenstein monster possesses these dark qualities.  There is only one instance, just before he relates his story to Victor, in which he threatens violence.  At this point, however, he has been backed into a corner.  He lives as a hermit in a cave of ice and is attacked on sight by any and all humans.  What life-form would not do the same in his position?  But he once again proves to be the better man; he offers Victor a chance to prevent his threats from becoming reality.  This implies that he does not truly wish to hurt people, but the fact remains that he will not hesitate to do so.  It is this that tells me he does, in fact, possess many of our weaknesses.  However, like any good person, he is able to overcome them.  To me, this proves his humanity beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

            So here we have a being, stitched together from the pieces of various human corpses and artificially given life, abandoned at birth, left to interpret the world in any way he saw fit, and he ends up almost exactly like us.  He masters our language with an eloquence that many today do not possess. He loves.  He hates.  He helps some, and hurts others.  He experiences all of our best and worst emotions, and is able to deal with them exceptionally well.  He may or may not be human, but he most certainly has a human soul.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Focusing on DNA only raises problems. For instance, life then has no relationship with consciousness; a vat of fertilized eggs becomes as human as a city of people; a sample of someone's tissue may be as human as they themselves are. That doesn't mean you need to back down, of course - but you need to think things through a little and try to wrestle with some of the problems immediately raised by a definition like this one.

More than halfway through your essay, you shift your ground: Shelley was really concerned with what constitutes a human "soul." You acknowledge the obvious problems of using DNA as your sole definition when they had no idea what DNA was in Shelley's time.

In other words, you fully abandon your approach more than halfway through the essay. What follows is a host of generalizations, loosely connected to the novel, of what the human soul is and whether the monster has a human soul. None of this requires, or uses, any very particular knowledge of the text, nor at any point do you attempt to engage in any complications or complexities related to the human "soul" (for instance, can a being which can raise itself to adulthood in less than a year, among its many other talents, really be said to be unambiguously human in its soul - especially given its isolation?).

In short: there is nothing resembling a sustained argument about the text here.