Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Frankenstein Human

            When posed with the question of whether or not the monster created by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelly’s novel can be considered a human, one must consider different definitions of being classified as human.  Typically, dictionaries define being human with scientific declarations.  These definitions follow along the lines of “a bipedal primate mammal”.  There exists, also, definitions that go beyond an anatomical sense and focus more on the substantial abilities of the human brain.  One such definition comes from Kenneth Burke’s work titled Language as Symbolic Action, in which he describes what it means to be man.  Frankenstein’s monster can be analyzed in comparison to both definitions to determine that he can indeed be classified as human.
            To fully consider the application of the dictionary definition of human to the monster Victor Frankenstein created in the novel, one must observe and understand the process by which the monster came into being.  Victor was not hunting or searching in the woods for animal parts to assemble his creation, he instead gathered the human body parts he needed from resources around the city.  As a result, all the different parts that were included, although not part of a continuous, singular human body, within the monster were technically human.  Frankenstein also built the monster as an intended replica of a human being.  When the monster is given life the human cells in his body reanimate. He becomes a living, breathing collection and arrangement of body parts that could and did walk on two legs, meaning bipedal.
            One argument that arises when defining the monster as not being human is the observation of the monster’s ‘birth.’  The argument being that an individual is given life by the mating of two oppositely gendered humans.  This process of reproduction includes the joining of a male sperm cell with the female egg cell, which assemble together to form a new living human being, containing the genes of both parents.  Is this process all that different from Frankenstein’s assembly of the monster?  Obviously the distinction of two oppositely gendered humans does not apply, but one can see some abstract similarities.  Although alone in the process, Frankenstein assembled the monster out of parts from different people all around the town.  Why can’t this process be viewed as similar to the joining of the genes between the sperm and the egg?
            This comparison between typical human reproduction and Victor Frankenstein’s work in reanimating his monster can be taken one step farther.  During the typical nine months of human gestation, the new collection of cells is given life and sustained within the mother’s womb by the umbilical cord.  Can the umbilical cord be compared to the alchemical process Victor used to reanimate the monster?  Can the time he spent gathering the necessary materials be compared to the nine months of gestation experienced in biological human reproduction?  These comparisons are undoubtedly abstract but the same can be said about Victor’s creation of the monster in general.  The entire process was unheard of and completely crazy.  His professors in school shunned him away from the works of the same alchemists Victor had drawn his knowledge from to create the monster.
             Now consider the monster’s mental capabilities to Kenneth Burke’s definition of man.  Burke states that “Man is a symbol-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection.”  Burke’s requirements for being man can be applied to the monster from his discussion with Victor.  First, the monster was able to speak with Victor, indicating he is a symbol-using animal, language being the symbol.  Second, the monster tells of how he remained silent after trying to sing back to the birds.  He was disgusted by his voice and applied a negative connotation to both his voice and himself as a result.  When the monster found shelter at the family’s cottage in the woods, although he did not build it himself, he was using it as an instrument of man to better his natural condition of being exposed to the elements.   The family members in the cottage chased him away upon seeing him.  Frankenstein’s monster understood that he was being observed and treated as less than human, but he was goaded by this hierarchy which referred to him as less than human.  Physically the monster was far from what would be considered perfect, but he was still corrupted with the idea that he could be considered acceptable as a person emotionally, before his encounter with the family in the cottage.
            Both definitions of human can be analyzed and applied to the monster created by Victor Frankenstein to determine he was human.  Some comparisons are abstract but one must consider the implications in applying these definitions to a form of life created by a means other than the typical reproductive process of most organisms.  The process and idea itself was very abstract and deserves the same level of abstraction to define the creation that resulted as a human being. 

Burke, Kenneth.  Language As Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and
Method.  Berkley: University of California Press, 1966.
                Found at:

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Dover, 2009.

"human." 2013. (15 January 2014).


Courtney Elvin said...

I very much enjoyed reading your take on the Frankenstein’s monster as a human prompt, and I appreciate how you addressed the prompt from both the biological and cognitive perspectives, as they both are significant to look at. Specifically, I really liked the idea of the creation process of the monster being compared to human gestation, and if you were to expand upon this entry, this is an intriguing point that would be worth adding to! However, I wasn’t totally clear on your argument in the previous paragraph regarding the “conception” and what you were trying to say there, maybe try to make your point a little more obvious there. Later on I thought your deconstruction of the definition of a human in the context of the mind exceptionally well supported each part of the definition (which was detailed and complex to begin with) very clearly. A few notes you may want to consider: add in-text citations referencing the specific pages in your sources, briefly summarize the main ideas of your two definitions in your introduction paragraph, and try to limit the number of questions used in your arguments, as statements will likely be more effectively assertive. Overall, I think you’re spot-on as far as addressing the prompt, the paper is well organized, and your comparisons are well-supported!

Adam said...

There are various difficulties here.

First, you begin with a mistake - the belief that Frankenstein assembles the monster from body parts. This is a creation of Hollywood, and although you could infer it from the text of the book, it's a bit of a stretch.

No part of this essay (except maybe the Burke section, where you summarize a little) reveals any knowledge of the text of the novel. You cite no passages, refer to no accurate information, and make absurd comparisons (between an umbilical cord and the "alchemical" means of creation? Really?)

Now to Burke. Why you use this definition is a complete mystery. It's an interesting definition, and I have had at least one student capably use it in the past, but your use of it borders on the incoherent. If you are interested in it, you should be unpacking it over the course of a whole essay, not rushing through it in a paragraph.