Thursday, January 16, 2014

Uncovering Frankenstein's Monster's True Identity

Kristen Welsh
Dr. Adam Johns
Narrative and Technology
16 January 2014

Uncovering Frankenstein’s Monster’s True Identity

            The task of defining humanity is approachable from many different perspectives. For the purposes of this essay, I choose to explore the question of humanity within the realm of history, specifically referring to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Website. We, as humans, have made much advancement in the course of history. In this essay, I wish to argue that in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein’s monster becomes a human in the same way that our ancestors did through walking, language, and social life.
            First, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History describes an aspect of humanity to be the ability to walk erect. When we first read the monster’s account of the story, we learn that he “walked, and, [he] believe[s], descended” (Shelley 110). Since he is able to immediately move erect, he is at this point even more advanced than “typical human” babies. Although he seems slightly superhuman in this way, he is still susceptible to human fatigues, such as heat exhaustion. He seeks shade after the “heat wear[ies] [him]” (Shelley 110).  Therefore, from the very first page in which the monster’s perspective is introduced, we see that he has both needs and flaws, which initiates him on the pathway to humanity.
            According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, another qualification of humanity is the ability to express emotions through language and symbols. Frankenstein’s monster’s progress with language takes a considerable longer timeframe to master than simply walking erect, but his progress is clear. When the monster first encounters language, he describes the girl as “uttering a few sounds with an air of melancholy” (Shelley 116). The reader can infer by the reflective tone that although the monster cannot fully process the exchange, it intrigues him. It is also evident from the above quotation that the monster is indeed detecting emotion since he describes the sounds as melancholy. Later, the monster is attempting to learn the language of the cottagers even more so than he was before since he reflects that his “days were spent in close attention, that he might more speedily learn the language” (Shelley 130). While dissecting the word choice, I find that the word “close” to describe attention particularly illuminates how much the monster cares to learn the language. He has a growing attachment to the cottagers, and wants to further his relations with them, which leads into my next point: social interaction.
            The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History deems it a necessary component of humanity for the being in question to have a social life. This is the aspect of Frankenstein’s monster that is the most underdeveloped. Apart from scaring off an old man just days into his existence, the monster has not yet had any real human interaction at this point in the novel (Shelley 114). Nevertheless, traditional humans’ social interactions over the years also become more complex as time has gone on, and thus the monster is moving in the right direction. He deeply engages in observing the cottagers social interactions, such as when he sees that, “the young stranger knelt at the old man’s feet, and would have kissed his hand, but he raised her, and embraced her affectionately (Shelley 128). Not only is the monster observing the people, but he anticipates their movements, since he guesses that the stranger almost kisses the old man’s hand. He has been perceiving the cottagers’ interactions for so long that he learns their individual personalities and uses that as a basis to make inferences about their next movement. Additionally, the monster has the desire to be accepted by the people so much that his reaction to his own reflection is one of horror: “I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers – their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool” (Shelley 124). Shelley uses vivid imagery here to represent the idea that the monster considers the other humans to be superior beings by using words with positive connotations such as grace, beauty, and delicate. The monster’s terror is rooted in his desire for peer acceptance – a common human need. Thus, although he is not directly involved with the other humans, he most certainly possesses the desire and emotional capability to form relations with them.
            Conclusively, Frankenstein’s monster should be considered human, or very near human, based on the criteria that he walks erect, understands language, and has the desire to have social interactions with people. Although he may be considered human from a historical standpoint, his appearance no doubt affects others abilities to see him as human, which consequentially creates problems for the monster. The monster is thus seen as a sympathetic character, as he exerts emotions into almost everything he does, just like his fellow human counterparts.
Works Cited
"Human Characteristics: What Does It Mean to Be Human." Human Evolution by The
Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated
Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.


Alec Brace said...

First of all, I enjoyed reading your essay and think it is very well written. The examples you chose from the text strongly support your academic source’s qualifications for the monster to be human. There were a lot of examples from the text too, which is good. One thing I would change is your last sentence in the third paragraph where you use the word “my” explicitly. I understand this is an opinion based prompt but I didn’t feel like that sentence flowed with the tone of the rest of the essay. Maybe you could change the line to read “He has a growing attachment to the cottagers, and wants to further his relations with them socially.” Or something along those lines so that it is still a good transition into your next paragraph.
My advice if you were to revise this essay for an assignment later would be to add another source and/or definition of what it is to be human, but from a non-scientific source. You only have one source to defend your thoughts in this essay, which is fine for a short essay like this one. I wrote on the same prompt and found Kenneth Burke’s definition of man surprisingly applicable to the monster.

Adam said...

Your definition is vaguely expressed, and it's not clear why you pick it. The rest of the essay is quite clear, though. You define humanity in three ways, and devote three paragraphs to asking whether the monster is human. More focus would have been better here. The discussion of the monster's physical form is somewhat obvious, and much less interesting than the latter two categories. Your discussion of his social development is good, especially because it reveals that you understand that there are *problems* here. After all, he is engaged in close observation of social life, but has none of his own, other than a handful of aborted and usually violent encounters. Is this really social life? Or is mere understanding/observation of social interactions enough to make him human? You are raising problems and should be asking questions here, rather than glossing them over. Your discussion of the monster's acquisition of language is fine, but also rather abbreviated. You could have attended more to the extreme haste and proficiency of his development. We might ask, for instance, if it's really human to develop language *outside* of a social context rather than *within* one (your two categories are related, although you don't do much to relate them). But you avoid problems and complexities. I do like your note about the closeness of the monster's observations, though.

Overall: you should have done one of these three things well rather than all three of them hastily. Or you could have done language & social development in a more integrated way (which might be the most promising way to handle a revision). You are breezing over interesting problems, rather than engaging with them - a revision on this topic should really work with rather than evade difficulties.