The word human is defined as “social animals capable of showing sympathy with other beings, and living life with [inherent] values and ethics,” while superhuman is considered “exceeding normal human power, size, or capability.” These are important and fundamental definitions to keep in mind while interpreting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Although there are clear, undeniable textbook definitions of the word human and superhuman, there is still some ambiguity that exists due to individual opinion or believe ─ whether religious, scientific, or philosophically based. It is common to formulate an opinion from a personal and unique understanding of the words, especially once they have found the definition which most correlates with their beliefs. In reading Frankenstein, one will ponder how to determine the correct definition of what Victor’s monster actually is. Consequently, this leads us to a complex, yet intriguing set of questions: What is the “monster” considered to be? Is he human? An animal? Or, an entirely different species? By thoroughly analyzing the text of the story this question can be answered by considering Victor’s creature as not just as a standalone definition of “human,” but more of a hybrid being.
Victor’s apparent thirst for knowledge was prevalent and refreshing. He yearned to one day be admired by many by doing things no one else was capable of. In doing so he envisioned a “new species [that] would bless [him] as its creator and source” (Shelley 49). He became engulfed in his studies and determined to know all the intricacies of the human body. Victor toiled with the parts of animals, watched bodies decay in charnel-houses, and set out in anguish to bring a spark of life to an unanimated being. Victor worked tirelessly for two years and demonstrated his intention to create a man when he specifically says, “It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being” (Shelley 49). It was to be composed of the same veins, muscles, and intricacies any person has (Shelley 48). Shortly after he begins the planning phases of his experiment by scavenging the graveyards for bones and other “materials.” The creature is composed of many pieces similarly to humans. These statements initially lead us to believe that the monster is going to merely become a patchwork human-being. In a sense, this is true. However, this can be misleading because it misrepresents the creature in terms of being viewed strictly as human due to the anatomical similarities a normal male possesses, but we will see that he has unbelievable potential.
Simply put, the monster cannot be classified as only human, but actually a hybrid of several since he consistently defies all logic because of his phenomenal capabilities. The first thing we discover is that Victor intended to make this creature of gigantic stature. Okay, even today it’s normal to observe athletes and many other people who stand at tremendous heights and we never bat an eye. This is not exactly mind blowing. What makes the creature extraordinarily different from a typical human is his unspeakable speed, strength, and his invulnerability to adverse weather conditions. According to Bellows, “Frankenstein says that the creature possesses ‘superhuman speed’ and incredible strength. By saying superhuman, it indicates that the creature is something that is more than a human or animal” (13). Victor will later observe first hand his creature’s swiftness when he says “I saw him descend the mountain with greater speed than the flight of an eagle…” (Shelley 167). For example, although they are human in every aspect, Hakeem Olajuwon, Usain Bolt, and Jay Cutler are three humans who individually represent freakish height, incredible speed, and uncanny strength. They could be looked at as superhuman in some respects, but not even close to what the creature is capable of doing. Victor’s creature is constantly able to defy even more so what some of the greatest athletes of today can do. Hence, this helps lend to the idea that he is a mixture of both human and supernatural creation.
According to Bellows “rationality, like language, is another facet that humans esteem and point to as another separating factor between humans and everything else” (17). One of the creature’s most profound humanistic abilities is when he demonstrates rationale through the development of his newfound language. When Victor ascends to the top of Montanvert he specifically sees the outline of a man far away. Of course this turns out to be the monster swiftly approaching. When he meets him it is with violent, scornful words, but to his dismay the monster emphatically wants to reason by pleading his story with a surprisingly sophisticated mastery of language. This is our first glance at the monster demonstrating more than what can be considered a humanistic quality most people possess.
A logical being, unlike any other animal or creature in nature, is the only thing capable of having rationale and speaking a language fluently. This is first evident when the monster says “Be calm! I entreat you to hear me, before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough that you seek to increase my misery?” (Shelley 106). Again, the monster pleads “do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind” when he is trying to convince Victor to hear out his story and ultimately give him a similar looking creature as a bride (Shelley 106). His actions are indicative of human instinct to reason and have pre-planned motives (Bellows 18). With even the most basic understanding of this grotesque creation anyone can see the existence of human nature engrained deeply in him. His counterargument yearns for very sensible empathy, but maybe more importantly it demonstrates his unique transition from a speechless being to one that is now speaking eloquently.
Later in the novel the creature’s acquisition of the French language is told in his lamenting story to Victor. It should be noted that he demonstrates an uncanny way of understanding a foreign language at such a rapid pace which could be something a normal human could not do by the age of two. Again, this aids to the idea that he is a hybrid between human and superhuman. Bellows claims there are two characteristics that consider someone “in the realm of being human,” of which “one is language and the other is rationality. These two qualities have throughout time been the distinguishing features of human beings” (15). I would like to note that she explicitly states that it’s in the “realm” of what it means to be human, not necessarily stating that the creature is in itself solely in the category of a human category.
Over the past few centuries some of the greatest minds have delved into this topic vigorously to exploit what they believed defined human or the human nature. The 16th century philosopher René Descartes believed language was the ultimate distinguishable barrier separating humans from other creatures (Bellows 15). Language comes into play during several parts throughout the story, but most notably while the creature is hiding in the hovel watching over the De Lacey family in their cottage. Near the beginning of chapter 12 Shelley writes:
By degrees I made a discovery of still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. (121-122)
The creature desires to understand the power of language and by doing so is attempting to justify humanizing himself. Webster believes “his realization that people communicate through speech…is something he must master if he wishes to be a part of society” (29). Eventually he begins to acquire basic understanding of words and in doing so learns the names of the cottagers, Felix, Agatha, and the old man. Eavesdropping up until this point has given the monster a fair amount of exposure to language, but when Safie arrives she is taught how to speak French which is when the monster truly begins to learn how to articulate words. With this new tool the monster “has learned something that humans prize very highly” and can begin to be seen similarly in the same light as human beings (Bellows 17). Naturally as humans we value language in society as a means to express our feelings, thoughts, and intentions. In this particular case the creature yearned to understand these unfamiliar sounds (words) in order to one day be able to approach the delightful family he so creepily was watching over. In doing so the creature “will attempt to use language to communicate with people, and therefore make a connection to the human community” (Webster 11). By acquiring the native language of the cottagers so quickly and utilizing it for himself, the creature is demonstrating this hybrid human/superhuman combination.
Nothing is more enchantingly complex than emotions. Some may argue that the power of emotion is the epitome of humanity or human nature. It determines how we interact with our daily environment and how we communicate to others. Frankenstein’s monster is no different. The creature expresses humanistic emotion while observing the De Lacey family and he laments “I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature: they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions” (Shelley 117). He is an emotionally fragile character begging to be accepted by the societal beings he has encountered. As he come across the forest he describes the sound of birds as “pleasant” while other experiences are quite unusual compared to what he knows. There is something quite profound, but beautiful about this ghoulish man as he interprets the world.
As he spies on the cottagers, he is overwhelmed with a great amount of emotion when he views the girl shed tears at the sound of the old man’s instrument playing (Shelley 117). Maybe even more surprising is the monster yearning for companionship in the cottagers that he watches daily. This emotion derives from the gratification of security when we have companionship—a very normal human characteristic. Also, the monster has an understanding of sympathy towards the cottagers because he helps with their struggles by realizing the impact he has on the family when he takes food for himself. Shelley conveys the monsters understanding of his wrongdoings when she writes “I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of their store for my own consumption; but when I found that in doing this inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained, and satisfied myself with berries, nuts, and roots…” (121). Bellows makes a few points pertaining to this creatures acts being distinctive to humans only. She notes that “these attributes include but are not limited to kindness, sympathy, trust, and caring,” all behaviors which the creature demonstrates while watching over the De Lacy family (14). The creature even goes to great lengths to provide wood and clear a path for the family during his nightly routine. His altruistic intentions coupled with his sympathetic feelings toward the family help provide a clear sense of this creature more as human.
It is human nature to fear the unusual and unknown; the monster is no different in this case. However you choose to define what it means to be a human, you must take into consideration the compiling evidence that points toward several typical human-like characteristics and of course some superhuman ones, too. We are aware that he resembles a man, but is capable of doing things that no man can do. In this sense he is certainly considered a hybrid human being. Another humanistic ability displayed by the creature is his constant reasoning and rationalizing through speech near the latter half of the book. During his first encounter with Victor on Montanvert he sympathetically pleads for his life and for his story to be heard. He does this with an eloquent mastery of the language. These two qualities, rationale and speaking, are two characteristic only humans can exhibit. He acquires the knowledge and comprehension at such a rapid pace which must be acknowledged as being at ‘superhuman.’ Finally, the creature has an ability to somehow understand, then formulate emotions on his own. While watching over the cottagers the creature interprets and learns what feelings truly are. He even goes as far as acting altruistically in favor of the cottagers’ food and wood supply. Again, he develops emotion in a very short amount of time, but it still denotes a human quality to understand and emphatically display emotions in reaction to other human’s emotion.
Bellows, Martha, "Categorizing Humans, Animals, and Machines in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein" (2009). Senior Honors Projects. Paper129. http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/srhonorsprog/129
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover, 2009. Print.
Webster, Noelle. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Creature’s Attempt at Humanization”. May 2011. http://www.albany.edu/Webster_Thesis.docx