Uncovering Frankenstein’s Monster’s True Identity
The task of defining humanity is approachable from many different perspectives. I believe that the most beneficial way of exploring what it means to be human is within the realm of history, specifically referring to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Website, and their guidelines for humanity. Two of these guidelines, and what I believe to be the most important ones, are that humans communicate through language, and participate in a social life. Humans advanced considerably over the course of history. While we were once Neanderthals almost mindlessly wandering the Earth, we now function as a highly civilized society. 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 language and social life, and how the convergence of those two traits further proves that he is human.
To begin, an important qualification of humanity is the ability to express emotions through language and symbols. Frankenstein’s monster’s progress with language 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. That curiosity urges him to listen more intently, so that he may quickly pick up on the language. It is also evident from the above quotation that the monster is indeed detecting emotion since he describes the sounds as “melancholy”. His word choice here reveals that he is capable of recognizing more sophisticated levels of emotion, compared to simply “sad” or “happy”. Also, understanding tone of voice is important, as it accounts for a large proportion of language. If he were not able to detect the melancholy, then he would have absolutely no idea what feelings the girl was expressing, as she does not actually speak.
Later, the monster attempts to learn the language of the cottagers even more so than 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, the word “close” particularly illuminates how much the monster cares to learn the language. If the language did not interest him, he would half-heartedly pay attention to the words, if he even paid attention at all. Instead, he devotes full attention to the language. This is why he is able to pick up on English so quickly, even more quickly than a human would. Thus, this trait makes him seem borderline superhuman. Critics might argue that this makes him more monster than man. However, a monster would not be able to understand language at all. It is a higher-level cognitive ability. For that reason, I think that Frankenstein’s monster is more human-like. He also 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 characteristic 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 have 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. While this is very telling of his social ability, it also says something of his tendency to do some higher-level thinking. Monsters would only socially interact instinctively, which could put the cottagers in danger. Frankenstein’s monster does no such thing, as he sees how the humans interact with each other.
Additionally, the monster desires 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. These words, while having a heavenly tone to them, also make it apparent that the monster aspires to be like them. He has recognized that he is different from them, and that is the first step to curing what he sees as the problem. Additionally, the fact that he recognizes that he is different says something about his mental capabilities. A monster normally would not care what he looks like, but Frankenstein’s monster has higher thinking capabilities. The monster’s terror of his appearance 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, and that, after all, is the start of something greater.
Perhaps it is more important to look at how these two qualifications of humanity: language and social life, more freely interact with each other to make the more complete image of a human, and how Frankenstein’s monster is a reflection of that image. The official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics writes on their website that, “Children learn language initially because they strive to connect with other persons to share what they are feeling and thinking.” (Language Development and Emotional Expression) The monster is very similar to a child, desperate for affection, and possessing a strong need for social interaction. The monster finds that the cottagers, “possessed a method of communicating their experience and feeling to one another by articulate sounds”, and he “ardently desired to become acquainted” with this “godlike science” (Shelley 121 - 122). Language is a tool for the monster, a means of gratification for his social need. What the monster and child have in common is that they are both just starting out in life. They learn to utilize language so that they can interact with each other on a deeper level. The monster especially considers language important, because he uses the word “godlike”. Comparing language to a god sets it on a level that is far above anything else. He clings to it because it is the solution to his loneliness. The monster also “ardently” wants to learn the language, because he recognizes that language is an important bridge between himself and the cottagers. All of these examples converge together to form the theme that language is the single most important tool in social interaction. Without it, humans would have to resort to using only body language and facial expressions for communication. If that were the case, then humans would not be much more of an intelligible species than monsters. However, humans can utilize the power of speech, and so they are able to make connections with people that would be utterly unimaginable to the monster mind.
Emotion is another strong link between language and social interaction. Emotions help humans to better understand each other, as well as remember what has transpired in a social gathering. Thus, the connections are more legitimate with a solid foundation of memories. Again, the Official Journal of the American Pediatrics writes that “word learning is intimately connected to a child's emotional life, because infants learn language to talk about and thereby to share those things that they are thinking and feeling: the persons, objects, and events that make up the goals and situations in everyday events that are the causes and circumstances of emotion” (Language Development and Emotional Expression). Frankenstein’s monster displays this emotional capability while watching the cottagers interactions, “The gentle manners and beauty of the cottagers greatly endeared them to me: when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathised in their joys” (Shelley 122). Before the monster can learn language, although at this point he is already trying, he still finds an emotional connection with the cottagers through his observation of them. Since he feels their depression and their joy, according to the Official Journal of the American Pediatrics, he should be able to process language easier. By the word “sympathised” it is evident that the monster goes beyond merely feeling joy by himself, but is able to feel joy with the cottagers, and thus forms a connection with them, even though they still are not aware of his existence. Also, since the monster lists several feelings, it shows that he has the capacity to feel a diverse range of emotions, making him become more human.
Conclusively, Frankenstein’s monster should be considered human, or very near human, based on the fact that he understands language, and has the desire to have social interactions with people. He is also well on his way to accomplishing the latter. 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 reader can sympathize with the monster, as he applies emotions into almost everything he does, just like his fellow human counterparts.
"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.
"Language Development and Emotional Expression." Language Development and
Emotional Expression. American Academy of Pediatrics, 1998. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated
Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.