|Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Creature’s Attempt at Humanization
By Noelle Webster
“I began the creation of a human being” – Victor Frankenstein (Shelley 54). This is a short yet powerful statement from the eponymous character of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein is a man from a privileged family who becomes obsessed with pursuing scientific advancements, and is eventually able to create a living being. While Victor does succeed at creating a living being, he does not succeed at creating a human being. The creature becomes excluded from society, and tries to humanize himself through knowledge of language. To begin with I will do a close reading of Mary Shelley’s novel, analyzing selected scenes. I will be looking at what, according to the novel, makes something human and what excludes the creature from humanity. Victor’s creation attempts to humanize himself and become part of society, but ultimately is unable to do so. The first chapter will deal with the way the creature is excluded. He attempts to join and be a part of the community, but is met with constant and violent rejection. I will look at what motivates the people’s prejudice against the creature. The novel suggests that the creature cannot be accepted as human because he is a singular being, and therefore cannot be a part of a community. Since Victor made the creature, there is not another being that is the same as him. He is singular in appearance, and in the way he was made. His singularity makes it so that the creature cannot relate to humans. Without the ability to relate, he cannot be human.
In the second chapter I will be looking at the creature’s acquisition of language as an attempt to humanize himself. The creature tries to use language as a way to relate to humans, thus trying to compensate for his singular appearance. He uses his acquired language in hopes of making relations, in order to become a part of the human community. He desires companionship and goes to considerable lengths to be accepted. The creature recognizes that people communicate through sounds, and that these can result in specific emotions. The creature desires to use this to make connections that will enable him to live alongside humans in a community. The creature is intelligent and is able to speak and reason, yet is not recognized as a human by society. He is able to voice his concerns, but due to the way he looks he cannot be considered human and is therefore denied the rights of man. This means he is unable to defend his crimes as a human normally would. He is labeled a murderer, but is not allowed to speak on his behalf despite being quite eloquent. The creature’s ability to reason and communicate does not allow him to be a part of the human community. He does not have a being that is similar to him physically, and therefore is excluded.
Chapter One: The Creature’s Exclusion
The first scene I would like to look at is the actual moment when Victor gives life to his creation. Victor, narrating the story to Walton, writes
It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. Shelley 58
Victor has been working on creating life for quite some time, and now that the moment has arrived his anxiety is so intense that he can barely handle the feeling. There is no hesitation here, and Victor does not appear to be worried about any dangerous consequences. He is focused and eagerly anticipating his creation being given life. However, it is interesting to note Victor’s choice of phrasing when he says he “might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at [his] feet”. I feel that in this phrasing Victor is specifying his creation as something distinctly not human. Victor calls the creation a “lifeless thing”. A description such as this is extremely cold and could be describing anything from a table Victor has in his house to a piece of garbage. He does not even say it is a lifeless body, but merely a thing. To bring the creation to life, Victor will “infuse a spark of being”. The word “being” is an abstract term, and not something that is specific to humans. Exactly what will be infused with the lifeless thing is not specified, and the result is a creation that does not belong to any specific category. The creature’s status as a being is ambiguous, and he is already being excluded by Victor in the sense that he is already referring to the creature as something that is not human. Also interesting is that Victor notes that the creature is lying at his feet. The visual is of the creature being physically below Victor. This gives the impression of Victor being elevated above the creature, both literally and figuratively. The implication of this cold description is that Victor is something superior to the creature. At this moment, not only his status but also his body is superior. Victor is a human, and the creature is currently a “lifeless thing”. Victor clearly does not recognize the creature as a human, and in fact sees him as something inferior. The creature is just a “thing”, he is an object. Therefore, Victor does not see him as a being that could be part of the human community.
In the same passage Victor goes on to say that “…by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs” (Shelley 58). This is the exact moment where the creature is given life. The movements of the creature described here do not give the impression of how a human moves. Victor’s initial perception of his creation is something whose movement is really quite odd. Victor sees “the dull yellow eye of the creature open”. The creature does not open his eyes, but is rather described as the eye simply opening. It is as if the eye is opening, but not being opened. Not only that but the eye that is revealed, instead of being white like a person’s eye normally is, is a dull yellow. Overall this is quite an eerie image, and I feel it is not a description of a normal human movement. The creature is moving as if it is a thing and not a living being. After this Victor says that “it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs”. The limbs are not described as a voluntary movement on the creature’s part. It does not give the impression of someone moving their limbs. Instead, it is as if the limbs are objects being moved by something else. The words “convulsive” and “agitated” also imply jerky, unattractive movements. Again, the image is not that of how a human moves, and is overall unsettling. It is as if the creature’s movements are involuntary. His body appears to be moving without the creature deciding to do so, and later in the novel it is the creature’s inability to control his passion and actions that cause him to commit murder. This apparently involuntary movement causes him to do things that will not allow him to be accepted into society. Also noteworthy is that here Victor is still referring to the creature as “it”. The creature has now been given life, but Victor’s initial reaction is that the creature is an “it”. Victor is telling this story to Robert Walton after the events have occurred, but when remembering the moment Victor first saw the creature move, his description uses “it”. This again implies that the creature is an object, and not a person. This does not seem intentional on Victor’s part. It implies that at the initial moment of seeing the creature, there is an instinctual bias against him. Remembering how he felt in that moment, Victor can only describe his creation as an object.
Victor then goes on to explain his reaction when he realizes he has successfully completed his endeavor, and the creature is now an animated being. His reaction is that of horror. He states:
How can I describe my emotions at the catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! -- Great god! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips. Shelley 58
Victor had originally imagined the creature as beautiful. The initial concept was forming something beautiful and aesthetically pleasing to the human eye. But the creature turns out to be something that humans cannot stand to look at. Victor had been working on making the limbs proportional, and selecting features that were pleasing. He uses human bodies and bases the concept of the creature of what humans would find appealing. Yet the result is terrifying. The creature has flowing black hair and good-looking teeth, but all these features accomplish is an overall more horrifying effect. The beauty in those aspects only creates a more stark contrast with the hideousness of the creature. He is made from human parts and in human likeness, but is not seen as a human being. Even though he is meant to look human, it is as if there is something inherently inhuman about him. Only moments before this, Victor had no hesitation about giving this body life. If he had seen the body as this ugly previously, I do not think Victor would have gone through with the animation process. Victor doesn’t see his creation as hideous until it’s too late, and this change in perspective happens in an instant. An explanation for this is that Victor was so wrapped up in his endeavor that he could not see what he was doing with reasonable judgment. He was so involved in his own fantasy that he could not see what he was creating. I think there is a little more to it, however. I think that Shelley is implying that no matter what efforts Victor had gone to, the creature would have been hideous. Victor puts a massive amount of effort into building this body, and his goal is that of beauty. It is only at the exact moment that the creature has been given life that Victor becomes horrified. He immediately describes the creature in ways that are negative. The lifeless body was not horrifying to Victor, but the instant the creature has life he is terrifying. There appears to be something inherent in the creature that is terrifying to humans, giving them an immediate bias against him.
After Victor describes the creature, he continues describing his reaction to what he has accomplished. He says
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured; and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. Shelley 58-59
Here Victor is noting the fact that he quickly changed his view on the creature. He has spent almost two years of his life completely focused on his task, even at the expense of his own personal well being. Yet his beautiful dream is now completely gone and all Victor sees is horror. With the same amount of intensity that he desired to complete his task, he now desires to take back and forget the experience. Victor is “unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] had created”. He genuinely cannot stand the sight of the creature. If there was a person who should be able to overcome the creature’s physical presence, it is Victor. Not only is Victor the creator, but he also put so much of his own time and effort into the creature. But the creature’s body is too hideous. Furthermore, Victor attributes his change in feeling to “human nature”. This contrasts with the horrifying description that the reader is just given of the creature. Here Victor is explaining the creature’s disgusting body, and explaining his reaction to it as human nature. Humans will instinctively deny the creature because of the way he looks, yet the creature is made from human bodies and most desires to belong to the community of humans. By sheer definition, the creature cannot have “human nature.” Human nature is a way of behaving that all humans are born with. It is a phrase that describes the way humans are inclined to react to situations based on the fact that they are humans. It is something that humans have naturally, but since the creature is not a naturally occurring being he does not have human nature. The creature will also be unable to understand human nature. He is not equipped with the knowledge of how humans behave, and does not understand it. The creature is not a human that was born, he is a being that was made. Therefore by definition he is lacking human nature, and it is this human nature that causes people to exclude the creature.
Victor goes on to tell Walton the following:
Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived. Shelley 59
Again, Victor is reiterating that a human cannot accept the visual appearance of the creature. He is implying that there is something within humans that will not be able to support the idea of the hideous creature. It is as if there is something inherent in the creature that is making his rejection an inevitable absolute. This passage also supports my previous statement that it is only when the creature actually has been given life that he becomes so hideous. Victor states that the creature’s lifeless body had been ugly, but once life had been infused and the creature began to move the image completely changed. Lifeless, the creature poses no threat. Now that he has been given life, the creature threatens to upset society. The creature is now something that is “such as even Dante could not have conceived”. This is of course referring to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. In Inferno, Dante travels through the levels of hell and encounters numerous monsters and horrors. Yet Victor is saying that even Dante, who can conceive all of these monstrous things, could not have envisioned the creature. That is an extreme jump from merely being “ugly” just a moment before. It is the fact that the creature is now alive that is so horrifying.
The creature is so horrifying because there is no other being similar to him. People are unequipped to deal with the sight of the creature. Victor made the creature, he is not something naturally occurring in nature. Therefore people cannot deal with him naturally. The reaction is to reject what one is seeing, because it should not exist. People have a visual prejudice against him; they assume he is a monster because he is ugly. People relate to each other due to having things in common, but visually the creature cannot relate to humans. There is no other being like him, so the creature cannot start his own community in which to exist. He is forced to look for one to assimilate into. But the humans are unwilling to accept something that looks the way he does physically. Maureen McLane, in her essay Literate Species: Populations, "Humanities," and Frankenstein, writes that
As both Foucault and Frangois Jacob note, species was defined in this era according to the persistence of the visible structure. For the creature, to be "of the same species" is to look alike, however "deformed and horrible" that might be. Species here seems to follow a logic of appearance. It seems less a scientific category denoting classes of beings which reproduce their like over time than a perceptual-social category which organizes the possibility of contact among beings. Creatures of different species will "not associate" together. Aesthetic revulsion precludes social interaction. This has been repeatedly demonstrated by the visual paranoia the monster induces and the semiological riddle he presents. McLane 975
McLane is saying that the very idea of a species is to look similar. If beings are of a different species, they are not meant to associate together, or form a community. The idea of species is not something that people would look at scientifically during the time the novel was written, but on a more social level. So because of the fact that the creature does not look like humans normally do, he is of a different species and therefore not a being that would be accepted socially. McLane notes that this is evident in the way that people react to his appearance, and that is something with which I agree. Unable to relate to humans through physical means, the creature will attempt to relate through language. He will attempt to use language to communicate with people, and therefore make a connection to the human community. This will be discussed in the second chapter.
In regards to this scene in the novel, I would lastly like to look at what happens directly following Victor’s rejection of the creature. The creature’s appearance has greatly upset Victor, but we see that only after seeing a human friend of his does Victor calm down. It is human nature to feel better when one is near someone similar to oneself. This is what happens to Victor. Victor has left his house and has begun to wander because he does not wish to deal with the event that has just occurred. Victor’s description of what he views includes the following phrases:
“Morning, dismal and wet, at length dawned”
“[I] felt impelled to hurry on, although drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky.”
“I continued walking…endeavouring by bodily exercise to ease the load that weighed upon my mind.”
“My heart palpitated in sickness of fear…not daring to look about me”
Victor is extremely distraught. Everything around him he perceives as bleak, and his only desire is to find a way to forget about what has just occurred. These phrases show that Victor is completely distressed. It seems as if he will not be able to calm himself or become cheerful for quite some time. Yet Victor is almost immediately cheered up when his friend Henry Clerval arrives to visit. Victor says that
Nothing could equal my delight on seeing Clerval; his presence brought back to my thoughts my father, Elizabeth, and all those scenes of home so dear to my recollection. I grasped his hand, and in a moment forgot my horror and misfortune; I felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy. Shelley 61
This again is a major mood shift in Victor. He goes from completely distraught to almost euphoric. Upon seeing Clerval, Victor is flooded with memories from his home and his childhood. This makes him happy. This demonstrates the distinct contrast between the creature and Clerval, a human. Victor is remembering his childhood and home, and this is something the creature does not have. It sets him apart from humanity. It is also interesting that it is in the moment that Victor grasps Clerval’s hand that he finally feels calm and joyful. Clerval’s hand and body is that of a human. There is comfort and connection there for Victor. The creature does not have this, either. His body may be made up of human parts, but his body is not that of a human. The creature’s body causes such an alarm to Victor that he becomes terribly distraught, and this is only cured when he sees and connects with a human body. I think it is important that the two bodies cause opposite effects.
The Creature Enters a Village and the Creature Saves a Young Girl
I would like to briefly look at these two scenes because they further demonstrate the creature’s desire for community and also the visual prejudice that causes his rejection. After the creature leaves Victor’s apartment, he comes across a hut. He says
At length I perceived a small hut…This was a new sight to me; and I examined the structure; with great curiosity. Finding the door open, I entered. An old man sat in it, near a fire, over which he was preparing his breakfast. He turned on hearing a noise; and perceiving me, shrieked loudly, and quitting the hut, ran across the fields with a speed of which his debilitated form hardly appeared capable. Shelley 108
This is the first human that the creature encounters after leaving Victor’s, and the man’s reaction is to shriek and run. In fact, the old man runs faster than a man of his age should even be capable of doing. However, after this happens, the creature is not upset, he is merely enchanted by the hut and proceeds to eat the man’s food. He does not seem to understand the man’s reaction to him. This implies that the creature must learn to understand human emotions, and was not created with the knowledge. A human would normally be able to recognize that something was wrong when the man shrieked and ran, but the creature was merely surprised. This is showing that the creature lacks basic knowledge of human emotions and human nature.
The creature then continues on and finds a village. Upon viewing the village, he says
How miraculous did this appear! the huts, the neater cottages, and stately houses engaged my admiration by turns. The vegetables in the gardens, the milk and cheese that I saw placed at the windows of some cottages, allured my appetite. One of the best of these I entered; but I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted. The whole village was roused; some fled, some attacked me, until, grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons, I escaped to the open country and fearfully took refuge in a low hovel, quite bare, and making a wretched appearance after the palaces I had beheld in the village. Shelley 108-9
The idea of this community is greatly appealing to the creature. He finds it fascinating and desires to be there. Once again people are scared of him, and this time they attack him. The creature, having been hurt, now realizes that this reaction to him is not okay, and there is something wrong. He does not realize that he looks different yet, and therefore does not understand why he cannot enter the village. He finds refuge and wishes he could join the village. This is showing the creature’s lack of knowledge of human behavior, and how he is excluded because of it.
In another scene, the creature saves a young girl from drowning. He watches the girl slip and fall into a river, and he says
I rushed from my hiding-place, and, with extreme labour from the force of the current, saved her, and dragged her to shore. She was senseless; and I endeavoured, by every means in my power, to restore animation, when I was suddenly interrupted by the approach of a rustic, who was probably the person from whom she had playfully fled. On seeing me, he darted towards me, and tearing the girl from arms, hastened towards the deeper parts of the wood. I followed speedily, I knew not why; but when the man saw me draw near, he aimed a gun, which he carried, at my body, and fired. Shelley 143
The creature’s instinct here is to immediately save the young girl. That shows benevolence in him. Yet it is assumed by the man that finds them that he is attacking her, and he grabs the girl and flees. The creature then follows after them, and he says he is not sure why he does so. I feel it is because he so desires to be accepted. These people react poorly to him, and now that he understands this emotion, he desires to follow them. Even though people are rejecting him, he still follows them because he desires to join them. I also find it interesting that the creature says the man aimed the gun “at [his] body”. He does not say that he “aimed the gun at me”, but “at my body”. Once again it is the creature’s physical body that is the problem. The creature has just committed a good deed, but is punished for his actions due to the way he looks. Similarly, the creature helps a family living in a cottage, but is also met with fear and rejection.