by Arthur Paul Patterson
VIRTUE IS FOUND at the margins of society more often than at its centre. If this is so, Mary Shelley's Monster is a real find! Her creature is an isolate of great sensitivity, kindness, and insight. Contrary to James Whale's 1931 film of the Creature as a lumbering dolt, Mary Shelley's Monster was modeled on Rousseau's notion of humanity as the "noble savage." The nobility of the Creature is evident as he unveils his chronicle to Victor Frankenstein upon the icy crags of Mount Blanc.
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Meet Frankenstein’s Creature
An aesthete, the Creature responded to nature with appreciation and joy. With the eye of a scientist, he gradually differentiated one object from another. He observed, experimented and made use of the benefits of the created order. This contemplative naturalist distinguished the call of each bird species and attempted to imitate their song with his rough voice.
Like a newborn experiencing the jolt of being, he painfully adjusted to harsh light and sound, quickly learning the lesson that perception and consciousness hurt. Shying away from the glare of sunlight, the Monster was cradled by the moon's subtle radiance. The gentler orb provided a patron, a companion, and a source of spiritual awe. Loneliness insisted that he personify the moon as a special sponsor, but the moon's accompaniment was too subtle for the nurturing of the Creature. His craving for relationship was heartfelt and intense. While his creator, Victor Frankenstein, shrouded himself in secrecy to avoid his fellow scientists, family and friends, the Monster drifted toward civilization to find comfort and fellow-feeling. However much he wanted to have and to be a friend, community was unimaginable. His hideous disfigurement obliged the Monster to live as a clandestine observer of humanity.
The De Laceys, a family in exile, became his model of human culture. These marginals unsuspectingly mentor the Monster. They had withdrawn from the heart of urban Paris to a rustic German village for political and legal reasons. Their suffering and isolation evoked their sensitivity and humaneness. Their virtue was found at the margin, in extremity. In them the Creature had the model and the location to grow toward maturity.
The Outcast's emotions stirred while scrutinizing family life. He admired his human exemplars for their deep love of one another and their sacrifice in times of poverty. He felt their joy when they were hopeful and their sadness when in despair. The Creature's tender conscience surfaced when he discovered that his pilfering intensified their distress. Altering his behaviour, he became their "Good Spirit," doing menial tasks incognito, releasing them for other occupations. Later, he discerned that their experiences of injustice, at the hands of Parisian law, as well as their betrayal by Safie's Muslim father, were sources of extreme torment. It dawned upon him that injustice and betrayal played a significant role in his own wretched condition.
The De Laceys shared the physical burdens of their exile, but more than that, they formed a community of language who encouraged and supported each other. The Creature noticed that language seemed to be a tool for the alleviation of pain and the increase of pleasure. Mastery of the "godlike" science of words might break his lonely quarantine.
The arrival of Safie, Felix De Lacey's Arabian fiancée, expedited the Creature's goal. She had to learn French in order to fully participate in family life. From behind a chink in the rough wall, the Creature took part in a hidden tutorial, learning his lessons more eagerly than the newcomer.
The Creature as Student
An astute and motivated student, he grasped reading well enough to fathom the classics of the Enlightenment. His reading encompassed the cultural, personal, and metaphysical domains of Enlightenment thought. Volney's history, Ruins of Empires, narrated the plight of the exploited "savage" in North America. Hearing of their misery moved the Brute to tears. He compared his rejection by humans with the racial bigotry of the colonizers. Contrasting this history with the hospitality he observed in the little cottage gave him hope. The De Laceys never turned a stranger away from their door. Perhaps they would welcome the strangest stranger of all.
Goethe's Sorrows of Werther introduced the Monster to the sensitivity and agonies of romance. He wept again, feeling kinship with the unrequited Werther. Felix and Safie's affection for one another tore the heart out of the lonesome peeping-tom. He was just becoming aware of his own need for never-to-be granted sexual satisfaction. Self-destruction proposed a decisive way out of pain and rejection. Living, however, seemed to offer more to the Creature since Werther's wretched life displayed a depth of devotion that went beyond mere escape. Sorrow might ennoble the Creature, fitting him for respect if not love.
Plutarch's Lives initiated the Creature to the heroic past of humanity and drew his attention to such things as cities, cultures, wars and lawmaking. The Monster's capacity to appreciate ambiguity in the human condition increased when he read of noble acts followed by brutality and selfishness. Reading Milton's Paradise Lost schooled the Creature concerning humanity's alienation from their Creator. It touched him deeply to learn that while God was at war with his creatures, God also went to great lengths to restore that relationship.
Longing for Relationship
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He wondered if he was worthy of redemption. Exposure to these ideas enabled the Creature to pose the quintessential questions of spirituality: "What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? From whence did I come? What was my destination?"
Learning language incited great thoughts in him but did not satisfy his longing for companionship. His insights and physical existence were kept to himself. Expressing his intuitions and yearnings in the context of acceptance was needed to allow the "godlike" science to dissolve his anguish. Huddled in the cold outside of community, the Creature's newly acquired gift of knowledge served only to deepen his sorrow.
In the ice-cave of Mount Blanc, Victor Frankenstein is compelled to admit that the Monster's "tale and feelings, proved him to be a creature of fine sensation." Relief, however, would only come through relationships. Could the Creature risk rejection? Life at the margin had brought out what was potentially virtuous within him. Would it gain him acceptance?
Neither sensitivity, intelligence nor his pathetic longing for community would overcome human revulsion toward the marred creature.
Had his passionate qualities convinced Victor Frankenstein or the De Lacey family to validate him, Mary Shelley's tale would be a romantic comedy, resembling Mel Brook's modern parody Young Frankenstein (1974). As it stands, the story is a cataclysmic horror tale of compulsion, murder and revenge.
Victor's cruel phrase, "There can be no community between you and me; we are enemies" not only unveils animus toward his progeny but speaks of humanity's collective rejection. The phrase easily translates into "you are outside of human community, we want no part of you." But why? The origins of the Monster, born of the lust of his creator's overreaching schemes, have implied to some interpreters that there is an intrinsic reason for humanity's rejection of him. Physically, he consisted of a tangled mass of dead body parts stitched together to become what nature would never have produced. This quality is labelled by horror philosopher Noel Carrol as "ontological impropriety." The perennial taboo of not blending categories between living and dead, animate and inanimate sets an absolute boundary between the dead and the living. This boundary has been overstepped by Victor Frankenstein; the Monster is the consequence of transgressing nature. From the Monster's perspective this explanation is capricious and unjust: "You are what you are for reasons beyond yourself. You are damned by the human race for it."
Justifying the inhumane treatment of the Monster on physical grounds might have been comprehensible in Mary Shelley's time. Today, when living individuals have the transplanted kidneys, lungs and hearts of the departed sustaining them, this position is nonsensical. Scientifically, we have obscured the boundary between the living and dead; humans have found it to be a boon not a curse. If the Monster is to be found wanting, it can not be on the basis of physiognomy but on a more crucial criterion. A patient combining the parts of other humans or other living beings is no longer considered a monster.
Perhaps it is not Frankenstein's Monster but our species that is incapable of relationship. The problem may be humanity's inability to overcome insularity. Our species is seduced by sameness whether racial, religious, or economic. The Monster is not only dissimilar but is beyond categorization, parent-less, racially indistinct, and vocation-less. Without the ability to link him to anything familiar, those who met the Creature relied on their senses. His physical loathsomeness caricatured humanity. Even so, unknown to those with mere surface sight, the Monster possessed potentials for deep-rooted spiritual and intellectual values. They saw a parody of human nature, not latent humanity.
There was one transitory exception to this stubborn rule, the blind Father De Lacey. The Monster realized his chance for friendship relied more on hearing than sight. Over the months, he observed the elderly De Lacey and found him full of charity, character and the ability to listen. The old man's blindness would surely overcome human prejudice against physical ugliness.
Initially the Creature was correct. De Lacey commiserated with the Monster and graciously offered him help and friendship. The elderly gentleman concluded that his visitor was an honest person in a dire situation of friendlessness. Trust was short-lived, however, owing to the reaction of the old man's sighted family who upon seeing the Monster desperately clinging to their father deemed him a fiendish threat. The prejudice of sight prevailed. Upon the heels of promised friendship, the Creature found himself driven out of the society of the cottagers. Alienation produced rageful violence.