Painting by Bev 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.
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 They had withdrawn from the heart of urban Paris to a rustic German village for political and legal reasons.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.
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.
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?"