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Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein follows one man’s dangerous obsession with reanimating the dead. In his efforts to create a living human, Dr. Victor Frankenstein ironically loses his humanity. He becomes obsessed, cruel, and treats his own creation with contempt and hatred. Dr. Frankenstein never gives his creature a name or provides any kind of nurturing care to what is, in essence, a newborn child. In his efforts to control and then finally kill his monster, Frankenstein reveals himself to be just as monstrous. The creature in the novel is never taught by Frankenstein to be human. It receives few acts of true kindness from anyone, and from its very first day ‘alive’ the creature is hunted, hated, and rejected. This was a key theme for Mary Shelley. She wanted to explore how society creates monsters by rejecting and vilifying them. The novel shows how cruel and judgemental people could be, often based on nothing more but superficial appearances or their own innate fears and prejudices. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster represents whole groups of people who are hated and feared through no fault of their own, such as refugees, the homeless, and the poor. Just like Dr. Frankenstein, society first creates these people, and then denies their humanity, casting them out as ‘monsters’ worthy of fear, hatred, and contempt. The simple solution would be to treat everyone with kindness and humanity, regardless of their appearance or circumstance. However, the novel shows that surface appearance has a powerful sway over people and that humans are eager to dehumanize those they perceive as ‘different’ or ‘inferior’.
The novel Frankenstein is preoccupied with how people should treat each other, and the consequences that arise from unfair or unjust treatment. The topic of justice comes up frequently in the novel, starting with the idea that Dr. Frankenstein is, essentially, creating another human being. However, instead of showing compassion and care for his creation, and treating it like a parent should, Dr. Frankenstein is horrified and drives it out. Dr. Frankenstein is fully aware of the duties of a parent. His own parents were affectionate and doting and met young Victor’s every need. “My mother’s tender caresses and my father’s smile of benevolent pleasure while regarding me are my first recollections. I was their plaything and their idol, and something better—their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me. ” So, Victor, has a sense of the responsibility parents take on towards their children. However, he completely abdicates that responsibility when he creates his monster. Not only does he flee from the monster out of revulsion, but he ignores the monster’s attempt to reach out and speak to his ‘parent’. He flees his home and hides in the courtyard and abandons his monster just after giving it life. One of the cruellest things a parent can do is abandon their child without first making sure it will be cared for, and Dr. Frankenstein flees without a second thought.
The monster is understandably angry and confused by this reaction. When he reunites with his creator, the monster says, “Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. Your purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life?” His recrimination, How dare you to sport with life? makes it clear that both Shelley and the monster believe creators owe a debt to their creations. Shelley critiques Frankenstein severely for ‘playing God’ and subverting the natural order of life. Consider the monster’s words to Victor Frankenstein when the Doctor threatens to fight it and end its life. “I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also performs thy part, the which thou owest me. ” (114). The Creature sees itself in relation to Adam, with Victor Frankenstein as God, the ‘natural lord and king. ’ By referring to itself as Adam, the creature makes it clear that he is, like Adam, the creation of God. And the monster rebukes Dr. Frankenstein, saying that if he would only do his part as Creator, the monster would fall into line and behave appropriately. But because Dr. Frankenstein failed in his duty, the monster lashes out violently and murders those the doctor holds most dear. Shelley’s critique of Victor Frankenstein s also a rebuke for those who reject people who are, for various reasons, vulnerable and dependent. Like children. After all, Victor Frankenstein knows exactly how important it is to grow up feeling loved and cared for. His parents are shown to care very deeply for the poor, as Victor’s mother herself was a poor child who was rescued from destitution. And so it is clear that Victor has a conscience and an understanding of what a child might need to have any chance at happiness. And yet, when Dr. Frankenstein deliberately creates life, he rejects it with the next breath. This causes the monster unbearable suffering. He is cast off and left alone in the world to fend for himself, which would be a cruel fate for any child. This critique is applied not only to parents (literal and figurative) in the novel but to wider society. The monster is associated with refugees, the poor, the disabled, and anyone who has ever been separated from their kindred and displaced. His loneliness is the loneliness experienced by all outcasts. The monster is, in many ways, the ultimate outcast, created and then rejected by his creator. He is then forced to re-live the pain of that rejection over and over, in each interaction he has with the outer world.
When the monster and Dr. Frankenstein are finally reunited in the mountains, Dr. Frankenstein reacts violently and threatens to kill the monster. The monster says that he “expected this reception” because “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!” (113). People have obviously reacted to the monster with raw hatred and disgust many times, to the point where the monster expects no other reaction. While Dr. Frankenstein does have cause to hate the monster at this point (for murdering his younger brother), no one else would have any reason to immediately hate the monster, other than because of his appearance. That the monster expects to be hated on sight is a sad commentary on the superficiality of human beings. Everyone screams and runs from him, aside from M. De Lacey, who is blind and only perceives the monster as a kind and articulate being. This points to an underlying issue with appearances in the novel. The monster is described as being hideous, of course, much larger and stronger than a normal person, and made of stitched-together parts of dead humans and even animals. Dr. Frankenstein describes him, “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a 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 shrivelled complexion and straight black lips” (58). It is no surprise that people would initially be horrified to see the monster, but Shelley questions why people need to be so obsessed with physical appearance. The monster’s fearsome appearance obscures the fact that he is intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful, and capable of more kindness and empathy than Dr. Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein is, in all respects, the ‘perfect gentleman. ’ He is handsome, well-educated, from a well-born loving family, and he has every advantage. And yet he is capable of monstrous cruelty. Whereas the monster has nothing and is fundamentally alone and unloved, yet he seems to feel more empathy and concern for people. He gathers firewood for the De Lacey family and learns about love and kindness from listening to their interactions. He wants to help them however he can, and he even feels compassion for William, the young boy he murders, as well as the martyr Justine. Dr. Frankenstein seems mostly concerned with how their deaths affect him, rather than grieving for their loss and taking responsibility for their deaths at his monster’s hands.
That the creature turns to murder is one of the many ironic twists in the story. Dr. Frankenstein was obsessed with creating life, but instead, he creates a monster who brings only death. And yet, if Dr. Frankenstein had tried to love his creation, or if he had done his ‘duty’ and cared for the creature properly, no one would have died. Shelley is arguing here that, by treating the poor and indigent cruelly, by denying them their full humanity and instead treating them with fear and disdain, people design their own doom. Dr. Frankenstein’s choices lead directly to the death of his brother, his pseudo-sister, and his wife. By failing to be kind or empathetic to the monster, he condemns those he loves to their deaths. In many ways, this metaphor extends out to wider society. The suffering experienced by poor cast-offs and the refugees of the world will eventually circle back to those who create the situation. The ones who see others living in squalor and do nothing or those who live in wealth and comfort while profiting off the backs of others. A good global citizen should care about the pain of others if for no other reason than nothing happens in isolation. Eventually, everything returns to their creator. As a society, many people that profit off the suffering of others. This suffering creates poverty and refugees as a byproduct of capitalism and war. And then the suffering circles back as the poor or the dispossessed fight back. His own short-sightedness and lack of consideration for the future leads Victor Frankenstein down a dark path. Dr. Frankenstein is so obsessed with creating a life that he forgets to act as a responsible parent or a benevolent creator. He abandons his creation to a lifetime of isolation, loneliness, and cruelty, and so the monster takes his revenge in turn. The message of the novel is simple: people create their own monsters. By refusing to empathize, or by stripping the humanity away from people who are very clearly human (even though they look or act differently), society creates individuals who have a reason to seek revenge. And just like Frankenstein’s monster, it is ultimately the creator’s own choices that lead to their downfall. This is the novel’s message for the 21st-century audience.
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