Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Defining "Human"

In Frankenstein Mary Shelley presents the reader with a conundrum; what exactly is the Creation?  Prior to bringing his Creation to life, Victor Frankenstein debates on whether he should “…attempt the creation of a being like myself or one of simpler organization,” After sufficient thought, Frankenstein makes a decision.  “I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success…It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being.”  (Shelley, 41)  However, this proves to be the last time Frankenstein ever refers to the creation as human for the rest of the novel.   Upon seeing him for the first time, Frankenstein is overcome with horror.  “A mummy again endued with animation could not be hideous as that wretch….it became such a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”  (Shelley, 46)  From then on, the Creation is instead referenced as a “fiend” “devil” and an “Abhorred monster!”  (Shelley, 88)  But is he not, even after being brought to life, made from that which Frankenstein at least constituted as “human”?   Victor Frankenstein’s account of the creature is too biased, and leaves the reader confused as to how we should regard his Creation.  Should we regard him as a fellow man struggling with his unsolicited existence?  Or is the creation something abominable; his resemblance to man making him more of a monstrous mockery than anything else?

In On Human Nature, the author Edward O. Wilson explores the behavior and biology that make human beings what they are.  The first and most obvious qualifier for what makes a human being human is the way in which we were created.  “The newly fertilized egg, a corpuscle one two-hundredth of an inch in diameter, is not a human being.”  Wilson States, and later expounds, “In nine months a human being has been created.”  (Wilson, 53)   At first glance, one could say that this definition of the process in which a human being is created in no way correlates with the way in which the Creation was made.   When making the Creation, Frankenstein states that “The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials.”  (Shelley, 43)  Some would say that this immediately disqualifies the Creation from being considered as a human; due to the means in which the Creation was made.  However, Wilson later calls the same human infant, a “marvelous robot,” after describing how the newborn infant is “wired with awesome precision.”  (Wilson, 54)  This seemingly makes a distinction between the terms “human being” and “human.”  Whereas an infant is biologically and genetically a human being, there is something missing that has yet to distinguish it from an organic robot to something considered to be human.

Although you cannot dispute that Wilson’s main argument throughout On Human Nature is that biology determines our behavior (thus his coining of the term biological determinism), Wilson’s focus throughout the text is to provide us with understanding of human nature.  Human nature may be caused by biology, but it takes at the very least, a certain amount of development of maturation of said biology to cause human nature to become expressed.  Before this point, we are simply, as Wilson stated, nothing more than a robot.  However, this robot’s “rapidly accumulating experience will soon transform it into an independently thinking and feeling individual.  Then the essential components of social behavior will be added—language, pair bonding, rage at ego injury, love, tribalism, and all the remainder of the human-specific repertory.”   (Wilson, 55)  Through the acquirement of these characteristics, the organic robot may become human.  These are the aspects of social behavior that make up what it means to be human.

Although he may not have been created in a natural or conventional way, throughout the course the novel, the creation displays many if not all of the characteristics that the same infant child will come to eventually possess throughout their life.  Although the Creation does this at a faster and more intense pace, one cannot argue that he does not fulfill many of these characteristics.  Much of his development takes place when he is living in his hovel and observing the DeLacey’s; where he begins to understand language,  “I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds…By great application…I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse…” in addition to watching them socially interact with each other.  (Shelley, 102)  However, before even possessing the ability to understand in produce language, he is aware of the emotional state of the DeLacey’s, and immediately empathizes with them, and compares their sadness with his own.  “They were not entirely happy.  The young man and his companion often went apart, and appeared to weep…I was deeply affected by it.  If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched.”  (Shelley, 100) 

It appears that the “human” aspect of the creation comes not from the way he was constructed, but rather, his undoubtedly human nature.  It is evident that the creation is deeply wounded by Frankenstein’s immediate abandonment and rejection of him.  This coupled with the rejection experienced when making himself known to the Delacey’s, and his subsequent destruction of their cottage and the murder of Frankenstein’s loved ones are examples of what Wilson calls “rage at ego injury.”  “Cursed, cursed creator!  Why did I live?  …my feelings were those of rage and revenge.  I could have with pleasure have destroyed the cottage…and have glutted myself with their shrieks and misery.”  (Shelley, 126)  Over the course of time, this rage becomes the desire for a companion (or rather the desire for “pair bonding”) and, through this companion the Creation hopes that he will finally achieve the love and acceptance that he has always desired. “You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being.”  (Shelley, 135)  

Although the Creation is in no way a conventional human being, in his creation, biology, and upbringing, one can certainly not say that only those conceived or brought up in what is perceived as being a "normal way" are human.  It is evident that throughout the course of Frankenstein the Creation displays the complex emotions and bonds that are, as Wilson calls it, part of the “human specific repertoire.”  Although he may have been brought to life through less than natural means, the Creation, in many ways, shares many of the life experiences and complex emotions that every human shares; all of which encompass our "human nature."

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Mumbai: Wilco Publishing House, 2002. Print.
Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2004

1 comment:

  1. I love your opening, with a caveat. I *think* you're right that the monster is never again referred to as a human being - this could easily be verified, though (and you should then explicitly talking about it) by searching through an electronic text of the novel. In any case, it's a strong and interesting way to start your reading.

    I needed to read some of the middle section carefully to appreciate what you're up to. I think that you're doing a rather careful and interesting reading of Wilson "Human nature may be caused by biology, but it takes at the very least, a certain amount of development of maturation of said biology to cause human nature to become expressed," which is basically thinking hard about "human being" vs "human", isolated robot vs society, etc. It's quite good, but your introduction could have better prepared us for how your reading of Wilson applies to Frankenstein.

    Now, here's something that bothers me, I guess.

    "It appears that the “human” aspect of the creation comes not from the way he was constructed, but rather, his undoubtedly human nature. It is evident that the creation is deeply wounded by Frankenstein’s immediate abandonment and rejection of him."

    Your earlier discussion of Wilson implied (stated outright?) that true humanity is something that develops, and that is at least partially social in nature. This doesn't necessarily contradict with what you're saying here - but I was surprised that you didn't focus more on what seems like it will be your argument - that the monster is human because his *development* is human, and leads toward complex emotions, etc.

    The other, higher-level question is how this should or must change our understanding of Frankenstein. I think that emphasizing development over creation could be an important insight - but if you revise, I'd not only like that argument to be made more precisely from the beginning, but to understand what implications it might have.