Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Frankenstein's Monster as Human

            As readers are forced to grapple with ideas about what rights belong to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and about whether various injustices have been acted against him, and whether his actions were justified, and to what standard audiences should hold him anyway, readers inevitably make their way around to the question: is the monster human? That question is one which could be considered from an assortment of philosophical perspectives (whether humanistic or religious in nature), and which, for that reason, inexorably yields an array of different conclusions. For one of these, readers can look to Wilson’s On Human Nature, in which a portrait of human existence is painted that certainly leaves room for engineered beings such as the “demon” in question to be considered human.
            It is not strictly Wilson’s argument of the brain as a mechanical product of evolution that one must consider in the pursuance of this answer; rather, it is the fundamental and logical bases on which he builds that argument. It is in these spaces that his criteria for what is to be considered a being of his own kind are constructed. He states, for example, that a human is different than an inanimate object or an animal of another species in that “…the human being will speak and conduct a wide range of social interactions” (72). Indeed, other animals can communicate via gestures, screeches, calls, et cetera, but to communicate complex ideas via the use of syntactically and grammatically complex language is a uniquely human attribute. It is also true that, while not depicted as doing so in modern mainstream media, Frankenstein’s monster is a creature capable of advanced vocabulary and speech. He quickly learns French, and uses it to easily communicate with De Lacey, Victor, and Walton.
            The monster, however, is not limited to an aptitude for language. After acquiring the ability to read, he studies literature, history, and to some extent, religion. This is significant in that it makes evident the fact that he posses a tendency toward the “gathering and sharing of knowledge” (96), which Wilson views as being a defining characteristic of human culture. Surely less sophisticated animals do not desire knowledge for the sake of knowledge. As an example Wilson discusses the honeybee, which in its lifetime will acquire only the skills and information it needs to successfully obtain food, reproduce, and carry out other basic functions. This is true for the biological kingdom at large. Humans alone seek the kind of understanding of the world that the monster so actively pursues.
            The remainder of Wilson’s argument outlines four qualities which, although not all independently human qualities, when blended paint a portrait of the human species. These are aggression (which is supposed to be innate), sex (which is supposed to promote genetic diversity), altruism (which is supposed to be an inherent paradox but which nonetheless is highly regarded), and religion (“a universal aspect of social behavior”). It is indeed arguable that Frankenstein’s monster possesses the capacity for all four of these. Aggression is of course not restricted to humanity; many species are far more blood-thirsty than homo sapiens. The fact, however, remains that humans possess an innate aggression, that societies have always seen murder, rape, and war, and that they always will. The monster, of course, possesses this predisposition, and it would be only too easy to dispute any claim that he is excluded from humanity based on his ruthless murders. Murderers are only “monsters” in the figurative sense. For legitimate classification purposes, the monster’s aggressions to do not significantly add to and subtract from his human nature. Sex he is also capable of, and he seems to possess the human tendency to connect lust to love, demonstrated in the way the he uses the words “mate” and “companion” interchangeably when demanding a female from Victor. He follows the human example also in his concerns for altruism. He obviously values compassionate acts, and in his beginnings performs a series of them for Felix and Agatha. His concerns for the family are selfless, even alongside his desperation for their love. However, the most uniquely human quality he possesses (except for perhaps sophisticated language) is his capacity for religion. Readers get a glimpse into this when the monster talks about his feelings about Milton’s Paradise Lost. While he does interpret it as a true history (which, perhaps, could be argued to be not ignorance but a heightened aptitude for belief some sort of higher power), he is excited by the spiritual structure of the relationship between man and God. He claims at times to feel more akin to Satan than Adam, as he feels such bitterness towards his creator, and he views this person to be Victor and not God (which is indeed true). However, it is not inherent in religion that our concept of god be the object of worship, but that worship and faith occur between a person and some being regarded as “superhuman,” and Frankenstein’s (albeit bitter) early recognition of Victor as “creator” and “master” (and merely the fact that he interweaves these two concepts) show that he does have a capacity for religion which may perhaps have surfaced were he to ever be possess and normal societal function.
            Frankenstein’s monster is indeed “human.” He is much taller and faster than humans are thought to be, indeed, but modern humans are much taller and faster than their ancestors, and there is reason to believe that through the processes of evolution which Wilson explores, our race could eventually evolve into a creature more similar to Frankenstein’s monster in stature and ability (although it would take millions of years). The monster, then, is perhaps a blip in the timeline of the human species, a being brought to life by Victor’s arrogant hands before he was meant to be. But through his speech, pursuit of knowledge, aggression, capacity for sex and pairing of lust with love, regard for altruism, and capacity for religion, the monster is most certainly human.  

1 comment:

  1. You do a very good job of performing a focused, thoughtful explanation of human nature (from one viewpoint) through Wilson - you use the text well, don't wander, and don't overgeneralize. You avoid, in other words, all the usual pitfalls of this assignment with considerable skill.

    You begin the introduction by thinking about the monster in terms of rights. It's a provocative idea, and one certainly very fitting in with the philosophical and political questions of Shelley's time - I wonder, though, whether you can re-integrate a conversation about rights into your discussion of Wilson, or whether these are really two separate discussions.

    The long paragraph on Wilson's 4 chapters in relationship to Frankenstein is acute in two ways and problematic in one. You perform some skilled, compact reading of Frankenstein and a strong understanding of Wilson - but on the flip side, there's a problem with focus here. As much as I like everything you're doing, I'm no longer really sure what you find important, or what you want me to take away.

    You turn, then, back to the prompt, and that's fine - in Wilson's terms, you've given a detailed, Wilsonian explanation of how the monster is human. For a somewhat overly general exploration, this is great.

    What I'd like to see in a revision is a clearer sense of what we should value or place emphasis on in this understanding of what it means to be human, and how our understanding of Frankenstein might be thereby altered. Your opening on the topic of rights has the potential to make us rethink the novel in some way - your detailed reading of Wilson is a detailed exploration which does not *yet* have clear consequences to me - how does Wilson change our reading of Shelley, or vice versa?