Thursday, February 16, 2012

Frankenstein as Human - Revision #1

            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.
            Physicist Jim Gates said at the World Science Festival in New York City that humans are distinct in that they question their relationship to the world and their identity in a way unique to our species. They tend to ask questions such as “Who am I? What is this place? How am I related to it?” Frankenstein’s monster displays these characteristics, no doubt, as he seems to always be asking questions of his identity throughout the novel. Deciphering his identity and place in the world becomes of primary importance, and his basic ignorance of these subjects very bothersome to him. Another perspective on this at the Festival came from an intelligence scientist who claims that humans are unique in that “We remember.” Of course, his discipline biases him to make the distinction between humans and artificial intelligence more so than between humans and other species, but he makes a good point – that our cognition is advanced in ways that prompt us to remember and catalogue events, to reflect on them, to make predictions and projections, to look for meaning within events. Frankenstein’s monster engages in such acts for years at a time, in a manner that a species with lower cognition would not.
            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. 
            Having established this, one has a renewed vision of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Regarding the monster as “human” means that we move beyond seeing Victor’s creation of him as arrogant, his abandonment of him as irresponsible. Because you could make those claims regardless of the creation’s status as human or not. What makes a reading of the novel unique after having established the monster as human is that he now has human rights. It would be arrogant to say that these rights are “the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.” That would imply that our country’s ideas about the natural rights of humans are universal and most correct, which would be especially small-minded considering this isn’t even an American novel. Instead, I turn to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by the UN in 1948, which says: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security…” (At some basic level, readers must acknowledge that the being in question was not given any of these things, that it was some violation of his human rights that he was abandoned without shelter or food at his “birth,” he, a fully aware being capable of the suffering and mental dejection of any other human denied these things. Various other violations from the Declaration were made against him, such as that no one should be subject to inhuman or degrading acts, and that he should have the right to education and cultural aspects of the community, etc. The list could go on. The point is to understand the monster’s actions not as uncontrolled reactions to emotional pain or neglect, but as unchecked reactions to violation of his human rights. This may be relevant commentary in the context of the colonization that was going on in India on behalf of the British at the time.
            A reader cannot merely examine the monster as some creature performing heinous acts of murder with no consequence. He is an exploration, I believe, of what happens when those in control of a people neglect to recognize and fulfill their needs and rights. For what other reason would Shelley create a being so akin to human species than to evaluate some aspect of humanness? Her message is not to be taken literally as a defense of murderous acts by the oppressed, but as a warning that those under suppression will only stay that way for a time. We see this over and over again, violations of rights followed by great upheavals, overthrows, revolutions. The monster targeted Victor and his loved ones the same way those marginalized peoples will target the government or any they view to have been part of their misery’s causation, she suggests. The monster is purposefully depicted as very much human, and very much a reflection on the society about which Shelley’s novel was a commentary.

Works Cited

 "UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS." Poverty and the Government in America: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009. Credo Reference. 24 May 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2012. <>.

On Human Nature. By Edward O. Wilson. Pp. 260. (Harvard University Press, 1978.)

Kelm, Brandon. “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” Wired Magazine.  June 2008. Feb. 14 2012.

1 comment:

  1. There's a lot of good writing here.

    In the first paragraph, why do you say what a reader *can* do, rather than what you are advocating that we *should* do? You're undercutting yourself from the very beginning that way.

    Your discussion of how and why the monster fits Wilson's definition of humanity is detailed, clear, and well written, with the section on religion probably being the most promising. But while this approach was more than fine in the draft (where I asked you to consider Wilson, after all), in a revision you ought to have considered (perhaps from one of the philosophical points of view you alude to at the beginning) whether and why *you* want to use Wilson.

    You reveal your interest in a Wilsonian version of human nature by incorporating Gates, who clearly has an idea of human nature at least somewhat compatible with Wilson's (although perhaps more streamlined, and certainly more focused on the intellect as such). From Gates' point of view, for instance, we might apply "human rights" to any being with the ability to "remember", to understand history (I am reminded of Carolyn Forsche's book of poems more or less on war, *The Angel of History*, where human rights and memory itself are practically the same thing)

    Your move away to a more generalized definition of human after the discussion of Gates seems like a misstep. If you buy into what Gates is saying, maybe you should be dealing with the monster's memories (e.g., of the "original era of my being" - something that no normal human has access to), rather than returning to material you've already been over.

    The turn toward a detailed discussion of human rights is fine, although I'd be more interested in a more extended discussion of the basis of those rights - or of the monster as a knowing proponent of human rights in general.

    "He is an exploration, I believe, of what happens when those in control of a people neglect to recognize and fulfill their needs and rights." This is an interesting thesis statement, contentious, opinionated, in need of proof. It's much better than your introduction. In this version, your discussion of Wilson seems like a sideshow - your reading seems far more in lines with the quote from Gates, and therefore you should have foregrounded your real reading, trimming down on the Wilson material, and demonstrated your ideas through a more detailed reading of the text.