Thursday, February 16, 2012

Heightened Humanity

Frankenstein fashioned his monster in the likeness of a man. He was, however, constructed with superhuman traits. He was larger, more agile, faster, stronger, able to absorb intellectual information more quickly than the average human. In On Human Nature, Edward O. Wilson writes that the human condition is "defined to a large extent by our most intense emotions: enthusiasm and a sharpening of the senses from exploration; exaltation from discovery; triumph in battle...; the restful satisfaction from an altruistic act well and truly placed;...the strength from family ties" (199). Therefore, since emotions seem to be a large part of human nature, it is appropriate to assume that Victor had given the monster not only a superhuman body and mind, but also superhuman emotions. Perhaps the argument is not whether or not the monster is human, but to what extent he is human. As the reader knows, the rest of the monster is built to superhuman capacity: his brain, his body, his reactions. His emotions are also superhuman.

As philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau states in his
Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, “we call those qualities that can harm an individual’s preservation ‘vices’ in him, and those that can contribute to it ‘virtues’” (298). It seems that Wilson is commenting here on the “virtues” of human nature, and that these virtues make or break any thought of emotional humanity.

In the first part of his tale, the monster has experienced the "enthusiasm and a sharpening of the senses from exploration" as he explores the lives of the DeLacys unnoticed. His senses are sharpened in the night when he leaves his hovel to collect food. The gathering of wood and clearing of snow that he also does at night results in "the restful satisfaction from an altruistic act well and truly placed". This kind of thing contributes to the emotional well-being of a person, and so lies in the realm of virtue.

As the monster continues to learn and progress in his grasp of the French language, he experiences the "exaltation from discovery" from being able to finally understand the DeLacys, to formulate his own thoughts coherently, and to plan his introduction to the dear people he had been observing. The most prominent way this exaltation from discovery is shown comes when the creature discovers and studies the three books (Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and Sorrows of Werter) which he finds in the woods.

"As I read, however" says the monster. "I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener" (Shelley 142). The monster himself even recognizes his differences, but these differences were more of appearance than of actual disposition. The monster, until his rejection by the DeLacys, possesses a pleasant and unassuming demeanor. Realizing he had been spurned both by his creator, and the only others he considered family, became upset and vengeful. Wilson speaks of family ties as giving strength, as they do for the DeLacys and Frankensteins, and the lack of these family ties as in the monster's case has the opposite effects. Whereas the acceptance of him into the DeLacy household would have strengthened the monster, the rejection has him withering away in sorrow and anger.

Wilson also speaks of a feeling of "triumph in battle". After his rejection, the monster enters into a war with his creator, Victor Frankenstein. In a rage, he murders Victor's brother William. He won that battle and feels a sense of triumph and as the monster continues killing people—Henry, Elizabeth—he wins successive battles over Victor, stealing from him his family ties that give him strength. Shelley tells the reader that Victor had “endowed [the monster] with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done” (Shelley 77). So the reader knows that Frankenstein has given the monster these human powers and emotions, but heightened to the point of attributing horror and pain on society. In doing so, Frankenstein had fabricated a creature that, although human, can achieve more in all aspects, including violence, than the average human.

Soon, though, he feels remorse, which, although Wilson does not mention it specifically, is another indication of humanity. Rousseau states that “with all their mores, men would never have been anything but monsters, if nature had not given them pity to aid their reason” (300). Remorse is a type of pity, albeit a pity for one’s self and one’s situation, and thus a need to reconcile one’s self to the person or people he has wronged. When the monster expresses his ultimate remorse to Walton at the end, exclaiming, "what does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me? I, who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all thou lovedst" (Shelley 254), the remorse accentuates his humanity. Wilson explains that the emotions that humans feel are controlled in the mind, stating that "the mind fights to retain a certain level of order and emotional reward" (200). The monster struggles to keep his feelings in check, but since his emotions are so strong, he is unable to control or resist them. The monster laments that he "was the slave, not the master, of an impulse which I detested, yet could not disobey" (Shelley 255).

This inability on the part of the monster to control or overcome his emotions would seem to “harm an individual’s preservation” (Rousseau 298), which would be considered a vice under Rousseau’s definition. In humanity, one cannot have virtue without vice. They are two sides of the same coin. One cannot be all virtue or all vice, or one cannot be considered human. The monster seems to have been given the short end of the stick, as it were. He cannot resist the superhuman powers of his human emotions, and is trapped in this cocoon of humanity in which he does not have any excuse for the deed he has done, but he cannot be accepted into a normal human society precisely because of his supernaturality.

Rousseau writes that “nothing would have been so miserable as savage mad, dazzled by enlightenment, tormented by passions, and reasoning about a state different from his own (298). The monster is indeed human. He has all the physical, mental, and emotional attributes of a human being. Frankenstein, however, has created him as the ideal man, superhuman in every sense. That is to say, that the monster is human, but in a heightened sense; his physicality, his mental capacity, his emotions—his virtues and his vices—while all far beyond the realm of human possibility, are in the same category, made of the same material. Because of this heightened humanity, the monster is rejected by all normal human societies. He is stoned by villagers, cast out by Felix DeLacy, and scorned by his own creator. The monster strives toward his own heightened society, entreating Frankenstein to create a woman creature that has the same heightened humanity as himself, so that he may become master of his own society where normal humans will not disturb him.

Frankenstein’s monster is inevitably human. Victor plays god to a creation which is born of hubris, but which is indeed fully human. He is made in the image and mind of a man, but is an extended version of the normal view of humanity. Because of this supernatural humanity, the creature is rejected from regular forms of society. His differences are accentuated, when really, on an emotional level, he is not quite so different from the humans he has tried to befriend. The tragedy of Frankenstein and his monster lies not only in the bloodshed, but also in the inability of this human creature to find acceptance in human society.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. "Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men." Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts since Plato. Ed. Mitchell Cohen and Nicole Fermon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. 293-313. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publication, Inc, 2009. Print.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.

1 comment:

  1. The premise that the monster's emotions are more than human is interesting, but not obvious: hopefully this is an argument you make, rather than a beginning assumption. Note that defining "superhuman love" is probably much harder than defining "superhuman intellect" or "superhuman strength."

    I like the connection between Rousseau and Wilson, even if I have no idea what you intend to do with it.

    Over the following several paragraphs, you point out some ways in which the monster conforms to parts of Wilson's definition, with some emphasis placed on discovery. I don't see why you emphasize certain parts of the definition, nor (through this section, at least) why Wilson's definition is helpful in understanding the novel. Your discussion of family ties, for instance, doesn't make clear whether the monster is inhuman because he lacks them (or whether he's driven into inhumanity because he lacks them). At that moment, and others, you're not engaging with the complexity that applying Wilson's definition to the monster could unveil.

    As you proceed, you return repeatedly to Rousseau, with no explanation for how Rousseau serves your overall strategy, or how he relates to Wilson. Relating R to Frankenstein is a reasonable step - but why are *you* doing it?

    At the end, you suddenly return to the monster being in a "heightened state" -an interesting argument which you have paid almost no attention to through the essay.

    Short version: The "heightened state" idea is solid. Applying Wilson is fine, as is applying Rousseau - but you never do either one. But here's the problem - while you have an interesting argument, you don't actually pursue it. And while you have an interesting set of evidence, you never coherently explain why you're applying Wilson and Rousseau (let alone both of them!) in the first place.

    If you'd written at greater length (this was quite short), you probably could have explored your own argument, while explaining how/why you're making the connection with Wilson and Rousseau. But in this version, there's simply too much missing for it to work well, or even be terribly clear.