A Literary Analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
[H]ow was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity (emphasis mine). (94)
The above quotation from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is spoken by Victor Frankenstein’s creation and is of paramount importance in understanding how he perceives himself and provides insight into how others will perceive him. The creation characterizes his physical appearance as a deformity because by the time this particular story is told in the larger scheme of the novel, he already has a firm grasp of language and comprehends conceptually aesthetic standards of corporeal beauty. As such, when the creation sees his reflection in the pool of water, he has an epiphany; he realizes he does not look even remotely similar to anyone else around him. Thus, such an observation on the part of the creation foreshadows the manner in which he is and will be received by others, as something instead of someone, thereby bestowing on him a nonhuman presence. A distinction like this further implies that he is more of a creation than a male human being, and as a result, he is considered inferior and misshapen. Due to his aesthetically displeasing exterior, the creation is impaired because he understands the idea of difference and that he is not desired. He repulses himself because he, in a sense, is his body. He also drives away the various people with whom he interacts because he cultivates a fear of the unfamiliar in them, as well as in Frankenstein because he views the creation as a failed endeavor. Since the creation seems to be an object of disgust and horror to all of those with whom he comes into contact, he develops a consciousness that he is ugly and it is this low esteem in regard to his appearance that becomes a disability. The creation’s identity becomes more and more distorted, thereby stunting his personal growth insofar as he is unable to achieve a satisfying quality of life. The creation is forever devalued, unable to recover from the perpetually malevolent treatment to which he is exposed, and is ultimately doomed to lead a life of loneliness, where the loneliness acts as a secondary disability, ending only in death.
When first presented with a description of the creation, there is a stark contrast between Frankenstein’s characterization of the creation and what the creation is actually like when he meets his maker: “[A] grin wrinkled his cheeks…one hand was stretched out” (43). The creation’s first expression upon being brought into existence is a positive one; one could even deduce that it is a joyous one because a grin indicates a greater degree of happiness than a smile. Simply, he is pleased to just be and appears elated to see Frankenstein. In addition, when he stretches out his hand, he extends it in the direction of Frankenstein. Although seemingly by previous knowledge, since he has not yet had time to acquire it experientially, he appears to be introducing himself. He wants to make a good impression on the person in front of him, who, unbeknownst to him, is his creator. Both of the creation’s actions demonstrate goodness; he immediately attempts to forge an emotional and a physical connection, denoted by the grin and the outstretched hand, with the first person he meets. Furthermore, his actions convey proper decorum in a civilized society. Most importantly, they portray his humanity, discrediting Frankenstein’s view that he is the antithesis of a human being. Finally, from what one initially sees of the creation, one discovers that he is well-meaning, decent, and kind, traits that all connote that he is of a morally upright nature. It is evident that the creation is inherently good.
Comparatively, upon the awakening of the creation, Frankenstein’s first impressions of him suggest that the creation does not meet his expectations and is not what he had intended to originally create: “[N]ow that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart…I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it (emphasis mine) became a thing even Dante could not have conceived” (42-43). When Frankenstein views his conscious creation for the first time, he does not stop to think about the long and arduous process of creating the being, nor does he recognize that his endeavor is a success. He constructs a living being from dead tissues. He infers though, upon first glance, that the creation is a threat to him and is evil. He does not wait to see what else the creation is able to do after he “introduces” himself; he flees and in effect, abandons the creation. Frankenstein does not in any way validate the creation’s existence because he does not name him. He calls him it, a pronoun that is meant to signify an object or nothing in particular. In this way, the creation begins his life unacknowledged by his creator. The definition of it in no way refers to a living being, and such a designation on the part of Frankenstein confirms the creation’s later thoughts that he is to be detested. Moreover, by calling him it, he does not call him his; Frankenstein, upon its “birth” refuses to take ownership of his creation. He shirks his responsibility as creator, and consequently, as provider and teacher. Finally, by never referring to the creation as his creation, he does not have to admit to the gravity of his mistake, and his subsequent and frequent failures.
Upon meeting the creation for the first time since he abandoned him, Frankenstein is anything but kind, addressing him as “vile insect” (81). Such debasement from his creator relates to the creation’s first interaction with humans. He enters the hut of a shepherd and is quickly espied: “He perceiving me, shrieked loudly, and quitting the hut, ran across the fields with a speed of which his debilitated form hardly appeared capable” (87). Neither Frankenstein nor the shepherd bother to acquaint themselves with the creation; they let his appearance speak for him. Sadly, they assume that he is to be feared because he does not externally fit into the identical ideas or criteria of what a beautiful being is; his bodily appearance must match his personality and temperament. In effect, because he looks intimidating and dangerous, he must be. Furthermore, the shepherd and Frankenstein display identical behavior upon beholding the countenance of the creation. They run in fear and abandon him. The shepherd hurriedly exits his hut and never returns; he leaves the creation alone to wander just like Frankenstein does. In this way, a pattern begins to develop. For every action on the part of the creation, there is a reaction that is equal in the degree of intensity, yet opposite in intent. The pattern indicates that the creation runs to them, them signifying people, in general, and they do the contrary of his initial action by running from him.
This theory is verified even when another variable is added to the equation: selflessness. The first instance of the creation putting others before himself is when he takes it upon himself to provide succor for the cottagers who reside by his hovel by collecting a more ample supply of firewood for them (92). The creation reasons that he is squatting on the cottagers’ land and wishes to contribute something in return. They are a great source of contentment for him, and he desires to augment their happiness. As a result of him collecting more firewood, they reap twice the benefits; they are warmer and will worry less, if not at all, about succumbing to an illness from extreme cold. Secondly, when the creation gathers kindling, the cottagers do not have to acquire it themselves and are able to devote more time to leisure, which in turn, improves their spirits. By aiding them, the creation demonstrates that he values their presence in his otherwise solitary and self-reliant life. He builds a connection with them, although from a distance that he has not previously had with anyone. The creation feels such a positive impact of the cottagers’ presence on his life and overall disposition that he dubs the cottagers his “protectors” (102). It can be argued though that he is protecting them just as much, if not more, than they are protecting him. A symbiotic relationship forms because the cottagers influence the creation and he affects them.
The human connection the creation builds with the cottagers one learns is, in fact, an illusion, since it is eventually shattered despite the creation’s efforts to live peacefully side by side both literally and figuratively next to his cottager safeguards. He does not successfully appeal to the emotions of Agatha and Felix, the young cottagers, and Safie, Felix’s beloved, in the same way as he does with De Lacey, Agatha and Felix’s father. The creation attempts to create something of his own by constructing family ties; he attaches himself to a family that is not his and fails miserably to reach his goal to have a family: “Who can describe their horror and consternation on beholding me? Agatha fainted, and Safie, unable to attend to her friend, rushed out of the cottage. Felix darted forward, and with supernatural force tore me from his father, to whose knees I clung; in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently with a stick” (115). The creation immediately leaves the scene and runs back to his hovel; he allows himself to be attacked and defeated by someone who is obviously smaller and weaker than he. In other words, the creation is beaten by someone who is much more human than him, although he could have and should have, in all probability, trounced Felix. Such an easy win for Felix and a humiliating loss for the creation illustrate the effects of the dejection he now feels. The fight is not his only loss; he loses everything that is dear to him in an instant. He loses the possibility of acceptance and instead suffers the sting of utter rejection. After he flees, the creation comes to realize from his other wanderings that his family of cottagers is not his family at all, but are models for the rest of humankind. Individuals such as the cottagers are caring, gentle, and sensitive, of a more refined quality than most, and they are terrified of him, so it is highly likely that others of a rougher nature will react the same way toward him, if not worse: “There was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me…[F]rom that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and more than all, against him who had formed me and sent me forth to this insupportable misery” (116). No one is willing to look beyond his exterior and it is this unwillingness for others to positively acknowledge him that is the impetus for the creation’s hatred toward all.
He does not seek revenge against humanity, however, as quickly as he says he will. He is delayed by doing another good deed. He saves a girl from drowning in a river (120). The creation performs the worthiest act of selflessness by saving a life. Contrary to expectation, he saves a human life, reneging on his vow to war against and harm all of humanity. Inherently, the creation displays behavior that is socially acceptable to the humans who shun him. He does not project his pain onto her by making her suffer also; he forgets it temporarily so he can help her. Unfortunately, his concern for her safety is not appreciated by the man who witnesses the accident:
On seeing me, he darted towards me, and tearing the girl from my arms, hastened towards the deeper parts of the wood. I followed speedily…[H]e aimed a gun, which he carried, at my body and fired…This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction…Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind. (121)
The man is ungrateful for the creation’s rescue of the girl; this ingratitude seems contrary to human nature, but is grounded in the fact that the people, with whom the creation interacts, assign more value to his bodily features than to his undertakings. Sadly, his good deeds go unnoticed. It is this complete disregard on the part of the man concerning the creation’s role in saving the girl, even though the man is benefiting from his exertions, that causes the creation to again reconsider and finally, to give into his desire of wreaking havoc on humankind.
One observes that time after time the creation does what is civil and proper in society, but it is he who is disappointed by societal expectations because the people do not treat him as he would like to be treated or, simply, as they would treat others. He is an other unlike themselves, so they treat him differently; society is prejudiced toward him. Such bias is reinforced when the creation says to Frankenstein, “Believe me, Frankenstein, I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity, but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me” (82). Frankenstein’s behavior is far from exemplary toward the creation and he is his creator, who is presumably also representative of humanity, like the cottagers, and he treats him with such scorn and antipathy, like everyone else the creation meets. Frankenstein is the initial source of the creation’s maltreatment. Thus, due to Frankenstein’s behavior toward him, the creation is conditioned to not expect decency and gentility. The statement, then, by the creation is based in experiential knowledge, which will eventually become his fate.
While Frankenstein’s treatment of the creation is horrendous, it could be contended that the behavior of his younger brother, William, is worse. William is the second child the creation encounters, other than the girl whom he saves from drowning. William, however, differs from the girl because he and the creation have an exchange, whereas the girl is unconscious when the creation meets her. The creation makes his intentions clear that he will not hurt him, and yet William is incredibly cruel and offensive in his conversation with the creation: “[M]onster! Ugly wretch!” (122). When William tells the creation that his father is M. Frankenstein, the creation assumes him to be Victor Frankenstein, and so by murdering William, he is punishing Victor. The creation initially engages with the child based on the premise that he is just that, a child, who is pure of heart and has not yet learned of hate or fear and as such, will be a friend and ally to him. The barrage of insults that William flings at him, causes the creation to realize that he is unfamiliar with the nature of children and that they are capable of cruelty. During the tirade, William reveals that he is related to Victor from his surname of Frankenstein. Subsequently, the creation murders William as a result of this relationship, knowing he will harm Victor. The murder also ceases William’s tirade. The greatest motivation, though, for the murder is that the creation is once again disappointed by humanity. In this instance, however, he is disappointed by a sect of humanity that he thought was unable to disappoint: the youth of humanity.
Consequently, the creation learns from William that he cannot forge a bond with the most innocent of society, which would make living among the rest of the human race, who are harsher in nature, impossible; hence, disappointment by William, who embodies the traits of the collective youth of humankind cripples the creation, pushing him to the brink of isolation, leading him to his last resort of requesting Frankenstein create a mate for him: “If any being felt emotions of benevolence toward me, I should return them a hundred and a hundredfold, for that one creature’s sake I would make peace with the whole kind!” (125). The creation will forgive humankind if he has a mate because she will fulfill the role that no one else has been able to as his companion. Simply, he will gain the ultimate connection of a permanent presence that will be made even stronger because she will be unlike anyone else, but like her counterpart. Together, they will be better able to cope with the fact that they are considered grotesque by those around them, since between each other, their appearance will be normalized: “[M]an will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects” (123). In order for equality to be present in a circumstance, there must be a standard of comparison. The mate will provide this for the creation; they will be equal.
Furthermore, the mate will be an evolved representation of the creation. She will be like him enough that they will consider each other the same. Her mere existence will illustrate evolution at work because she will be a separate being from the original creation. Following biological practices, it is she, as the creation’s mate, who will carry and bear children; the creation’s mate will have the greater responsibility of propagating their species. With a mate, the creation will have a significant niche and role in the hierarchical structure to which all organisms belong and, by extension, in the human race. His human essence will be authenticated, although his humanness arises differently from the rest because he is created from dead humans. One would suspect then that eventually the creation and his kind would be visible to the rest of humankind, because there will be more of the creation’s progeny present. A greater visibility due to strength in numbers will eventually lead to their acceptance by the rest of humanity. The mate allows the possibility for him to escape his marginalized position. He and his mate will now be normalized, not only between themselves, but among humanity. Neither he nor his kind will be a source of alarm to those around them. Finally, having a mate allows the creation the likelihood of literally and figuratively casting aside his deformity; a mate will provide him with ability.
The refusal by Frankenstein to create a mate for him is the last straw for the creation. After this, he is no longer able to cope with the maltreatment he receives by others in a nonviolent or at least passive manner and this causes his mental stability to unravel so that he becomes a vengeful and painfully lonely being. Simply, Frankenstein’s rejection of the creation’s request decides the fate of the creation because by this time, he has exhausted all of his other options in regard to finding a companion: “Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion…[but] (insertion mine) I am alone” (196). Inevitably, the creation’s outward appearance completely debilitates him; it is the medium by which others control him and worse, he allows himself to be controlled by his form, which entirely consumes his thoughts, and therefore, his being. By the conclusion of the novel, he becomes the monster that humankind initially thought him to be. In essence, he is caught in a web composed of the predetermined notions of beauty that he is unable to attain, thereby making an escape from the web impossible. In conclusion, the creation is wholly incapacitated and handicapped by the unrelenting and persistent loneliness which has and will continue to plague his existence.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1st ed. New York: Signet Classics, 2000.
Biography: Kelley A Pasmanick is a thirty-five-year-old woman from Atlanta, Georgia. Pasmanick’s work has appeared in Wordgathering, Squawk Back, Praxis Magazine, The Mighty, Loud Zoo, The Jewish Literary Journal, Umbrella Factory Magazine, Breath & Shadow, Kaleidoscope, Tiny Tim Literary Review, and The Handy, Uncapped Pen. Her work has also been reprinted in Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
If you would like to contact Kelley about this essay or other works, please email me at handyuncappedpen[at]gmail.com and I will pass the message to her.
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