The monster's reading: Plutarch, Milton and Goethe

Development of knowledge

When the monster finds the bag of books abandoned in the forest – a convenient coincidence for the purpose of Mary Shelley's story – he gains access to three texts from which he derives his first general understanding of the world. Having acquired language and a sense of human family and communal life from his observation of the de Laceys, he is now in a position to extend that knowledge on a wider historical and cultural basis.

Reasons for choice

The choice of books that he finds is not accidental, and Mary Shelley has selected them for the following reasons:

  • to enlighten the monster in very specific ways
  • to enrich the thematic content of her novel.

They were among her own favourite reading and, in the case of Goethe and Milton, were texts by writers that meant a good deal to the Romantics in general, especially within the Byron-Shelley circle (see Author section: The Byron-Shelley circle)

From Plutarch's Lives, the creature derives what he calls ‘high thoughts':Plutarch's Lives

  • the subjects of the lives are idealistic men who founded the early classical republics
  • he learns about towns and cities where large groups of men and women live together, so he discovers the idea of human society
  • he finds out about the vicious behaviour of some men in public and comes to admire virtuous men and peaceful lawmakers.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe offers the creature new insights into the world of the feelings:

  • its domestic settings appeal to his experience with the de Lacey family
  • he sympathises with both the height of the hero's happiness and the depths of his despair
  • the novel prompts him to ask questions about his own identity and destiny.

Paradise LostParadise Lost by Milton arouses his strongest feelings.

  • he is fascinated by the story of God the Creator at war with his own creations;
  • he compares himself unfavourably with Adam, who enjoys the love and protection of his creator
  • he also compares himself with Satan, in that he lacks the love that the de Laceys share.
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