The Monster

A character at all?

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's MonsterIn what sense can Frankenstein's creation be considered a character?

On the one hand, it could be argued that:

  • his very humanity is in doubt
  • it is impossible to think of him in the terms usually applied to the discussion of characters in fiction: personality, motivation, emotions and so on
  • he is a mechanical creation, gruesomely assembled from pieces of dead bodies and animated by electrical means.

On the other hand, in terms of those same fictional conventions:

  • he goes through many of the developmental stages of human maturity
  • his feelings and motivations are strongly influenced by his confusions about his own identity, the people he encounters and his widening understanding of human society.

All of these are common themes in nineteenth-century fiction.

Link with contemporary fiction

A popular literary form in the nineteenth century was the Bildungsroman, a German term meaning the novel of learning or education:

  • typically, this would dramatise the intellectual and/or emotional education of a young man
  • it provided a model for many well-known European novels of the nineteenth century, such as Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1849-50).

The monster acquires his education by two means: observation and reading. The months he spends in the shed attached to the de Laceys' house provide him with an emotional education, while his reading of Plutarch, Milton and Goethe adds to his understanding of the world. This is further discussed in Literary context: The monster's reading

Treatment by Shelley

Mary Shelley's narrative is not at all clear or consistent about the monster's degree of understanding when he is first animated:

  • in some respects, his mind is not a blank sheet: he knows, for instance, that he is naked and needs to put on some clothes before he leaves Frankenstein's laboratory
  • he seems to understand the strength of Victor's revulsion when he first sees his creation
  • he is in some respects like Adam and Eve before the Fall, without knowledge of sin and guilt
  • in other ways, he is in a post-fallen state, with an immediate sense of his own guilt, simply for being what he is (see also Religious/philosophical context: The Bible, the Creation, Adam and Eve and the Fall).

His situation is therefore quite complex and the questions that are immediately raised about his identity and what kind of development he can be expected to undergo are addressed throughout the novel.

Comparison with his creator

It is ironic that, at least in his early days, the monster displays as much, if not more, humanity than his creator:

  • He experiences a full range of human emotions: fear, loneliness, despair, pity, compassion, loneliness, anger, resentment and hatred
  • Initially, his feelings towards his fellow-creatures are largely positive and he is motivated by goodwill.

But he is also formed by his treatment at the hands of his creator:

  • Frankenstein's disgust and rejection
  • the monster's own realisation that everyone else will react in the same way.

This will, in the end, weigh more heavily than other aspects of his education. See Big ideas from the Bible, Earth, clay dust

The monster's education

The novel is quite detailed and specific about how the monster's education proceeds. It could be argued that his education in sentiment (Goethe), religion (Milton), and history (Plutarch) echoes Frankenstein's acquisition of scientific knowledge. The effect of this reading, together with his observation of the de Laceys, is very mixed:

  • from the de Laceys, he learns how family life can be loving and supportive
  • from the story of Felix and Safie, he learns how the strength of love can overcome betrayal and tyranny
  • his reading of Plutarch offers him many examples of the shortcomings of social and political institutions and of the depths of human iniquity
  • in Milton, he is moved by Adam and Eve's story of lost innocence and expulsion from paradise and stirred by Satan's defiance of his Creator
  • Goethe's novel teaches him about the potential range and depth of human emotions and the ways in which individuals may be taken over the brink of despair.

These lessons, combined with Victor's rejection, turn the monster's potential for goodness to resentment and hatred. Like Satan - jealous of Adam and Eve, God's favoured creation - he declares war on humanity and seeks revenge on his creator

Popular treatment

In the popular imagination – in films and other versions of the story – the image of the monster as an evil, violent and uncontrollable figure has tended to predominate, but a close reading of the novel leads to a different conclusion.

Shelley's portrayal

Ultimately, Frankenstein's creation is the nearest the novel has to a powerful moral centre:

  • for all their goodness and fidelity, Elizabeth, Henry Clerval and the de Laceys can only ever be effective in a limited, domestic setting
  • the monster, however, condemned to be an outsider from society, voices powerful criticisms of prejudice and the cruelty, tyranny and ruthlessness of both individual behaviour and human institutions, such as government, the Church and the law.

But his difference, his deformity and monstrosity, means that his voice can never carry weight or authority. Ultimately, the only witnesses to his opinions are Frankenstein, Walton and Mrs Saville.

Function in the novel

It is easy to assume that the monster is the villain of the novel; but the truth is that Victor Frankenstein commits the original sin that sets in motion the action of the book:

  • he transgresses the natural law and misuses the power derived from his knowledge and skill as a scientist
  • he is consumed with self-love and perverted pride
  • he creates a being that he hopes will be his alone, and might in some ways be another version of himself.

But he hates what he has created, and, while he never quite loses his self-love, it becomes complicated by a simultaneous self-loathing. This self-loathing is focused on the figure of the monster; for, although he never fully understands his own feelings, by rejecting the monster, Victor is turning his back on a creature that embodies the worst features of his own personality.

Evaluation of sources

It is important for readers of Frankenstein to remember that:

  • all our images of the monster are conveyed to us either in his own words or by Walton and Victor
  • there is no detached third-person narrator to give an external view
  • our sense of what the monster is like has to be composed from what we can understand of the various narratives that make up the novel and of their narrators.

This may require us to be critical of what Walton and Victor have to say and to remember those aspects of their characters (see Characterisation: Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein) that make it impossible for them to sympathise with the monster's situation. We might then have a very different view of the figure who, in the last line of the novel, is ‘borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance'.

Further commentary on the monster can be found in Literary context: The Prometheus myth and The legend of the doppelganger.

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