Gifted students: Frankenstein

The following is an essay that combines elements of Literature, and English Outcomes 1 and 2.

    I have a word document version of much better presentation and formatting than what is shown here if interested parties wish to email me at

    What makes us human? A study of Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus

      The story of Frankenstein is extremely horrific. It is also terribly tragic. Dr Frankenstein achieves a measure of greatness, only to condemn himself to infamy and his family and friends to death. Mary Shelley’s title clearly states that the scientist, and even science, had reached too far. Did Dr Frankenstein exceed the limits of humanity, or did he merely fail its standards? His creation itself presents other equally important questions: is the monster as much of a man as the maker, and are humans innocent, evil, or something else? I say (befittingly) to these questions, yes!

      Most people, whether they have read the novel or not, understand that Dr Frankenstein is a mad genius unworthy of the acclaim we might grant the immortal Prometheus, or even a good man. Only last night I read in Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather:

    “Then the Dean repeated the mantra that has had such a marked effect on the progress of knowledge throughout the ages.

        “Why don’t we just mix everything up and see what happens?” he said.”

      The characters in Frankenstein aren’t nearly so haphazard. They know exactly what they are doing, and are determined beyond caution to achieve their goals. The explorer Robert Walton immediately presents to the reader an aspect of humanity that might often be commendable – the driving ambition we share to achieve greatness. He is soon warned by the dying stranger found driving a sled across the wilderness of the Arctic: “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.” We see that Walton’s greatness sets him apart from others, and might admire him, yet Frankenstein presents a very different concern and danger to his actions. What transpires is that the doctor has also striven to achieve greatness, only to fail, to fall, and to utterly regret the fire and passion that once drove him to dare to grasp the dream of immortality. Why? Unlike Prometheus, who served humankind well, wisely and compassionately, Dr Frankenstein acts as a selfish fool. He masquerades as humanity’s benefactor. He wrongly believed “Far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” Unfortunately he does not have the gifts or talent to pull off the trick successfully, and his efforts result in disaster.

      Accordingly, it was not the doctor’s creation that was abominable, but his actions in doing so. The creature produced by the obsessed doctor is a monstrous abomination, but to deny its existence is the greater failure of humanity. The irony and sting in the scorpion’s tail is that although the doctor’s ambitions ultimately betray him he is the only one truly responsible: the monster should not be judged for the mistakes of its creator. The belated cry of “I’ve created a monster” is never stated in the novel, yet its associations with Frankenstein are fixed, and even H.P.Lovecraft’s Herbert West and Ridley Scott’s Eldon Tyrell (I think the film presents the point better than Phillip K Dick’s novel) are only copies of this original fool. The doctor is horrified by the “parchment skin”, the “livid scars”, and the “grotesque patchwork” of body parts presented by the living corpse. He is not revolted by re-animation, but by the deformities of his constructive efforts. What then did he expect? Physically the thing is apparently something inhuman, but the greater horror must be assigned to the inhumane actions of the doctor who failed to consider the consequences of his experiment, the “enormity of [his] deed” until after he had flicked the switch. Dr Frankenstein screams “I owe you nothing!” but he could not be further from the truth. The crushing nature of the moment in which the doctor cries “What had I done?” is equal to that of Alec Guinness at “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. It was wholly unethical for the doctor to create something that he did not want, and that presented the opposite in composition and animation to that which he had imagined, and thus proved repulsive. Basically, if you can’t stand the lightning, get out of the laboratory. The realisation of his gross misconduct drives the obsessed doctor even beyond the madness that had sustained his actions, and too late does he realise how flawed his own standards of ethics, life and humanity have become.

        Let’s now leave the sadly deficient doctor and look at the subsequent issues that arise from his incarnation. Most audiences are only familiar with the (occasionally imagined or merely construed) horrific events pertaining to the creation and destruction of the creature. Few have actually read Mary Shelley’s novel, and would suffer the same “shock at hearing him speak at all” as the doctor to know that the monster proves an extremely eloquent, reasonable and sensitive soul. Indeed, the very fact that Hollywood chooses to portray the monster as a lumbering, groaning creature of the undead is illustrative of the inability of people to face the carnal matters of animation, life and humanity. The legend as presented by early Hollywood to most audiences of a groaning monster deliberately denies the creature speech, but this contrary to the purpose of the original author. The text Frankenstein presents through the narration of the creature a very poignant and philosophical understanding of what makes us human.

          The narrative of the monster Frankenstein, as presented by the original author, is an extremely informative story of what makes us human. It mirrors the understanding of what makes us human detailed by the psychologist Maslow in his classic submission A Theory of Human Motivation . The motives of Frankenstein demonstrate a clear progression from physiological needs, when the creature is driven by “the pain of hunger” and his “instincts drove me to swallow all sorts of things around me”, and the need for safety and security when he comes upon “an abandoned fire and soon discovered its secrets”, to the greater needs of love, belonging and self-esteem, which he describes as “a dim sense of longing, an urge to rediscover what I had lost.” Thus it is that his “heart leap[s]” at the simple sight of a man, for immediately he realises a “surge of instant affinity and delight… to be one of my own kind.” Unfortunately, here is where Frankenstein’s progress on the path of humanity is thwarted – none will accept him as human; all consider him monstrous.

        The real tragedy of the narrative, and the most persuasive and compelling reading, is discovered at this point. Victor Frankenstein does not create the murderous and bloody mind (although he is, as will be argued, responsible for its development). Victor Frankenstein creates a misshapen and grotesque body, but the individual is clearly capable of compassion and concern that marks its humanity well. The creature is able to satisfy its most basic physiological needs, yet these are only sufficient to meet the requirements of an animal. Behind the spy-hole where he watches his “family”, Frankenstein is forced to “sound like the swine, move like the swine, and mask every evidence of [his] existence.” To be human, one needs to be included in human society. To be a proud human, one needs to adhere to a defined set of values. To be a great person, one needs to realise meaning. We can see the beginnings of an identity that is proud and moral in that Frankenstein changes his habit of stealing so that others will not be deprived, and endeavors to aid and assist by performing labours for the benefit of his adopted “family”. They come to think of him as their “guardian angel”, and he gradually approaches an identity that knew how “humans had achieved wonderful things: they could be powerful, virtuous and magnificent.” These descriptions recognise the top level of Maslow’s hierarchy, and hidden behind his spy-hole listening with great emotion to the conversations of others and the readings of Ruins of Empires Frankenstein comprehends these wonderful aspects of humanity. In a poignant reflection, he notes “I had left behind the hunger and the loneliness, and the pain of rejection… the present [was] reality and happiness.” Most audiences never know these thoughts and feelings of Frankenstein, and so they easily relegate him. It transpires, in his own words, that even if he might hope against hope to be human and humane “There was no happiness for the likes of me.”

          “Also, in truth, I was in vexation for virtually the entire duration of the novel. I cannot sympathize why all the villagers could not simply give the poor man a break. After Google-ing Frankenstein’s so-called “monster”, you may recognize that he sincerely is not that bad. In fact, I must say he is rather handsome for an undead scientific experiment gone wrong. No – in all seriousness, he closely resembles your average creepy guy “Today Tonight”, only green. Nonetheless, all should be treated equally regardless of skin colour, or stature or really bad eye bags. God, it’s a cruel, cruel world that we live in! D:”

        – E-mail communication from a Year 10 student who rocks

          The genesis of what we know and remember of Frankenstein is found in his relegation, the denial of his need for love and belonging. Again, I return to the point that the doctor created “a monster so immorally hideous that even [his creator] abandoned [him].” The creature itself, as described, is not immoral, yet its achievement of a sense of morality is impossible. Maslow’s hierarchy reveals that identity is a series of developments. The higher functions and aspects of human identity are dependent on the strength and preservation of lower, more basic and primal needs. When the guardian angel is driven away – abandoned, excluded, deserted, denied protection and spurned – Frankenstein suffers terrible “anguish” and “utter despondency”. He falls from any possible seat of grace. The immoral and sinful “passions of revenge and hatred” take seed in place of an impossible human sense of self-esteem – if one cannot be human, one may well become the monster. Indeed, “Who but a fiend would have endowed me with intelligence and emotions, only to cast me abroad to suffer the scorn of mankind?” And so Frankenstein learns the monstrous desire for a terrible vengeance.

        Ironically, even if readers are meant to feel compassion for Frankenstein and contempt for Dr Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s purpose is for both characters to be damned. Indeed, she would argue, there is no possibility for redemption for humanity if we allow our ambitions to exceed our condition, and aim to gain too much for ourselves. Such desires, such mysteries to which we might ambitiously aspire, are beyond our apprehension, and definitely beyond our ability. It would be foolish and dangerous for us to hope for anything better than our present lot, our existential nature. When Frankenstein says “Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence, [but] many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition,” he is describing the self-destructive desire to become more than what he is. Too late does the creature despair at joining humanity, just as the doctor regrets his ambitions to play the role of creator. The warning presented by The Modern Prometheus
        is that we are not infallible. Salvation is divine, and it is only divine, whilst to be human is to be inherently corrupt and fallible. Of course, we must aim to be as good as we can, but we can never hope to achieve a greater degree of perfection for ourselves. To do so results in disaster.

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