The Being: Child or Monster?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a comparison of Nature vs. Nurture. Some critics argue that the Being is a monster from birth, while others claim that it cannot be limited to such a narrow category. The argument lies in the education of the Being. He is not a born killer, but is created by the rejection of society. The Being is born an innocent creature with ability to appreciate the sublime, but after learning about human emotions, he is transformed into a monster through the emotional rejection he receives from a human family.

The Being is ignorant about the world around him for the first half of his life. He does not harm or attack another human being. He moves and reacts in similar fashions to that of an infant, however, due his size and appearance humans, including the Being’s creator, run away in fear. The Creator exclaims to a friend:

His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the night… (Shelley 35)

The Being here shows actions that mimic those of an infant. The extended arms and the inarticulate sounds are the only way infants have to communicate. The wrinkled grin is the closest expression a newborn can get to a smile and the reaching arm is a gesture that says "I want to be held," not "I’m going to hurt you." The Creator does not see this, and instead of showing love and affection towards his child, he runs away to the other end of the house. His Creator’s response forces the Being to depart from the building and survive on its own. This reaction of fear is the main force behind the Being’s transition from innocent creature to monster.

The education the Being receives in the forest shows his ignorance and innocence. From the Being’s first moments on its own, it experiences cold and hunger. In this passage, the Being remembers his first encounter with cold:

Before I had quitted your apartment, on a sensation of cold, I had covered myself with some of your clothes; but these were insufficient to secure me from the dews of night, I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but, feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept. (68)

The Being tells about feeling helpless and cold, and how these sensations impacted him. His weeping is something a child would do in a similar situation. He feels alone and cold and his natural responses are to cry. He is uneducated about the outside world, having only been alive for a few days. The cold has a powerful effect on him; he has never known anything like it. The initial shock of being cold is enough to make him feel helpless and cry. But the sensation of being cold also leads to the sensation of heat. He finds a cloak and wraps himself in it to become warmer, and with the discovery of fire, he learns about the properties of heat as well:

One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects! (69)

This new found understanding of heat shows that he is still innocent and ignorant of the ways of the world. His main objective is to become warmer, and he accomplishes this when we moves close to the fire. Like a child, he does not understand that fire can hurt as well as give warmth, but he quickly learns this when he make the mistake of putting his hand in the fire. This act of curiosity shows his immature mind; this is not the action of a killer. A killer knows what causes pain and how to inflict it; a murderer would not reach into a fire and be shocked when his hand is burned. The Being is still a child in his mental abilities.

This childishness also allows him to appreciate the sublime aspects of the forest. For instance, the moon: "Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens, and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up, and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees. I gazed with a kind of wonder…and I fixed my eyes on that with pleasure" (68). The sublimity of the moon is an awe-inspiring thing, and to one who has never seen it before, it is incredible. Adults enjoy looking at the moon but too soon forget the amazement they felt when they saw it for the first time. A child’s response is pure and innocent, just like the Being’s reaction. The sight of the moon holds him captive in wonder and excitement. The pleasure he experiences from viewing the moon is his first emotion. It is the rejection of his emotions, which he experiences later in his education, that lead to his downfall.

The second half of the Being’s education comes from studying the De Lacy family. This section of his education teaches him about the physical and mental sides of human life: how speech, social interaction, and work are an essential part of one’s life. As he begins to understand speech, he comments: "I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science" (75). Here, the Being sees how speech allows humans to express feeling, and exchange ideas. In his attempt to decipher speech, he begins to understand how words can communicate feelings, although with some of the words he is unclear of the meanings: "I distinguished several other words, without being able as yet to understand or apply them; such as good, dearest, unhappy" (75). With his increasing ability to identify words and actions, he uses speech and tasks to practice human culture. The Being starts to mimic the De Lacy’s actions, starting with their chores:

…I went into the woods, and collected my own food and fuel for the cottage. When I returned, as often as it was necessary, I cleared their path from the snow, and performed those offices that I had seen done by Felix. I afterwards found that these labors, performed by an invisible hand, greatly astonished them. (76-77)

His performance of their actions allows him to become more human. He takes satisfaction in his work and continues to perform these tasks to the delight of the family. He finds that doing their work frees up their days to do other jobs, giving the Being a chance to observe different aspects of their life and culture.

As the Being copies the life and culture of the De Lacy family, he begins to feel an emotional connection that eventually leads to his transformation. When the Being perfomrs the De Lacy’s chores, not only does it allow more time to do other things, but it also gives him a sensation of acceptance. His actions are bringing joy to the family, and this encourages his affections towards the De Lacy’s: "…and once or twice I heard them, on these occasions, utter the words good spirit, wonderful; but I did not then understand the signification of the these terms" (77). As he becomes more like the De Lacy family, he begins to adopt their emotions and feelings. He wants to be a part of their circle so badly that he starts to fancy them his "protectors" (87). The Being has created a fantasy world in his mind where the family loves him and wants to accept him with open arms. However his desire to become human in every way is shattered when he sees himself in the pond for the first time:

I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers- their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how 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 sensation of despondence and mortification. (76)

When the Being sees his reflection, he becomes devastated. He wants to be a part of the family structure so tremendously but fears it will be near impossible because of his deformities. He feels cheated and jealous of the De Lacy’s for their perfect forms; his bitterness towards all humans festers inside of him. He knows that his physical appearance could scare them, but his obsession with being accepted and loved by the family is so strong, that he feels that they will overlook his deformities and welcome him into their lives.

The De Lacy family’s rejection is the turning point in the life of the Being. When the family ultimately reject him, he looses total control. This sort of thing does not happen in his fantasy world. This wound is so deep that he becomes irrational and violent: "I know not, despair had not yet taken possession of me; my feelings were those of rage and revenge. I could with pleasure have destroyed the cottage and its inhabitants, and have glutted myself with their shrieks and misery" (92). This rejection erases all the hopes he has for a family and emotional connection. Because he has become angry and vengeful, he looks for someone to blame. He condemns his creator for making him so hideous and goes in search of him to seek revenge. His acts of violence and murder are in the name of retribution against his creator. This retaliation is the final move the Being makes into a full-fledged monster. The senseless murders the Being commits are a clear indication of a monster, and define the Being’s character for the rest of the story. The creature that started life as an innocent individual is now a ruthless killer because of the rejection by the family he desires.

The Being in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not born a murderer. The De Lacys transform him into a monster by their rejection. This denial of affection ultimately leads to his transition from innocent child to heartless killer. The knowledge he gains in the forest shows his innocence but the false sense of acceptance he gains from mimicking the De Lacy family is the main influence leading to his transformation. His desire to be accepted and his obsession with affection are the main forces that lead to his change in character. Ruthless monsters are not born monsters, they are made into mosters.


Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. J. Paul Hunter, New York: Norton & Company, 1996