Identity

Who am I? What defines a person or an object? What is an identity? Merriam-Webster defines identity as "a distinguishing character or personality of an individual" ("Identity"). Nationality, family, gender, socioeconomic level, accomplishments, downfalls, personality, and physical appearance are qualities that characterize Americans. When each of these characteristics are viewed together, a unique individual is formed. However, in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein's creation is not identified by all of these characteristics. He is not defined by many of them because they do not exist in his life. The domestic void in the creature’s life creates a barrier between him and the rest of civilization. Victor’s creation continually asks, "Who was I? What was I?" (86) and society answers with "wretch" (35) and "monster" (37); it is these responses that give the creature identity.

Every human being has a national identity and heritage, yet the creature does not posses this privilege. When a person is born, they are born into a family rich in a national culture and ancestral heritage; this composes part of the person's individual identity. People find pride in their ancestral identity. Yet, when the blind man in the De Lacy family asks the creature, "Are you French?" (90), the creation responds, "No" (90). This establishes the fact that the creature has no place of birth that would give him an identity of a particular country. He is created in a laboratory, not delivered from a mother's womb. Without a set of parents, he does not have biological ancestors from which he can adopt a cultural heritage; he is all alone. The fact that the creature does not have this ancestral connection, creates a boundary between him and human beings. The creature tries to create an identity for himself, in this scenario, by explaining where he was educated. However, the place in which a person learns is not an identifying characteristic. If a human being is educated in Oregon, but is from Washington, they are not an Oregonian; they are defined as a Washingtonian.

A person with no ancestral heritage also does not have a familial identity. They are nobody’s son, daughter, brother, or sister. Every human being is created by two people and will always be characterized as their parent’s son or daughter; they can always be identified by their relationship to the people who created them. His creator does not wish to have a relationship with him. The creature recalls that he has "no father [who] watched [his] infant days [and] no mother had blessed [him] with smiles and caresses" (81). Without "mutual bonds" (81) with others, the creature has an alienated existence from human beings; he is not anyone’s son. The creature longs to be part of a domestic circle, like that of the De Lacy family.

Victor’s initial reaction to his creation is the first taste of what the world has to offer the creature, an identity. However, this is not the identity that the creature wishes to posses. He desires to be someone’s son, yet when he goes to Victor for this relationship, he is rejected. In the beginning of the creature’s existence he has "one hand…stretched out" (35) to reach towards his creator. This is parallel to a Sistine Chapel painting in which Adam reaches out to God. However, there is a significant difference in the way the two creators react to the situation. God stretches His hand to meet that of His creation while Victor "escaped, and rushed down the stairs" (35). Victor fears that his creation is trying to "detain" (35) him. However, the creature is merely attempting to make a connection with his "father," just as an infant does shortly after birth. From the moment of the creature’s "birth," he is rejected; the man who creates him cannot stand to touch this "wretch" (35). If the creature’s creator does not want any contact with him, how is anyone else supposed to love him? The creature, however, still searches for this domestic relation in his life. Yet the response of the human being, Victor, in this situation is a foreshadowing of how other people will react to the creature throughout the rest of the novel.

The creation wishes to have a relationship with humans to fill the void of not having a domestic connection with his creator. The creature desires to "gain the good-will and mediation of the old De Lacy" (89). The creature has seen himself in a pool water and knows that he does not physically resemble the cottagers. He fears that the De Lacy family will reject him just as his creator does. Therefore, the creature approaches the old man first because the man is blind. The creature will not be bound by his looks; he will have free access to build a relationship with De Lacy. The old man will focus only on his internal qualities, not his external appearance. This is precisely how the old man reacts to the creature. Mr. De Lacy only hears the sophisticated words of the creature and assumes that he is speaking with a human being. It is not until the other members of the De Lacy family enter the cottage that the old man knows the identity of the creature.

Although the creature has never been seen by the family, he makes the assumption that they will view him as "a detestable monster" (90); this statement is a foreshadowing of what is to come. It is also a key passage to see how the creature views himself. His creator rejects him and he assumes that all other humans will respond in this same manner. The three members of the family that enter the cottage each respond to the monster in their own way, but all of them are frightened by the creature’s hideous appearance. The first response that is expressed to readers is that of Agatha; she "fainted" (91). A person faints when they are so shocked by something that their body does not know how to respond to this overwhelming of emotion. The body just shuts down and the person falls to the ground. This is an extremely unnerving response. Moreover, it is followed by Safie rushing "out of the cottage" (91). Safie does not even try to help Agatha, who is lying on the floor. She is too frightened to remain in the house, so she flees. Felix responds to the situation in a much different manner than the two women. Felix "darted forward, and with his supernatural force tore [the creature] from his father" (91). The "supernatural force" is the desire to save his father from what he believes to be a dangerous situation. In frightening circumstances, people have much more strength than they have on a daily basis. This is because they are fighting for their life. Even though each of the cottagers react in different ways to save themselves from the "monster," they are all reacting to his outward appearance. They do not wait to talk to him and find out that he is actually a very knowledgeable and kind creature. For quite some time the creature has been helping the family by bringing them fire wood and such. However, his generosity is not reciprocated by the De Lacy’s.

The De Lacy family reacts to the creature solely on his physical looks and not by his kind actions towards them; this is also how a girl’s father encounters the creature. As the creature is walking through the woods near a river, he witnesses a young girl fall "into the rapid stream" (95). He "saved her, and dragged her to shore" (95). A human being would be identified as a hero for this brave gesture. However, the girl’s father thanks the creature by shooting him. The man is grateful for his daughter being saved, but he is so frightened by the creature’s looks that his only response is to shoot the creature. The father believes that he is saving his daughter by firing at the "monster." The creation should be commended for his deed and viewed as a hero. However, his external appearance is focused on, not his heroic act.

Throughout Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s creation is searching for an identity. He knows that "the Tree of Knowledge is nor that of Life" (Quoted in Curran); just because he is a knowledgeable creature, he is not human. He does not have an ancestral or familial as all humans, born from a woman’s body, do. This creates a wall between him and the rest of society. He seeks to develop a relationship with his creator, Victor, yet Frankenstein does not see the creature as his some. All humans, even his creator, view him as a "wretch" and "monster," based solely on his external appearance. Without a "relation or friend upon earth," (Shelley, 90) he is alienated from the human world and lacks a domestic connection to anyone. The only way he can exist in society is if people can see past his physical looks and know what a kind creature he truly is. However, how can this be expected when his creator does not even want to touch this "monster."

 

Works Cited

Curran, Stuart. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. <http://www.english.upenn.edu/knarf/frank.html> 26 April 2000.

"Identity." Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 2000. <http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary> 28 April 2000.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Norton. 1996.