I have good dispositions; my life has been hitherto harmless and in some degree beneficial; but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster. – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. – Friedrich Nietzsche
I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about five years ago. The novel had been calling to me for years, but I had avoided it for one reason or another. Ultimately, I think it was because I knew in some deeply recessed, intangible part of my being that I simply wasn’t ready for it. Not because of its nigh impenetrable pre-Victorian English or the complex philosophical and moral issues it presents, although that was part of it, I suppose. No, I think the main reason I waited so long is that I sensed I would identify too much with the monster and would be emotionally devastated by his end, which I assumed, having seen the 1931 film long ago, was death by fire. (“Fire bad!”) Actually, in the novel the monster doesn’t die–not physically anyway–but instead is self-exiled to the Arctic. Given that the monster appears to be nearly immortal, and knowing what I know about social isolation, the monster’s lot struck me as a fate far worse than death. Needless to say, my fears about reading the novel were well-founded . . . and then some. Not that I regret reading it, mind you. Quite the contrary. It’s just that I have since become haunted by Frankenstein’s monster long after the fact, sometimes imagining myself wandering the vast wastelands of ice and snow, alone and unloved, until the end of my days.
I could have handled the monster being murdered. This is what we’ve been conditioned to expect of monsters, isn’t it? Of course, Shelley’s monster is not the kind we’re used to. He’s hateful and murderous by the end, yes, but he’s also deeply psychologically tortured. Despite the many cultural depictions to the contrary, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation was originally not the lumbering, ignorant, feral thing he became; he’s quite intelligent, in fact, even brilliant. He has a taste for literature, particularly John Milton’s Paradise Lost, viewing himself as akin to Adam in the poem. Likewise, the monster is sensitive and (initially anyway) compassionate towards mankind, only turning bitter and abhorrent after numerous failed attempts to win the affections of men, who continually respond to him with fear and revulsion rather than kindness and acceptance.
In the end the monster comes to despise himself even more than others despise him, because his already unbearable misery is compounded by the fact that he has become exactly what people view him as: twisted, violent and horrific. As he says to his creator, “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.”
The notion that a sentient being can take on aspects of how it is perceived by outsiders is nothing new today. We even have a pretty solid and well-founded concept to describe this phenomenon: labeling theory. In Mary Shelley’s time this was a fairly revolutionary idea though. The basic view of criminal behavior at the time of her novel’s publication, the so-called Classical School of criminology, was that human behavior is essentially rational and that all crimes are therefore fully the choice of those committing them regardless of the circumstances or the mindset of the criminal.
There are tons of problems with this position. First and most obvious, it ignores the root causes of crime pretty much entirely and focuses only on the behaviors associated with the crimes. As a result, it tends to be reactive rather than proactive in terms of dealing with crime. Second, it fails to account for mental illness, duress, or countless other things that might mitigate rational behavior and contribute to criminality. Third, because it assumes that criminals are always solely and consciously responsible for their actions, it tends to encourage harsh and unfair punishments for crime. There are others I could list but you get the idea.
So, Frankenstein’s monster is a classic example of the misunderstood villain. Although his crimes are not exactly justified, they are perfectly understandable in light of how he is treated, and in perhaps one of the greatest bits of irony in all of literature, it is the very dread and repugnance society directs toward him which eventually turns him into something truly dreadful and repugnant. The creature is merely fulfilling the social role expected of him, though he hates it and himself for doing so.
Beyond the book, most depictions of the monster lack this complexity, usually reducing him to a dimwitted thing that merely reacts to its environment and to humans, often angrily. He is thus a precursor to the Incredible Hulk, whom I believe was influenced by Shelley’s character. Hulk even shares the Frankenstein monster’s gray-green skin.
Positive depictions of the monster are rare and usually done for comic effect. A friend of mine and I recently discussed the film The Monster Squad, for example, wherein Frankie deserts his cohorts–all classic movie monsters–and befriends the children of the Monster Squad, particularly young Phoebe, who demonstrates to the other kids that the monster is nothing to fear. In direct contrast to the murder of the little girl in the original film, here he saves the little girl from death at the hands of his old boss, Dracula. In many ways this small, nearly forgotten gem of a film takes a more enlightened view of monsters than many of its more respected predecessors. There are still evil monsters, of course, but the movie demonstrates that not all monsters are bad; some are good, or potentially so, and only want to be loved. In that sense The Monster Squad returns Frankenstein’s creature to his original status as a seeker of human companionship and understanding, even if it does reduce him to the nearly preverbal child-like being of his film heritage. It’s a nice fusion of book and film Frankenstein.
The Monster Squad further blurs the line between human and monster when Scary German Guy (as the kids call him), formerly feared by them, becomes an ally of the Monster Squad. During an early interaction between them, Scary German Guy (SGG) points out several facts about monsters which provokes one of the kids to say, “Man, you sure know a lot about monsters.” SGG responds to this by raising his sleeve, displaying a series of tattooed numbers on his arm, and saying, “Now that you mention it, I suppose I do.” Nothing further is said about this; nothing more needs to be said. The audience, or rather those parts of it who are old enough to know about the Nazi atrocities, understands that SGG is saying implicitly that humans are capable of becoming monsters too. SGG, whether intentionally or not, is essentially warning the kids not to lose their humanity in the process of hunting and destroying monsters. Therefore, the Monster Squad (a club originally organized around a shared love of the classic monster films) must destroy their monstrous adversaries not because Dracula and the others are monsters in the traditional sense, but because they have evil intentions, and we as an audience know that the kids do understand the distinction due to their befriending of Frankenstein’s monster.
By contrast, the Nazis dehumanized and monstrocized entire classes of people: the Jews, of course, but also other ethnic minorities, gays and other “sexual deviants”, gypsies, the physically and mentally disabled, and yes, even criminals–pretty much anyone they perceived to be outsiders or a threat to their image of themselves as the Master Race. All were subject to the Nazis’ Final Solution. And no doubt, if Frankenstein’s monster had existed in Nazi Germany, whether the tortured, violent creature of Shelley’s book or the gentle giant of The Monster Squad, he would’ve met the same fate.
Side Note: With the release of I, Frankenstein earlier this year the character has been remade, so to speak, yet again, this time as a handsome hero (played by Aaron Eckhart of all people) who fights demons, a concept almost completely antithetical to everything Shelley envisioned. I haven’t seen it, but I’m aware that the film performed badly in theaters and was pretty much universally panned by critics, which I’m ecstatic about. I usually don’t revel in the failure of a film, especially one I haven’t seen, but Frankenstein’s monster is an important character in literature and one of deep symbolic resonance to me personally, and I cannot abide this crass Hollywood trend of reimagining every beloved cultural icon as a heroic two-fisted pretty boy. It demeans and cheapens them, and worse: it undermines their entire raison d’être. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films were bad enough, but I’ve never been into the Holmes mythos to the degree I am Frankenstein so that didn’t bother me nearly as much.