Through all ages of civilization, man strived to learn how he, the society to which he belongs, and the state to which he owes his allegiance came to form the world as he knows it today. Many tried to come up with an answer in their own ways, either scientifically, spiritually or philosophically. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” can be seen as her attempt to solve this problem. Since she was well read, and was familiar with many philosophical ideas, it is doubtless that she used the ones that affected her, in her novel.
I will focus on one in particular, Jean Jacques Rousseau; and one of his earlier works: “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men”. I will try to show how “Frankenstein” can be read as a philosophical quest to discover the true nature of man with the light of Rousseau’s ideas. The story, itself, can be seen as the experiment, to gain knowledge about natural man that Rousseau thought in real life was impossible to carry out. The state of “natural man” may not even have existed, however it is necessary to at least think of it as a hypothetical state that might help us understand who we really are.
Victor Frankenstein gives life to a creature that we can call “natural man” at the beginning. Rousseau says, “I perceive in it two principles that are prior to reason, of which one makes us ardently interested in our well-being and our self-preservation, and the other inspires in us a natural repugnance to seeing (…) our fellow men, perish or suffer”. We can see the Monster is interested in self-preservation, and by instinct, takes care of his hunger, thirst and weariness. (p. 131, ll. 7-14). However in line 16, the Monster says that he instinctively felt desolation as well, before he ever knew there was anybody else like him.
Rousseau would have found that impossible, considering he thought, even when man was aware of other men, “without ties, with no need of his fellow men, nor any desire to harm them, perhaps without ever recognizing anyone individually, savage man, self-sufficient and subject to few passions, has only the sentiments and knowledge appropriate to that state; that he felt only his true needs”. Maybe savage man did not feel desolation because he was never so alone as Frankenstein’s Monster. I think here, Shelley may be suggesting that if man was ever so lonely, he would feel this way too.
The need for a companion is also innate and maybe the beginnings of the society lied in this fact, along with the need for assistance to overcome difficulities one encounters. Rousseau thought it was not good intentions, but the use of men to each other, that has started dealings between people. Rousseau also said “moral aspect of love is an artificial sentiment, born of social custom (…), being founded on certain notions of merit and beauty that a savage is not in a position to have,”. I think Shelley also suggests that since love comes along with companionship, it is also innate.
We know that even before the Monster had any notion of beauty and merit, he felt a kind of love toward De Laceys. He was interested in their world, and wanted to be a part of it. At first he had no way to compare the De Laceys to anyone (he had not even seen himself), therefore, according to Rousseau, he could not have known what beauty was. Yet he still cared for the cottagers (p. 136, ll. 16-35). I think we can safely assume that Shelley thinks love does not have to come with beauty or merit, at least not when one does not have many people among which he can make a choice.
This may confirm Rousseau’s idea upto one point but it also tells us that even when there’s no one else, we long to be not-alone, and love may be its consequence when we know when we are physically not alone. Beside his first sentiments and concerns, the way the Monster’s person is built is also like that of savage man as Rousseau contemplated him. Obviously he was not as big as the Monster but he was stronger and more agile than the civilized man: “Nature treats them precisely as the law of Sparta treated the children of citizens; it makes strong and robust those with good constitutions and lets all the other perish”.
In a world full of monsters, the regular people would be the weak ones. However in this world, alone and different, his physical power is not enough. People have grown prejudiced against the different, which is, according to Rousseau, a vice of the civilization. They exclude the Monster, because he does not fit their conventional ideas of physical appearance, and attack him (p. 134). He meets the civilized world in this manner. He flees as savage man would in such a circumstance: “Once he has eaten, savage man is at peace with all nature and the friend of all his fellows.
What if a dispute sometimes arises over his meal? (…) since pride is not involved in the quarrel, it ends with a few blows of the fist; the victor eats, the vanquished goes off to see his fortune, and all is peaceful. ”. He has no knowledge of cunning and mischief at this point, but as he watches his cottagers, and learns the ways of the civilized world, he gets affected by its forces. He is affected yet he is not a part of it. He learns both of its vices and virtues but does not benefit any from virtues as he only comes across vices. The Monster starts to learn about the world with the help of his cottagers.
He sees virtue with his own eyes in the “sacred” family love. His want of a companion makes him feel the need of family love. He wants to be a part of their family. He sees how Felix and Agatha makes sacrifices for their love of their father, and this makes him understand that stealing is wrong; “I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of their store for my own consumption; but when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained,”. At first he is just trying to preserve himself, he is neither good nor evil.
When he developes moral ideas, and stops doing it, he becomes good, and later on, when he gets inflicted by much pain, he will turn evil. On the other side of the coin (of love), we might wonder why he does not feel any sexual love, since Rousseau suggests that sexual desire is an instict. About natural man, he says, “he listens solely to the temperament he has received from nature and not to the taste he has been able to acquire, and any woman is good for him. ”. I’m inclined to think that, Shelley has followed Rousseau in this matter as well, however implicit she used the idea.
The Monster says, “You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. ” (p. 171, ll. 17-18). He also says, “no Eve soothed my sorrows, or shared my thoughts; I was alone. ” (p. 159, ll. 4-5). These are designed to look as if he only needs someone, so he will not be alone anymore. Then we can ask ourselves, why does he specifically want a female, and not a friend like Henry Clerval? I think it is so easy to see the reason that it is almost explicit. His sexual desire is instinctively working, therefore his wording reflects what he feels consciously.
In the “company” of the De Laceys, the Monster continues to grow accustomed to the conventional ideas of human society. His need of belonging combines with his ability to compare, and leads to disastrous consequences for him and Frankenstein, with whom he was supposed to belong in the first place. On page 142, he sees himself in a transparent pool, and comparing the “normal” image to what he sees, he says, “when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. ” (ll. 5-7).
He starts to feel another vice of civilization, envy. Rousseau says, “Anyone who sang or danced best, who was the most handsome, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded (…) From these first preferences vanity and comtempt were born on the one hand, and shame and envy on the other;”. He was ashamed of his “ugliness”, and envious of the advantages beauty brings. He says, “The gentle words of Agatha, and the animated smiles of the charming Arabian, were not for me. The mild exhortations of the old man, and the lively conversation of the loved Felix, were not for me.
Miserable, unhappy wretch! ” (p. 148, ll. 33-34; p. 149, ll. 1-3). Eventually he appeals to the father, the blind man comforts the Monster that “the hearts of men, when unprejudiced by any obvious self-interest, are full of brotherly love and charity. ” (p. 161,ll. 19-20) . However in the end, his fears are realized when the rest of the family, who can actually see him, chase him away in horror and contempt (the other side of shame and envy). Shelley, here, tries to show us how meaningless prejudices affect us (De Laceys lose their home and their “good spirit” [p. 42, l. 36]) and people around us. According to Rousseau, society creates these prejudices, and hurt the very things that it is supposed to protect. When hearing about the goverments and laws from the De Laceys, he does not understand for what they could be, as he is still not completely “civilized” at that point. He says, “For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and goverments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing. (p. 147, ll. 22-26). Since he does not yet feel completely hopeless, even after he learns about them, he still cannot comprehend why anyone would commit murder and other crimes. This leads us to think that unlike what Hobbes suggests, violence is not a part of human nature. Yet the Monster continues to feel excluded, and with the knowledge he gained upto this point, he questions his existence and what he is. He asks, “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? ” (p. 156, ll. 10-11), questions civilized man has been asking himself for ages.
When we combine this questioning with his previous regret of increased knowledge, where he says, “sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst and heat! ” (p. 148, ll. 19-22), we see that the Monster has become a civilized man. Although there is a difference between him and civilized man, he is much more perceptive about the state in which he is. According to Rousseau, civilized man thinks that man, in the state of nature, must have been miserable.
He adds, “I should be glad to have explained to me, what kind of a misery a free being, whose heart is at ease and whose body is in health, can possibly suffer. ”. In this light, I think Shelley is trying to open the eyes of mankind to what it has become, and the fact that this state requires a remedy. Since we know why the Monster does the violent things he does, we sympathize with him. Yet he loses his legitimacy to expect sympathy, when he starts to feel the need to take revenge, and acts upon this desire.
We know that there is still good in him, but vices of the civilized world start to corrupt him. Despite all that has happened with the De Laceys, he tries to go back, and appeal to the father once more. Once again, he finds himself not belonging anywhere, when he sees the family has left their home. He says, “I resolved to fly far from the scene of my misfortunes; but to me, hated and despised, every country must be equally horrible. ” (p. 166, ll. 21-23). His feelings turn bad once again: “ The mildness of my nature had fled, and all within me was turned to gall and bitterness. (p. 167, ll. 20-21). However even after all these rejections, he saves a little girl from drowning, as a result of his natural pity. Shelley, here, may be trying to show us that pity is an instict, which is not so easy to destroy. It still lives on in every human being, including the most wretched ones. This may also suggest that in an evil world, there is still good. We are born neither good nor evil, according to Rousseau, because we do not know what these concepts are. Even so, pity is a virtue in today’s civilized world, thus anachronistically we are born good.
As we learn of the ways of the society, this world makes the unfortunate ones among us evil. The Monster expects William to be innocent and unprejudiced, because he is young. However he has lived in the civilized world much longer than the Monster has, and is affected by its ways. He may not be called evil, but he is certainly not innocent as we can see through lines 1-3 on page 170. He says, “Hideous monster! let me go; My papa is a syndic – he is M. Frankenstein – he would punish you. You dare not keep me. ”. There is a difference between the “upbringings” of the Monster and William.
William thinks that the show of power is a normal thing, as he is young, he cannot perceive the wrongs he does. This perspective of Shelley is obvious, especially when the Monster says, “if my first introduction to humanity had been made by a young soldier, burning for glory and slaughter, I should have been imbued with different sensations. ” (p. 157, ll. 2-5). If indeed, he was raised accordingly, he might not have seen killing as a vice. However this is obviously not an excuse, because when one is old enough to comprehend the difference between virtue and vice, he should be able to change his ways.
The end of the story shows us that love, a virtue, might also lead to hatred, a vice. In this world, they co-exist together. It ends up making people do things of which they were not capable at the beginning. Yet a person, who still carries pity inside him, and understands what virtue is, would regret his doings. He would try to correct them. In the Monster’s case, he expresses his regret by saying, “”This is also my victim! ” he exclaimed; “in his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable series of my being is wound to its close! Oh, Frankenstein! generous and self-devoted being! hat does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me? ” (p. 243, ll. 3-7). Unfortunately he does not see a way to correct these evils, and goes off to kill himself. He knows he is evil, even before he caused the death of Frankenstein he knows this, yet he does not stop himself until it is too late. However I do not think that the Monster is the one we end up judging, but it is the institutions of civilization. Rousseau is very pessimistic about the consequences of society and state in “Discourse on Inequality”, and does not give us any advice on how to fix them.
In a later work called “The Social Contract”, he deals with this matter in more depth, and suggests a just, natural and morally right type of government as a cure. I do not think that Shelley intended to come up with such a solution with “Frankenstein”. Her intentions seem to be limited to trying to get people to open up their eyes to the vices of civilized life, give them a better perspective. In addition, just as a work of literature is supposed to inspire the reader to come up with his own interpretation, she tries to inspire people to come up with their own solutions to better the world.