“Philosophers of the 18th Century looked for new ways to understand the acquisition of knowledge and human behaviour . Understanding their theories allows us an insight into Mary Shelley’s intentions in her gothic novel, Frankenstein.”
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – Jean Jacques Rousseau
Society simply exists so that humans can live in proximity to one another without conflict, however this disregards the fact that through banding together, we can often become easier to split apart.
In order to achieve a deeper understanding of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and her intentions as an author, the reader should consider the philosophical theory and opinion of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Who, during the 18th century made groundbreaking developments in philosophy; human freedom, human nature and political authority in society that still affect the world to this day. Rousseau’s theories on society and the natural state of man are obvious themes in Shelley’s novel. Mary Shelley was clearly influenced by Rousseau’s theorem, we can see this influence come through in ‘Frankenstein’.
Humans are shaped and influenced by the environment which surrounds them, much like how a child is sculpted by their parents. Jean Jacques Rousseau explored this in his essay: The Social Contract. He discussed how society affects human nature, mainly how he believed in man’s inherently good natural state, but argued that it was society which ‘corrupted’ them and degraded their morals,
In ‘Frankenstein’ society associates the creatures physical appearance with being evil, because of it’s ‘monstrous’ looks. Society shuns, abuses and corrupts the creature as a result of it’s physiogomy, and in doing so, the creature is turned into the ‘Monster’ which society originally saw it to be.
Jean Jacques Rousseau said that: “Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Maker of the World, but degenerates once it gets into the hands of Man” when he said this, Rousseau stated that when we are born we are good and virtuous, however, when we enter society and explore the human world, become corrupted. Mary Shelley clearly agreed with this theory, we can see this by analysing the creature’s development throughout the text.
The creature’s character development can be attributed to his experiences with society, as Rousseau said.
“Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters” – Rousseau
When Rousseau said this it was an explanation of man when they first come into the world. When we are born (or created as the creature was) our minds are a blank slate, much like the creature’s.
In the beginning the creature is curious, experimenting with fire as a source of heat “I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain” and investigating the hut of the old man, it is inquisitive and delighted when it finds something new: “This was a new sight to me, and I examined the structure with great curiosity” (in reference to the hut it discovers) however, the fire burns the creature and its very first interactions with humans are that they run away (with Victor abandoning it in his flat and the elderly man screaming and running away) despite these somewhat negative first impressions, the creature treasures the fire and actively seeks out more people.
To start with the creature only thinks about its most basic of needs: food, warmth and shelter. “Man’s first feeling was that of his own existence, and his first care that of self−preservation. The produce of the earth furnished him with all he needed, and instinct told him how to use it.” – Rousseau. This is exactly how the creature thinks when he first gains consciousness, it only seeks to satisfy its hunger for food and warmth, and he instinctively moves towards other people (the old man in the hut) to seek companionship, as all humans do. The creature knows nothing of society yet.
As the creature has more interactions with man, a change in him can be observed.
At first, the creature does not know that he is ugly, or seen as a monster, and has no concept of ‘evil’ which he is seen as because of his appearance. So when the creature sees people fleeing from him, or attacking him, it is confused.
Then, for the first time, the creature sees its face. It realises how different it truly is to everyone else.
After this it realises why humans are afraid, and begins to hide. When it comes across the De Lacey’s cottage, the creature does not present itself as it had previously, instead hiding in the adjoined barn. Yet it still desires friendship, learning how to communicate so that it could be one step closer to the De Laceys. After some time the creature decides to attempt communication with one of the De Laceys, an elderly man who is blind. Being blind prevents the man from judging the creature and therefore he lacks the capacity to maltreat it as all others have. However their interaction is cut short when the rest of the family interject, believing the creature to be a monster intending to harm them, they throw him out of the cottage.
Here, we see the turning point in the creatures attitude towards humans, towards society. After experiencing one moment of acceptance, it was ripped away and crushed. The creature finally turns to revenge as a means of getting what it wants.
The creature has seen how humans have companions, friends and family, this triggers one of the most vehement instincts a human can experience: the need for a companion.
This need for companionship is spurred by the creature’s expulsion from normal society. It has learned from society that you cannot get what you want through peace or compassion, so it uses force and hatred to reach it’s goals.
“I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” – The creature is vengeful because it has been mistreated by everyone it has come across in society. Society has removed the good within the creature. “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” – The creature is begging Victor to right the wrongs that society has forced upon it by creating a female companion for it. Its misery is the result of society, and the creature believes that having someone to share in it’s misery will free it from society’s chains. “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” – the creature needs another like himself so that he can belong to something.
Mary Shelley agrees with Rousseau’s natural state of man theory in the way that she presents the monster, in the beginning he is innocent and inherently good, but as people begin to degrade him and reject him he becomes evil. In this way the creature’s nature was, initially good, but society corrupted it.
The potential of humans is trapped in contemporary society, the potential of Victor’s creation was wasted because of human superficiality. It was extremely strong and intelligent and if it had been considered ‘beautiful’, would have been worshipped as a god. Sadly no-one recognised how it could have benefited society.
If we are to go from Rousseau’s theory alone and the way that the creature is described in the beginning of the novel, we can say that it was impossible that the creature was evil from the start. If he is lacking in ideas and knowledge when he first becomes conscious, then he must be lacking in personality, therefore the capacity to be evil OR good. This aligns with Rousseau’s belief that we are not born evil, we are made evil.
Another way Mary Shelley showcases Rousseau’s theory in ‘Frankenstein’ is through the creator of the Monster himself, Victor Frankenstein.
Victor creates the creature to appease society. He wanted to destroy death itself, and rid the world of all sickness. His intention was to create a race of supreme beings with immense strength and intelligence. What he created had these features, but it is so repulsive to Victor that he abandons it and flees.
While the monster endured an accelerated rate of society’s corruptible power due to its rapid development, Victor has lived with it for his whole life.
Victor grew up in society, he has spent much more time as a part of it than the creature has. We can see how they are not so different once the creature begins to learn and be exposed to Victor’s world.
Frankenstein immediately regrets bringing the creature into the world, instead of aiding the human race, he has unleashed a demon upon the Earth, or so he believes. Because of this, Victor feels that he has betrayed his fellow man, and recuses himself from society; “He wished me to seek amusement in society. I abhorred the face of man. Oh, not abhorred! They were my brethren, my fellow beings, and I felt attracted even to the most repulsive among them, as to creatures of an angelic nature and celestial mechanism. But I felt that I had no right to share their intercourse.”
Guilt consumes Victor, and we see the effects in extreme detail. He repeatedly tries to return to nature, removing himself from society multiple times by entering the wilderness and the Swiss alps. Perhaps Victor is attempting to return to his ‘natural state’ when he seeks asylum in nature, the knowledge he has accumulated plagues his mind and he looks to nature in order to ease it.
The creature’s expulsion from society is an important theme which tethers ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘The Social Contract’, but Victor’s experiences are also a vital symbol in understanding Society’s effects on the natural state of man. Shelley showed exactly how society can destroy the good in people, as Rousseau said so many times, we are bound by society. The creature itself is the very summation of society’s affect on humanity, it is the perfect, unedited result of the corruptible forces of this world: the good turned evil, the kind turned cruel.