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Frankenstein is a novel in which both the reader and the characters in the novel are haunted, sometimes unconsciously, by the question “What does it mean to be human?”. That the book is hovering around this question obliges the reader to suppress or at least try to suppress the deep-seated perception of human as an exceptional creature, whose innately assigned reason prevents any juncture or merging with other species to occur, be it AI, an animal, or a grotesque creature like the creature in our case.
Within the framework of the Posthuman Theory, I will approach the failure of Victor Frankenstein from different angles regarding his upbringing, as well as his double-minded, spoiled and prone-to-exclude nature, and the society’s being dyed-in-the-wool humanists; and about the identity of the creature, I will be adopting a liminal- posthuman definition, and while doing so, I will make use of Marxist Theory so as to answer both questions with relation to one another.
Before delving into theories, I would like to introduce the “Victor Frankenstein” image in my mind, and I think this “image” has a lot to do with his destruction caused by destiny’s immutable laws (!).
As the novel is a patchwork, it first opens with Walton’s letters to his sister, in which he reveals his identity. This firsthand description of Walton’s identity is important not only because it helps us concretize Victor’s identity, who is like a doppelganger of Walton, but also because it helps us compare their place in the society, fate, achievements, and failures.
In the first letter, Walton states that he is on a scientific journey, and details his vague ideas about the discoveries he anticipates in a rather romantic tone. Even at that point, it is obvious that Walton is a character of dualities and mixed ambitions, who first decided to be a poet but then decided to pursue a scientific career. This notion, or luxury I should say, of having mixed ambitions has its origins in their privileged position and wealthy backgrounds. This duality of Walton mirrors Victor’s desire to own everything at the same time; romanticism, philosophy, science, etc. Thus, his attempts seemingly have no boundary; however, his mind has. Both Walton and Victor have strict categorizations, and their categorizations are strongly dependent upon binaries, be it about gender, professions or the human state. One of these prevalent binaries in terms of gender and professions reveals itself in Victor’s following statement:
“Elizabeth was of a calmer and more concentrated disposition; but, with all my ardour, I was capable of a more intense application, and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge. She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets….While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes.” (ch.2, p.44).
As can be understood from this quote, Victor has a problematic rhetoric and a traditional bias which even gives him the courage to imply that women are more interested in emotional things while men are interested in science. He, just like the other defendants of humanism, puts men- white, male and occidental- at the center of the universe. His mindset is based on exclusion, not inclusion, which is also eminent in the Humanistic Theory. In a compatible fashion with Bruno Latour’s statements in his book named We Have Never Been Modern, there is a criticism of the tendency to label and disengage things and to reject the embeddedness, intersection and integrity of systems in nature.
This embodiment of Victor Frankenstein as a figure whose judgments generally depend on aesthetics, traditional biases, orientalism and so on, crashes with the cross-over & abject characteristics of the creature.
Another common- and maybe a more important- characteristic between Walton and Victor is that both have the luxury to follow their ambitions even if these ambitions are temporary or childish, because who would or could ask them to stop; they are white, western males, they are the exact definition of “human” (!), plus obviously their families are well off, they have all the necessary resources to fulfill their creative potentials, either by literally creating a so-called monster or by creating/ imagining a noble friend. Even the first words of Victor Frankenstein in the novel starts by stating that he has a distinguished familial lineage and that his father has a reputable profession, and he was provided with the opportunities to which most of the society is denied access. One can infer from these lines that social status is one of the most important factors that help determine one’s power over others, and also help legitimize the divisions that are created by people who have the material power to do so. As Marx stated, “The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the dominant material source in society, is at the same time its dominant intellectual force.”. Starting from this point of view, it is not difficult to predict that the creature will also be exposed to some kind of a social injustice arising from material injustice, because he doesn’t have the material sources even the poorest of human beings have.
Coming back to the main question “Why has Victor Frankenstein failed?”, all these aforementioned factors add up to my main argument which is centered around his social status, wrong education by his parents and the wrong manners and prejudices he acquired from society.
Not going further as Rousseau did at some point, I suggest that the society curbed people’s human sides to a certain extent, giving rise to the construction of hypocritic institutions, and a tradition of favoring the advantaged while excluding the disadvantaged or “the other”. And not surprisingly, Victor Frankenstein also got his share from this tradition which is totally oriented towards discriminating the others to define one’s self. His main problem springs from this orientation and results in his being self-centered, obsessed with his own image rather than pursuing goals that would benefit the society in some way. We can observe this self-centered attitude and distorted perception of scientific pursuit in the following lines:
“… I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” (ch.3, p.53)
“I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organization, but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man.” (ch.4, p.57)
It is clear from these two statements by Victor that he is in an advantageous position enough to be able to take the risks of going beyond human capability and pretending like a God, also being able to think himself superior to other creations of God and challenging his position. His humanistic approach towards men is again obvious in that he is not sure if another -inorganic- creature would be comparable to human beings.
His aspirations for bestowing life upon lifeless matter or finding secrets of heaven crosses the boundaries of human capabilities, dissolving the division between godly and humanly practice, just as Prometheus did, but at the same time, he establishes other boundaries and categories that afterward do not allow the creature in.
This ambivalent position of Victor is one of the factors that account for his failure, and the reason why he has such ambivalent ambitions and dualities, in general, is that he was educated this way, it was expected that he should be an exceptional child, it was considered normal by his parents that he could own another human being, at first Elizabeth; then it becomes normal for him to create his own human and make it his plaything and dehumanize and materialize it whenever he cannot take the responsibility of being a creator. His transhuman pursuit turns out to be something of a more ego-enhancing goal rather than aiming at enhancing human capabilities, because he fails to see subjectivity as an assemblage and different collectives that are all part of this creature he created, as a result of which he tried to disengage himself from the creature and its responsibilities.
Before moving on to describing and defining the creature, I would like to utilize some theoretical information, which will relate to the way in which I will not try to fit the creature into any categories. According to Kate Soper; Humanism is a reactionary and a secular notion, whose attempts to define and understand human beings are centered around the concept of “a core humanity” or “common essential feature” that would apply to all human beings and distinguish them from other animate or inanimate nonhumans.
Descartes, one of the architects of Humanism, even provides these distinctive features suggesting that reason is the only thing that distinguishes us from wild beasts. Anything lacking this human disposition, namely reason, would be in the same category.
For instance, one cannot distinguish a machine that is totally identical with a monkey from a real monkey, for both of them lack reason. However, even if machines had the ability to imitate human beings, we would still be able to distinguish them from the “real humans”, as they would not have the ability to maintain a meaningful dialogue and create novel utterances, which are again human-specific features.
All of these attempts to categorize and define human beings are also attempts made to find a universal definition of human, thus destroying and ignoring individual differences. Turning back to the Marxist viewpoint, one last defining factor would be the economic determinism, suggesting that “ It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.” and to be able to exist in the social spheres of life, one should have some kind of material power.
In short, the criteria sought by the society in order to define a creature as a human being are as follows: first, it has to have reason; second, it has to be able to communicate; the last but not the least, it has to have an economic capital.
To find an answer to the question “What is the creature?”, we will have a closer look at the first scene when the creature first came into life.
“… I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe… I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!- Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.”
Even from this description of the creature, Victor’s discourse reveals that he doesn’t consider him to be of a human species, it is something unnatural. The body parts that he had collected meticulously didn’t form a beautiful creation. The creature hovers around somewhere in-between, he is not totally alive nor is he dead, he is out of place. Realizing this, Victor immediately worms his way out of being a creator, a God, and sarcastically tries to vanish his Promethean identity. This aesthetic response comes from what Kristeva calls abject. He is not proud of what he has done simply because he knows that this creature cannot bring him glory with this in-between look. The creature is in a disadvantaged position even from the very beginning, as his appearance does not correspond with what the society calls human, and even more disadvantaged as he is abandoned by his irresponsible parent.
The way he was born into life; however, was just like a newborn baby, moving convulsively, creating inarticulate sounds and stretching out to the parent. Then, what distinguishes him from a human at this point is his appearance, being physically more strong than a human, being out-of-place, and having inorganic components as body parts.
But we are not sure at this point whether he will be able to acquire individuality, free-will, empathy, property, conscience, and maybe, more importantly, language, all of which are indispensable features of human beings.
Having prepared the grounds on which I will construct my arguments, I would like to focus more specifically on the “individuality” issue, one of the keystones of being human.
As opposed to what humanists claim, individuality is something closely related to the circumstances one has to endure. People are born with their mindsets readily endowed by their families, ethnicity, language and so on. There is always a restriction about the extent to which one can deconstruct these pre-programmed sets of thinking and pre-exist the dominant discourse of a society. Therefore, it can be argued that authorities in one’s life; parents, neighbors, institutions, have a vital role in structuring the individual. In our case, however, the creature lacks such an authority to be structured by, so all he can do to construct his identity is to observe a community, which he cannot be a member of, nor can he belong to. As he was already abandoned by his sole parent, he was not raised in the same way as other newborn babies did. So, it is normal that he searches for other ways to assume an identity for himself.
He resorts to artworks or tries to find role models by observing a family as an outsider; so, his only source of knowledge becomes his observations, that is he can only get theoretical knowledge on how to be a human rather than practical knowledge of being with other human beings.
Until the time when the creature and Victor Frankenstein meets, Victor is the only source of information we have and his prejudice towards the creature is directly reflected to us as readers, who are also conditioned by the discourse Victor used while talking about the creature, thus distanced from seeing the creature as a human. And when he sees the creature after some time has passed since the murder of William, Victor unwaveringly accuses the creature without having a concrete clue. This is the first time when we are about to hear the situations from the creature’s perspective. The creature tries to communicate with Victor, which points to a human characteristic again. Our perception of the creature is conditioned by his discourse, as well, and shifts from a perception of him as a monster to a perception of him as a human.
“ I expected this reception.” “ All men hate the wretched; how, then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things.”
“Abhorred monster! fiend that thou art! the tortures of hell are too mild a vengeance for thy crimes. Wretched devil!”
“Be calm! I entreat you to hear me before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough that you seek to increase my misery? … Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due.”
What can be understood from these lines is that, even though the creature is dehumanized by Victor’s words, he seems more mature, more patient, more empathizing and more human than Victor, who is supposedly a human. Then, the creature is a posthuman entity trying to survive in a society idealizing the “perfect human” and being strictly bound to this concept. He is beyond other humans in that he is physically stronger, his senses are keener, and he has a better ability to empathize with people, basically he has not been corrupted yet.
The image of the creature drawn by Shelley, on the other hand, is an image of an educated person, nurtured by nature and his own efforts, but he is oppressed by the imbalance of power in the society. He had to figure out how things work in society by experiencing them firsthand, for instance, he had to discover things that had been already discovered by people, simply because he didn’t have somebody to take care of him and satisfy his bodily and emotional needs. Then, his upbringing differs from that of other humans not only because he was physically more powerful than a human infant and didn’t need much care, but also because he was not corrupted by norms and authorities, instead he started off as someone experiencing the nature with pure and unbiased instincts. Even though he was lynched by some people because of his appearance, he does not generalize this experience to attribute this prejudicial approach of human beings to all other humans; instead, he keeps being sensitive and keeps this innate ability to empathize with people. Even when he was not in contact with people and was unable to bear their emotions, he was still sensitive to people’s needs and tried to help them.
Until that time, his individuality was not affected by the society much. He was able to endure his honesty and objectivity even while he was narrating his sufferings. Just like humans, he wanted to be accepted by others. However, his only hope for being accepted in the realm of human beings faded away with the desertion of De Laceys.
All these occurrences pushed him too much to the limits that, he gained a class-consciousness, he understood that he wouldn’t be able to survive with this faith in humankind and let his personality be shaped by other people’s deeds. And we witness the process of the abused’s being the abuser, the oppressed’s being the oppressor. However, the creature is more just than his creator. He didn’t harm anybody just for the sake of evilness.
As Marx and Engels suggest, “Radically different material conditions of existences produce incompatible subjectivities.”. If it weren’t for the humanistic tenets that the society wholeheartedly embraced and the prejudices and misunderstandings which were the byproducts of this humanistic view, the creature might have constructed an utterly different individuality.
At the end of the novel, we witness a double tragedy just like the one Bruno Latour described in his book. Just as he utilizes the fall of the Berlin Wall to suggest that the fall of an established and oppressive system does not necessarily bring about the rise of the oppressed. It is a vicious cycle and will continue to be so until human beings can apprehend the embeddedness in the universe. Let’s think of Victor and the creature as totally in opposition, i.e., human vs non-human. Just as the rise of capitalism didn’t entail the triumph of the oppressed people, instead resulting in a loss both on the part of nature and on the part of people; the fulfillment of the revenge of the creature does not entail his triumph. He is both the gravedigger and the loser at the end. The moral of this example is that dichotomies and divisions will result in double tragedies, so, it is more sensible to hold a more inclusive and hybrid conception of things, rather than creating categories just to fit “the other” into and maintain a systematized division.
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