Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” is a seminal work of horror and science fiction; it is the story of an unorthodox act of creation, of a monster which torments his miserable creator. Through her story Shelly makes strong commentaries on a number of subjects, of which one of the most striking is a commentary on the nature of mankind. She puts forth the idea, and reinforces it through the development of the plot, that mankind is capable of both good and evil. Like mankind, Frankenstein’s creature is also demonstrated to be capable of both benignity and malignance; indeed, even the negative aspect of his character, shown through his quest for revenge, has a parallel in the actions of his human creator. Thus, through her commentary on mankind’s nature, Shelly demonstrates the ‘humanity’ of the creature; his actions and his nature are like those of mankind. With this in mind, an important recognition is formed: if the creature’s evil is exacerbated by the injustice brought upon him, perhaps he isn’t the monster in this story.
The creature’s story of observing a human family provides Shelly with the opportunity to comment upon the nature of mankind. It is through his observations and interactions with this family that Shelly demonstrates the positive and negative aspects of the human character, and the human capacity for both good and evil. The positive nature of mankind is illustrated by the actions of the two young cottagers, who “several times… placed food before the old man when they reserved none for themselves” (114). Their actions demonstrate the human capacity for selflessness and further illuminates the cottagers’ kindness. When the monster reflects on their actions, saying that, “this trait of kindness moved me sensibly” (114), it is shown that he identifies with and continues to be moved by such kindness in a positive way. The creature’s capacity for good is demonstrated by his positive perception of the cottagers’ good qualities; his positive association with these qualities are a reflection of them in his own character. Going further than just praising the cottagers’ good deeds, the creature demonstrates his own kindness by also stopping his consumption of the family’s food, for he sees that they are often left hungry, and beginning to take the family’s tools to cut wood for them. These actions are intended to help the family, and they thus illuminate the creature’s selflessness and desire to please. Indeed, he says himself that he thought “that it might be in my power to restore happiness to these deserving people” (117). Far from being a purely evil and malignant being bent on destruction, Frankenstein’s creature is shown to be a caring, selfless being who wants to bring happiness. His capacity for goodness is strongly illuminated.
The positive commentary on the goodness of mankind is further reinforced by the creature’s observations of the family. He hopes to reveal himself to them, saying that, “when I contemplated the virtues of the cottagers, their amiable and benevolent dispositions, I persuaded myself that when they should become acquainted with my admiration of their virtues, they would compassionate me and overlook my personal deformity” (133). The creature is commenting upon the ‘virtues’ of the cottagers, including their ‘amiable and benevolent dispositions’; through these comments on the characteristics of the cottagers, Shelly is further demonstrating the kind and good nature of mankind. The creature’s ‘admiration of their virtues’ also further illuminates the positive nature of the creature’s character, which again is reflected in him through his positive reaction to these good qualities. He hopes that his admiration of their virtues would elicit compassion in the cottagers and allow them to overlook his physical gruesomeness; he is counting upon the kindness and good nature of mankind to allow him to reveal himself. That he trusts in the good nature of mankind means that he perceives mankind as good, and his statements on the matter confer to the reader that same perception. However, the creature also begins to question mankind’s positive nature by asking “was man, indeed at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” (114). His readings present him with the idea that mankind is capable of both good and evil, benignity and malignance. By having the creature ask these questions, Shelly is putting forth the such an idea. She wants the creature, and the reader, to recognize that there exists a capacity for evil in mankind, despite their positive actions and traits which had been demonstrated throughout the creature’s story. The idea that mankind “appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived as noble and godlike” (114) is supported by the creature’s experiences with humanity through his interactions with the family.
The creature does not think that the family could turn away someone who “solicited their compassion and friendship” (133); as demonstrated earlier, he hopes that the good nature of mankind would allow them to accept him despite his form. However, when he finally reveals himself to the family they quickly reject and attack him. A “fatal prejudice clouds their eyes” (136) and causes them to mistreat a being who only wants companionship and kindness. The negative side of humanity is thus demonstrated; they act ‘vicious and base’ towards the creature for no reason other than his deformity. That they refuse to overlook the creature’s physical appearance despite the kindness of his character means that the creature was mistaken in his hope that they would show him compassion. By having the family fail to live up to creature’s expectations, which were formed around his faith in the goodness of man, Shelly is demonstrating that mankind’s kindness and goodness is indeed fallible. Like the creature, the reader’s faith in mankind’s goodness is shaken; humanity has demonstrated that it is not always capable of compassion and kindness. The family’s reaction to the creature allows Shelly to reinforce and bring credence to the idea that man could be ‘so virtuous and magnificent’ but also be ‘vicious and base’.
The creature desires companionship, and his misery is derived from his loneliness. He says that he “admired virtue and good feelings and loved the gentle manners and amiable qualities of my cottagers, but I was shut out from intercourse with them” (123). Quotes such as this demonstrate that, though he is also capable of the kindness in mankind’s character, he is unable to be a part of human society and thus unable to receive such kindness. Shelly makes it very clear that the creature’s greatest desire is companionship and positive interaction with mankind, and by doing so further illustrates the kind and compassionate aspects of his nature. He seeks friendship, not destruction. Yet the mistreatment he receives by the human brings out the negative aspects of the creature’s character; he asks “was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity ort assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies?” (138). He vows “ever-lasting war against the species” (138) and that his “sufferings were augmented also by the oppressive sense of the injustice and ingratitude of their infliction. My daily vows rose for revenge – a deep and deadly revenge, such as would alone compensate for the outrages and anguish I had endured” (143). This desire for revenge is what causes the creature to commit acts of murder and torment Frankenstein. Like with mankind, it is shown that the creature has the capacity for great evil, and indeed he carries out to the fullest his own ‘vicious and base’ actions. Of course, this comes in contrast to the positive aspects of his nature, which were illustrated and reinforced by his earlier praise for mankind.
It is in the actions of Victor Frankenstein that an important parallel is developed between mankind and the creature. Prior to his act of creation, Frankenstein experiences happiness and companionship with his family, with Elizabeth, and with his close friend Clerval. This is all lost when the creature, driven by his desire for revenge, kills those Frankenstein holds dear; recounting the pain caused by the creature’s actions, Frankenstein says that “a fiend had snatched from me every hope of future happiness: no creature had ever been so miserable as I was”(201). The isolation and desolation Frankenstein experiences prompts him “to pursue the daemon, who caused this misery, until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict. For this purpose I will preserve my life: to execute this dear revenge” (206). Thus, the negative and malignant side of Frankenstein’s character is illustrated by his desire to seek revenge against the creature. It is in this desire for revenge that a parallel is developed between Frankenstein and his creature. Both of them are initially of a good and kind nature but are driven to seek revenge, which in turn brings out the negative aspects of their nature, because they are left isolated, in misery, and feeling a sense of injustice. Their quest for revenge is in response to the evils which have been inflicted upon them.
The parallels between the nature of mankind and the nature of the creature, and the creature’s quest for revenge and Frankenstein’s quest for revenge, demonstrate that an extreme similarity exists between mankind and the creature. By having him be capable of both good and evil like mankind, by having his evil exacerbated through revenge like how it is in his human creator, and in that his quest for revenge comes from the same sense of injustice and misery that Frankenstein’s does, Shelly is demonstrating the ‘humanity’ of the creature. He is not a purely evil being bent on nothing but destruction, but rather a being capable of kindness and desiring companionship which is driven to evil because of injustice. He acts, and reacts, exactly like the humans of the story. With this in mind, an important recognition can be developed: if the monster is capable of good as well as evil, and thus isn’t a purely evil being, and if his quest for revenge is developed from a sense of injustice and misery, then perhaps he isn’t truly such a monster, or isn’t the monster of the story. After all, his evil is the same as that of his creator, as it came from their quests for revenge. Indeed, his evil is a reaction to the evil and injustice mankind inflicts upon him in the first place, despite his desire for companionship and kindness. If we do not consider Frankenstein a monster despite his evil quest for revenge, then can we consider the creature a monster too? After all, if he is driven to evil only after suffering it, as is the case with his creator, then perhaps the true monster in the story is the group which inflicts that evil in the first place: mankind.
Through the creature’s observations and interactions with mankind, Shelly develops a commentary on mankind’s capacity for both good and evil. They are capable of extraordinary kindness and compassion, as the family’s interactions demonstrate, but are also capable of ‘vicious and base’ evil, as shown by the way they mistreat the creature. The creature is also shown to be capable of both good and evil; the praise he gives to the humans for their positive actions and the charitable deeds he secretly commits for the family is a reflection of his own good and kind character, but the revenge he vows against mankind and the murders he commits are clearly a demonstration of the evil he is capable of as well. Of great importance is the parallel between Frankenstein’s actions and the actions of his creature; they are both driven to revenge because of evils committed against them. The similarity of the creature’s nature and of mankind’s nature is striking: they are both capable of good and evil and that evil is exacerbated by injustice committed against them, as seen in the case of the creature reacting to his isolation and rejection and Frankenstein in response to the murder of his friends and family. With this in mind, a new perspective on the actions and nature of the creature can be developed: it isn’t he who is the monster, for he is acting in response to injustice. Rather, that monster is mankind, which inflicts injustice in the first place and sets the evil of the story in motion.