Dr. Victor Frankenstein spends his nights in the laboratory putting together human parts in a bid to create life. One night, he succeeds and sees a set of ghoulishly-pale eyes open from the newly-formed being lying on his table. The creature escapes, and Dr. Frankenstein is horror-struck at the crime against nature he has surely committed. This feeling increases when he finds his brother has been brutally murdered. In his heart, he fears that the perpetrator is the monster he so foolishly brought into life. Eventually, this being confronts him, and tells Frankenstein that he has spent his short, miserable existence yearning – like all of us – to be loved. Victor filled with dread, denies the creature the friendship he so craves, and the monster, in a fit of hell-bent fury, promises to to wreak a terrible revenge – to smite and destroy everything that Dr. Frankenstein holds dear.
Frankenstein is very different from the popular idea of the halloween monster, daubed in yellow with a bolt sticking out of his neck. The monster is different – and more human – than his namesake today, but the most surprising element of the novel to me was a long section that was strongly reminiscent of Arabian Nights...
Frankenstein has a lot of wisdom in it, for example on morality. Frankenstein’s monster essentially feels that he would be nice if someone showed him love. He then goes on to murder a series of people when he finds that love and compassion is not forthcoming. Of course, this isn’t exactly a good temperament. I think most people would judge that you cannot be described as a good person, if your good actions are conditional on receiving some benefit for yourself. However, the question it raises is, is it possible to do good in the world – to be a good person – if you never receive anything but hatred and disgust in return? If, like Frankenstein’s monster, nothing you can do will stop people hating and fearing you, then your incentive to do good, is practically zero.
Looking at this another way, would we want to say that there should be nothing that can drive you to commit as deeply an immoral act as murder? Even if you have been given no incentive to act well, and, like the monster been given no moral education? Consider this, everything in the monster’s genetic makeup was given to him by his creator, Dr. Frankenstein. And the Dr. gave the creature no moral education, leaving his temperament to be sculpted by the ravages of a wild and feral environment. So who is to blame for the monster’s murders?
It’s tricky to answer that question. If you say the monster, then I think that’s the same as saying people with serious mental illnesses should be held fully responsible for any crimes they commit. If you say Dr. Frankenstein, then you’re also saying that the parents of serial killers should sometimes be incarcerated rather than the killer themselves.
I think the answer to this question is that these two people – Dr. Frankenstein, and his monster – are simply at different points of the causal chain which led to the monster’s crimes. In general, causal chains for any action, but crimes especially, are very long and complicated, and ‘responsibility’ is always just an arbitrary line we chose to draw somewhere on that chain. We always want to be able to point the finger at someone. It’s comforting to have someone to blame, but in reality the causes that lead to any action are both unknowable and unquantifiable. I think the implications of that are astounding. If we can’t identifying who is ‘truly responsible’, then there can be no role for punishment in society. By this I mean we should aim to rehabilitate offenders, and confine people who pose an immediate danger, but not punish them. Put simply, how could we even begin to determine who to punish if the idea of responsibility is grey and murky?
The thing I found most striking about Frankenstein is that the monster was shunned by humankind largely because of its appearance. True, it turned out to have a rather evil temperament, but the reader is lead to believe that this could have been avoided if the monster was treated with some humanity. The truth is that appearance still has a stranglehold on our society: it is still completely acceptable to judge people’s value by the way they look. We all do it all the time, but it seeps into the background of our lives and we scarcely notice it.
The last word
Mary Shelley, somehow, came up with an idea for a horror-story that is so strong it almost guaranteed a fantastic book. The implications of someone creating intelligent (yet hideous) life are just incredibly interesting, and from many different angles - moral, psychological, legal etc. Just like Frankenstein’s monster, I think Shelley’s idea developed a life of it’s own, flying out of her head and demanding to be turned into a book. Because whilst the horror story is fun, the idea, the concept, of Frankenstein probes and prods the human condition in completely new and unusual ways. There is a lot of wisdom in there.