Today is Frankenstein Day, which, with International Talk Like a Pirate Day and National Butterscotch Pudding Day (both September 19: “Arrrr, Matey, pass the puddin’!”) ranks among my favorite made-up holidays.
Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus was born Aug. 30, 1797. At the tender age of 19, amidst a succession of dark and stormy nights in a Swiss castle, she was visited by what she described as a “waking dream.” It was this grim vision that she fleshed out into the gothic tale of a creature cobbled together from corpses and animated by a wildly brilliant and short-sighted young inventor.
The horrors of their subsequent lives — the monster rejected and reviled, his inventor driven by guilt and grief to hunt the creature to the ends of the earth, that he might destroy it — have enduring moral and spiritual relevance: What does it mean to be human, inclined to marginalize and persecute what we find unacceptable? What does it mean to be blameless and yet adjudged a monster, to be brutalized by rejection, to be exiled? Where lies guilt? Where innocence?
In perhaps the most emotionally searing moment of the story, the creature, driven to a painfully solitary existence by humans who fear and hate him, spots his reflection in a pond. It’s a catastrophic revelation: He sees himself as they do, hideous and misshapen, and feels toward himself what they have: fear, revulsion. The experience shatters his last hope of belonging, of acceptance. Cast out now by himself as well as others, he grows despondent, then malevolent, then violent.
“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine, and rage the likes of which you would not believe,” the monster says in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film adaptation of Shelley’s novel. “If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
Any of us who have ever looked in the mirror and found ourselves ugly, or looked at aspects of ourselves and found them shameful, know that moment at the pond. There’s an unmistakeable violence in turning against yourself, and a delusion, too — that you can somehow have a wholly realized life while disowning aspects of yourself you find monstrous. That we can drive off the tough stuff, the most difficult feelings, and that they will stay peacefully, placidly away. That they won’t, eventually, exact a toll for their alienation: from our bodies, our spirits, our hearts and minds. From our relationships, in which we unconsciously reject in others what we have found unworthy in ourselves.
I consider Frankenstein’s monster: an intelligent, sentient creature, misshapen by the circumstances of his birth and the limitations of his creator, yet possessed of a sensitive soul. Wanting to be seen not as ugly, but as worthy of love and appreciation.
Likewise, I consider the aspects of ourselves that arise from a thousand unknowable causes and conditions, qualities we condemn as ugly, unacceptable, shameful: the monsters we exile from the village of our psyches. I wonder what we might learn about ourselves — and, by association, each other — if we met them instead with kindness.
Even monsters, it seems, need love. Especially monsters.
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all,” the monster says in Shelley’s novel. “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”