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 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.”
This post originally appeared two years ago, on Frankenstein Day 2016.
there’s a monster
to come out 🙂
Not being a horror film fan, I thought this would be the one article you had written that would not hold my attention. I was dead wrong, to the point that now I’m interested in reading or watching these narratives to view the perspective of humanity and self-judgement, more than worrying about my heart racing. One can only honestly love someone well when they love themselves first. Anything else rakes such soul-mutilation, we have a swelling propensity to turn into monsters to survive. The curious part is that we are drawn to those who trigger self-hate, despite desperately wishing they would see our beautiful selves, so we can kill the beast that lies beneath (though, those we surround ourselves with entertain their own self-hate worse than we do). What to do? Avoid these triggers? Avoid glancing at our reflection? Do we defend ourselves by facing down those who have slandered us or falsely misread our character? Or do we retreat and try not to make eye contact with anyone, living a peaceful, yet lonely existence? Of course, it is none of these, yet the road less traveled—to become so content with ourselves that we are able to live peaceable with all people. If that is attainable, most of us only have a decade or so left to actually practice it. Much to think about, once again, Cate.
I LOVE this response, Sarah. I, too, have observed that we seem to encounter — attract, actually — people who provoke aspects of ourselves we’d rather not face. And then must choose how to respond: avoid that person and thus the feelings, repress, act out or employ some other fear-driven tactic, as you note. Or — the most difficult but, I suspect, meaningful — learn to accept with compassion in ourselves and thereby others these “monstrous” qualities, which reflect our greatest vulnerabilities, deformed by painful experience. This can take a great deal of time and practice, and we can do only what we can do at any given moment.
Thanks, my friend; I’m glad to know your beautiful self.
“The moment in the pond.” This is a beautiful insightful post, yet again. I am only away of Frankenstein as a pop cultural reference – I have neither read the book or seen the movie. But what you write and quote draws me to reading the book. I found “Frankenstein: The 1818 Text”
Yay! I’ve not read the book, either, but have just reserved it at the library, inspired by you. The original 1931 movie is a classic, though the 1935 sequel,”Bride of Frankenstein,” often is considered superior, and even more powerfully highlights the monster’s loneliness. I am not familiar with all the modern versions, but Branagh’s film (starring Robert DeNiro, pictured above) is surely worth a watch. Thank you for reading and commenting, Rafiki.
I loved this post. I hadn’t yet discovered it. It is so well crafted threading the story of Frankenstein (he has always been an all-time favorite of my mine for the very reasons you describe) and real life through the eyes of a child. The character was a ray of light in my childhood and helpful in my navigating the ugly and the sensitivity in me through rocky domestic experience. I vividly remember seeing him in my father and being able to still love him for his sensitive nature. I think we had a lot of Frankenstein’s relatives in our small town so many that I used to beg Kevin to sit with me on Saturday afternoons to watch the movie marathons though I was too proud to ask him to hold my hand. To this day, whenever we are together we seem to gravitate toward a late night film of the original productions, remembering an unspoken sibling bond of company and protection.
Thank you for brightening my day.
Thanks, Pan, for your appreciation and for sharing the memories this post evoked. The story of this creature continues to resonate in different ways for many of us. It feels deeply personal; for me, the monster is the most sympathetic and relatable character in the story, despite the violence it wreaks. None of us asks to be created, and the world’s response to us powerfully shapes our response to ourselves, for better and often worse.
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I like your deep thoughts on Frankenstein and the powerful message of this novel. Loved it so much and also the old film. I haven’t seen Kenneth Branagh’s. I think Frankenstein is timeless because humanity will continue to have the problem of rejecting and abusing those people and other creatures that are seen as ugly, that bother, that pose a great threat to the established powers. The monster’s message is very clear: The abused abuse. Thus, if you have been abused it is very difficult to act constructively; instead, you tend to be destructive and resentful toward those who have made your life unbearable. However, we have many examples of abused people who have done/ are doing great things to fight against power abuse and reverse situations of terrible injustice. Great reflections, Cate! Loved your post!
Thank you, and thank you for your insightful observations. You’re right that it’s possible to respond to abuse and injustice without becoming a perpetrator yourself, though also extraordinarily difficult. But yes, we have examples — Victor Frankl comes to mind and also John McCain, whose five awful years as a POW did not lessen his hope in humanity nor his desire to serve others. Remarkable, and while a too-high bar for many of us, still inspiring.
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