The “Birth” of a Monster

I have titled this “The Birth of a Monster” because Frankenstein can be read as a tale of what happens when a man tries to create a child without a woman. It can, however, also be read as an account of a woman’s anxieties and insecurities about her own creative and reproductive capabilities. The story of Frankenstein is the first articulation of a woman’s experience of pregnancy and related fears. Mary Shelley, in the development and education of the monster, discusses child development and education and how the nurturing of a loving parent is extremely important in the moral development of an individual. Thus, in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley examines her own fears and thoughts about pregnancy, childbirth, and child development.

Pregnancy and childbirth, as well as death, was an integral part of Mary Shelley’s young adult life. She had four children and a miscarriage that almost killed her. This was all before the age of twenty-five. Only one of her children, Percy Florence, survived to adulthood and outlived her. In June of 1816, when she had the waking nightmare which became the catalyst of the tale, she was only nineteen and had already had her first two children. Her first child, Clara, was born prematurely February 22, 1815 and died March 6. Mary, as any woman would be, was devastated by this and took a long time to recover. The following is a letter that Mary wrote to her friend Hogg the day that the baby died.

6 March 1815

My dearest Hogg my baby is dead – will you come to see me as soon as you can – I wish to see you – It was perfectly well when I went to bed – I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it – it was dead then but we did not find that out till morning – from its appearance it evidently died from convulsions – Will you come – you are so calm a creature and Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk – for I am no longer a mother now


from the Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (letter to Thomas Jefferson Hogg)

What is informative and sad about this letter is that Mary turned to Hogg because Percy was so unsupportive. Percy actually didn’t seem to care that the child was dead and even went out with Claire, leaving Mary alone with her grief. Mary’s second child, William, was born January 24, 1816. (William died of malaria June 7,1819 .) Thus, at the time that Mary conceived of the story, her first child had died and her second was only 6 months old. There is no doubt that she expected to be pregnant again and about six months later she was. Pregnancy and child-rearing was at the forefront of Mary’s mind at this point in her life.

Frankenstein is probably the first story in Western literature the expresses the anxieties of pregnancy. Obviously male writers avoided this topic and it was considered taboo and in poor taste for a woman to discuss it. Mary’s focus on the birth process allowed men to understand female fears about pregnancy and reassured women that they were not alone with their anxieties. The story expresses Mary’s deepest fears; What of my child is born deformed? Could I still love it or would I wish it were dead? What if I can’t love my child? Am I capable of raising a healthy, normal child? Will my child die? Could I wish my own child to die? Will my child kill me in childbirth? Mary was expressing her fears related to the death of her first child, her ability to nurture, and the fact that her mother died having her. All of this is expresses in Victor Frankenstein’s complete failure in parenting.

For approximately nine months Victor Frankenstein labored on the creation of his “child”. Finally on a “dreary night in November: he witnesses the “birth”:

“I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” Frankenstein pg. 51

Instead of reaching out to his child, Victor rushes out of the room disgusted by the abnormality of his creation. When the creature follows after him, Victor runs away in horror completely abandoning his child.

While creating his child, Victor never considered whether this creature would even want to exist. He also didn’t take enough care with the creature’s appearance. He could not take the time to make small parts so he created a being of gigantic size. Victor never considered how such a creature would be able to exist with human beings. He did not take time with the features either and created a being with a horrifying appearance. Unable to accept his creation, Victor abandons his “child” and all parental responsibility. He even wishes that his “child” were dead.

“I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I has so thoughtlessly bestowed” pg. 87

From the moment of the creature’s birth, Victor thought of it as demonical and abused it. Frankenstein represents the classic case of an abused and neglected child growing up to be a abuser. The monster’s first murder victim is a small child that he wished to adopt. As Mary Shelley wrote the novel, she began to identify more closely focused on the plight of the abandoned child. The heart of the novel is the creature’s discussion of his own development.

The creature, himself, realizes that a child that is deprived of a loving family becomes a monster. The creature repeatedly insists that he was born good but compelled by others to do evil. Mary Shelley bases this argument in Rousseau’s Emile and Second Discourse. Mary’s account of the creature’s mental and moral development follow the theories of David Hartley and John Locke.

Mary Shelley read Rousseau’s Emile in 1816. Rousseau stated that:

God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.”

Rousseau specifically attributed moral failings to the lack of a mother’s love. Without mothering and a loving education ” a man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster that the rest.”

Thus, Mary Shelley is suggesting that a rejected and unmothered child can become a killer, especially a killer of its own family.

Even without the proper nurturing the creature manages to get an education. Mary alludes to Rousseau’s theory of the natural man as a noble savage, born free but in chains and corrupted by society. In the battle of nature vs. nurture for development, Mary definitely sides with nurture. The creature is Rousseau’s natural man, a creature no different that the animals responding only to physical needs. It is only later through contact with the DeLaceys (society) that the creature develops a consciousness and realizes that he is a societal outcast. While alluding to a couple of Rousseau’s ideas, in particular the natural man, Mary Shelley utilized the theories of Hartley and Locke for the development and education of the creature.

The creature’s moral development follows David Hartley’s theories in Observations of Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations(1749) and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding(1690). David Hartley argued that early sensitive experience determines adult behaviour and John Locke argued that man is neither innately good nor innately evil but is rather a “blank slate” on which sensations creates impressions which later become conscious experience. The creature first experiences the physical sensations of light, dark, heat, cold, hunger, and pain. This was his period of infancy where he felt the sensations but had no conscious expression of them. Through time and experience the creature eventually learns to distinguish the various sensations and how to remedy them. He learns to gather food, clothe himself, and acquire shelter. In other words, his sensitive experiences cause him to learn for them and provide for his basic necessities.

The creature obtains a moral and intellectual education through his observation of the DeLacey family, who lived in the cottage adjoining his hovel. The DeLacey’s provide the creature with an example of a loving, kind , and virtuous family. They stimulate his emotions and inspire him to do good deeds for others (he secretly collects firewood for the family). Through the creature’s observation of the DeLacey family, the creature is also stimulated intellectually and is introduced to spoken and written language. Mary Shelley traces the linguistic development of the creature from his earliest acquisition to his ability to grasp abstract concepts and eventually read and write.

Not only does the creature learn morality and virtue from the DeLacey family but also acquires a small library, which enlarges his knowledge of human vice and virtue. From Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Romans he learns about human virtue, heroism, and civil justice. In his study of Volney’s Ruins or A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires, he leans about corruption and the decline of empires. In his reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost, he learns the origins of good and evil as well as the roles of the sexes. Finally, in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Werther he learns of the range of emotions, from love to depression and despair. The creature also read and received moral lessons from Aesop’s Fables and The Bible.

The creature received an excellent education but unfortunately this caused greater distancing from his previous state of “natural man”. Once the creature left the state of nature and learned the language and laws of society, he gained a self-consciousness; a self-consciousness of his own isolation from humanity.

I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches…but…I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome;…When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me… I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat! p. 115

After being rejected by Victor Frankenstein, his father, the DeLacey family, and society, the creature abandons all good and lives out a course of vengeance against Frankenstein. He murders those close to Frankenstein and eventually leads Victor on a journey that will destroy both of them. Even though the creature received a moral and intellectual education, the lack of a nurturing and loving parent as well as companionship and acceptance from society led him to reject morality and instead destroy. The creature as well as the reader realized that he would have been better off without the education. If he wasn’t going to have love and acceptance, it would have probably been best for him to live in an animal like state without a developed consciousness that made him realize how alone he was. Victor never realizes that his lack of parental love and guidance is what led to the creature’s murderous path. He only felt guilt from having created the creature. If Victor had only been a loving parent, the creature could have probably overcome all other obstacles and remained moral.

One way to read Frankenstein is as an articulation of a woman’s fear of pregnancy, childbirth, and her ability to raise and educate a child properly. This is especially poignant due to the fact that Mary was so young and had already experienced two pregnancies as well as the death of a child. What Mary may have been questioning through her novel is whether a ” child whose formative experiences are of pain rather than pleasure will ever develop a rational intellect, a healthy moral sense, and a normal personality”.

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