by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is often called the first sci-fi novel. For this class we don’t read the most sci-fi-heavy parts of the book: we skip over Victor’s education in scientific theories, his construction and animation of the creature, his warnings about the dangers of too much knowledge.
What we read instead is the innermost ‘core’ narrative of this famously layered novel: the chapters where the creature tells his own story to Victor. It’s a remarkably eloquent, absorbing, relatable monologue. Whatever your response—whether you pity the creature or abhor him, whether you think his resentment is justified or overly self-dramatizing, whether his struggles seem noble or cringe—you respond to him as you would to a human. You judge him by human standards; you don’t experience him as an inscrutable other, like the alien in ‘Mazes’ or the heptapods in ‘Story of Your Life.’
This has everything to do with language, of course. Chapters 10-16 of Frankenstein are all about language and how language makes us human. And like knowledge itself, language in Frankenstein is shown as an ambivalent force: it brings satisfaction to the creature but also dissatisfaction; it makes him acutely aware of his loneliness but then fails (spectacularly) to bring him into fellowship with others.
I’ll touch on a few points here. Please add your own thoughts. Also feel free to read my post from last fall, when I read the entire novel with a smaller group of students.
1. The creature is recognizably human even before he has language.
In Chapter 11 the creature tells Victor about his first moments of awareness: what it was like the first time he opened his eyes, walked, felt cold and heat and hunger and thirst. This kind of account could never exist in the real world: thanks to childhood amnesia, none of us can remember our first moments, or much of anything from our infant and toddler years. Presumably what makes this creature different is that he’s ‘born’ with an adult brain.
There’s an important question to ask about the reliability of this creature’s account. The creature’s thoughts at this early stage weren’t linguistic, but he’s now using language to describe them. How successful can language ever be at describing non-linguistic thoughts? How extensively does the act of communication reshape, filter and contaminate memories themselves? We’ll come back to this theme again in Chiang’s ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ and Borges’ ‘Funes the Memorious.’
From almost the very beginning, the creature’s behavior is unmistakably human. He approaches fire, for example, not as something to be feared but as the object of a scientific experiment: he examined, sat still watching, reflected, discovered the cause, contrived. This is how humans behave with fire, not other animals. And it’s kind of adorable, the way the creature puzzles out the fire: he seems so curious, so endearing, like a human child. It’s jarring to remember that the book is subtitled A Modern Prometheus – oh yeah, discovering fire is maybe not so great! This vignette is meant to remind us about the ambivalence of human curiosity: it may be cute, but it’s also our ruin.
2. How the creature acquires language (and literacy!)
After the creature moves into the hovel adjoining the DeLacey’s cottage (chapter 12), it takes some time for him to figure out language. He watches the family closely and seems to know instinctively how to read their facial expressions as sad, despondent, cheerful, pensive. But he doesn’t know what their vocalizations are for. Then he has a breakthrough:
I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experiences and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it.
This is another depiction of the magical power of language that we’ve been talking about all semester. Frankenstein’s creature puts a slightly different spin on it though: he’s interested in the power of language not to make other people do things, but to make other people feel things.
What’s the importance of calling language a godlike science? Calling it a science suggests that language is a puzzle to be systematically figured out and ‘unraveled’, through ‘clues’ and ‘great application’–like how he learned to control the fire. Calling language godlike means it’s extremely powerful, potentially dangerous, and not to be shared with other animals; i.e. it’s not quite natural.
The predominant view in modern linguistics is that language is a natural outgrowth of a human mind, not requiring any special intelligence or conscious training. On day 1 of intro linguistics we tell our students that any baby, assuming they’re living among humans engaged in ordinary social interactions, will automatically and naturally acquire the grammar and lexicon of the ambient language.
Frankenstein’s creature, of course, doesn’t get the experience of a typical human baby; he’s deprived of social interaction. He doesn’t make any real progress with the godlike science until Safie arrives in chapter 13; then he learns by eavesdropping on her language instruction by Felix. A baby wouldn’t have been able to learn French by watching an adult Turkish speaker’s L2 French lessons, but this creature (with his adult brain) is. And he immediately starts working on something else that babies don’t do: he learns ‘the science of letters’ and starts reading.
3. Effects of reading
As hyper-literate members of a 21st-century university, we may find it hard to believe that reading and writing are not ‘natural’ human activities. But writing is a technological invention, by no means universal to the species: only 60% of the languages that exist today even have a writing system, and many of those systems aren’t used in daily life. While language appears to be a spontaneous, organic, natural outgrowth of the human mind, writing must be consciously and laboriously invented, disseminated, taught and learned; it’s artificial.
In Frankenstein, both literacy and language itself are made strange, through the experience of the creature. The effect is to make us think about language itself as artificial, of humanity itself as unnatural.
The creature’s exposure to certain texts–first Volney’s Ruins of Empires (read aloud by Felix, chapter 13), then Plutarch’s Lives, Goethe’s Werther, and (most importantly) Milton’s Paradise Lost (chapter 15)–trigger a series of self-reflections that destroy the creature’s emotional equilibrium. His learning makes him ‘turn towards [him]self’:
[W]hat was I?…When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth…? …Sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst and heat!
The emotions this creature feels are all unmistakably human. When he commits murder, we recognize the bitter envy and vengeful rage that Rye felt in ‘Speech Sounds,’ rather than whatever unfathomable urge drives the monsters in ‘The Easthound.’ Frankenstein’s creature doesn’t control his emotions the way an adult should, but that’s not surprising given that he doesn’t have an adult’s experience. He doesn’t have a parent, mentor or tutor, so he’s disproportionately influenced by Goethe’s Werther and Milton’s Satan.
I put a handout together for students who haven’t read Paradise Lost. It’s really striking to see how closely the creature models his own narrative after Milton’s.
4. The creature’s language as artistic performance
Over the entire novel, Frankenstein’s creature only engages in a handful of conversations. His first one is with old Mr. DeLacey at the end of chapter 15. It fails to produce the desired outcome–famously and disastrously–but it’s still a remarkable linguistic feat.
The creature passes as a native speaker of French. He has gained complete control over not only lexicon and syntax but also rules of discourse. He exhibits great dexterity in evading direct answers without technically lying–for example, DeLacey asks, ‘Where do these friends reside?’, not realizing that ‘these friends’ are himself and his own family, and the creature responds ‘Near this spot.’ (ha!)
And the creature does actually does manage to gain DeLacey’s trust. ‘[T]here is something in your words which persuades me that you are sincere,’ says DeLacey; ‘it will afford me true pleasure to be in any way serviceable to a human creature.’ (He called him a human creature!)
The creature’s encounter with Victor is only the third conversation of his life, and it’s another virtuoso performance. When Victor suddenly comes face-to-face with his creature in chapter 10, what’s remarkable—and comical—is that it’s Victor who comes across as an inarticulate monster. He’s reduced to sputtering epithets: ‘Vile insect!’ ‘Abhorred monster!’ ‘Wretched devil!’ and erupts in physical violence: ‘My rage was without bounds; I sprang on him, impelled by all the feelings which can arm one being against the other.’
The creature, who is much larger and stronger than Victor, is the one who uses his words instead of his fists. This reminds us of ‘Speech Sounds,’ of course: the positive, pro-social power of language to prevent violence. And it’s interesting to examine the various rhetorical strategies the creature uses to calm Victor down. First he shifts to thee/thou/thy pronouns, perhaps as a supplicatory device: ‘I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me.’ But this language seems to enrage Victor further, so the creature shifts back to you.
Then the creature starts appealing to fairness: ‘Am I not alone, miserably alone?…Shall I not then hate them who abor me?’ He cites the law: ‘The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defence before they are condemned.’ Finally he appeal’s to Victor’s human curiosity and human frailty: ‘Hear my tale, it is long and strange, and the temperature of this place is not fitting to your fine sensations; come to the hut…’
By the end of the chapter Victor is calm. He follows the creature to the hut, listens to his long tale, and ultimately agrees to make him a companion.
I’ve described the creature’s conversations as if they were artistic performances. The creature himself talks about language this way: he says he wants to ‘acquire the art of language’ (chapter 12) so that he can ‘discover [people’s] motives and feelings… win their favour, and afterwards their love.’
Once again, we’re confronted with the ambivalence of language. Is it good magic or bad magic? Art(ifice) or natural? Does the creature’s language restore Victor to nonviolence and rationality, or does it seduce him (like Eve) into doing what he knows is wrong?
Final thoughts on why I love Frankenstein. This semester I’m sitting in on my colleague Jim Morey’s class Middle English Language & Literature. On the first day of class we read a lovely anonymous 13th-century lyric called ‘Foweles in the frith‘:
Foweles in þe frith,
þe fisses in þe flod,
And I mon waxe wod.
sulch sorw I walke with
for beste of bon and blod.
‘Birds in the wood / the fishes in the river / and I am going mad. / Such sorrow I walk with / for best~beast of bone and blood.’
The poet is lamenting the fact that other animals have their homes; they belong on this planet; but we humans are aliens. We’re out of place. We’re beasts of flesh and blood, but we’re also the best of flesh and blood–set apart from all others, not quite at home in nature.
Here’s Victor at the beginning of chapter 10, traveling the treacherous and desolate path up Montanvert on the back of a mule:
Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute… If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows, and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us.
Victor too is lamenting our difference from other animals. And he specifically implicates language: it’s our sensitivity to the ‘chance word’ that makes us humans vulnerable and unfree, rather than powerful and free.
Frankenstein shows us the ambivalence of language that’s at the core of the ambivalence of being human.