This excellently written book by Mary Shelley, while it could be seen as a horror novel, has many insightful ideas and compassionate notions, even from Frankenstein’s lab-created monster himself. For example, when Frankenstein is studying the ancient philosophers, his teacher tells him “‘The labors of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.’” This quote I find reassuring, that even if people misdirect their efforts, those efforts need not be in vain, they could still bear fruit.
Another insight is how humans are so mortal, that “Death snatches away many blooming children…how many brides and youthful lovers have been one day in the bloom of health and hope, and the next a prey for worms and the decay of the tomb!” This reminds me of the unfortunate reality that no one is immune from death, at any age. Some of the most fit and beautiful young people can be struck down at any time.
The monster that Frankenstein created in the lab also may appear terrible and fiendish, but he actually has much heart and decency. For example, he talks of a family whose house he stayed next to, saying, “The silver hair and benevolent countenance of the aged cottager won my reverence, while the gentle manners of the girl enticed my love.” He makes a routine of bringing them wood for their fire, which they appreciate, not knowing it is he who brings it. As he lives near them, he says “when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathized in their joys.” Clearly, the monster is compassionate and loving. He even states that his “heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition.”
And yet, when he presents himself to the family, they brutally assault him and drive him away. This violence and barbarity of humans he meets everywhere he goes, his frightful deformed and large form scares people and makes them attack him as a beast. After facing so much hostility, he gradually becomes more and more filled with a desire for revenge, to harm his enemies. One can hardly blame him for his frustration, because through no fault of his own—he was merely created by a human in a lab—he draws out these violent responses.
But Frankenstein has surprisingly almost no sympathy for his creation, saying “He is eloquent and persuasive, and once his words had even power over my heart; but trust him not. His soul is as hellish as his form, full of treachery and fiend-like malice.” Even after Frankenstein hears out the monster’s full story, of how he has been attacked and loathed everywhere he goes, and how he simply wants companionship and to be loved, Frankenstein does not show compassion or try to help the monster. One would think Frankenstein would feel more responsible towards his creation, or at least see that the monster is more than just a fiendish beast, he merely wants someone to love him, rather than to be a freak, utterly alone and without any comrades or lovers. These unfulfilled wants do not excuse the monster’s in turn violent behavior, but they at least should draw compassion for him from Frankenstein.
Shelley gives much thought to the idea of the destructive influence of ambition, even ambition that appears virtuous or noble, such as the pursuit of scientific knowledge. At one point Frankenstein says, “Learn from me…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” This makes me think of the virtue in contentedness with what one has, and that appreciating one’s own part of the world is more peaceable than pursuing great knowledge of all the world. Frankenstein later also bemoans what has become of him in life, that “From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how I am sunk!” It is shocking to realize how honest desires for success and knowledge lead to his ultimate complete destruction, misery, and eventual death.