Judgement. Every person in the world is guilty of judging others based first impressions. These first impressions are derived from two factors: the outward appearance, and the portrayal of oneself. By portrayal, I mean how one presents himself through language, whether spoken, written, or body language. These two factors alone are what society uses to draw a conclusion about the type of person he/she is dealing with, whether right or wrong. Beyond these, understanding of the person within is hopeless.
The so-called monster in Frankenstein demonstrates, through his own roblems with understanding and being understood by the world, the importance and power of language on the one hand and of outward appearance on the other. As this essay will show, the novel shows these two factors to have very different functions indeed. First, let us look at the function of appearance, as the monster perceives it. From the first time he views himself in a pool of water, he knows that he has the features that make up a monster.
He realizes that he does not carry the beautiful features that the humans he so much admires have. He is highly distraught and mortified by his own hideous appearance. He states: “Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity” (99). After this he experiences time and again how people, including the one who created him, flee in terror from his deformed shape, and finally, when all hope of a reversal of a like reaction has disappeared, he begins to use his own horrific appearance deliberately for purposes of revenge.
The incident where he loses his last hope of ever being seen as anything but a monstrosity is when William Frankenstein, the younger brother of his creator and also a young and hopefully unprejudiced child, proves to see him the way any adult would, with disgust and horror. As soon as he beheld my form, he placed his hands before his eyes and uttered a shrill screamLet me go, he cried,monster! Ugly wretch! (127). The creature became agitated and confused at the response by such an innocent appearing infant.
And without purpose or thought he wrestled the child to his death. I grasped his throat to silence him, and in a moment he lay dead at my feet (127). After completing the act of killing the child, he resolves to “carry despair to [Victor Frankenstein], and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him” (127). He has finally realized that while his own appearance has brought such unhappiness to him, reversed, it would also bring the same unhappiness to the one who made him this way.
According to the monster, the function of appearance is to make society react to you. Whether the reaction is appropriate or not is beside the point; all that matters is the way you look. So, the creature has learned that because of his hideous, yet irreversible appearance, society, without any further look into the person that he is, fears him. He feels, however, that there must be something he can do to prove to them that he is not the monster that they think he is.
This is where language and communication enter the scene. The first time he encounters spoken words, the monster reports that “this was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it” (97). He thought that with this tool, he could convince other people to accept him for WHO he was, not how he appeared. During the course of one year, he learns to understand, speak, read and write French, intending to use this knowledge to gain acceptance into society.
He also finds three books, from which he gleans what knowledge he can about the world and about moral values. It is worth mentioning that none of the three books he found are in their original language: Milton’s Paradise Lost originally in English, Plutarch’s Lives in Latin and Goethe’s Sorrows of Werter in German, but the monster finds French translations of all three. This is in accordance with everything else the monster ever learns, except for his experiences of beauty and ugliness, in that it is second-hand information.
He learns French through a series of lessons meant for someone else; he has to rely on laboratory notes to understand what he is and where he comes from; he needs the books to learn what life is, and yet, what he gets is still nothing but translations of someone else’s observations. In the beginning of his existence, the monster notices the reactions he elicits from others, and by that he deems himself unfit for social interaction and goes into hiding in a hovel. He nurtures a liking of the De Lacey family based on their looks; they seem benevolent and they are beautiful.
He says of them, I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers-their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions (98). This is evidence that he too can be prejudiced, for how could he know that they are good people while understanding neither their language nor their social patter? Surely there is no way of knowing but judging by appearances only. After a while however, he really knows that this family actually is a virtuous one, one worth making the acquaintance of, because he observes their daily life and their actions during an extended period of time, rather than just their outward good looks.
The monster makes plans of being accepted into the De Lacey family by first introducing himself to the blind father. This way he might be able to override any prejudices based on appearance, and it seems to be working. The old man shows sympathy for the unknown stranger, and maybe would be willing to take the monster into his household. But before the monster is able to state his case in full to old father De Lacey, the rest of the family returns from their country walk to find the monster with their father. They are all shocked and frightened by the scene and Felix drives the abomination away with a stick.
Then they all move away for good, for fear of their own safety, leaving the monster utterly alone again. All of this because of his physical appearance. The monster meets and detests prejudice; yet he is prejudiced himself. Without the aid of intelligent communication, he forms an opinion of people by their appearance, and only after that by their actions, and they do the same unto him. When he manages to conceal his form, he is judged by his words, but when it is revealed who he is, that first judgment proves to be worth very little indeed.
Mary Shelley shows us that thoughts and language are what you use to define and understand yourself, while it is rather the way you look that others judge you by. When one element is missing, the other can serve in its place (as seen early in the monster’s life and then in the scene with the blind man), but sooner or later you have to reveal your true shape to people you want respect from, and then a malformed outer shell will drive away the impressions left on them by your mind, however worthy and elevated that mind is.
In the end, the only one who cares about who you really are is yourself, and everyone else sees just your surface. The exception from this is love, because love is the ability to see through the masks and understand who is behind them. The monster, understanding this, entreats his creator to give him an equal to love and be loved by, but his pleas are denied. He then sets out to destroy his creator and then himself, preferring death to a meaningless existence. In short: in order to stay sane and loved, nurture your mind, but in order to stay socially accepted and popular, nurture your body.