Frankenstein and the Meanings of “Monster”

Last year, I took this course on ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ on Coursera. And one of the books we discussed was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—a book that I’d read before and which turned out to be very different from what I’d expected. One of the things discussed (in the course) was the meaning of the word monster, which, it appears, comes from the Latin “monere” meaning to warn or “monstrum” meaning omen or portent—not what one thinks it means more commonly. But Frankenstein can be said to be a story of a “monster” in one more commonly understood sense, that of a “malformed animal or human, creature with a birth defect”—something that people find “ugly” or “repulsive”, and that they fear. And then, there is the “monster” in terms of “actions”—someone “inhumanly cruel or wicked”, which one also sees reflected in the book. When I first read the book, I expected a story of a “monster” in the second sense, even the third, but it turned out to be one, that perhaps was more a “warning” to readers, and in more senses than one.

In one sense, the book comes across as a warning to scientists, and to people seeking power through knowledge, to remember that power comes with responsibility, and that one must not be so absorbed in acquiring power through knowledge, that one becomes entirely unmindful of its consequences (a theme that seems to stand out in a lot of science fiction, including Wells’ The Invisible Man).

Frankenstein, initially, wants to acquire knowledge (“more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge”), and possibly the power that comes with it (“A new species would bless me as its creator and source, many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me”). In this process he becomes so absorbed in “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” that he does not stop to consider the consequences for himself or his creation. In fact, for much of the book, he regrets creating the “monster”, but only later realises “what the duties of a creator to his creature were…”, but by then the horrific consequences have already begun.

The book can also be seen as a warning, more generally, in another sense—in the context of human nature itself. For while Frankenstein did create the “monster” literally by bringing him to life, and more so by forsaking his creation, others, like De Lacey and his family or the father of the girl the creature rescues, also contribute to making him a “fiend” for they too judge on appearance alone, not attempting to look beyond his grotesque features, allowing their fears to get the better of them.  No one cares to look at his intentions, or at how much he wants to fit in and find friends. His attempts at getting Frankenstein to “make” him a friend also fail, for Frankenstein has now realised what he has done. Alone and friendless in the world, the “monster” resorts to revenge—and turns into a “monster” in the third sense, violent and cruel. But one finds oneself pitying rather than blaming him, wondering all the time who the “monster” in this story really is—certainly not the creature—Frankenstein himself most importantly, and also the other “human beings” who couldn’t look beyond his appearance and see him for who he was. The most striking aspect that Shelley  conveys through her book is that “monsters” may perhaps be a creation of human nature and prejudice and may not necessarily be “evil” of themselves.

(The meanings are taken from the discussion in “Science Fiction and Fantasy”, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=monster , and the Little Oxford Dictionary; the quotes are of course from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.)

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