Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was the product of two great radicals of the 18th century. Wollstonecraft the author of The Rights of Woman and Godwin, author of Caleb Williams and An Enquiry into Political Justice. One a champion of women’s rights and education, the other a supporter of a stateless society. Yet Godwin was remote during her childhood and her mother died in childbirth, leaving May to feel abandoned by those she loved. It is this feeling of abandonment, lack of identity, and belonging that dominates the creature’s story.
The creature, who is never given a name, was created by Victor Frankenstein as a new, superior race. This perpetuates the 18th-century idea that science and reason were replacing established religion. However, when he realises what he has made, his emotion is one of horror. “How can I describe my emotions as this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?” Frankenstein in attempting to supplant the creator has fallen short, despite his best efforts. His own parents had cherished him as a child, but Frankenstein’s reaction to his own creation is to abandon the creature. “…his countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity, while its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes.” Anguish, disdain, malignity, and ugliness are all negative characteristics attributed to the creature who has never spoken a word. This assessment is purely based on his physical appearance, a view mirrored by the creature. “How was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first, I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror” Water distorts the image and makes his features seem even more disjointed. Yet as the novel continues, we learn that man is much more than his physical appearance.
The creature describes leaving the apartment and needing clothes to keep himself warm, feeling hungry and foraging for food in the woods. These are all basic human needs normally provided by a parent in the first few years of life. Like a child, the creature discovers the wonders of the forest, trees, birds, day and night, learning about fire and cooking through trial and error. This reflects John Locke’s idea of a Tabula Rasa, a clean slate where we add to our learning through experience as we grow. In a practical need for shelter, the creature finds an outhouse beside a cottage, where Felix, Agatha and their father live. “What chiefly struck me was the gentle manners of these people; and I longed to join them but dared not. I remembered too well the treatment I suffered the night before from the barbarous villagers,..” There is the idea of being an outsider, wanting to belong, but he has learned society will not accept him.
Despite the setback, he still shows innate compassion for his fellow man. “I saw no cause for their unhappiness; but I was deeply affected by it. If such lovely creatures were miserable. It was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched.” This creature is not a brute, as Shelly gives him compassion, saying he was deeply affected by their unhappiness. He equates company and being together as a family as a source of happiness. “The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures. To see their sweet looks turned towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition.” Protection, kindness, and affection are all simple, positive reinforcements of belonging. The desires and ambitions of the creature are modest compared to Frankenstein, who seeks to supplant the creator. This makes the initial acceptance by the father, who is blind, a positive hope of acceptance, thus when his son returns and beats the creature, it destroys hope and reinforces the rejection he feels.
The creature believes Frankenstein has a moral obligation as his creator. “Remember, that I am thy creature. I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” There is the idea that man is born benevolent and good, then corrupted by society. The creature argues that society, by driving him away and excluding him from the company of his fellow man, has made him angry and rejected, causing him to want to seek their harm. He also points to Frankenstein’s hypocrisy. “You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature.” The creature’s request is that Frankenstein makes him a mate the same as him so that they may bond together as outcasts of mainstream society, and he won’t be alone.
Frankenstein now considers his creation a mistake, therefore what the creature sees as a reasonable request for a companion, Frankenstein sees as a conflict of interest. “In a fit of enthusiastic madness, I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty, but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards my fellow creatures had greater claims to my attention because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery.” Frankenstein suggests what Francis Hutcheson refers to as the public affection or greater good. The duty to protect humanity is greater than satisfying the needs of one person. The consequences of this refusal are devastating. “He shewed unparalleled malignity and selfishness, in evil: he destroyed my friends; ” After the death of Frankenstein, the creature is filled with grief and remorse. “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred; it did not endure the violence of the change without torture, such as you cannot even imagine.” The reader cannot simply dismiss this creature as an unfeeling brute, as Shelly shows he has compassion, understanding, and the ability to learn and develop. By alienating him based on his appearance, society has created a monster just as effectively as Victor Frankenstein created a physical being.