AN IVY LEAGUE BRUTE: THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE IN FRANKENSTEIN
When most people hear “Frankenstein”, they think of a grunting, green, stitched-up mess of a man. As it turns out, the original author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, would have a few qualms with this. Victor Frankenstein’s Monster is nearly the opposite of a brute when it comes to expression—thriving from literature and language, the Monster has an extreme eloquence to his speech and thought despite his hideous appearance. In fact, language and/or literature functions many ways to multiple characters. Language plays several crucial roles in Shelley’s Frankenstein; strongly linked with the idea of humanity, language comforts, educates, and generates empathy in this novel.
Victor Frankenstein and his Monster take solace in language, in different ways. They are both on personal journeys which create internal turmoil, and so they explore literature, writing, or spoken language. Victor keeps a meticulous journal in his laboratory of his progress in creating his Monster. The journal seems to be accounts of Victor’s excursions in retrieving human remains as well as his thought process regarding breathing life into the creature. Dr. Frankenstein is described as being “solitary”, and as if he “lost all soul” (Damrosch et al. 756). By using a journal, he kept himself somewhat sane. A thoughtful exploration of his own work through writing allowed him to stay focused and motivated despite loneness and failure.
The Monster does something similar in regard to finding comfort in language; after he is faced with rejection during human interaction, he devotes his time to language. The Monster delves into reading, finishing three works: Plutarch’s Lives, Goethe’s Werther, and Milton’s Paradise Lost (Brooks 595). He also pays close attention to the spoken language around him—specifically the French lessons taught by a girl living near the hovel (Brooks 595). The language he consumes has a beauty that the Monster finds intriguing: “I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness…This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become aquatinted with it,” (Shelley 100). The Monster notices an obvious connection between humanity and language, so he uses this connection to safely explore human culture he cannot physically exist in.
This intrigue plays into another main function of language in the novel—acquisition of knowledge. Frankenstein’s monster seems to crave knowledge, especially regarding his own creation and existence. Shelley offers a glimpse into this process as the Monster compares himself to Adam and Satan while reading Paradise Lost. The Monster says that he reads the work, “as [he] had read the other volumes…as a true history” (Damrosch et all. 758). In other words, he is reading these fictional works as true representations of society and culture. He heavily explores ideas of humanity while reading—mostly, of how human he is. Frankenstein’s monster also learns about religion, emotion, companionship, and other human experiences.
Arguably, the Monster doesn’t truly succeed at understanding humanity, but rather has used the language to relate his own existence to humanity. This is understandable, as literature is subjective and the true human experience is terribly hard to capture in so few literary works. Scholar Peter Brooks argues this well: “at its completion, the Monster’s narrative implies that the use of language has failed to gain entry into the ‘chain of existence and events’ …it has served rather to the knowledge of his unique and accursed origin,” (Brooks 596). Generally speaking, though, it’s crucial to note that the Monster’s education of humanity is largely based in literature and language.
As literature has long been a way to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes”, it’s no surprise that language is the root of empathy several times in this novel. A clear display of this is through the Monster’s interaction with De Lacey, a blind man. The monster meets De Lacey and explains the rejection he’s faced with other people (Shelley 122). De Lacey offers the Monster food and conversation, resulting in this confession by De Lacey: ““I am blind and cannot judge of your countenance, but there is something in your words which persuades me…it will afford me true pleasure to be in any way serviceable to a human creature,” (Shelley 123). The blind man uses the eloquence of the Monster as a judge of character. Also important to note is De Lacey’s label of the Monster as “human creature”; De Lacey has assumed him human because of his familiarity with language. Unaware of physical horror, De Lacey empathizes with the loneliness the monster has faced to the point that he extends help.
De Lacey is not the only one who relates empathy to language, however. Victor Frankenstein experiences a similar bout of empathy after he speaks to the Monster towards the end of the novel: “his words had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him, but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened,” (Shelley 136). This occurrence is even more dramatic than that of De Lacey and the Monster, as Victor actively notes that he cannot relate to or have positive feelings for his creation throughout a large part of the novel. The fact that one meeting and one display of true literary eloquence from the Monster temporarily changes Victor’s whole disposition is important. Furthermore, Dr. Frankenstein notes the tie between empathy and language versus the repulsion towards physical appearance. Both of these interactions with the monster display empathy generated from language.
Speaking on the importance of language in a novel seems obvious, but in Frankenstein, language and literature are cast in stand-out roles that shine compare to those of other themes. Language not only helps build the Monster’s character, but also drives the internal journey he goes through. Much of the change that happens in this novel occurs from the acquisition of knowledge the Monster seeks and through the contemplation of human literature. Additionally, Victor is impacted by language as he seeks his own comfort in it and as he converses with his creation. Whether it be spoken language or literature, language works to console, teach, and summon empathy in this novel. Essentially, without language, the Monster would be just another monster.
Brooks, Peter. “Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts: Language and Monstrosity in Frankenstein.” New Literary History, vol. 9, no. 3, 1978, pp. 591–605., http://www.jstor.org/stable/468457.
Damrosch, David, Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Susan Wolfson, and Peter Manning, eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. Print. The Romantics and Their Contemporaries.
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While reading your post, I was struck again by the true theme of discovery throughout Frankenstein’s monster’s interaction with the world, literature and culture. I think that it is important to think about how Shelly analyzed her world through a character wholly unfamiliar with what people would have seen as normal. It reminds me in some ways of the kind of cultural analysis in the TV show “3rd Rock from the Sun” where aliens are sent to Earth to join the human world.
You make a good point about Shelley’s point of view. Also, I haven’t heard of that TV show but I’d be interested to check it out! Frankenstein’s monster does approach the world much like an alien, so I understand what you’re saying. Personally, the Monster reminds me a bit of the character Castiel in the show Supernatural; he’s more than capable intellectually but struggles with culture and humanity. The Monster is definitely an interesting character!
I like how you debunked popular stereotypes about Frankenstein’s monster and painted him in a light that is more congruous to the original text. I also like how you included images from various adaptations. It’s interesting to think that both Victor and his monster rely so heavily on language–and that the reader participates in this as well by relying on language to read the book.
Thank you! Yeah I definitely think it’s interesting how the image of Frankenstein’s monster has changed over time–and honestly how the original character is much more complex and interesting than the modern stereotype. You make a good point about the reader’s perspective, too. It’s like the reader uses language to understand these characters in time with the characters using language to understand their world.
This analysis was very interesting to read, and it really made me think about Frankenstein in a whole new light! I’ll be honest, before this class, I did not know much about Frankenstein other than what is portrayed in pop-culture and the media, so reading through your post was very insightful. Shelley’s emphasis on culture and language is very apparent, and it’s interesting to see just how important the literary aspect is to this iconic story. Looking at the Monster’s imperative use of language to make up for what he lacks in other areas really is fascinating because I never realized just how crucial this subject is to the entire plot and message of the story!!
I’m glad you thought it was interesting! I also remember when I first read Frankenstein, as a person who loves literature, being struck by the prominence of literature in the Monster’s journey.
It is sad that monsters have to be seen as big scary things that don’t have a clue as to what is going on around them in the world. Which might be why Frankenstein is still a huge literary story because it defies all those characteristics. It is interesting that something that is supposed to be scary, is given a chance of sympathy through his loneliness like you pointed out and that the only way for him to drive away his loneliness is through language, something Victor chose not to teach him. I think its interesting that you pointed out that the Monster lacks his understanding of humanity through books. I always thought that those books were the Monster’s guide to humanity not only because of what they said but also because of what he experiences too. He’s never really given a chance at understanding humanity.
I love that you highlight the importance of language in Frankenstein and, specifically, comfort in language. The topic of language has always been one that I could appreciate and this specificity is interesting. When I read your observation that “he is reading these fictional works as true representations of society and culture,” I thought of globalization. Countries that have been growing for centuries have established their own set of cultural practices and the rising phenomenon that is globalization is brining social change to these countries. Just as the Monster is reading fictional works as true history and learning about humanity via fictional representation, globalization does something of the same nature. Take the convergence of Indian and American film practices, for instance. Bollywood has been a huge industry in India for a very long time and America has adopted some of these production methods in recent years. There is one movie in particular, “Bride and Prejudice” that I am thinking of. As an American watching this film, I get an idea of Indian culture through watching Bollywood-style movies like this one. The reality of it is that movies like this are often exaggerations and stereotypes of Indian culture, but this is what I have access to so I watch it as a representation of Indian culture. In our society, many find comfort in language via film and books to find knowledge and connections of cultures/people that are different and unfamiliar to them.
Awesome post! I love the title, it’s very clever and effectively sums up your whole argument. I absolutely love the meta-element present, writing about the role of language in a written novel, I think Shelley would have approved of your topic as well. To repeat another comment, I also have only interacted with Frankenstein through pop culture and the excerpt we read in class, so this post was eye-opening and enlightening, and, to be honest, made me feel pretty bad for The Monster (forgive me if that is or is not the whole point of the novel, I’m not really sure), especially the part about the Blind Man, which was so brilliant on Shelley’s part, to remind us of the superficiality of appearance, and that knowledge and language is where real power lies and is vital in developing empathy, but at the same time, misuse of this power can have dastardly effects. Well-written and fun to read, thanks for writing it!
To be honest I have never read the full book, so this blog was really interesting! It is hard not to picture the stereotypical Frankenstein upon first thought, but it is cool to remember he is so much more than that! I love the examples you gave, especially about the blind man. I think that is a really cool topic of hearing the humanity and not knowing the outward appearance. This book (and your blog) also shows the importance of reading and learning, which I am a huge supporter of. It is awesome to see Shelley work those factors in the book. I love that those were just as important back then as they are now. You did a really awesome job with this blog, I feel like I need to go read Frankenstein now!!
The importance of language is such an underrated thing. The connection between humans it provides is the single most valuable tool humanity has, but rarely gets any nod in its direction. The parallel between the relationship of God and humanity, and humanity and the monster further illuminates language’s importance. The monster feels completely isolated from humanity in its lack of communication. As you said, as he learns, he feels more and more connected to humanity. When he finally goes to talk to De Lacey, his communicative skills are developed enough that the blind man is unable to distinguish his inhumanity, and the monster is finally able to get the connection he has so desperately searched for.
You did a great job with this post! Before this class, I was one of the people who thought Frankenstein’s monster was an illiterate beast. Boy was I wrong! You distinctly showed that he was way more than that. I specifically liked that you compared the blind man’s characterization of Frankenstein in regards to his humanity being tied to his language and not his appearance. Overall, it was a very interesting read.
It could be agreed to that the specific language in the book really builds up the monster’s character. So much that it feels as though he’s not really a monster at all. Even though movies and TV shows don’t show the humanity the monster learns orhow he is portrayed in the book, it should be kept in mind that he really just wanted to learn and be accepted by those around him. He may not have succeeded, but he definitely deserved the recognition you give him in this post.