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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