What's up, Chicklets? So, erm, I seem to have misplaced my time-management skills, and now I have two assignments due tomorrow. So instead of a post, hows about you read this paper I wrote on how, if you're ugly, people will be mean to you and that will make you a bad person? Wheee! No, you'll like it. Go make yourself a cup of coffee first, though, because it's a long'n.
Face Value – How Appearance Shapes Character in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
For many years, the study of physiognomy was held to be a legitimate science. The idea that ‘fixed aspects of physical appearance are indicative of the qualities of a person’ was widespread and heatedly debated in the years leading up to and following the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Collins 1). The characters of this novel seem to take it as proven that ‘the mark of class can be read on physiognomy and complexion’ (Vlasopolos 126). Though this idea might be laughed down today, people still attribute positive characteristics to others who are pleasant to look at, creating what Alan Feingold calls the ‘”beautiful-is-good” halo effect of attractiveness’ (par. 5). Mary Shelley puts these ideas to shame, creating a being who becomes monstrous due to his ugliness, but in whom evil is not inherent. The flaw lies in the social response to the appearance, not in the appearance itself.
There is no doubt that Frankenstein’s creature is originally of a kind and benevolent disposition. Being comparable to a very young child, he displays all the casual generosity and wonder characteristic of children, with none of their innate selfishness. He is thrilled by the sight of the moon and the voice of the songbird. He secretly collects firewood for the De Laceys in an effort to alleviate their toil. He weeps over the ‘hapless fate’ of indigenous Americans, people with whom he has not even geographical connections (Shelley 139). Even after a series of violent rejections, he does not hesitate to, with ‘extreme labor’ and no small danger to himself, rescue a young girl from drowning (Shelley 167). These are not the actions of a monster; most legitimate humans cannot boast such a selfless soul. As far as internal characteristics are concerned, it seems that ‘he really is the fulfillment of Frankenstein’s desire to build a new, better race of men – at least, until his isolation and frustration turn him into a murderer’ (Rieder 3).
In order to highlight the effect of the creature’s wretched appearance, Mary Shelley provides four contrasting beauties. While the monster could quite properly be considered Victor Frankenstein’s ‘son,’ neither Elizabeth, Justine, Caroline or Safie approaches closer relationship than ‘cousin’ to the family that takes her in, yet each of them is treated with far more kindness. Elizabeth is the picture of physiognomial accuracy; ‘her person [is] the image of her mind’ (Shelley 30). She is welcomed sight-unseen into her uncle’s family, as befits a close relative, but it is not until Victor’s mother views this ‘most beautiful child’ that she selects the young Elizabeth for her son’s mate (Shelley 30). Upon returning home, Victor Frankenstein displays his clear physiognomial bias, describing how her ‘open and capacious forehead [give] indications of a good understanding joined to great frankness of disposition’ (Shelley 85). Her kindness and decency are described in many flowery terms, but her admirers give no thought to how such a solicitous upbringing may have inspired such goodness. The charming Justine is similarly rescued, as Elizabeth is, from an unpleasant home life. Not being of equal rank with the Frankensteins, she is never considered a candidate for marriage and is put to work as a servant. Elizabeth belabors the point, however, that young Justine is treated well. She, too, is ‘extremely pretty’ (Shelley 68), thus securing her place in the household, but she is clearly not as attractive as Elizabeth. When Justine is accused of a crime against the Frankenstein family and Elizabeth takes the stand, it is a face-off of faces. Though Elizabeth speaks in Justine’s defense, ‘all the kindness which [Justine’s] beauty might otherwise have excited’ is drowned in the presence of this still-more-lovely woman against whom the crime is committed (Shelley 88), and Justine is sentenced to death. Though her end (and, ultimately, Elizabeth’s) is tragic, her life is blessed, and she receives much more affection than does the monster in his brief existence.
Caroline enjoys the least face time of Shelley’s ‘beauties,’ but provides one of the most striking parallel images. Daughter of the senior Mr. Frankenstein’s good friend, she is taken in without hesitation upon that friend’s death, and soon made a wife. Her husband preserves her likeness in a painting where she kneels weeping at her father’s coffin. This touching image is one of ‘dignity’ and ‘beauty,’ moving the viewer to compassion (Shelley 82). It’s correlating image, however, of the stricken creature hanging over Victor’s coffin, in no less agony of grief, inspires such horror in the viewer that he becomes ‘dizzy’ and must shut his eyes in order to block out the scene and regain his wits (Shelley 269-70). Both are visual impressions of similar scenes, but they inspire wildly different reactions. Safie also provokes a dialectical response when she arrives at the De Lacey house. With nothing but a lovely face to recommend herself to Felix De Lacey, this ‘angelic beauty’ (Shelley 136) is nevertheless taken immediately into his heart. She has no family ties which connect her to the De Laceys; she has severed her own ties with family and wealth; she does not even speak the same language. And yet, when she throws herself at the feet of Mr. De Lacey, he ‘raise[s] her and embrace[s] her affectionately’ (Shelley 136). One cannot help but compare this to the old man’s horrified gasp, ‘Great God! Who are you?’ (Shelley 160) and Felix’s violent beating when the monster exposes himself to this same family. Though the monster holds several advantages over Safie, in that he speaks the De Lacey’s language and can reference a number of services he has rendered them, he is spurned. These four women receive affection over and above that required by human compassion because of their great beauty. The monster, on the other hand, lacks that crucial element, that physical acceptability upon which first impressions are made.
The monster stands almost no chance in persuading others to see past his hideous bearing. Beauty may only be skin deep, but it is on the basis of this fragile outer layer that many of our assumptions are made. Stephen Jay Gould posits that part of our ‘biological inheritance’ is an ‘aversion to seriously malformed individuals’ (par. 42), but he also suggests that this aversion can be conquered through education. Unfortunately for the monster, no one is taught to overcome their revulsion. When Victor abandons him at the moment of creation, he deprives him of the social framework necessary for one such as him to survive. As Virginia Blum points out, it is those without status, wealth, or family to recommend them that are more dependent on their appearance to speak for them. After all, she reminds us, Prince Charles has never seemed ‘unduly stressed’ by his prominent ears (132). But the monster is no Prince of Wales. Nor is he a beloved cousin, or a treasured servant, or a dear friend’s son. He is socially adrift, lacking language and manners (which can be acquired) but retaining all natural human desires for love and companionship, with no hope of ever fulfilling them. Just as he ‘thrust[s his] hand into the live embers’ of a fire in a misguided effort to get warm, so he rushes into villages and huts in an attempt to socialize (Shelley 119, 122). Both endeavors bring only pain. Much has been made of Victor’s Promethean attempt to make life from inanimate matter, but the true sin is that ‘no provision has been made for [the creature] to fit into the community into which he is “born”’ (Nocks, par. 3). His only option, it seems, is to haunt the fringes of society, growing monstrous at heart as he is in appearance.
That the creature is made mostly-human seems to be the cruelest trick of all. If he were all-human, he probably would have sailed through life with no more troubles than his neighbor. If he were completely un-human, he would have lived the life of a beast, cared as little what man thought of him as the beast does, and likely been as little reviled as a stray dog. Instead, he is a ‘filthy type’ of Victor, ‘more horrid for [his] very resemblance’ (Shelley 154). There seems to be some truth to the idea that man can love what is exactly like, or exactly unlike him, but is suspicious of that which straddles the line. Children born with craniofacial deficiencies need to be operated on quickly to make them ‘look human enough to love’ (Blum 120), but puppies need no such alteration. As the children in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are told (by a talking beaver, no less), ‘when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet’ (82). The creature has the stark misfortune to fall into each of these categories, and the world responds by tossing hatchets and stones, curses and hate. It is of little wonder, then, that he develops the worst of man’s tendencies.
One is forced to ask of Victor, along with the creature, ‘why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from [it] in disgust?’ (Shelley 154). Why did a man bent on creating a superior race instead produce a fiend? He does not become ugly upon receiving life; Victor admits that he is ugly while unfinished, but he makes no attempt to fix the matter. Instead, he brings his product to fruition and then immediately pronounces it a ‘catastrophe,’ a ‘wretch,’ and a ‘miserable monster,’ all before the creature says an unfriendly word. Laura Claridge insists that Frankenstein ‘deliberately chose the form for his creature that was sure to provoke the most horror and dread in other mortals’ (par. 12), and he is certainly successful. Perhaps it feeds his desire for power. Perhaps it gives him an excuse not to care for the creature once it is ‘born.’ Perhaps it is merely a byproduct of the isolated and unhealthy atmosphere in which the creature is created. Regardless of the ‘why,’ Victor Frankenstein is as responsible for his creature’s lack of beauty as a seamstress would be for a coat’s lack of buttons and, as a result, responsible for his vile actions as well.
The monster is made hideous by Victor’s hands, and he is made cruel by that hideousness. Though Victor forms his very features, it is ostensibly because of his appearance that Victor shuns him. As a child’s view of himself is formed by his parents’ opinion, Victor’s rejection is the beginning of the creature’s disintegration. In his time with the De Laceys, the creature becomes used to gazing on attractive human forms and absorbs something of their ‘aesthetic prejudices’ (Vlasopolos 127). He recognizes that the face he sees reflected in the pond does not uphold those same aesthetic principles, but this, while filling him with ‘the bitterest sense of despondence and mortification’ (Shelley 132), seems also to spur him to develop his faculties of speech, his sharpness of mind, and his compassionate heart. It is only later, when he is forcefully rejected by the family he has come to care for, that he develops feelings of ‘rage and revenge’ (Shelley 161). He acquires what Blum aptly calls the ‘Frankenstein perspective,’ where ‘you become how the world sees you’ (128). The world sees him as monstrous, though he has yet committed no crime, and monstrous he becomes. He ‘was benevolent and good,’ he insists, but ‘misery made [him] a fiend’ (Shelley 114). His misery only grows in the ensuing months as he skulks around the borders of Victor’s life. Though he has been violently mistreated, even yet goodness lingers in him and he offers an olive branch if only Victor will create for him a mate. When Victor eventually refuses this reasonable request and destroys ‘the creature on whose future existence [the monster] depend[s] for happiness’ (Shelley 205), is it any wonder that the monster responds with a killing spree? Many fair people have committed worse crimes under less provocation.
It becomes clear that the monster’s violent and cruel disposition are the result, not the partner, of his atrocious face. His ‘watery eyes,’ ‘shrivelled [sic] complexion, and straight black lips’ (Shelley 55-6) are not indicative of a rotten character. Shelley takes great pains to demonstrate the monster’s initial goodness, as well as to parallel his situation with that of those who have greater physical attractiveness. It is through society’s failure to recognize goodness residing in an ugly package that this bizarrely kind character becomes the sort of monster to haunt children’s dreams.