Physical Appearance in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein we are introduced early in the story to one of the main characters Victor Frankenstein and subsequently to his creation referred to as the monster. The monster comes to life after being constructed by Victor using body parts from corpses. As gruesome as this sounds initially we are soon caught up in the tale of the living monster. Victor the creator becomes immediately remorseful of his decision to bring the monstrous creation to life and abandons the borne creature. Victor describes his emotions and physical description of his creation as follows:
“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! – Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips.” (Shelley 34)
Left on his own to strike out in the world the monster soon experienced the prejudices of those he came meet. Prejudices based upon his frightful, or unusual, appearance and his inability to communicate initially. I quickly had empathy for the abandoned creature, despite the descriptions of his gruesome appearance, and felt mixed emotions about his actions towards others in the story. Were the violent actions of the monster towards others spawned from their violent rejection of him? It seemed clear to me from the beginning, and Victor’s initial reaction, that the monster’s fate was predetermine because of the perception and assumptions made about him based solely on his looks. In this essay I will examine how the monster’s looks and actions reflect the predominant cultural feelings that those who look different are bad, evil or incapable of normal feelings. That somehow because one may look different from the rest of us there must be something emotionally as well as physically wrong with them.
As I struggled to grab on to a thesis for this essay, it finally occurred to me that my empathy for the monster really was fundamental in my reading of this text. In further examining why I would feel this way, and by comments made in class on this subject, I soon realized that I had a parallel to the monster’s experience right in front of me – literally. My brother, borne with a severe cleft pallet and lip he has endured twenty-three years of surgeries and therapies to repair the structure of his face. The first surgeries focused primarily on function of his basic needs: eating, breathing, speaking etc. without emphasis on how he looked. However, these past few years, as he approached his early twenties, the surgeries have focused primarily on his appearance. Like the monster, he experiences many prejudices based on his appearance. He is frequently looked upon suspiciously in stores while shopping and has been approached by security on occasion. Strangers tend to shy away from him and often look away and do not respond if he directly address’ them. He was ridiculed relentlessly (beyond regular childhood cruelty) while in school and had difficulty establishing friendships. What others fail to see in him is his intellectual genius, his creativity, compassion for others and a basically neat, and normal, guy. My brother’s experiences are not quite as severe as the monsters; fortunately my parent’s were able to look past his physical defects and did not abandon their wondrous creation. What they do share are the same hurdles of trying to make it in a world, or culture, that does not give them the chance to connect socially because of their appearance. This leaves them otherwise shunned by the public and revealing their treasure only to those of us who look beyond appearances for what lies beneath.
The other element that reflects a cultural attitude about appearance and how someone is perceived is how that the lack of acceptance and prejudice can deteriorate ones perception of themselves. The monster illuminates these feelings when first catching a glimpse of himself reflected in a pool of water:
“I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers – their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but 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; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity.” (Shelley 76)
Unfortunately, the monster’s “miserable deformity” and its effects play out tragically in Frankenstein. Just because he does not look like the others, the monster feels that he is not worthy of acceptance and consideration. He is quick to notice the dynamics of the culture around him, learning the language, traditions, ideologies. In his sensitivity to the culture, he also develops the feeling that he is bad because he does not look, or act as they do.
It is unfortunate that nearly 183 years after this story was written that it is still the predominant cultural attitude that people who look and act differently are bad. They are not considered normal physically or intellectually. Throughout history, certain behaviors and physical attributes are desirable and we do not always agree or understand them in the context of our own culture and time in history. However, if your appearance is not reflective of what is considered normal, or you are severely disfigured, the predominant culture will label someone bad. Had the monster in Frankenstein be found strolling the local mall in our contemporary times he certainly would have been given a wide birth and had children quickly shuffled away by their mothers. Had he stopped to ask directions from a couple eating soft pretzels by a fountain he would have been greeted with downcast eyes, no response and worse yet their quick and rude departure. In contrast to this scenario we are of the same culture attitude that when we see a normal-looking person on the news who has been arrested for killing people, and eating parts of their bodies, we exclaim “but he looks so normal…he acted so appropriately”. Based on the assumptions he should have been hideously grotesque and had frequent bouts of conspicuous public behavior.
Shelley’s Frankenstein, and specifically the plight of the monster, is a true-to-form illustration of cultural feelings about how people should look and act in the context of what is normal. Anything outside of normal is perceived negatively, viewed with suspicion and capable of the worst actions towards others. In this case, it is no wonder the monster unleashes his violent wrath upon those that have shunned and disposed of him. He was just fulfilling his predetermined destiny thrust upon him at the moment he was conceived. I am being somewhat sarcastic here, but I do feel that historically the ideas of what is normal can change. Unfortunately, as Shelley has drastically illustrated with the monster character, the monster is judged by his outside appearance and actions as it relates to what is considered normal.
Shelley, Mary. “Frankenstein.” In A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton ; Company, Inc. 1996.