The Monster is us: Mary Shelley on disability

June 2, 2019 0 Comments

The charity shops of Mumbles are an unending supply of serendipitous reading.  Often I pick up books in them that I should have read years, even decades ago.  (Another source of overlooked books, by the way, is the excellent podcast Backlisted.)  My latest find, from Tenovus, is Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, in a Penguin edition with a brilliantly chosen cover picture – a spooky detail from The wounded Philoctetes, by the Danish painter Nicolai Abildgaard.  (The book’s subtitle was ‘a modern Prometheus’, a Greek man-god of special interest to Byron, Shelley’s husband Percy and their circle.)

Frankenstein was generally well received in its day: a third edition in 1831 carried a new introduction by the author.  I guess, though, that it’s never been as popular is it is today.  It’s been dream fodder for all kinds of critical theory – existentialist, Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytical, Gothic and uncanny – and recently it’s inspired novelists exercised by the march of the robots and the hazards of artificial intelligence.  Ian McEwan’s Machines like me imagines synthetic humans in 1980s Britain.  Its title recalls L’homme machine (1748), a book by the French physician-philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie (‘a machine that can no longer be regarded as impossible, especially in the hands of a new Prometheus’).  Jeanette Winterson in her latest book Frankissstein introduces characters called Ry Shelley, a ‘transgender medical professional’, and Viktor Stein, a professor working on ‘accelerated evolution’.

It’s entirely understandable that the Promethean aspect of Frankenstein should appeal to people today, given our anxieties about transhuman developments and out-of-control, algorithmic computing.  But the novel raises other issues of contemporary concern.  One of the most pressing is ‘disability’.

It comes as a surprise to a reader encountering Mary Shelley’s original version of the (never named) Monster (rather than the many film versions of the story) to find that vengeful pursuit and grotesque murder are not in fact his original behaviours.  At the very centre of the novel is a section narrated by the Monster himself, in which he tries to explain his plight and engage Frankenstein’s sympathy. 

The two meet (in volume 2, chapter 11) on the Mer de Glace, at the source of the Arveiron in the French Alps.  Frankenstein recalls,

…I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me at superhuman speed.  He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature, also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man … his countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity, while its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes.

Frankenstein’s horrified reaction to the Monster’s appearance echoes his original visceral response once his creation, cobbled together from the parts of corpses, had come to life and the ‘dull, yellow eye of the creature’ opened:

His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of 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 shrivelled complexion and the straight black lips.

Frankenstein flees immediately, abandoning his creation, so condemning the Monster to a life of isolation and loneliness he bitterly resents.  In the conversation on the glacier he describes an attempt to break through his solitude.  He takes shelter in a shed adjacent to a country cottage occupied by an old blind man, De Lacey, and his son and daughter, Felix and Agatha.  Over a long period he observes them, learns their speech and even teaches himself how to read, but always remains hidden from view.  Finally he decides, when the two others are absent, to ‘show’ himself to the old man.  Unable to see the Monster’s deformities, the old man accepts him, but Felix and Agatha return unexpectedly and catch sight of him.  ‘Who can describe their horror and consternation on beholding me?’  Felix begins beating him with a stick.  The Monster, though ‘I could have torn him limb from limb, as the lion rends the antelope’, runs out and hides.

Rejected by his creator and by his new ‘protectors’ in the cottage, the Monster despairs.

There was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies?  No: from that moment I declared ever-lasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to this insupportable misery.

And so begins his career of revenge on humanity, and on Frankenstein.  It begins with setting fire to the cottage, and ends with the murder of Frankenstein’s best friend and his wife.  Whenever he is seen by humans, the reaction to his appearance is the same: horror, rejection and violence.  When he saves a girl from drowning in a river, her friend fires his gun at him and wounds him.  Later he comes across a child and approaches him, seized by an idea ‘that this little creature was unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity’.  Again the Monster is rejected:

‘Let me go’, he cried, ‘monster! ugly wretch! you wish to eat me and tear me to pieces – You are an ogre – Let me go, or I will tell my papa.’

The Monster pleads with Frankenstein to create another, female creature to share the Monster’s life and end his isolation.

I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself; the gratification is small, but it is all I can receive, and it shall content me.  It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attracted to one another.

At first Frankenstein agrees, but in the course of constructing the second creature, destroys it, fearing to bring another violent revenger into the world.    From this point the Monster’s only care is pursuit and vengeance.

Frankenstein dies, not at the hand of the Monster, but of disease on board the ship of Captain Walton, the narrator of the book’s framing narrative, who has rescued him from the Arctic ice.  But the Monster makes a late appearance on the ship.  As if in confirmation of his conclusions about the universality of human reaction to disability and ‘otherness’, he excites horror and fear in Walton:

Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe: – gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions.  As he hung over the coffin, his face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair; but one vast hand was extended, in colour and apparent texture, like that of a mummy …  Never did a behold a vision so horrible as his face, of sich loathsome, yet appalling hideousness.

Walton overcomes his disgust enough to have a final conversation with the Monster, who summarises his life:

Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment.  Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding … the fallen angel has become a devil.  Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone …  Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?  Why do you not hate Felix, who drove his friend from the door with contumely?  Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child?  Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.

And the Monster leaps from the cabin window on to the ice-raft below.  ‘He was soon borne away by the waves’, says Walton in the last sentence of the novel, ‘and lost in darkness and distance’.

We can read Frankenstein, then, not just as a warning about the dangers of over-reaching science and human knowledge – a message latched upon by conservatives far removed from the progressive circles of Mary Shelley’s parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and her poet friends – but as radical reminder that we should learn to overcome initial revulsion at disability and other forms of otherness, and do all we can to avoid monsterising our fellow-creatures.

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