Frankenstein, Philosophy, And The Humanities Base Themes Essay, Research Paper
The creature’s ambiguous humanity has long puzzled readers and viewers of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel offers rich materials for philosophical reflection; we can find many connections linking Frankenstein, the Humanities Base Themes, and topics often discussed in Introduction to Philosophy. In this essay I will focus on how Frankenstein can be used to explore two philosophical topics, social contract theory, and gender roles, in light of ideas from Shelley’s two philosophical parents, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft.
What Does it Mean to be Human? Individual and Society
One historically important tradition in social and political philosophy is called “Social Contract Theory.” It gives a way of thinking about what it means to be human, raising fundamental questions such as: what is human nature, in itself, apart from society? Are people fundamentally equal, and if so, why, in what ways? What justifies governmental authority? In what sense are people free and independent if their lives are ruled by laws and governmental authorities?
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and John Locke (1632-1704), were English philosophers who approached these questions by hypothesizing a “state of nature.” Try to imagine what a person would be like if he or she lived outside of any governed society. Hobbes thought that people would be isolated, desperately afraid of harm from others. Life would be, in Hobbes’ memorable phrase, “poore, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” Locke wasn’t quite so pessimistic. He thought that in the state of nature, people would be fairly sociable, and would establish private property and trade. Both Hobbes and Locke thought that insecurity in the state of nature would lead people to join together and give to a governmental authority the right to make laws and punish offenders. Hence, for them, government is based on a “social contract,” by which free, equal, and independent individuals move from the state of nature to an organized society.
Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin (1756-1836), was a well-known political anarchist. In Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), Godwin argued that government is fundamentally unjust, and functions primarily to uphold economic inequality between rich and poor. Godwin was highly critical of social contract theory; the conversation between Victor and the creature regarding a mate exemplifies several of Godwin’s criticisms (pp. 97-100). We could read this passage as a “social contract” between Victor and the creature: if Victor makes a mate, the creature promises never to return. Godwin asked why parties to the social contract should trust each other to keep their promises; Victor agrees to the bargain, but didn’t trust the creature to keep his promise, predicting he would return in revenge. Their “bargain” sounds more like blackmail than a contractual arrangement. Godwin also worried about future generations who were not parties to the original agreement, and had never promised to abide by a government’s laws. Victor was concerned about this; realizing that even if the creature kept his end of the agreement, the female had made no such promise. “He had sworn to quit the neighborhood of man, and hide himself in deserts; but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation” (114).
European writers during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods were fascinated by reports about non-European peoples. While they wrote as if conceptions of human nature and natural rights applied universally, in fact, they often referred to non-European peoples as a point of contrast in developing what it meant to be human and civilized. Note that Victor felt perfectly free to destroy the female creature; he did not think she had a “right to life.” The creature tells Victor that once he has a mate, they will go to South America, presumably to get away from civilization, rather than to join a non-European civilization. Locke, Hobbes, and others wrote about Native Americans as if they lived in a state of nature, rather than thinking of their societies as organized forms of civilization.
Questions to Raise: Frankenstein’s creature gives us a fascinating context in which to play with the idea of a state of nature. One could argue that the creature was in a state of nature, relative to humans. The creature had no lineage, no wealth, no social connections; indeed, he had had no childhood at all! (Locke and Hobbes did not take very seriously the fact that without social contact infants would not survive the first few days of life. David Hume (1711-1776) thought this fact about childhood made the very idea of a “state of nature” preposterous.)
+ Use the creature’s life and personality to think about the idea of a state of nature, and what people would be like in it. Do the creature’s experiences suggest a state of nature more like Hobbes’ or like Locke’s? While the creature’s life certainly was solitary, and often was nasty and brutish, what do you think about his propensity for sympathy, and his desire to make connections with people?
+ Does the creature lend credibility to the idea of the state of nature as a way of understanding human nature, or does the creature provide a way to criticize that approach? How do you evaluate Godwin’s criticisms of the social contract?
+ How does Shelley portray non-European peoples in the book? What does this tell us about Shelley’s conception of human nature? Should we think of the creature and his potential mate as included in the meaning of “humanity,” or as providing counter-examples?
Return to the top of the page
What Does it Mean to be Human? Autonomy and Responsibility
Victor’s actions regarding the creature raise questions related to the theme of autonomy and responsibility. Victor acted on a definition of autonomy that includes very little responsibility for the outcomes of his actions. In the name of science, he felt free to turn his knowledge and labor into a living creature, yet he abandoned his creation on first sight, rather than taking responsibility to nurture the creature and teach him how to live in society. On several occasions Shelley writes about how Victor feels responsible for the creature’s crimes, yet he does not take responsibility. For example, when Justine is convicted of murdering William, Victor, in anguish, thinks himself the true murderer, but does nothing to intervene (57). His silence helps condemn Justine to death.
Questions to Raise: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German enlightenment philosopher, defined autonomy, not in terms of doing what one wanted to do, but in terms of acting on principles that you would be willing for everyone in the world to follow.
+ Did Victor act autonomously in creating and then abandoning the creature? Do you think that taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions is part of autonomy? What relationship should hold between autonomy and responsibility?
Return to the top of the page
What Does it Mean to Be Human: Gender Roles
In discussing the Humanities Base themes in relation to Frankenstein and other writers of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, it is important to frame questions in light of gender roles. Many people during those times believed that men’s and women’s natures were different, though “complementary.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) spelled out the complementarity theory very explicitly in Emile, his treatise on education for responsible citizenship. Emile, his prototype of the responsible citizen, is to be independent, rational, active, and strong, and rule in the public sphere, while Sophie, his ideal wife, is to be submissive, emotional, and weak, and stay exclusively in the domestic sphere, making her husband’s well-being her top priority. Thus, with the complementarity theory, questions about what it means to be human, and the relation between the individual and society, need to be given separate analyses for women and for men.
Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), was an outspoken critic of the complementarity theory. In Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft gives a scathing critique of all social hierarchies, including the clergy, the aristocracy, the military, and gender roles, arguing that when positions are based on differences in power, people at both ends of the hierarchy are corrupted; neither group develops reason and virtue. Those at the top base their actions on their ability to wield power, while subordinates become servile or manipulative.
Shelley’s account of Victor and Elizabeth’s childhood has many parallels with Rousseau’s description of Emile’s and Sophie’s education. Rousseau assigns to Sophie extensive responsibility for Emile’s well-being, writing, “On women too depend the morals, the passions, the tastes, the pleasures, aye and the happiness of men (135).” But how is Sophie, trained in emotional sensitivities, but not in reason, supposed to accomplish all this? She is to use her charm and her ability to manipulate Emile. In an astonishingly convoluted statement, Rousseau writes, “The characteristic cunning with which women are endowed is an equitable compensation for their lesser strength. Without it women would not be the comrade of man, but his slave. This talent gives her the superiority that keeps her his equal and enables her to rule him even while she obeys” (141). Compare this statement, with the creature’s reply to Victor, after Victor dismembers the female creature: “Slave…You are my creator, but I am your master; obey” (116). In both cases, social relations are perverted by hierarchies of power.
What emerges from Rousseau’s description is two people, exemplifying the complementary theory of gender roles, neither of whom is a particularly appealing character. Emile thinks he is independent and in control; he doesn’t see that he is being manipulated, and that he lacks autonomy in the sense that he doesn’t know how to be responsible for his own emotional well-being.
In Frankenstein, Shelley shows how men’s lives are diminished by not having emotional skills and sensitivities. As long as Victor is within the affectionate domain of the family, with his mother and Elizabeth to do the emotional labor of maintaining a humane family-society, Victor thrives. But when he leaves his affectionate home, and pursues knowledge single-mindedly, he experiences emotional disorder. One way to illustrate this is to ask, “Why did Victor abandon his own creation after giving it life?” The stated answer is because the creature was hideous. But we can be skeptical about this response; after all, Victor had been working with decomposing corpses for two years, and should have become thoroughly desensitized to ugliness in the process. An alternative response is that Victor rejected the creature because he had not learned how to nurture his own off-spring, nor had he acquired the skills to deal with his own emotional responses. After Victor’s shock on encountering the live creature, his friend Clerval comes, and basically plays the female role of caring for him.
By contrast, the women characters in Frankenstein, are idealized versions of femininity. They are nurturing, forgiving, and self-sacrificing, and they wait, and wait, and wait. (After Victor chose to spend so many years apart from her, one wonders why Elizabeth didn’t doubt Victor’s affection, and find something else to do besides wait). Shelley missed what Wollstonecraft argued so convincingly: that the so-called womanly virtues are, in fact, weaknesses. Wollstonecraft insists, “The most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart….It is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason” (103). When women are socialized to be feminine, when their reasoning powers are not developed, and when they have no option but to be economically dependent on men, their characters will become perverted, and they will become servile or manipulative.
Questions to Raise:
+ Are the female characters in Frankenstein believable, or, given their feminine gender socialization, should their characters be perverted, as Wollstonecraft would have predicted?
How did Victor’s masculine gender socialization shape his character? Was it one important variable in why he abandoned the creature?
Return to the top of the page
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. 1762. translated by William Boyd, New York: Columbia University, 1956.
Shelley, Mary. 1818. Frankenstein. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.