Essay on Nature vs Nurture in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
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Philosophers and scientists alike have debated for centuries whether a person’s character is the result of nature or nurture. In the writings of Thomas Hobbes, it is expressed that humans are endowed with character from birth, and that they are innately evil in nature. John Locke’s response to this theory is that everyone is born with a tabula rasa, or blank slate, and then develops character after a series of formative experiences. The idea that true character is the result of experiences and societal interaction is a theme deeply explored throughout Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Through different interactions with the monster, Shelley attempts to express that it is because of Victor’s failings as a parent and creator, because of the…show more content…
The allusion to Dante implies that, based on appearance alone, the monster is more evil than Hell itself. Victor took no time in getting to understand the monster or develop the familial bond between them, which leaves Victor with a narrow, biased opinion on the monster. Shelley uses Victor’s hasty judgment of the monster in order to demonstrate the irrationality of Victor’s actions regarding the creature. This also discounts Victor’s opinions of the monster, forcing Shelley’s audience to judge the monster based on their own inferences, rather than Victor’s. Through Victor’s actions and his faulty reasoning behind them, Shelley is able to shift the responsibility for the monster’s character from it being instilled in him from birth, to Victor’s failings as a parent and creator. Shelley also attempts to express that Victor’s failure as a father and creator stems from his inability to accept responsibility for his actions. The monster, who openly regrets his actions and recognizes that he has done wrong, “demonstrates that on one count he is more human than the man who fabricated him--for remorse is one emotion that Frankenstein cannot feel” (Marcus). Victor cannot feel remorse for his actions, because he would be forced to accept responsibility for them. To accept that he is responsible for the creation of such an evil being would require that Victor admit that he has failed in his
Nature vs. Nurture in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
The nature vs. nurture debate is at the forefront of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. The two main characters, Victor Frankenstein and the creature he creates, both have an innate nature that factors into each one’s personality and way of life; however, Frankenstein and the creature are subjected to two very different nurturing styles. Although both nature and nurture are important throughout the novel, the nature argument is responsible for the fall of Victor Frankenstein, while the nurture argument is responsible for the fall of the creature. Shelley makes this idea clear to the reader through her powerful diction when describing Victor’s and the creature’s personalities. Shelley also makes use of light and fire as a symbol for an intellectually intriguing, yet physically destructive, force. This symbol is key to supporting the nature vs. nurture argument throughout the novel.
Shelley first addresses Victor’s nature. He describes being born “a Genevese” with a family that is “one of the most distinguished of that republic” (Shelley 18). Victor explains that his ancestors, for many years, had been “counsellors and syndics” (18). Frankenstein continues to describe his family with adjectives such as, “honour,” and “integrity” (18). Shelley’s careful selections of the powerful words used to describe the Frankenstein family, as well as their prestigious placement in society, insinuate the family’s innate ability to lead. This rich ancestral history is part of Victor’s nature, being no exception to this prestigious heritage, and Victor ultimately becomes a victim of his nature. Victor’s greed for power, like the power that had succeeded him, is too much for him to handle. This comes to fruition when Victor brings life to his creature, and reflects on the toils of the past two years. “I had worked…for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body… I had desired it with ardor that far exceeded moderation,” Victor states (39). Shelley’s use of powerful words such as desire, ardor, and exceeded portray the idea of this overwhelming familial need for power and control present in Victor’s nature, and foreshadows Victor’s ultimate downfall. Furthermore, Victor’s natural curiosity about the sciences is depicted through Shelley’s use of lightning as a symbol for intellectual inquisitiveness. “I remained, while the storm lasted, watching…with curiosity and delight…this excited my extreme astonishment” (24). Shelley’s use of light symbolizes the spark of curiosity just before the lightning flash and the discovery of a newfound intelligence or skill after the lightning has flashed. Shelley introduces the reader to the symbol of light when Victor utilizes it to give life to his creation during a storm. Victor explicitly states his curiosity for the sciences is sparked by the sublime nature of lightning; however, he describes his father “had taken the greatest precautions that [his] mind should be impressed with supernatural horrors,” such as science (33). His father’s careful attitude speaks highly of Victor’s nurture.
It is important to take into account Victor Frankenstein’s nurturing situation during his childhood. Victor states that his father “had devoted himself to the education of his children” from very early in Victor’s life (19). Victor also states that “no creature could have more tender parents than [his own]” (19). Shelley’s use of words such as “devoted” and “tender” illustrate the type of compassionate environment Victor was privileged with throughout his childhood. Each example of nurture that Shelley provides the reader positively influences Victor’s personality and physical well-being. Nurture works against Victor’s natural, dangerous desire to be in a position of power; however, it cannot overcome it, and Victor falls prey to his natural needs and innate instincts.
The creature, Victor Frankenstein’s polar opposite, is left at the mercy of his environmental situation. The creature’s nature is quite different than that of Victor’s. Shelley’s use of diction creates a powerful image for the reader to get a sense of the way in which Victor collects his “materials” to build the creature’s physical body. The reader has small glimpses of the creature’s natural desire to learn to read, write, and be accepted by other human beings, but beyond this, the creature’s lack of nurture is solely responsible for the corruption of him and the terrible deeds he commits throughout the novel.
Again referencing the lightning symbol to illustrate the way in which the creature is given life, Victor abhors and resents his creation from the moment he is “born” of electricity and Victor’s own intellectual endeavors. Victor describes his feelings toward the “demoniacal corpse to which [he] had so miserably given life to” (40). Shelley’s diction in the description of the creature is quite striking. The phrase “demoniacal corpse” and the word miserable generate a hostile and wretched representation of this “birth” for the reader. Shelley’s use of this depressing diction creates a gloomy tone and foreshadows coming events in the creature’s life. Victor is a father figure to the creature. He has given life to someone (or something) and he immediately abandons him. After being left to fend for himself, the creature describes how he is treated by the world around him. Again we see Shelley make use of light as a symbol for curiosity and knowledge, this time through fire. Shelley utilizes the creature’s description of the first fire he sees fire as being “overcome with…the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers” (81). The creature is not capable of understanding why he is met with horrific pain from this sublime element of nature, thus beginning his quest for human knowledge. This is one of the more tender moments the creature experiences in his nurturing environment. Shelley’s diction here creates a sense of warmth. She not only uses the word warmth itself, but also makes use of words such as joy, thrust and embers. These words have a positive, cozy tone to them and insinuate the creature is expressing some sort of enthusiasm for this newfound thing.
As the story of the creature’s nurturing progresses, he describes the moment when he becomes known to his first human family, those living in the cottage. Some of the family fled, some fainted, and the male family member “struck [the creature] violently with a stick” (110). Shelley’s diction during this brutal scene portrays the intense cruelty and abuse the creature receives from other human beings. Shelley deliberately chooses the word fled, making sure that the reader gets the full sense of how terrified these humans were of the creature. Additionally, the statement that some fainted, simply by looking at him, allows the reader to understand how fearful this family truly is. This devastating situation reinforces the creature’s awareness of his lack of nurturing environment. As the creature furthers his narrative, he describes the way in which Victor’s younger brother treated him when he laid eyes upon his being. The child screams at the creature, calling him an “ogre” and states that he is a “hideous monster” (117). Not even an innocent child, free from most prejudices of the world, will accept the creature’s being. Shelley’s conscientious choice of diction when referring to the creature as an ogre allows the reader to fully understand the nurturing environment, or lack thereof, he is subjected to. This constant degradation fuels the creature’s symbolic fire and causes his ill deeds. Much like an abused animal, the creature lashes out at those around him, killing and harming fellow human beings because he is constantly met with anger and violence himself. Perhaps the creature would have shown compassion to others if he had been taught compassion himself.
Throughout Shelley’s novel, the effects of the nature vs. nurture argument are illustrated for the reader through the way in which the two main characters, Victor Frankenstein and the creature he creates, are portrayed to the reader through the use of methodical diction. Victor falls victim to nature and the creature to nurture. Shelley elucidates this for the reader through her diction and the symbolism of light and fire as an intellectually intriguing, yet physically destructive, force.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Oxford World’s Classics ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.