The question of nature versus nurture lies at the heart of Mary Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece, ‘Frankenstein’. Shelley’s iconic story of Frankenstein’s monstrous creation asks whether we are born or made to be who we are.
Is a Child Born or Made?
In her 1818 masterpiece, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley tells the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the monster he creates. Shelley explores the age-old nature vs. nurture question of whether we are who we are because of genes or because of our experiences growing up. Is our character built into our very being? Or is it formed by the way we are raised and by those teach us in our most formative years?
The Monster’s Beginnings
The most obvious example of the nature vs.
nurture question is in the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his monster. Victor is a brilliant scientist and is thrilled by the prospect of harnessing the spark of life. In his excitement, he gives little thought to the consequences of his actions.Then his creation draws its first breath. Suddenly, Victor realizes the mammoth size of the being he has created, both figuratively and literally. He finally comprehends the incredible strength that he has given the monster, and he recoils at its ugliness and deformity. Horrified, he rejects it instantly.
The monster is driven into the forest by the townspeople, who attack him and scream in terror.No wonder the monster becomes vengeful. He had no say in his creation, no choice in his form, and the one person who did abandoned him.
The creature seeks revenge on his creator in the best way he knows how, by killing everyone Victor loves.The question remains: Does the monster’s bloodthirst come from Victor’s abandonment and the townspeople’s reactions? Or is there something more inherent in his brutality?
The Case for Nurture
A strong case can be made that the monster’s later brutality is entirely due to his early rejection.The creature has an innately loving heart, at least at first. After he is driven into the forest, he comes upon the home of the De Lacey family. He hides there for months and in that time he learns about the love of family.
He discovers that this is something he desperately wants. The creature also shows an acute intelligence, and learns how to speak and read from observing the De Laceys teach the Turkish woman they adopted.When the De Laceys, an otherwise generous and tenderhearted family, brutally reject him too, the monster realizes that there is no place for him on Earth. He’ll never receive the nurturing he needs. He becomes bitter and then vengeful.Still, however, he holds out one last hope against the rage growing inside him. If Victor will build him a mate, and together they could leave Europe and never bother humanity again.
Victor refuses, fearing the birth of a race of monsters, so the creature takes revenge. Yet, despite all the destruction he brings to Victor’s life, when Victor dies of illness, the monster mourns him, as a grieving son would.He insists that all of the terror could have been avoided had Victor only done his duty as a creator/father should, if only the monster had been shown one scrap of human kindness.
The Case for Nature
The monster has a right to his rage, and perhaps even to vengeance, but to go so far as to wipe out an entire family? To frame an innocent woman, Justine Moritz, for killing Victor’s youngest brother, William, and then to see her hanged for the crime? Is this overkill, literally? Enter the case for nature: we have to consider how Victor constructed his creature.
Scientists in the late 18th century in which Frankenstein takes place had to scrounge for bodies to study, frequently resorting to hiring body-snatchers, or resurrectionists, to steal the bodies they needed.Resurrectionists went wherever the bodies were easiest to snatch. This also included unhallowed cemeteries, those not blessed by the Church, such as prison cemeteries and potters’ fields, the mass graves of the impoverished. It is very possible that Frankentein’s monster consists of remnants of the criminal and the very poor.
Could this mean that the monster was born to be bad after all? Did Victor’s failed parenting only unleash the violence that was already waiting there?Shelley’s text is purposefully ambiguous on this front. Yes, the creature’s violence may suggest a criminal heredity. But his heredity may also include the aristocratic, perhaps even the clergy. He’s made of whatever parts Victor could get access to. In fact, it may even be composed of both animal and human parts or of something unknown that Victor is unwilling to disclose.
What we do know for certain is that the monster is gigantic. This was by Victor’s design, making the body easier for Victor to work with. But the monster’s emotions and intellect parallel his stature.
He is stronger, more intelligent, and more emotional than the average human. His capacity for love, loneliness, hate, and revenge is as terrifying in its scope as his massive body. It is far greater than a human can comprehend.Shelley also offers other important examples to support the case for nature.The De Lacey family are of noble birth but fell into poverty only recently. Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth Lavenza, was left orphaned and destitute at the age of four, but her suspected father is an aristocrat. Elizabeth and the De Laceys retain their ancestors’ noble bearing, while Justine still has the roughness of an impoverished family tree.
Justine Moritz, though raised in the aristocratic home of the Frankensteins, is from an impoverished family and still has the roughness of an impoverished family tree.
In the 1818 novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explores the question of nature vs. nurture, asking whether we are born or made to be who we are. On the one hand, Shelley makes the case for nurturing by showing the monster’s initially loving spirit. His rage arises only after he has been rejected by human beings, foremost by Victor’s abandonment.
On the other, Shelley suggests that nature may also play a role. The monster’s heredity is terrifyingly unknown. He may be composed of aristocrats or criminals, of animals or of some substance otherwise unknown to man. In the characters of the De Lacey family, Elizabeth Lavenza, and Justine Moritz, Shelley suggests that family ancestry shapes character just as much, if not more, than life experiences.