The Curse of Language

 

The monster’s reflections on Felix’s history lesson in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wield oppressive power over him. In learning about the nature of human beings, he dives deeper into knowledge of how he would be perceived by them. As he dwells on the meaning of Felix’s words, he forms a new self-image, one that is informed by the society’s concepts of status and wealth. The monster’s despondent reflections are caused by the knowledge bestowed by human words.

The monster demonstrates an awareness of the power of words after eavesdropping on Felix’s lesson. He is induced by the words to “turn toward [himself] (122),”  stating it so the words place him in a position of subordination. Until now, the monster has obsessed about “acquiring the art of language” (118) and hoped that he could command language in order to introduce himself to the family. After hearing Felix’s lesson, however, he is subjugated by the words’ power, and made to “turn toward [him]self,” away from the human family. He now understands that the tendency for language that he originally embraced is a force that alienates him from humanity.

The monster struggles to define himself with words. “What was I?” he asks himself (123), ignorant of his origins and ancestry, and therefore having no discernable purpose in life. Importantly, defining himself as “what” instead of “who” shows the influence that human perception has on his words. To a human being, the monster is an object. The monster is aware of the fact that if he continues to use the language of man, he is emphasizing his place in the world as an other.

The monster compares himself to a “blot upon the earth” (123), as if the earth were a written document. Essentially, Felix’s dictation from the history book is the monster’s perception of the world, which is oppressively the only avenue for understanding the world that the he has. In this metaphor, the monster would be a misshapen spill of ink, forming no intelligible words. A blot would assuredly be considered a mistake and would never be recognized as a legitimate part of a written work.

The monster proclaims “I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me” (123). Again his language demonstrates that he feels victimized, this time by the “reflections” of his new knowledge brought about by Felix’s words. Words are not enough, however, to describe his agony, because it is beyond what human beings are able to experience. In this passage, the addressee is Victor Frankenstein, who, the monsters recognizes, would be unable to understand his level of agony.

Because the monster’s “sorrow only increased with knowledge” (123), he can only avoid it by avoiding learning. Ironically, he originally believed that learning the ways of human beings would help him interact with them and, as a result, he would be happy. Now, the monster wishes that he had remained in nature in ignorance, without having “known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat” (123). Essentially, he wishes he could divorce himself from the human world of written knowledge and become purely animal, recognizing only the things he senses.


Works Cited

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. Maurice Hindle. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.


Appendix

Selected Passage from Frankenstein (122-3):

‘The words induced me to turn towards myself. I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages but, without either, he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as men. I was more agile than they, and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?

‘I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me: I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat![’]

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