Nature versus Nurture in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
A piece written for the Gothic Texts and Contexts module. 05/12/2019
The idea of nature versus nurture is not a new concept. However, in the early 19th century, the notion that events could make someone a monster was not even considered. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein addressed this idea in depth, using new theories to show how one is not necessarily born evil, but made.
The debate looks at how genetics and environment impact on an individual’s abilities and personality (1). The phrase was coined in 1869 by psychologist Sir Francis Galton (2), however, the theory was discussed long before then. Nowadays, the debate is that nature and nurture work together in order to determine a person’s fate (3), rather than pure nativism, which theorises that all mental capacities are natural rather than gained through learning.
Nature versus nurture is a prominent theme in the novel; the creature would not have become a monster if society had not made him one. This first appears when the creature is given life. Frankenstein took pride in his work, felt affection towards him, even thought he was beautiful. Nevertheless, when the creature was brought to life he was met with horror, rejection, and abandonment from his maker due to his frightful appearance. The prejudice towards creature based on his looks is an ongoing occurrence in the book, which fits in with the idea that “evil is a form of ugliness” (4): that humanity’s “aversion to seriously malformed individuals” is what made him a monster (5). Even the creature himself sees a monster in his own reflection, and acknowledges the De-Laceys’ reasoning for thinking he is evil – “a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster.” (6). Instead of the love sympathy and friendship he is seen as a dangerous enemy only because of his abnormal appearance (7), even through his own eyes.
The effect of his rejection is worsened by his longing to be accepted by society – “My heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures, to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition” (8). When he is once again rejected by the De-Laceys only then does he start to think negatively, exclaiming “My protectors had departed, and had broken the only link that held me from the outside world. For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom.” (9). Although he had already been rejected many times before, the exclusion from the De-Laceys was particularly significant as they were the only ones that he truly loved. The lexis he uses whilst telling the story confirms this (e.g. ‘beloved’, ‘sweet’, ‘enticed my love’, ‘beauty’, ‘pleasure’, ‘affection’, etc), and amplified by restraining himself from punishing them after his rejection. This was because the creature recognised who was at fault for his misery – his creator. After educating himself he also recognised the injustice of being created into a world of fear and death only to be treated as a burden by his maker (10), and set out for revenge on the one person he thought deserved it.
In the novel Shelley repeatedly tells us that the monster “is not, and cannot be inherently evil” (11), through the descriptions of his journey. The Romantic nativity and childlike view he has when first seeing the world promotes the innocent and virtuous opinions the creature holds – he is alone and frightened yet explores nature with delight and awe instead of violence. His essential nature is childlike – curious, blameless, and pure. His main intention throughout the majority of the book is to be loved, even after being rejected multiple times, as when he first sees Victor’s younger brother William, his first thought was to befriend him: “I could seize him and educate him as my companion and friend, I should not be so desolate on this peopled Earth.” (12). William becomes his first victim in order to wreak his revenge only when he finds out that the child is related to his creator. The wholesomeness of his character in the beginning shows how corrupt he becomes due to the multiple cases of rejection and the circumstances surrounding his existence, proving that the creature’s life experiences have affected him more than his inherent nature.
Shelley used this theme to show “the monster as a fundamentally morally neutral creature who is made evil by circumstance” (13). Using Rousseauistic and Godwinian theories to present the monster, she showed the creature as born innocent becoming corrupt through worldly experiences (14,15). The gothic architype of ‘no mothers’, the creature’s lack of female influence, and the idea that the creature’s father is the author of his suffering (16) relates back to Shelley’s own life experiences manifesting in the life of her fictional monster, perhaps explaining why she presented him in this way.
To summarise, although Frankenstein’s monster does indeed become a monster, this analysis shows that he was made a monster through unfortunate life experiences rather than born that way.
1. Beaver, Kevin, Barnes, James, and Boutwell, Brian. The Nurture Versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology: On the Origins of Criminal Behavior and Criminality. (California: Sage Publications Inc, 2014). Pp 1-2.
2. Bynum, W. F. The childless father of eugenics. Science, volume 296.5567. (2002): pp. 472.
3. Ridley, Matt. Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003). Pp3
4. McGinn, Colin. Ethics, Evil and Fiction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Pp 144.
5. Hoeveler, Diane. ‘Frankenstein, Feminism, and Literary Theory’ in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley by Esther Schor. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). pp 59
6. Mary Shelley. The Original Frankenstein. (Oxford: Bodelian Library, 2008). Pp 159
7. McGinn, p 161.
8. Shelley, p 127.
9. Ibid., p 163.
10. Mcginn, p 157.
11. Punter, David. The Literature of Terror, Vol 1. (London: Routledge, 1996). Pp 108.
12. Shelley, p 167.
13. Punter, p 107.
14. Ibid., p 109
15. Reynolds, Kimberly. “Perceptions of Childhood”, uk [online].
16. McGinn, p155-156
Beaver, Kevin, Barnes, James, and Boutwell, Brian. The Nurture Versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology: On the Origins of Criminal Behavior and Criminality. (California: Sage Publications Inc, 2014).
Bynum, W. F. The childless father of eugenics. Science, volume 296.5567. (2002): pp. 472. < https://science.sciencemag.org/content/296/5567/472.summary> [accessed 1.12.19]
Hoeveler, Diane. ‘Frankenstein, Feminism, and Literary Theory’ in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley by Esther Schor. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). pp 45-62.
McGinn, Colin. Ethics, Evil and Fiction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Reynolds, Kimberly. “Perceptions of Childhood”, bl.uk [online] updated 15 May 2014 [cited 2 December 2019]. Available from: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/perceptions-of-childhood
Ridley, Matt. Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003).
Punter, David. The Literature of Terror, Vol 1. (London: Routledge, 1996).
Shelley, Mary. The Original Frankenstein. (Oxford: Bodelian Library, 2008).