Most People Aren’t Psychopaths: Lessons Learned from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Frankenstein is so familiar and visible in popular culture that for many years I didn’t feel much need to read it. Learning a bit about Mary Shelley’s life a few months ago piqued my interest and a beach vacation (where my primary purpose was to swim, read, repeat) gave me the perfect opportunity.
As everyone on our vacation soon learned (whether they wanted to hear it or not), I was absolutely captivated by the story. Beyond all the misrepresentations of the story in Hollywood, the core message of Frankenstein has been sadly over-simplified and misrepresented by popular culture.
Instead of simply cautioning us against the idea of “playing God” or taking our human genius too far, it goes beyond, telling a story of our most basic human needs for acceptance and how difficult it is to respond with love when all you receive is rejection and hate.
The novel begins in the seas of the Arctic, where an adventurous ship captain and his crew are on an expedition that promises to be both groundbreaking and dangerous. The setting is bleak and isolated and, yet, on two separate occasions, they cross paths with other travelers. First, they see a very large person riding a dog-sled in the distance. Then they come upon another man who is incredibly weak, possibly close to death. They invite him onto their ship, rescuing him from the harsh conditions. As the man gains a bit of strength, he begins to tell his story to the captain, eventually revealing why he is there and the identity of the other figure they had seen.
The rescued man, we soon learn, is Dr. Victor Frankenstein and he begins his tale with the story of his childhood, idyllic and full of love. He is incredibly nostalgic, remembering little except the love that he received and the tragic death of his mother. Even with his taste of tragedy, however, he gushes about the way he was cared for, his fortune at being surrounded by people who adored him and invested in him.
When he goes to university, his life takes a turn. His genius gets the better of him and he becomes a recluse, totally obsessed with one particular idea, refusing to give up until he has completed his task. After spending months working in his lab, isolated and possessed by his end goal, he finally succeeds: he creates a life. But as soon as he sees consciousness form in his creation’s eyes, Frankenstein is absolutely repulsed by the monster before him and runs away, attempting to avoid all interaction. He tries to pretend that nothing has happened. He tells no one about what he’s done and even has fleeting moments where he himself forgets.
This is the start of the tragedy of Frankenstein. His inability to take responsibility for his actions sets off a devastating chain of events.
Initially, Frankenstein fears the monster without knowing anything about him except that he is large and ugly. But, fairly early on in the story (after the monster has caused serious harm to Frankenstein, but before all is lost), Frankenstein gets the opportunity to hear the monster’s side of the story. In the monsters’ narrative, he tells of the devastation and pain he has experienced since being created. Rejection and revulsion are all he has ever been greeted with. The monster’s first moments of existence are the sight of his creator, Dr. Frankenstein, running away in horror. Then as he ventures out on his own, he tells stories of attempting to help people and being seen only as a perpetrator, continually perceived with a lens of mistrust and disgust. Even when he thinks he has found a family that could possibly care for him, he is immediately rejected as soon as they see him. The monster is not, as Frankenstein sees him, a psychopath intent on evil at all costs. He’s wounded, lashing out in pain.
The monster oscillates back and forth between hope and disappointment. His hope manifests in his choice to be kind and gentle, his disappointment is expressed through murder and destruction. And as he continues to receive hate from every person he interacts with, his character begins to take on more of the ugliness of his exterior. He reflects what he receives and resigns himself to never being loved by humans.
By the time he speaks with Dr. Frankenstein, he has already given up on ever living in a community, but has one request that he claims will at least give his life some meaning. The monster asks for a mate. He suggests that, since Frankenstein created one life, he could create another. The monster promises that, in return, he and his mate will disappear from civilization forever. Frankenstein initially agrees, but goes back on his promise after a few tortured weeks, deciding that he cannot justify creating another monster. This refusal unleashes all the monster’s fury and he finds a way to kill everyone Frankenstein loves most deeply. The doctor is left alone and heartbroken.
Back in the Arctic, Frankenstein explains to the ship captain that he is there to chase the monster, the “large man” they had seen from afar. He thought that the only noble thing he could do would be to make sure that the monster couldn’t hurt any more people. He had dedicated the rest of his life to try and kill what he had created.
Even at the end, Frankenstein only regrets that he created the monster in the first place. But, in fact, all he had to do was show the monster some level of acceptance and love and he could have avoided all the tragedy and loss.
Even from Frankenstein’s biased perspective (remember, the whole story is told by him), it was clear that the monster had a great capacity for love and compassion — even tenderness. Yet because his kindness was only ever returned with horror and revulsion, he became what people expected him to be, wreaking havoc on the one who had hurt him the most. Frankenstein thought that by not revealing his scientific secrets and doing what he could to get rid of the monster, he was taking responsibility for his so-called original sin of creating him. But to truly take responsibility, he would have had to take care of the life he had created.
Frankenstein is so much more than a warning against playing God. It is a story of how cruelty leads to more cruelty. The monster is by no means innocent, but he does deserve empathy and compassion from the reader. The story of Frankenstein addresses the complexity of those who are abused becoming abusers. Or child soldiers growing up to be perpetrators of war crimes. It addresses life’s deepest needs of being loved and accepted and how difficult it is to return cruelty with love.
The monster gave in to his worst instincts and should be held responsible for that. But the ultimate tragedy is how the person in power, who had received so much love and acceptance in his own life, refused to offer the same to his own creation.
Sometimes I think we move through the world thinking that most people who make us uncomfortable are destined to behave badly, regardless of what we do. We place ourselves as the victims, saying things like “we’ll just be taken advantage of” or “we’ll only be disappointed.” But the truth is, most people aren’t psychopaths. We have no control over what other people choose to do, but we can do our best to foster an environment where others have the opportunity to reflect love instead of hate.