by Nicholas Bensmiller
The first edition of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, was written in 1818 as Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus in a Gothic style with many philosophical, psychological, and ethical themes within the text. Shelley, like other Gothic writers of her time, created her characters as individuals of Sensibility. Sensibility can be most thoroughly understood through its defining features: an intellectual or philosophical ideology, extreme emotional feelings and reactions, and extreme physical reactions to emotional occurrences. Arguably, the three aforementioned aspects of Sensibility can relate to characteristics of humanity. When an individual exhibits emotional or physical reactivity or when they become critical in their philosophical or intellectual beliefs it is often said that they are demonstrating uniquely human features. Some philosophers like René Descartes would even argue that if one lacked emotional complexity and compound intellectual thoughts, they are not as human as other individuals because it is these defining features that separate humans from animals (Descartes 1641). Although in Frankenstein, both Victor and The Creature show strong evidence of intellectualism and philosophical ideologies, extreme emotions, and extreme physical reactions, The Creature demonstrates higher levels of Sensibility than Victor. The higher levels of Sensibility suggest that The Creature possesses more humanity than Victor, even though he is referred to as a non-human being.
Victor Frankenstein displays Sensibility in that he is often intellectual and philosophical in nature. Even as an adolescent at his home in Geneva, Victor declares “natural philosophy is the genius that had regulated my fate” (Shelley 26). However he lacks the depth of philosophical thoughts throughout the course of the story. Regardless of his interest in the subject, Victor narrates his thought processes as more scientific than philosophical. For example, he forsakes creative discourse for chemistry and becomes obsessed with creating life while attending University: “I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” (35). He shows a concentrated pursuit of science throughout the novel as well; his thought processes reflecting the logical, fact-based individual he had become after college. He says statements like “the mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact,” “I weighed the various arguments,” “I paused some time to reflect on all he had related, and the various arguments which he had employed” (64, 88, 134). Victor displays the necessary intellectual ideations to be considered a character of Sensibility.
Despite possessing no formal education, The Creature is also an intensely intelligent and insightful individual who often questions the world around him. Even before he was able to speak, The Creature was an exceedingly curious individual who was not only open to, but craved new knowledge. For example, when he first begins to observe the cottage-dwellers, he hears them speak and marvels “This was indeed a Godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it” (100). Much like Victor, The Creature seems to examine the world in a scientific and curious way: “I examined the structure…,” “I discovered,” “I conjectured…and I ardently longed to comprehend these also” (93, 99, 101). He exhibits intelligence in many ways, especially when he first gains knowledge of the world, saying “…I obtained a cursory knowledge of history and a view of the several empires at present existing in the world; it gave me an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth” (107). In addition to acquiring general historical knowledge, he demonstrates the ability to contextualize information in a meaningful way. For example, he takes what he learns about language phonetically and applied emotions, thought processes, and what he observes about human behavior to assess his beloved cottage-dwellers’ personalities.
Unlike Victor, The Creature possesses characteristics of Sensibility related to philosophical thought. Not only did The Creature desire to learn more about individual people in an intellectual sense, he also had a strong philosophical perspective on society: “I learned, from the views of social life which it developed, to admire their [the cottagers] virtues and to deprecate the vices of man” (115). Many characters of Sensibility find solace in nature and retreat to the natural world to center themselves. For example, Adeline from The Romance of the Forest often withdraws to the forest to think (Radcliff 1791). The Creature also displays Sensibility when he finds sanctuary in nature: “The pleasant sunshine, and the pure air of day, restored me to some degree of tranquility” (Shelley 124). His conversation with Victor provides more insight into his philosophical ideologies when he discusses why he can never be friends with a human: “the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union” (132). In this moment, he realizes that he may never become civil acquaintances with a human being, and reflects upon his existence as seemingly “non-human.” This thought is significant philosophically due to his tendencies to question existence and the reason why prejudices against him exist.
Both The Creature and Victor are portrayed as intelligent and insightful thinkers, but The Creature possesses tendencies of questioning the structures of society and human thought that Victor lacks. An expert and professor of Romantic and Gothic Literature, Essaka Joshua, argues that within Frankenstein there is a prevalent theme of “moral monstrosity” (Joshua 49). The moral monstrosity is how people in the story perceive The Creature and pass judgments about his character based upon his appearance (Joshua 50). The Creature touches on this within his own narrative in the novel; he mentions how he believes humans are socialized to become easily deceived by how an object looks, and even mentions that he knows this is why he can never be friends with a human who can see his form (Shelley 132). Arguably, in these moments of social reflection, The Creature displays more humanity than Victor because while Victor readily accepts the nuances and prejudices set out by society, The Creature questions them and continually seeks answers to his questions in hopes of changing stigmas and biases that many characters in the story have against him. The ability to question structural injustices within the society he lives in can be seen throughout his philosophical and intellectual discourse; these investigative dialogues (such as questioning human behavior and personal existence) are only seen in a measurable way in The Creature.
The second defining feature of Sensibility that can be observed in the novel is extreme emotional feelings. Victor demonstrates pronounced emotional reactivity throughout the novel. He is frequently portrayed as anxious and miserable in the face of adversity or misfortune. For example, Victor feels anxious when he is about to bring life to his creation: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony,” and feels immense sorrow when his life-long friend and loved-one dies: “Torn by remorse, horror and despair” (44, 76). Victor’s positive emotions in the narrative are also extreme: “…I bounded along with feelings of unbridled joy and hilarity” (58). The archetype of Sensibility emphasizes heightened emotions of all forms, and in this respect, Victor is portrayed throughout the novel as an individual possessing Sensible character traits.
Although The Creature is referred to as an emotionless non-human atrocity by Victor, he also expresses a wide range of complex and extreme emotions that indicate Sensibility. From happiness to grief, The Creature continually articulates and feels emotions that advocate his humanity. Like Victor, The Creature finds himself somewhat unable to command or tolerate his extreme emotional states even as he is first beginning to feel his emotions, saying that he “felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature: they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I have never before experienced” (96). The presence of the compound emotions outlined alludes to his sensitive and moral nature even as he is just beginning to notice them. Relating to his philosophical nature, The Creature often questions his existence, and while doing so, he experiences extreme emotions of inadequacy, concern, and sadness: “I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me” “[I was]… overcome by pain and anguish” (108, 122). Most of The Creature’s extreme emotional reactivity is rooted in the discrimination against him.
The Creature and Victor both demonstrate extreme and complex emotions in the text, however, the source of emotions for each suggests that The Creature reveals a greater sense of humility and humanity than Victor. The sources of Victor’s emotions tend to originate from events that happen to him (usually due to acts that he either has or has not accomplished). For example, Victor feels extreme anxiety when he creates The Creature and extreme pride after he reanimates a corpse. Conversely, The Creature also experiences extreme emotion, but his feelings are usually the result of wrongdoings that the structure of society places upon him. For example, he feels excessive shame for his appearance, and he expresses extreme sorrow when those whom he loves the most (the cottage dwellers) reject him due to his appearance. Throughout the story, The Creature is outcast socially, and his extreme emotions are displayed at many points when he realizes he will never be able to associate with the humans he previously found so fascinating and loving. Many of The Creature’s feelings are evoked when discussing his difference from humans, and his humanity is displayed through his desire to be accepted. This is the opposite of Victor, whose emotions are self-interested and reflect a desire for personal wellbeing and success.
Physical reactions to extreme emotions are the third aspect of Sensibility. Victor exhibits these symptoms within the novel on multiple occasions. Victor is sometimes so overwhelmed by his emotions that he enters catatonic states: “I neither spoke, nor looked at any one, but sat motionless, bewildered by the multitude of miseries that overcame me” (Shelley 175). Victor expresses extraordinary emotional reactions to events in his life as well—his emotions can overcome him to the point that he remains immobile, only allowing himself to feel. Another example of how Victor’s emotions cause physiological reactions occurred through anxiety after his creation had been let loose in his apartment: “I trembled excessively… and a cold shivering came over me” (47-48). Individuals who are portrayed as Sensible sometime faint, shiver, or enter trance-like states when overcome by emotions—Victor is no exception, he continually develops physical reactions to his extreme emotional states.
The Creature also displays physical reactions to extreme emotions—the final defining feature of Sensibility. In addition to experiencing elevated heart rate when nervous, “my heart beat quick,” he also often shudders when he feels sorrow, “I trembled violently,” or fear “a thrill of terror ran through me” (120, 124, 130). Although The Creature does not necessarily surpass Victor in how he exhibits the third aspect of Sensibility, he certainly remains equal.
Differences in the severity of the three different features of Sensibility can be seen throughout Frankenstein when comparing Victor and The Creature, and through analysis, it can be observed that The Creature is portrayed as more Sensible than Victor. As previously stated, Sensibility can be viewed as a characteristic of human behavior, and those who display Sensibility as a character type show more humanity and humility than those who do not. Arguably, it can also be asserted that individuals displaying higher levels of Sensibility (i.e. The Creature) show more humanity than those of lower levels of Sensibility (i.e. Victor). Even though The Creature continually separates himself from humanity by talking about humans as if he is not one, “watching my human neighbors,” “the vices of mankind,” “you must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being,” he is portrayed as more Sensible than Victor, and consequently he is more human (98, 115, 131). While Victor readily accepts previously established social laws, The Creature questions them, and though both feel extreme forms of emotion, The Creature only has these tendencies when he is discriminated against. Possessing higher levels of philosophical and intellectual thought, an equal possibility of demonstrating physical reactions to emotions, and an intensified sense of extreme emotions, The Creature is more human than Victor Frankenstein.
Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. 1641. Trans. Donald Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998. Print.
Joshua, Essaka. “‘Blind Vacancy’: Sighted Culture and Voyeuristic Historiography in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” European Romantic Review 22.1 (Feb. 2011): 49-69. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest. 1791. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2012. Print.