The Human Genome Project, which has attracted its fair share of controversy, set out in the early 1990s to map all 25,000 genes of the human genome (“About”). The hope was that such discoveries would provide a roadmap to the specific genes which could “allow us to accurately predict who will develop heart disease, become violent, or become homosexual” (Young). Psychologists, however, have countered this process by pointing out the importance of environmental factors to overall social development.
Professor Robert Plomin of the Institute of Psychiatry in London says that “individual differences in complex traits are due at least as much to environmental influences as they are to genetic influences” (qtd. in Young). This is, in essence, a modern-day battle of nature versus nurture. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the conflict is perfectly encapsulated in the character of the monster; is he inherently evil and bloodthirsty, or did harsh societal treatment force him to be that way? It is an age-old question, still yet to be solved.
However, through her writing and characterization it becomes clear that the monster began life as fresh and innocent as a regular newborn baby. He only became a true “monster” in the archetypal sense after enduring hatred and isolation at the hands of the humans he so longed to be. He is, in effect, nurtured into being the murderer that he becomes. Despite his unnatural birth, Frankenstein’s creation still exudes the freshness and naivety of a young child discovering things for the first time.
The prime example of this is his discovery of fire: “I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars… in my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain” (Shelley 89). He obviously has no life experiences to guide his actions and spends his first few weeks investigating and trying to understand the world around him, much like a newborn would. He even says that “no distinct ideas occupied my mind” (Shelley 88). This is not a being born a raving lunatic, his mind awash with murderous thoughts.
He is simply a blank slate. Once he begins to distinguish light and sound, he continues his fresh exploration, discovering such things as animals, foliage, and warmth. At one point he wanders into an old man’s hut, scaring him off. He doesn’t intend to cause the man harm, nor does the reaction his appearance receives cause him any emotional distress or give rise to vengeance. He is not the being that he is by the end of the novel, a clear indication of the influence of social and environmental factors on development.
In fact, it is not until he sees the De Lacey family for the first time that he begins to truly grasp basic emotions like happiness and sadness; until that point he had only known physical pain and hunger. The De Laceys are essentially the monster’s first nurturers, however unknowing they may be. By observing them he becomes aware of human relationships, human emotions, and even human history. He develops a high level empathy for the family; their trials and tribulations were his, and when their were sad so was he.
In a way he is exhibiting a highly pure and limited form of emotional expression and understanding for, much like a very young child or even a pet, his own feelings are greatly influenced by, and reflective of, those around him. Since the family provides the basis for the monster’s impression of humans, he originally thinks fairly highly of them. The monster, who had started out taking some of their food for
To make amends he instead gathers firewood for them, and is filled with satisfaction upon knowing that he saved them from even a small amount of hardship. It is from the De Laceys that he first learns of kindness and love, and of the bonds of family and friendship. If he was truly born a monster it is doubtful that he would have any capacity whatsoever for empathy and love. At this point in the novel, though, it’s quite apparent that the so-called “demon” has a interior that belies his frightening exterior appearance.
The monster also learns how to read, write, and speak by intently observing the De Laceys. This act of humanization further endears the family to him, and is his major step towards joining human society. Of course this is all thrown out the window when, after meticulously planning on how to reveal his presence to the family, they receive him with less than open arms: Felix violently ejects him from their cottage, while Safie runs away in disgust and Agatha faints upon seeing his form.
This is the first of several traumatic experiences with the human race that totally throws the monster’s worldview out-of-whack; where before he saw only gentleness and love he soon comes to associate humans with hatred and violence. Next the monster gets shot after saving a girl from drowning in a river. However he still does not respond violently towards either the girl or the attacker; instead he merely wanders off, injured and confused. It would seem that he has yet to become the violent murderer the majority of the story sees him as.
At this point, though, he does vow “eternal hatred and vengeance on all mankind” (Shelley 126), which is a far cry from the admiration he expressed for their race only days before. This is the turning point in the monster’s behavior; from here on out his thought process is radically changed. Society and mankind have totally rejected him by this time, and again like a child he takes these insults to heart and responds in a somewhat over-the-top manner. The monster’s brutal murder of William, Frankenstein’s younger brother, is the first occurrence to truly display any sort of demonic tendencies.
By this point, though, his heart and mind have been shaped by nearly two years of life experiences, many of them negative. After all, he lives, apart from observing the De Laceys, in total isolation. He is then deemed a monster by all of society, and cast out. He is even shot for doing a heroic deed. Add on his knowledge of the bloody history of human civilization (which is filled with war and revenge) and his exposure and identification with Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost and it is not entirely surprising to see his mindset so rapidly altered.
Of course he goes on to kill many more of Frankenstein’s loved ones, and eventually indirectly causes the death of Frankenstein himself, though these heinous crimes are born out of a lack of nurture, not simply just his natural personality. In fact, like many serial killers before and after him, the monster lacks any sort of parental figure. His father, Frankenstein, was so disgusted by him that he ran away and never came back. History has shown us that growing up fatherless can have severe ramifications upon a child’s psyche and development.
Numerous sociologists and psychologists have come to the conclusion that a fatherless childhood increases the likelihood that said child will turn to a life of crime or depression, and with 70% of long-term prison inmates and 72% of adolescent murderers coming from fatherless homes that assumption appears to be correct (Popenoe). This is a clear endorsement of the importance of nurture over nature in that this environmental change has such a large effect on the future of these children. Many, of course, come to resent and hate the man who walked out on them.
This is the case with the monster, whose quest for vengeance against his creator provides the main plot of the novel. The monster falls victim to the numerous environmental forces working against him, from societal isolation to the abandonment of his father. His ultimate personality is filled with rage and anger, though it is not without the kinder traits he picked up from the De Lacey family. He confesses at the end of the novel of his remorse at his crimes: “No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery can be comparable to mine” (Shelley 203).
Two of the most important quotes, though, appear at the end of the novel as well: the monster essentially conveys Shelley’s exact point in the nature vs. nurture battle when he says that his “heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy” (Shelley 202) and that he “cannot believe that [he is] the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness” (Shelley 204). Even he recognizes the changes that have taken place inside his own psyche, and he understands that it is his life experiences and environment that is to blame for this.
In these final quotes, he also makes it clear that he started out life fresh and new, without a demonic cell in his body, and that his first experiences were those of kindness and joy. It was not until after his mind began to form that he was exposed to the concepts of hatred and vengeance. With the character of Frankenstein’s monster, Shelley has created not only one of the most iconic misunderstood villains of literature but also formed an entire thesis on the concept of nature versus nurture in human development.
By making the monster a blank slate, and morphing his personality based upon the different cataclysmic events that shape his life, Shelley clearly states her support for the nurture side of the argument. In a way the entire novel could be seen as an argument in defense of the belief that it is the child’s environment and form of nurture received (be it good, bad, or non-existent) that provides the basis for their personality and character.
Of course genetics does play a role in such areas. People are generally not born serial killers, nor are they born as charitable saints. Parenting plays a huge role in early development, as many professionals have proven, and the monster’s lack of a single parent largely attributes to his personality defects. This point, combined with the isolation and hatred that he endured, are the reasons that he turned towards a path of murder and destruction.