The Effect of Society on Man’s Nature
‘Are humans naturally good or bad?’ .Are humans naturally bad or is it the fault of the society that corrupts the good nature? And if humans are good by nature, how human behavior is shaped, and acquired? Some say that behaviour results from nature, or one’s own genes, whereas others say that behaviour results from nurture, or the environment. These questions and debates have been existed through the dawn of history. For thousands of years, philosophers have debated whether humans have a basically good nature that is corrupted by society, or a basically bad nature that is kept in check by society. In fact, humans are naturally inclined to feel compassion and love for others, and this is the case unless something unnatural occurs and disrupts a person’s life. According to Jean Jacques Rousseau, “People in their natural state are basically good. But this natural innocence, however, is corrupted by the evils of society.”(N.P). This proves that society is inescapable. It will always be there as an arbiter, judging people from the surface and putting labels on everything. By doing this it subliminally creates a separation and a lack of acceptance of other’s beliefs (Cameron N.P). Goodness of human nature is sometimes poisoned by the society’s false judgments which may lead to fatal consequences as illustrated in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The early Nineteenth Century was an exceptional time, generating exceptional events, ideas and also literature, of which Shelley’s Frankenstein is an example. The Enlightenment (as the major cultural movement of the time), was a culmination of new thoughts and approaches. Some of the predominant concerns of the Enlightenment were principles of nature, man and society. Man was at the centre of all things, capable of causing his own fall or achieving his own salvation. However, the greatest evil to the Enlightenment was society’s evil role in social justice. “As scholars have illustrated, people in nineteenth-century Europe and America believed strongly in ”Physiognomy”, the theory that physical appearance determined and reflected a person’s character” (Gale N.P). Shelley’s novel is indubitably a reflection of the people’s attitudes of the time in which she lived. Her initial intention was to write a ghost story, she could not avoid writing about what was current and important in that time. For that reason, an understanding of the age and its concerns helps to illuminate Frankenstein. In Frankenstein, Shelley presents many arguments criticizing different aspects of society such as the narrow-mindedness of the society and its superficiality (Gaines and Bingham N.P).
In Frankenstein, Shelly proves that mankind is capable of making good deeds until he is encountered by harsh circumstances which could transform his goodness into an evil one. Thus, through her commentary on mankind’s nature, Shelly demonstrates that the humanity of the creature; his early actions and his nature are like those of a baby born. When the creature was created, he smiled benevolently at Victor because of his pure instinct, but what he received was very much cruel and brutal. According to John Locke, “At birth, the human mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa) and it was formed by experience and education” (Locke 77). Locke believed that children were born as blank slates, beginning their lives morally neutral. From this point of view, infants were inherently good unless a child’s nature is affected negatively by the surrounding environment. This poor creature is created without malice and has a tabula rasa (blank slate) view on life. He is a blank slate and learns his hatred for mankind through his personal experiences. The tabula rasa theory has strikingly similar characteristics of the nurture theory because the environment has the ability to shape an individual’s mind. Tabula Rasa indicates that Frankenstein’s failure to act as a parental figure towards the creature serves to influence its personality and frame of mind in regards to society and its surroundings. Victor abandons the creature and leaves him to the harsh world of judgmental humans instead of nurturing him. Frankenstein’s creature becomes monstrous as a result of his early abandonment not because of his evil nature (Mellor N.P).
The creature’s positive traits were never nurtured but his negative traits were learned from people. Similarly as Victor’s treatment, society’s false judgment and constant rejection cause the creature harm in the first place. The creature was not born as a ”monster” until society refused to nurture him and pushed him towards his breaking point. The Society judges Frankenstein’s creation and called him a ”monster” before he even has time to show his true nature. What the villagers didn’t know was that the creature was a sensitive kind man. The creature stole foods from the harvest that the family in the cottage lived in, but when he realized that they were unhappy because they lived in poverty, he refrained from stealing their foods. The creature wishes the neighbours to be happy and free of worry even if he can’t be accepted by them. This is a proof of his innate desire for doing good and be a part of the society. The creature’s horror at these revelations reveals his essential goodness; it also serves to echo the terrified disgust with which the villagers met his own deformity (Knorr N.P). Throughout his life, the creature was never accepted by anyone because he was known only as a figure hideously deformed. He could not understand why he was so incapable of being loved. The creature begins to ask, “But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses” (Shelley 143). Loneliness and rejection are only the beginning of the creature’s escalating anger. The critic “Neal Wood” argues that the social environment can shape the human’s character. “If man’s being is partially plastic and each person’s outlook and conduct result to some extent from upbringing, example, schooling, associations, and circumstances, then it follows that the human makeup can be shaped, at least to some extent, by action upon the social environment” (Wood 647).
Shelley describes a psychological progression of events which perfectly coincides with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow argued that without social interaction, humans will not be able to fulfill their needs such as safety, love and esteem. Shelley demonstrates the psychological development of the creature. Once the creature becomes aware of himself, the physiological needs of food and water become apparent (Burton N.P). The creature says: “I felt tormented by hunger and thirst. This roused me from my nearly dormant state, and I ate some berries which I found hanging on the trees or lying on the ground. I slaked my thirst at the brook; and then lying down, was overcome by sleep.” (Shelley 105). Through observing the family, the creature realizes that the only way to communicate with people is learning their language. His goodness leads him to become part of the society because he is lacking this sense of compassion and love. He thinks that if he can speak to humans, they will overlook his frightening appearance. From the beginning, the creature tries to use language as a way to relate to humans. He uses his acquired language in hope of making relations, in order to become a part of the human community. His Social Needs were evident from the moment he was created, and immediately attempted to make a connection with the society. The creature tried his best at times to fit in. He even reads ”Paradise Lost” by John Milton, and learns all sorts of things on his own. The fact that he teaches himself a range of different things means that he wants to better himself, to be more than just a “creature” and to be more humane because of his pure nature. The creature’s desire to interact with others and have a family shows that he has the capability to be human instead of being a monster. He doesn’t want to harm others, but to be included as a member of a family (Boeree N.P).
Shelly’s novel is shown through the lenses of Eric Erickson’s theory of Psycho-social development. According to Erickson, “Failure to develop trust will result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable” (Erikson N.P). This theory proposes the idea that personality develops in a series of stages. If an individual achieves each stage of development, he will feel a sense of mastery and fulfillment. However, if the stage is managed poorly, the person may feel a sense of inadequacy, revengefulness and self- worthlessness (Cherry N.P). Applying this theory to Frankenstein’s creature, it is clear that he wants to attain love and respect from others, but he is only met with fear and hostility. This inability to achieve his only desire made the creature develop in a sense of inadequacy and vengeance. The rejection he faced turns into hatred, he killed because he was unhappy about how he looked and was confused about why everyone treated him so poorly: “I remembered Adams supplication of his creator, but where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him.”(Shelley 134). Victor created the being, but society created the monster. His repeated rejections and his intense loneliness lead him to commit acts which he never thought himself capable of committing. From this moment, the creature has grown into a vicious monster that sets out to make Frankenstein feel the very pain he has been experiencing throughout. The creature’s pure childish soul has been vanished and replaced by revenge which leads into fatal consequences.
Even in Death, there is no joy. The final act proves that the creature is not a monster even when he knows about Victor’s death. The Creature weeps over the only person that he felt he had a connection with. The Creature understands that there cannot be anything to come of Victor’s death. This is evident in his confession to Walton: “Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all mankind sinned against me? Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, kicked at, and trampled on” (Shelley 183). The creature does deserve sympathy in some respects. It is not his fault that he is created and he should has never been abandoned by his creator. People should have given him a chance instead of assuming that he was evil. All he wants to do is to fit in the society. He has the same wants and needs as any human, but he can’t fulfil any of them. He is thrown into the world not knowing what to do and with no communication skills. The creature is unremittingly rejected merely because of his looks, as his treatment is grossly unjust and shows the true superficiality of the society. The creature deserves the most sympathy because even though he commits unimaginable crimes, these are due to his own vicious treatment, and not his personality (Marie N.P).
Evil deeds of humankind are the result of socialization. This is the most important message of Shelley’s novel. She proves that human nature is shaped by physical and cultural environment. The society causes misconceptions about people based on appearance and the unknown. With that, Shelley seems to argue that the humans do not have innate traits of revenge and evil. Shelley’s husband, the romantic poet Percy B. Shelley saw Frankenstein as a summing up of one of the central ideas of the enlightenment movement. He argues that the danger of mankind is rooted in society itself. “Treat a person ill and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; let one being be selected for whatever cause as the refuse of his kind -divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations – malevolence and selfishness” (Shelley 11). Shelley’s Frankenstein encompasses the history of the society during the 19th century wherein people are not equal due to their physical appearance. The civilization of this era is degrading as what Shelley is trying to convey because people perceive the beauty and humanness of a person through their physical appearance not by their heart, mind, and soul. Shelley unleashes the fact that Frankenstein is not just a simple story of horror, but an exposition of social issues during the period of the 19th century, knowledge, growth, and social awareness.