We all know Frankenstein. Images of a green-skinned, square-headed monster with giant screws sticking out of the sides of his neck have become almost synonymous with the horror genre (of course, in the book, he’s described looking rather more like a mummy. But accuracy isn’t Hollywood’s strong point).
Mary Shelley’s original tale portrays the monster as a sensitive soul who’s hurt and mystified that everyone runs screaming whenever they see him. He waxes eloquent on philosophy and society, and ultimately decides that he might as well become the monster everyone thinks he is.
We, the audience, are supposed to empathize with the monster. Yes, we are supposed to cluck, the whole world mistreated the poor–uh, thing–without cause, and so what choice did he have but to fit himself into the mold offered by society? It’s not his fault, it’s the fault of society. If only society had been good to him, he would have been a model citizen. But alas, such was not to be.
In other words, the monster was born perfect, and it was only an imperfect society that ruined him. The wider implication, of course, is that individuals are born basically good, and society ruins them. Frankenstein was written nearly two hundred years ago by a romantic young woman, but it might have been penned yesterday by today’s social and philosophical pundits.
If anything, Shelley’s argument is more pertinent today than ever before, as various ideologies battle for supremacy. Everything from child rearing to prison systems depend on the answer to this question: when a person breaks a rule or law, is it his fault, or the fault of the society that produced him?
Shelley’s camp has gained many followers since the time of her death, and many would shout that it is the fault of society. Yes, this man committed a violent theft during which he shot the shop owner, but only because he was raised in the ghetto and had no other recourse. It’s the ghetto’s fault.
The problem is that if everyone is basically good, then society would wholly be made up of people who are basically good. Therefore we would have a basically good society, in which basically good people would remain basically good. But that’s not what happens.
Shelley argues that an inherently bad society corrupts basically good people. You may agree with her. Like me, you may not agree. Regardless, Frankenstein‘s greatest strength is that it makes the reader ask the question. And what truth can be found unless you take that first step?