Humanity 101: The Syllabus of Frankenstein's Monster

Hiding in an unused structure connected to a cottage, Frankenstein’s monster becomes transfixed by the written word. Through a chink in the wall, he watches Felix read to his foreign lover and teach her how to speak his language, and piggybacks off of these lessons in language and letters. “I discovered that he uttered many of the same sounds when he read as when he talked. I conjectured, therefore, that he found on the paper signs for speech which he understood, and I ardently longed to comprehend these also”.

Soon after, while searching for his humanity or its lack, the monster stumbles across a “leathern portmanteau” containing three books: Milton’s Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Noble Lives of the Greeks and Romans, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. What happens next speaks to the “human” in humanistic education: these texts do not merely reflect the “human” condition, they mold their readers into subjects that can be accurately named as such. “I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books”, he says to Frankenstein. “They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings, that sometimes raised me to ecstasy, but more frequently sunk me into the lowest dejection.” The devilish creature sees himself in Milton’s Satan, and the power struggle that arises between creator and creation, finds a vocabulary for his dejection in Goethe’s “despondency and gloom”, and transcends personal concerns through Plutarch’s focus on “the heroes of past ages”. All the while he asks himself the most profoundly human of questions: “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?”

And yet, an autodidactic monster is no match for the dehumanizing judgements of society. His soul may look human — even more than human, thanks to his education — but his world will never let him be so. The creature’s reading spree ends with a reflexive moment of textuality: he finds Frankenstein’s journal in the pockets of a borrowed garment, essentially reading himself back into the early chapters of the novel in which he lives. Brought to life deep inside of multiple nested frame narratives, the monster becomes an allegory of writing itself — including the works by Goethe, Milton, and Plutarch enfolded into Shelley’s pages. Once words are birthed into the world, they live on in ways their creators can neither control nor fully imagine, and might indeed meet monstrous ends.

Below you will find Frankenstein’s creature’s reading list, complete with his thoughts and feelings about these texts.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther; Elective Affinities, ed. Nathan Haskell Dole (Boston: Francis A. Nicholls, 1902) — Source.

In the Sorrows of Werter, besides the interest of its simple and affecting story, so many opinions are canvassed and so many lights thrown upon what had hitherto been to me obscure subjects that I found in it a never-ending source of speculation and astonishment. The gentle and domestic manners it described, combined with lofty sentiments and feelings, which had for their object something out of self, accorded well with my experience among my protectors and with the wants which were for ever alive in my own bosom. But I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character contained no pretension, but it sank deep. The disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder. I did not pretend to enter into the merits of the case, yet I inclined towards the opinions of the hero, whose extinction I wept, without precisely understanding it.

Plutarch, Plutarch's Lives, ed. A. H. Clough, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, PA: John D. Morris, 1860) — Source.

The volume of Plutarch’s Lives which I possessed contained the histories of the first founders of the ancient republics. This book had a far different effect upon me from the Sorrows of Werter. I learned from Werter’s imaginations despondency and gloom, but Plutarch taught me high thoughts; he elevated me above the wretched sphere of my own reflections, to admire and love the heroes of past ages. Many things I read surpassed my understanding and experience. I had a very confused knowledge of kingdoms, wide extents of country, mighty rivers, and boundless seas. But I was perfectly unacquainted with towns and large assemblages of men. The cottage of my protectors had been the only school in which I had studied human nature, but this book developed new and mightier scenes of action. I read of men concerned in public affairs, governing or massacring their species. I felt the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the signification of those terms, relative as they were, as I applied them, to pleasure and pain alone. Induced by these feelings, I was of course led to admire peaceable lawgivers, Numa, Solon, and Lycurgus, in preference to Romulus and Theseus. The patriarchal lives of my protectors caused these impressions to take a firm hold on my mind; perhaps, if my first introduction to humanity had been made by a young soldier, burning for glory and slaughter, I should have been imbued with different sensations.

John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Robert Vaughan, illustrated by Gustave Doré (New York: Cassell, Petter, Galpin, ca. 1866) — Source.

But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.