Nature vs Nurture: ‘Frankenstein’ and the Romantic View of Madness
The story of Frankenstein reveals quite a bit about the Romantic view of madness
Frankenstein, to many, is a prominent horror icon and prominent Halloween costume choice. But on a literary level, Frankenstein is a legendary novel written by Mary Shelley during the height of the Romantic Period of the early 19th century. The novel, which tells the tale of an inventor plagued with madness creating a hideous creature capable of horrid objectives, is a representation of the human element of madness, which was commonly viewed as an incurable disease during this era. The representation of madness in Frankenstein is a reflection of the larger beliefs of madness during the height of this Romantic Period.
It is important to establish a quick overview regarding the Romantic view of madness during this period. Although open to interpretation, the common view is that madness was, in fact, viewed as an incurable disease that caused a person to behave and act insane, but the definition of insane in this regard was not well established. It was common for people even with slight disabilities or altercations in their behavioral patterns to be classified by society as insane. Those people would then be shunned by society, allowing the victims suffering from this so-called disease to become trapped in their own bubble, knowing that they were viewed as rejected outcasts by society.
Nearly every aspect of this Romantic view of madness is present in Frankenstein. Firstly, the novel deals with madness in relation to the self, upholding the belief during this period that madness was an affliction within the human self, within the mind. Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of the novel and creator of the monster, clearly suffers from a severe case of mental illness, insanity or madness, and gives life to his creation, created from dead bodies.
The fact that he created a creature consisting of dead bodies may be viewed in and of itself as a case of madness or insanity, as that is normally behavior considered taboo by society, and according to the Romantic view, those acting strangely were often dubbed mad and rejected by society. This was most certainly the case with Victor, and because of it, his monster creation also suffers from insanity, from madness. However, Shelley leaves the source of that madness open to interpretation for the reader. According to Victor himself, his own madness drove him to create the monster, stating,
“During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being.”
Looking back on his past self, he recognizes his own insanity and harrowing madness which drove him to build a literal monster. Through Victor it can be inferred that The Creature’s madness is a direct result of its creator’s madness and abandonment of the creature, but the blame shan’t be put on one without the other: the source for the creature’s madness can be pinned on both the monster’s treatment by others, and his creator’s insanity.
The Creature is undeniably mad, but it can be inferred that he inherits much of this from his creator, not necessarily in a hereditary manner, but as a result of his treatment. Despite being insane himself, Victor ironically abandoned The Creature as he deemed it too insane. This abandonment probably played a large role in The Creature’s negative outlook on himself, as it would not be too far off for The Creature to deem himself mad, because in his mind, why else would his creator abandon him?
It is probable that the root cause of his madness was curiosity, and as such, is not necessarily ‘mad’ in the sense of a disease. Although, it can be argued that he did indeed suffer with the disease of obsession, as he was obsessed with the elixir of life, driving him so far as to create the monster of Frankenstein. His obsession with this drove him to create Frankenstein, and so he was driven mad by his work, and not a so-called pre-existing condition.
This raises the question of whether or not monsters are born or made. Is Frankenstein evil because he was created from dead bodies and naturally a monster, or is he evil because he gets treated so poorly, because he is so hideous? How much of our identity is nature and how much is nurture?
An argument can be made that a large portion of our identity is nurture, and a minor part of it is nature. Of course, both of these factors play into our identity, so we cannot discard one over the other. However, in the case of Frankenstein, the fact that he was created from dead bodies does not necessarily make him a monster; rather, it is the way he is treated.
The Creature’s madness and evil actions aren’t only a result of his creator’s treatment towards him, but also, society’s. The Creature is made of dead bodies, and is without a doubt shunned by society, viewed as an outcast. This in return would cause the monster to view itself in a negative manner, driving it insane, which reflects the Romantic view of madness as that was what commonly happened to people deemed “mad” by society: their own rejection by society would cause them to view themselves negatively, and cause themselves to believe that they are insane, driving them to actual insanity. With The Creature, this clearly seems to be the case.
The Creature’s appearance definitely plays into this role, though, as people treat him poorly because his appearance is hideous, and thus, Frankenstein begins to believe himself that he is, in fact, hideous, based on others’ reactions. He gets treated so poorly because of his appearance, so his appearance does play a role, but overall, it is the way he is treated that makes him a monster. Even if he was hideous, if he was treated well by others, he would most likely view himself in a positive manner, and thus not be a monster by nature but by nurture.
As it becomes clearer that The Creature is a horrid being capable of murder, the blame game begins to be played, with some blaming The Creature itself and some blaming its creator, Frankenstein. However, the blame really should be put on both Frankenstein and The Creature. Yes, Frankenstein abandoned his creation which one can argue was a factor which led it to commit terrible actions. However, The Creature is autonomous enough to commit these actions on its own, and thus, is ultimately responsible for its own actions. It doesn’t matter how terrible its childhood was, or how little its father loved it. People do not get a pass in the real world to commit murder and not get punished for it because they were angry or had a terrible childhood. It should be the same with The Creature.
It is undeniable that The Creature and his creator, Victor Frankenstein, are certifiably mad. Mary Shelley makes the madness of her characters in this novel quite clear, and does this to reflect the theme of madness in the novel, but specifically the portrayal of madness under a Romantic light. Shelley gives her characters demonic, wild personalities with obsessions for taboo subjects such as dead bodies — as Victor clearly had — which was a common view of insane or mad people during the day.
Adding to this is The Creature’s realization of his own madness which society has deemed him, further driving him mad, which also reflects the Romantic view of madness, since people with it realized that they were rejected by society, leading them to believe themselves to be mad. All of these elements of madness and more are present in Frankenstein, and are elegantly and consistently illustrated throughout the novel.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.