“How has reading Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein supported my understanding of the way physical appearance influences the way one is treated.”
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Mary Shelley’s text Frankenstein explores the effect physical appearance has on the treatment of a person. The society in Frankenstein is much like today’s society, in which a person’s worth is defined based on the way they look. The novel encompasses the journey of a creature who enters into a society where his physical appearance differs from the ordinary, and is therefore seen ‘ugly’, and therefore rejected from society. The novel draws parallels with prejudice based on skin colour, as well as other racist prejudices based on appearance. The novel brings into focus wider thematic issues such as sexual politics and the representation of women.
One of the first observations Frankenstein makes when he beholds his newly created creature is that “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.” (Shelley, 37) and his immediate perception of the creature was “breathless horror and disgust” (Shelley, 37) The indication that Frankenstein’s first judgement of the creature is based on the colour of his skin is one common in today’s society, and treatment of people based on this observation is due to social prejudice and discrimination due to racist beliefs.
The injustice of racial discrimination often stems off the way one appears. The Turkish merchant, Safie’s father, was condemned to death for a crime he did not commit, and “it was judged that his religion and wealth, rather than the crime alleged against him, had been the cause of his condemnation.” (Shelley, 92) It is specified in the novel that the Turk was Mahometan, a follower of the prophet Muhammad; a Muslim. It can be assumed that the Turk’s religion is indicated from his clothing and appearance, as the novel is set in the 18th century, and it is therefore likely that the injustice in his sentence was based on racial discrimination. “The injustice in his sentence was very flagrant” (Shelley, 92) as, from the evidence given in the text, it is evident that if the Turk had been a french Catholic, it would have been unlikely for him to get the same sentence. [Further discrimination is exemplified when Safie’s mother, who was an Arab Christian, was enslaved by the Turks. The Turk, who was rescued by a Frenchman named Felix, betrayed him in an act of hypocrisy and treachery, by promising him his daughter’s hand in marriage, while making plans to flee the country and deserting Felix, because he “loathed the idea that his daughter should be united to a Christian” (Shelley, 94)] As Donnie Mathes states, “although some progress has been made throughout the centuries, racism still exists and “colours” our vision of other people.” (year) and this is evident throughout the text Frankenstein.
The treatment of the creature is perhaps the best example of appearance based discrimination. His account informs the reader that he was virtuous and benevolent in his early life; he would have been a . The first person to fail him was Frankenstein, his creator; “Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…” (Shelley, 37) Frankenstein, of all the characters in the text, should have compassion and tolerance, if not love, for the creature to whom he gave life to. The creature then had a series of encounters with members of society in which he was assumed immediately, solely from appearance, to be dangerous or fearful. The villagers whom saw the creature, either ran, fainted, or attacked him. The first man, “perceiving me, shrieked loudly, and, quitting the hit, ran across the fields … his flight, somewhat surprised me.” (Shelley, 78) The next village he went, “I had hardly placed my foot within the door, before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted. The whole village was roused; some fled, some attacked me, until, grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons, I escaped… and fearfully took refuge…” (Shelley, 78) These reactions are based on the fact that the creature looks different to what they are used to, regardless of him being much the same in personality, and is therefore seen as not being good. “When I looked around, I saw and heard none like me. Was I then a monster… from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” (Shelley, 90) The only creature only ever heard words of kindness said to him from a blind man, De Lacey, who was removed from the effect of appearance based judgement, “from your words first have I heard the voice of kindness directed towards me” (Shelley, 103) The kindness and acceptance of De Lacey is juxtaposed to the behaviour of his family and relations, who behaved the same way as the other villagers whom the creature had encountered. The difference in behaviour towards him is incontrovertibly because “a fatal prejudice clouds [De Lacey’s family’s] eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster.” (Shelley, 102)
Aside from the creature, who’s appearance is drastically different from all humans, the preponderance of characters in the text are judged and categorised as “good” or “bad” people based on their appearance. Frankenstein’s two main professors can be read as foils; Frankenstein is not captivated by M. Krempe, who was “a little squat man, with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance; the teacher, therefore, did not prepossess me in favour of his doctrine.” (Shelley, 28) M. Waldman, on the other hand, was “very unlike his colleague” (Shelley, 29) and Frankenstein became deeply appreciative of him. “It was, perhaps, the amiable character of this man that inclined [Frankenstein] more to that branch of natural philosophy which he professed, than intrinsic love for the science itself.” (Shelley, 31) Frankenstein was more inclined to accept M. Waldman as a friend, than his colleague who had “a repulsive physiognomy” (Shelley, 31)
The history or Elizabeth Lavenza’s adoption into Frankenstein’s family establishes the importance of appearance in the culture. Elizabeth was “at that time the most beautiful child she had ever seen” (Shelley, 19) and so was valued and loved by the family. This family culture of valuing beauty is further expressed by the family’s adoption of Justine. It is no surprise that Justine Moritz, who was happily received into Frankenstein’s family, was accepted with regards to her pleasant appearance. Elizabeth describes her as “extremely pretty” (Shelley, 45) and said that “if you were in an ill humour, one glance from Justine could dissipate it, for the same reason that Ariosto gives concerning the beauty of Angelica – she looked so frank-hearted and happy.” (Shelley, 44) It is because of this that Frankenstein’s mother “conceived a great attachment for [Justine]” (Shelley, 44), that Elizabeth loved her tenderly, and she was a great favourite of Frankenstein’s. Her treatment was exceptionally good from Frankenstein’s family; they were “induced to give her an education superior to that which she had first intended.” (Shelley, 44)
Through a feminist reading position, it is clear that attitudes towards the appearance of women differs from that of men in Frankenstein. A major point to consider is that Frankenstein acknowledges that if he were to make a female equivalent of his creature, she would be “equal in deformity” (Shelley, 131). Why, then, does he he reason that “the creature who already loved loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form?” (Shelley, 129) This statement shows the inequality that exists between expectations of female and male appearances. Frankenstein thinks that the same deformity in female form may be “ten thousand times more malignant than her mate.” (Shelley, 129) This inequality experienced in the 18th century is also present in contemporary society. There is an everlasting pressure to dress, look and present one’s self a certain way, and if they do not comply with this Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was one of the first feminists, and authored the feminist text A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which, as suggested by the name, argued for the rights of women. Her text was one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. The influence on her mother’s text resonates throughout Frankenstein through the character Safie, who fought to seek religious liberties and freedom from the control of her father.
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