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Nature vs. Nurture in Frankenstein

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  • 0:01 Is a Child Born or Made?
  • 0:31 The Monster's Beginnings
  • 1:42 The Case for Nurture
  • 3:07 The Case for Nature
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

The question of nature versus nurture lies at the heart of Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece, 'Frankenstein'. Shelley's iconic story of Frankenstein's monstrous creation asks whether we are born or made to be who we are.

Is a Child Born or Made?

In her 1818 masterpiece, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley tells the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the monster he creates. Shelley explores the age-old nature vs. nurture question of whether we are who we are because of genes or because of our experiences growing up. Is our character built into our very being? Or is it formed by the way we are raised and by those teach us in our most formative years?

The Monster's Beginnings

The most obvious example of the nature vs. nurture question is in the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his monster. Victor is a brilliant scientist and is thrilled by the prospect of harnessing the spark of life. In his excitement, he gives little thought to the consequences of his actions.

Then his creation draws its first breath. Suddenly, Victor realizes the mammoth size of the being he has created, both figuratively and literally. He finally comprehends the incredible strength that he has given the monster, and he recoils at its ugliness and deformity. Horrified, he rejects it instantly. The monster is driven into the forest by the townspeople, who attack him and scream in terror.

No wonder the monster becomes vengeful. He had no say in his creation, no choice in his form, and the one person who did abandoned him. The creature seeks revenge on his creator in the best way he knows how, by killing everyone Victor loves.

The question remains: Does the monster's bloodthirst come from Victor's abandonment and the townspeople's reactions? Or is there something more inherent in his brutality?

The Case for Nurture

A strong case can be made that the monster's later brutality is entirely due to his early rejection.

The creature has an innately loving heart, at least at first. After he is driven into the forest, he comes upon the home of the De Lacey family. He hides there for months and in that time he learns about the love of family. He discovers that this is something he desperately wants. The creature also shows an acute intelligence, and learns how to speak and read from observing the De Laceys teach the Turkish woman they adopted.

When the De Laceys, an otherwise generous and tenderhearted family, brutally reject him too, the monster realizes that there is no place for him on Earth. He'll never receive the nurturing he needs. He becomes bitter and then vengeful.

Still, however, he holds out one last hope against the rage growing inside him. If Victor will build him a mate, and together they could leave Europe and never bother humanity again. Victor refuses, fearing the birth of a race of monsters, so the creature takes revenge. Yet, despite all the destruction he brings to Victor's life, when Victor dies of illness, the monster mourns him, as a grieving son would.

He insists that all of the terror could have been avoided had Victor only done his duty as a creator/father should, if only the monster had been shown one scrap of human kindness.

The Case for Nature

The monster has a right to his rage, and perhaps even to vengeance, but to go so far as to wipe out an entire family? To frame an innocent woman, Justine Moritz, for killing Victor's youngest brother, William, and then to see her hanged for the crime? Is this overkill, literally? Enter the case for nature: we have to consider how Victor constructed his creature.

Scientists in the late 18th century in which Frankenstein takes place had to scrounge for bodies to study, frequently resorting to hiring body-snatchers, or resurrectionists, to steal the bodies they needed.

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