Shelley makes the monster eloquent, rather than mute or uncommunicative. What effect does this choice have on our perception of him?
The monster in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein lurches into life as big as a man but as ignorant as a newborn. He can’t read, speak, or understand the rudiments of human interaction. When he stumbles upon the cottagers, however, he picks up language by observing them and studying their speech. It is this acquisition of language, along with the eloquence it brings, that turns the monster from a mysterious nightmare into a sympathetic and tragic figure. By showing how language transforms the monster, and by contrasting the well-spoken monster with his equally articulate creator, Shelley argues that verbal communication—rather than action or appearance—is the only way through which people can truly understand one another.
Before the monster learns to express himself, his actions are no less than terrifying. His escape from Victor’s workshop seems sinister and his murder of William apparently confirms the notion that he is a powerful, malignant beast capable of unmotivated violence. His shocking appearance does not help matters. Victor assumes, and Shelley invites us to assume along with him, that this being, with his patched-together body, his yellow skin, and his black lips, must have a soul that matches his hideous appearance.
When the monster speaks, however, he throws his actions into a different light. He explains that Victor’s desertion left him alone and frightened. He conveys how hurt he was when he realized that his appearance scares normal people. His stories about sympathizing with and secretly helping the cottagers show that he has an empathetic nature, and his tale of rescuing a young girl and getting a bullet for his trouble demonstrates his instinct to help those weaker than himself, sparking our outrage at society’s unwarranted cruelty toward him. Even the monster’s description of William’s murder makes the convincing case that fury at Victor drove the monster to violence—not an excuse, by any means, but certainly an explanation that is understandable and psychologically credible. By giving the monster the power of oratory, Shelley forces us to consider his behavior from an entirely different angle and to sympathize with his plight.
Shelley bolsters our sympathy for the monster by comparing his words to Victor’s. Frankenstein is Victor’s story; he has countless opportunities to argue his case and cast himself as the tragic hero of the tale. Despite his earnest—and long-winded—attempts to put himself in the right, however, Victor’s words only alienate us as they pile up. He feels little besides relief when the monster escapes; he lets Justine go to her death rather than risk his reputation by telling the truth; he whines and prevaricates; he heartlessly abandons and scorns his own creation. Ironically, Victor would be more appealing were he to lose the power of speech. Unlike his monster, he is no murderer. By themselves, his actions might seem reasonable. But because he bares his soul by communicating verbally to us, the readers, he reveals the unappealing motivations behind those reasonable actions and loses our trust and sympathy.
The monster’s eloquent words do not have the effect he intends: They fail to win Victor’s approval or gain his affection. They do have an effect he cannot foresee, however. By explicating himself and his actions, the monster gains our favor and turns himself into the hero of Victor Frankenstein’s narrative. And by pulling off this neat reversal, Shelley demonstrates the overwhelming importance of language in shaping individuals’ identities—as well as the perception of those identities by others.