Many people who’ve never read Frankenstein know of Victor Frankenstein’s creature as one of the most famous monsters in literary history. Adaptations of the novel have contributed to this misinterpretation by portraying the monster as a horrifying character who provokes fear. However, part of what makes Mary Shelley’s novel such an impressive accomplishment is her ability to portray the monster as multi-dimensional and complex. The monster is responsible for many violent actions throughout the novel. He is also legitimately frightening and grotesque because of his enormous size and composition from parts taken from corpses. At the same time, the monster encounters persistent rejection and loneliness. He struggles to find a sense of family and community, and is rejected by everyone he comes in contact with. The rejection and alienation he experiences explain his violent behavior, even if they do not justify it, so that he can be considered a sympathetic figure in the novel.
Because readers are first introduced to the monster from Frankenstein’s perspective, the monster is portrayed as grotesque and disgusting, with “watery eyes … his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.” Readers will understand why Victor Frankenstein recoils in horror. When the monster encounters Felix, Safie, and Agatha, all three characters are immediately terrified, even though the monster is simply talking peacefully with Mr. De Lacey. These characters are not entirely wrong in being fearful: the monster’s size and supernatural strength makes him easily capable of harming others. As he says when describing his reaction to Felix striking him, “I could have torn him limb from limb.” Over the course of the novel, the monster kills first little William, then Henry Clerval, and finally Elizabeth. The murders are particularly heinous because all three characters are positioned as extremely sweet and kind, and both William and Elizabeth are relatively defenseless.
However, when the monster tells his own story, the reader sees him from a new perspective. From the first days of his life he has been alone, with no one to help him or provide him with basic necessities like food and shelter. During the monster’s early days in the forest, he shows sensitivity and an appreciation for beauty and nature when he notices the songs of birds, and he leads a compassionate and humble life by living off of nuts and berries rather than hunting for meat. Moreover, the monster is deeply drawn to the loving family dynamic he observes in the De Lacey household. He tries to model his behavior to reflect their kindness and consideration; for example, once he realizes the family is struggling with having enough food, “I abstained [from taking their food] and satisfied myself with berries, nuts, and roots.” Not only does he seem capable of kindness, the monster is intellectually curious, eager to learn language and an enthusiastic and appreciative reader.
Despite these signals that the monster possesses humanity and the possibility of goodness, he is rejected by everyone he reaches out to. Whenever the monster encounters a human being, the person faints or runs away in terror. He can barely convince Frankenstein, his own creator, to listen to him. Frankenstein also betrays the monster by breaking his promise to create a mate for him. The monster comes to realize that no one will ever look past his exterior to see who he is underneath. As a result, he uses violence to make Victor Frankenstein share the pain he is feeling. By killing those whom Frankenstein loves the most, the monster tries to show him what it is like to be completely alone in the world. While these crimes are inexcusable, the connection to the monster’s wasted potential makes him much more sympathetic. The novel’s ending suggests that lack of human companionship and sympathy might turn even the most humane being into something monstrous.