Nature, nurture or neglect: who really creates Frankenstein’s monster? How the child becomes the monster.

Frankenstein is an account of child abuse and neglect. The child in question has no ‘nurturing’ in the traditional sense of being raised in a loving family home where endeavour is praised and encouraged. Indeed, what he learns from society is that he is unacceptable to it. This realisation forces him into becoming its antagoniser, for, while it does not want him, he nevertheless exists in it. This is a point cruelly made in Volume 2 where his lonely isolation is set off against the poverty stricken but nevertheless very close De Lacey family unit. The monster is a prime example of the sixteenth century philosopher John Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa of the mind  (2001, Leitch, p. 718). For, in spite of such spiritual and social adversity he still manages to learn and develop his mental and moral faculties, from the life experiences he has.  
Frankenstein’s monster exhibits the same investigative mind as his creator. Just as the latter interferes with and manipulates the human body in order to affect it, so the monster follows suit in his experimentation with materials to see what will happen to them.
I tried, therefore, to dress my food in the same manner, placing it on the live embers. I found that the berries were spoiled by this operation, and the nuts and roots much improved. (1818, Shelley, p. 107)
The monster’s language highlights this similarity with Frankenstein, as he uses clinical terminology and modes of expression; ‘operation’ sounds scientific and his account of his actions read as though they have been written up in a report, ‘I found that the berries were spoiled’ (Shelley, p. 107).  As there is no biological connection between the two characters this shared trait cannot be a result of genetic inheritance. The practice of affecting your environment to see what happens to it is observable in young children and animals as they attempt to make sense of their world. The monster is very much in the early stages of his existence still and therefore his behaviour is to be expected. However, Victor is much older, yet his actions suggest he has not yet understood the world enough to satisfy his curiosity. In this way Victor stands out from the rest of the characters, apart perhaps from the explorer Walton, as he desires to know more than nature or society can teach him.
In an appraisal of how the major characters develop in Frankenstein it is useful to consider their motivations for learning. In the case of the monster who, as has been noted, is on his own from day one, it is his fundamental need for sustenance and shelter which drives him. It is these basic needs which subsequently set him off on his journey to quite literally ‘find himself’.
The psychologist Maslow designed a hierarchy of human needs which is useful for a discussion of the way in which Frankenstein’s monster develops in his formative days. Maslow argues that our primary human needs preoccupy us until we satisfy them . This is apparent in the behaviour of the monster when he finally finds some food after wandering provisionless through the wilderness: ‘I greedily devoured the remnants ... bread, cheese, milk and wine’ (p. 108). He behaves solely for the gratification of his physiological desires: ‘overcame by fatigue, I lay down’; ‘allured by the warmth of the sun I determined to recommence’ (Shelley, p. 108).
It is through attempting to placate these sensations that he observes his surroundings and begins to learn more about the world: ‘I arrived at a village. How miraculous did this appear!’ (p.108). He also learns a hard lesson through the reaction other people have towards him; ‘greviously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons I escaped to the open country’ (p. 109) and naturally it becomes a case of ‘once bitten, twice shy’ . It also leads to what another psychologist, Cooley, terms the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ : the monster, reviled by society, naturally tries to avoid it. However his basic needs must be answered and, as he is deprived the opportunity to satisfy them lawfully, he must resort to stealing: ‘I had first ... provided for my sustenance for that day by a loaf of coarse bread, which I purloined’ (p.109). In this example we can see just how much society is responsible for the “monstruous” making of him. This is one of the elements of the Frankenstein theme that has continued to appear in literature right up to the present day. In Alice Walker’s famous post-colonial text, The Color Purple, the protagonist Celie is treated in the same horrendous way as Frankenstein’s monster. It is she who makes the statement quite lucidly: “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook ... But I’m here.” (Walker, 1983, p. 187). Fortunately for the protagonist in this novel she does find love, and through it respect for herself, whereas Frankenstein’s monster never does. However he is able to perceive it in his observations of the De Lacey family - in their treatment towards each other - and he begins to spend his time thinking about these observations: ‘I could not sleep. I thought of the occurrences of the day’ (Shelley, p. 113). In Maslow’s hierarchy he has moved up from the primary stage of satisfying basic need and the reader sees how he is beginning to draw conclusions and develop cognition, a common element of any bildungsroman.
However, Maslow’s theory has it flaws. He claims that each set of needs must be met before the next set can be attained. For instance, he places ‘aesthetic needs’ above ‘belongingness and love needs’ and ‘esteem needs’, neither of which the monster has when he hears music for the first time, but which does not prevent him from greatly appreciating it . There is a further deviation from Maslow’s model when the monster, in his continued observations consciously denies his basic human need for food in pursuit of the satisfaction of some greater desire, which appears to be altruistic in design: ‘This trait of kindness moved me sensibly. I had been accustomed to steal, during the night ... but when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain upon the cottagers, I abstained’ (Shelley, p. 114). This example contradicts Maslow as it shows the monster satisfies a more profound need by sacrificing his more basic one. When he goes one step further by supplying wood to the cottagers it is ‘with pleasure’ (p. 114) that he observes their surprise.
In this analysis of the initial formation and development of the monster’s mental and moral capabilities it is apparent that there are a number of factors that dictate his behaviour. He is first and foremost a biological being driven by biological necessities. He goes on to learn about nature by trial and error, just as all children do. He also learns through observing others and attempting to copy them. These are all illustrative of how the tabula rasa of an individual changes as a result of their experiences, providing them with the basic rationale from which all further social, moral and political stances are developed.


Hayes, Nicky. (1994) Teach Yourself Psychology. Hodder: London.
Leith, Vincent B. (2001) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W. W. Norton: London & New York.
Shelley, Mary. (1818) Frankenstein. Penguin: London.
Walker, Alice. (1983) The Color Purple. Orion Books: London.