Thursday, February 12, 2009

Frankenstein, ii.4

"I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers--their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity." (vol. ii; chap. 4)

This remarkable passage comes from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; it describes the moment when the Monster suddenly perceives his image in the mirror-like surface of the "transparent pool" and recognizes that his hideous appearance sets him apart from his more graceful "cottagers." The passage can be read in any number of ways, but what I find most interesting is Shelley's representation here of a sudden split in the Monster's developing sense of identity. Up to this moment, the Monster's understanding of self--such as it is--has been almost wholly experiential. His only "identity" has been that of a self-aware body subject to such sensory impressions as hunger, thirst, heat, and so forth. He is attracted to images of comforting beauty (the moon in the trees, for example), and he is repelled by sensations of pain (when he puts his hand in a fire). As such, he has in essence the "self-consciousness" we might ascribe to a dog or a lab rat.

In this scene, however, the Monster suddenly sees how he appears to others--for the first time, he sees himself as others might see him, and he instantly compares his own appearance to the "cottagers" he has been observing from his improbable hovel. The recognition results in a kind of psycho-social rift between the self as experienced from some inner perspective of bodily sensation and thought vs. the self as perceived externally--the self one presents to others. The closing line of the passage alludes to the fallout from this split sense of self (i.e. the Monster is doomed to the life of a wandering outcast--and eventually to the life of a being bent on a violent revenge--since apparently no human society can bear to associate with him). Suddenly, the Monster has two incompatible selves. Though his inner life is presumably unchanged, his "identity" is now one of self-doubt and self abasement because he cannot physically match the "grace, beauty, and delicate complexions" of those whose society he covets. And, sadly, this new identity takes precedence in the Monster's consciousness--"I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am."

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