To Be a Monster, Physically or Mentally
January 25, 2017 § Leave a comment
In Science Fiction and Realism alike, the novels often deal with monsters: monsters that haunt the night in science fiction and monsters that haunt the mind in realism. The monsters in science fiction tend to be physical, while the monsters in realism tend to be mental. To start off, let’s look at the definition of “monster,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary:
- A large, ugly or frightening imaginary creature
- A thing of extraordinary or daunting size
- A congenitally malformed or mutant animal or plant (OED)
The creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a monster, in all three meanings of the word. He is a manmade creature of an “unearthly ugliness,” in the shape of a man but larger and more powerful. He is “tremendous and abhorred” (Shelley, 68). Despite his horrible physique, he is not inherently evil. He shows interest in the world and even shows affection, however, he is persecuted by the townspeople and presumed to be dangerous because of his monstrous looks. He is not truly a monster until society looks at him through that lens and twists him into vengeance. Society makes him a monster.
In science fiction, the characters are used to serve a purpose, fulfill a role. They are intelligent, driven and often simple. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster is no different. He is a “large, ugly and frightening imaginary creature,” but moreover, his character exposes the flaws in our “large, ugly and frightening” society. His role in Frankenstein is to represent the underrepresented and to show society’s own monstrous behavior in how we treat those who are different. Frankenstein is relevant today because marginalized groups are still being persecuted unfairly and misrepresented in law and society. Through the intelligent yet simple characters in science fiction, we can see a critique of our treatment of “others.”
In contrast to science fiction, realist literature represents their monsters in the world as we know it. In realism, the characters typically have psychological depth, acute attention to detail and are riddled with internal conflict. Their monsters aren’t physical. They’re mental. Through often-unreliable narration, the readers can see the twisted motivations of mental monsters.
In Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary is a mental monster. She cheats on her husband, and then cheats on her lovers. She neglects her child and eventually kills herself by swallowing a handful of arsenic, a truly monstrous way to die. She is constantly dreaming of a better life, and it is her imagination that drives her crazy when confronted with her reality. She lives a “large, ugly and frightening imaginary” life.
Madame Bovary is a monster to herself as seen by her tragic end, but furthermore, she is a monster to society. During the 1850s in France, a woman’s place was by her husband’s side. Madame Bovary, with her adulterous behavior and un-motherly qualities, was considered be everything a woman shouldn’t be. These monstrosities of hers made her one of the first real feminists in literature. Her terrible qualities liberated oppressed women. What made her a monster to insiders also made her a hero to outsiders.
What I am trying to figure out is this – what is the purpose of having a physical monster in one genre and a mental monster in another? If we look at literature as a way of political activism, a means of critiquing society when one’s voice has been taken away, the monsters in these novels are quite effective. The use of physical or mental monster gives the authors an expanded set of metaphors to show their readers what exactly is monstrous about our world today, in the hopes of inspiring change. In our politically tumultuous world today, novels such as these could inspire change of our monstrous ways.
Flaubert, Gustave, and Francis Steegmuller. Madame Bovary. New York: Random House, 1957. Print.
Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2012. Print.