defining humanity: mary shelley and the shape of water

by Charlotte Stevenson

Picture the scene: it’s late, dark and stormy. Somewhere far from here, Victor Frankenstein has finished putting together the pieces of his creation and with the smallest flicker of a yellow eye, he’s done it – he has conquered the mystery of human life!

What follows is the infamous tale known to all of us: the rampage of misery, rejection and monstrosity that Mary Shelley pieced together as her own experiment. The story of Frankenstein and the questions it prompts are still prevalent today, 200 years on, everywhere from pop culture to scientific studies of the human mind. There remains something compelling about the mystery of creating and controlling life, whether that be in playing God with the corporeal or defying what is regarded as ‘natural’ mortality. In the absence of real answers to these questions, there is space for the imagination to take over and to fill in those blanks the way humankind knows best: sharing stories.

Earlier this week, an article published across UK newspapers caused scandal. The content dubbed millennial readers ‘snowflakes’ for interpreting Frankenstein’s monster as a victim. The implication was that this is the incorrect way to look at the novel, when the reality is in fact that this is the whole point. Of course the monster is the victim: he is made against his will, rejected by his creator and shunned by society.

This is a creature essentially reduced to a social construction and condemned before he has even spoken one word. It is Shelley’s nesting narrative as it crescendos into the monster’s own voice that gradually disassembles the evil that is assigned to him and reveals an intelligent being capable of forgiveness, creativity and hatred – a hatred intrinsically shaped by that directed from the townspeople to him. This Othering of whatever does not conform to the norm is nothing new; Mary Shelley being an intelligent woman at a time when female voices were not always heard, it is something for which she would likely have held great empathy. Frankenstein’s creation is not just a being cast out for his difference. He is also a symbol for anything remotely challenging to common comfort, whether that be the voices of minorities uprising in protest or outright revolution.

The demonisation of the Other is something we read about in newspapers every day. From Brexit to immigration, this is a time when divisions of ‘us and them’ are thrown around in attempts to explain why it is that equality and compassion are not being offered as answers instead of violence. Violence is far too often assigned as an explanation of how things will be resolved, whereas communication and empathy are marginalised.

From Frankenstein to The Shape of Water: 200 years spent demonising the Other

This is certainly the case in the groundbreaking winner of Best Picture at the Oscars, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water. Here a young mute protagonist falls in love with a human-like creature kept in captivity as an experiment. What follows is an attempt to rescue from the hands of scientists a peaceful living being. But what is the result? Pursuit and attempts to re-imprison through the use of force.

The sheer amount of blood and pain is something I was not expecting walking into the cinema and, frequently, I was forced to look away until I forced myself to look back. In looking away, I was refusing to see the statement being made: those who do not obey the voice of men in power are punished, trampled and cancelled out in what has practically become human tradition. Every gunshot and every jab of cattle prod is committed by the hand of a person, with the amphibian ‘monster’ enacting violence on just two occasions out of self-defence.

There are a few moments in The Shape of Water that particularly stood out to me after the first watching. The most significant example is when Colonel Richard Strickland, who is overseeing the captivity and killing of the missing creature, is reassuring his superior General Frank Hoyt that he will get it back in ‘a quick and decent manner’. The General’s response? That decency has nothing to do with anything and is in fact a fake concept that is used to package whatever those with power want to do to make the public more compliant. For Strickland, this must come as a crushing blow as he has used it as his reasoning for everything from forcing his wife into the constant silence he finds so arousing, to beating a living specimen whenever he sees fit. His response is to become more and more violent, the fingers he had ripped off and reattached earlier in the film gradually decaying and rotting to black. Strickland is the American dream gone bad, literally festering with each bad decision he makes and attempts to justify. Yet it is a face similar to his which is heralded as the picture of wholesome Americanism in the family on the adverts around the city, and the monster that continues to be alienated.

The human need to dominate is reminiscent of Shelley’s novel for a reason. In being forced to confront the reality of this animalistic, dictatorial element of humanity, there is a suggestion made that it is not possible to divide the world into binary oppositions. It is not monster/human, good/bad, decent/indecent. Instead, all living beings with some semblance of consciousness have the potential to do monstrous things. If this is sounding a little Freudian to you it’s because that’s an innate part of this debate; people are afraid of this part of themselves, which is what the logic of Othering shows. In making something Other we say far more about the ‘civilisation’ and ‘enlightenment’ of ourselves than we do about whatever we are opposing to us.

In reading Frankenstein, something is unleashed in all of us. There is a part in every individual mind that yearns to be acknowledged, heard and accepted, especially by those we care most about. And it makes sense that, in order to be welcomed into the realms of these boundaries, we shun whatever is different. But that does not make it right. The world is in need of a less selfish humanity, one that empathises with victims and recognises when things are going wrong without needing to wait 50 years for the benefit of hindsight to emerge. Gradually, things are beginning to move in that direction: marriage equality and the women’s marches of the past few years are two examples of this. Frankenstein in its 200th year has something valuable to offer us still: its moral code of acceptance and, the latter’s absence, the promotion of equality.


Further reading:

The Guardian on Mary Shelley:

U.S.A. Frankenreads Project:

Time Review on The Shape Of Water: