The Human Preoccupation with Appearances and its Influence


The Human Preoccupation with Appearances and its Influence: An argumentative essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Rather than being born, a devil is created. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one is confronted with the idea that one’s perceptions of someone will influence their actions towards that person, in turn provoking their reactions. One way that Shelley demonstrates the theme of perception impacting action in Frankenstein is by illustrating society’s reaction to the wretch, which consequently triggers the actions of violence that we see in him. Throughout the novel, one of the major themes is the cyclical nature of the perception of self and of others, which impacts society through everyone’s reactions to each other. Shelley mainly uses the wretch to support these ideas of perception, but we can also see how they are reinforced in many other ways, including the introduction of new characters, namely Elizabeth and Victor’s professors. The first appearance that Shelley gives us of Elizabeth is beauty, especially relating to others surrounding her. Victor’s professors, Krempe and Waldman, give him negative and positive views, respectively. The first impression both of them give heavily impacts the way others respond to them, and in turn, how they respond to others.

One of the big ideas that Shelley is trying to assert is how people’s impressions of someone can heavily shape their future intercourse with that person. Along with the obvious reference to others’ perceptions of the wretch implicating how everyone acts in interactions with him, in turn leading him to respond violently, Shelley also voices the theme of perception influencing action in many other and sometimes subtler ways throughout the book. One of the most noticeable examples is when Elizabeth is introduced. While Victor is still young, his family is traveling around the world and happens to come across a poor family with five children. Victor’s mother catches sight of them playing, and in doing so, one stands out. Shelley writes, 

Among these there was one which attracted my mother far above all the rest. She appeared of a different stock. The four others were dark-haired, hardy little vagrants; this child was thin, and very fair. Her hair was the brightest living gold, and despite the poverty of her clothing, seem to set a crown of distinction on her head. (17)

Victor’s mother, Caroline, was poor earlier in life and perhaps this experience influences her perception of Elizabeth in a positive way, leading to Elizabeth’s adoption. But, one could also look at Caroline’s favoritism as biased, being based on beauty standards at the time. Since Shelley put such a big emphasis on Elizabeth’s looks, one would assume that they were a big reason for her being adopted. The quote above illustrates the deep-rooted bias that all humans have towards beauty, and society’s beauty standards only help deepen one’s bias toward others’ appearances greatly. This bias skews one’s perceptions in favor of what society has deemed “attractive,” thus making this bias that people have whenever they view the wretch at the heart of what makes Frankenstein so tragic. 

A second example in the book of a less prominent but still noteworthy show of favoritism from looks is in Victor’s professor, M. Krempe. After the death of his mother, Victor’s family encourages him to go out into the world and go to school, to put his thirst for knowledge to good use. He then travels to Ingolstadt to go to university, and once there, he goes to meet his professors. “M. Krempe was a little squat man, with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance; the teacher, therefore, did not prepossess me in favour of his pursuits” (26). One must wonder when reading this account of M. Krempe versus how Victor later describes his other professor, M. Waldman as deserving of “the modesty and deference due from a youth to his instructor” (28) if it is indeed the mind inside of them both or their outward appearance that dominates how Victor thinks of them. This concept is a curious circle of perception and action that we see as we try to determine if Victor’s contempt of Krempe was because of how he looked, or if Victor describes Krempe as ugly because he didn’t like the lecture that Krempe gave him in his book choice. Victor’s disgust of his teacher also serves to remind us once again of his biases, and shows us that Victor should not have the power or freedom to create life. 

Victor has lived a life of wealth and privilege, and as such, is entitled and has little regard for others, taking many things for granted. Through his entitlement, he ignores the moral difficulties of creating a being, and believes himself to be practically a god, with a right to make such a creation. Then, as the book progresses, we see Victor slowly collapse under the tragedies befalling his family from the creature that he created, revealing his inner self. The vileness of his self comes as no surprise, considering the fact that he thought he had the authority to build the wretch in the first place. Eventually, he starts to deteriorate and look more like how he might have originally been on the inside. Victor states, “But I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul; and I felt then that I should survive to exhibit what I shall soon cease to be –  a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity, pitiable to others, and intolerable to myself” (116). Through the comparison of Victor to a blasted tree, Shelley illustrates how Victor is slowly unraveling from all the hardship he and his loved ones have gone through. Because of this, we see his true self, and from seeing what he truly is on the inside, and how that is starting to influence the way he looks outside, we understand how he could have made something as monstrous as the wretch. 

The perceptions that society has of someone directly drive their actions towards that person, in turn influencing the person’s response. The negative actions of how society responds to the wretch are shown impacting him, when, after being repeatedly maltreated for what he looks like, he finds comfort in becoming the monster that people think he is. When Victor is finally successful in giving the wretch life, he stands before his creation:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! -Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes. . . (35) 

Shelley’s description of the wretch in this paragraph illustrates to the reader how outwardly horrifying and monstrous the wretch is, instead of first showing us his inner thoughts and feelings. These perceptions mirror what one would see when meeting someone in real life, demonstrating how one will first recognize someone’s outward appearance, which influences action, before getting to know them. The actions that society ends up taking in reaction to the wretch’s appearance are what spark him to take the fateful path that he does. 

After being repeatedly confronted with the perception that society has, one will start to either intentionally or unintentionally, embody that perception. Directly succeeding the wretch’s narrative of his birth, and his poor introduction to society, he again continues his journey to Geneva. Once arrived, he comes across Victor’s younger brother, William, and attempts to seize him for companionship, thinking,

I gazed on my victim, and my heart swelled with exultation and hellish triumph; clapping my hands, I exclaimed, ‘I too can create desolation; my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him.’ (102) 

With William, the wretch again comes across the same trouble with his appearance harmfully influencing how people view him, only this time, he decides to take action, embracing what society thinks he is, since he cannot change how they view him. Subsequently, the wretch wants Victor to make him a companion to empathize with. When Victor refuses on the premise that if he made a new being, it might also resort to violence as the wretch did, the wretch replies, “I am malicious because I am miserable” (104). Both of the above quotes encapsulate the point that Shelley is making, that eventually, when faced repeatedly with a stereotype of oneself that enough others have, one will start to believe it too. Since everyone views the wretch as a monster, time and time again, he feels that their actions leave only one option left to him, and that is to embrace the stereotype instead of fighting it, becoming as monstrous on the inside as everybody views him to be on the outside, and eventually killing Victor’s whole family. This carefully written balance of Victor and the wretch being the same is what they each struggle with for the majority of the book. 

Through various ways in Frankenstein, Shelley reteaches us the old but timeless adage to not judge a book by its cover. Using characters like the wretch and Victor, Shelley illustrates their actions and shows what society’s perceptions of them have done to make them who they are. The biggest example of the theme, the cyclical nature of the perception of self and of others, is the wretch. At the start of the wretch’s life, the book is written from Victor’s perspective, and therefore from the perspective of society. Besides showing how much society is horrified by the wretch in the book, this perspective also negatively influences the reader’s first impression towards the wretch. First impressions are the ones that impact the most of one’s actions towards a person, and this is the message that Shelley is trying to convey to the reader. Our perceptions when meeting someone dominate our actions towards that person. These actions by one will prompt reactions from the other, and it is the reader’s job to make sure that those actions are beneficial, because you never know, someone could turn out to be waiting for the excuse to be a monster.