John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, describes the newly-formed mind as a tabula rasa or blank slate: ‘white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas’, and states that all knowledge derives from experience. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley suggests that, as well as experience, the ability to communicate is crucial to understanding.
Frankenstein’s creature is initially rational but struggles to order his thoughts: ‘A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time’. When he deduces that the sounds that the De Lacey family make are a method of communication, he describes speech as a ‘godlike science’. He masters language and reading, which he describes as a ‘wonder and delight’.
Later, the creature describes his main obstacle as the inability to communicate in the manner he would wish. He tells Victor Frankenstein, ‘I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love’. Failing to communicate with ordinary townfolk or with Frankenstein himself, the creature insists that he be provided with a female creature, the only possible companion with whom he may communicate without inspiring fear.
Shelley’s novel is defined by communication. Robert Walton’s letters to his sister form a framing device, but the tale within is transcribed from Victor Frankenstein’s own storytelling. In turn, parts of Frankenstein’s narrative are transcriptions of the creature’s own experiences. Therefore, the novel is dependent on placing trust on each storyteller in turn. Without each character’s ability to communicate fully and clearly, there could be no story.
The subtitle of the novel, ‘The Modern Prometheus’, refers to the theft of the Gods’ fire for human use. One could argue that the ‘fire’ in Frankenstein is not only the life that Frankenstein gives to his creature, but also the ability to communicate.
Submitted to Coursera as essay 04 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2.5