Mary Shelley was nineteen when she wrote Frankenstein. We wonder how a teenager could come up with this uncanny tale of a young student who, becoming obsessed with the mysterious science of galvanism, drops out of school and transforms himself into a “Modern Prometheus,” a god who gives life to an artificial creature, composed of the stuff of man but larger than man, and far more dangerous. Perhaps the clue to Shelley’s creation lies in youth itself. Only the young can really give us our monsters. Only the young see shadows where there is sunshine, hear the march of drums when the rest of us hear a song we used to dance to. Only the young can see pure evil, because only the young believe in the power of purity. Only the young really know why monsters are so terrifying, and what they show us about ourselves.
It’s surprising that Mary Shelley would make her horrible Monster a vegetarian. Surprising, because we think we know our monsters well. We’ve looked at Frankenstein’s monster a million times. But we never really listened to what he had to say. It shouldn't be surprising that Frankenstein’s monster is a vegetarian, because we've always known that vegetarians are monsters. Mary Shelley understood this. “Devil,” “fiend,” “insect,” Frankenstein calls his creation, but for Shelley he was Adam—purity before the Fall, goodness, gentleness, freedom, and also loneliness, failure, devastation. For all these reasons, Shelley made her Monster a vegetarian.
They’re somewhere between Russia and the North Pole, near the end of the novel, when Frankenstein’s monster kills the bunny. It’s the first and only time he kills for food, but the bunny is not for him. It is for Victor Frankenstein, his creator, his enemy. Frankenstein, who has chased the Monster through the freezing wastelands of the North, to right the wrong he inflicted upon mankind when he spawned this murderous, godforsaken beast, to track him down crush him. Afraid that Frankenstein might be losing strength, that their fatal game of cat and mouse played across the vast Arctic ice might be taking its toll on his maker, the Monster rustles up a meal he supposes appropriate for an enraged man on an epic voyage of vengeance and leaves the animal in his wake, with a note. Here’s a dead hare, the Monster writes, eat and be refreshed. The time will come when we wrestle for our lives. But not yet, not yet. There are many more hours of miserable life still to enjoy for us both.
Earlier in the novel, long before the Artic adventure that leads to their mutual destruction, Frankenstein had decided to erase his monster from the earth. On that occasion, their first meeting on the Mer de Glace, the Monster was living in despair. Yes, he had (accidentally) strangled Frankenstein’s brother to death, but his life didn’t start out like that, he told Frankenstein. The Monster feels sure that if Frankenstein would just listen to his tale, would just give him a chance, he would be convinced that the randomly assembled life the scientist had fashioned has something to say.
Frankenstein’s monster—let’s call him Monty—was born a creature of gentle sensibility. In the woods, after quitting the lab, he told Frankenstein, Monty lived the simple life—his music was birdsong, he ate whatever nature easily provided. “My food is not that of man,” he explained. “I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.” Monty survived on a diet of peace and wonder. Just being filled him with awe, and though he was often confused, and sometimes angry, he was happy in his way.
But the vegetarian life was a solitary existence. Nature gave Monty everything he needed, but nothing felt right, because he understood that he was alone. He longed for little else than to be part of humanity. Monty lumbered behind bushes and lurked about open windows in secret, hoping to be seen, afraid to be seen. He peeked into the conversations of men, and learned that they were capable of great love. He wanted to be like those kind, loving people. Mostly, he wanted to be loved by them. This would be Monty’s undoing.
To gain entry into mankind, Monty would have to work hard to be slightly less menacing. He discovered that humans were celebrated if they were rich, or handsome, or learned. Monty had no money; his looks were deformed and loathsome. If he had to be honest, he wasn’t even really human. So Monty turned to the virtue not dependent on nature or luck: knowledge. This would attract others to him. He taught himself English, and started to read lofty books—Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, The Sorrows of Young Werther—books about human desire. He liked feeling lofty, and he found company in the characters. Like Werther, Monty was dependent on nobody and he was free. For Mary Shelley, Monty’s vegetarian diet is an expression of that independence and sensitivity. Still, his freedom was depressing. The more he read, the more depressed he got. Monty soon realized that the path to enlightenment wasn’t bringing him closer to the object of his desire—love. Why wasn’t the study of desire making him more desirable? Reflection quickly turned into self-reflection. Was he really good, Monty wondered, or was he just a monster? Finally, he told Frankenstein, sick of waiting for love to come to him, Monty introduced himself into the world, with disastrous results. I love you, he said to people. But he looked like hell. People could not be persuaded to love him back. They didn’t want to feel compassion, did not want to listen to reason. They didn’t want to be told that they should act against their instincts. All they saw was a monster.
Like an Adam to his God, Frankenstein’s vegetarian monster tells his maker that he feared exile and feared it was inevitable. As he recounts his tale for Frankenstein, Monty’s calm begins to break. He swings from mildness to despair, from justification to anger to indignation, back to gentleness and then to rage. He thus demonstrates for Frankenstein the typical mode of argument for every vegetarian who has ever been forced to plead his case. “Instead of threatening, I am content to reason with you,” Monty says. “Let [man] live with me in the interchange of kindness; and, instead of injury, I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union. Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I will revenge my injuries: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear ”
Monty’s desire that Frankenstein acknowledge his suffering looks like a plea for compassion; it is actually a demand for justice. Though compassion may instigate a vegetarian life, it is justice that drives the desperate vegetarian. I am benevolent and good, Monty tells Frankenstein, but I will not be a slave. I wish to live in a world of sympathy, but if the world acts otherwise, I will become fiendish in kind. “O praise the eternal justice of man!” Monty cries. The invocation is a celebration of justice, and a cursing of it too.
And when Monty cannot compel Frankenstein and the other humans with compassion, with reason, with justice, he resorts to the final weapon of the monster, and the vegetarian—righteousness. At last, it is righteousness that drives the good monster to murder. Monty is so totally baffled by the failure of people to conform to his beliefs, he turns to violence. And then he feels bad. So he destroys his creator, and finally destroys himself.
It’s the perfect dish for a vegetarian monster to serve, the slaughtered hare, a vegetarian monster who has lost all sense of purpose. Monty didn’t want to kill the bunny—but when he sacrificed love for righteousness, he also sacrificed his freedom. Monty’s appearance made others look upon him as a monster. In the end, it’s Monty’s anger and his (failed) will to power that makes this vegetarian act monstrously. “If I cannot inspire love,” Monty tells Frankenstein, “I will cause fear.” It is the monster’s song. And the vegetarian’s too.July 11, 2011