There is a critical scene in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that has Frankenstein’s monster hiding in a hovel adjoining an out-of-the-way cottage. A hovel is an appropriately chosen abode for the monster. The image of a hovel brings to mind a solitary and wretched existence. “Wretch” is a favorite word of Shelley’s. She uses it 38 times in the book mostly to describe both the the monster and the monster’s creator, Frankenstein. Wretchedness may, in fact, be one of the dominant themes of the book.
As the monster hides away in a hovel, he silently observes and learns from the small family that occupies the cottage. From them, he learns about language, literature, and history. He gets a crash course in a liberal arts education. At one point, after reading about the history of the human race, the monster concludes:
These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm.
The monster should have read Pascal.
What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!…Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble, impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.
The paradox of man is that he knows of both his greatness and his wretchedness at the same time. According to Pascal, man’s “freakishness” only finds resolution in knowing our Creator. This is a problem for Frankenstein’s monster. He knew his creator, but hated him.
“Hateful day when I received life!” I exclaimed in agony. “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance.
It has become common to refer to the monster with the name Frankenstein. While the book never gives the monster a name, it may not be all that inaccurate to refer to the monster in the book as Frankenstein. For the monster recognizes that his wretched state is a reflection of the image of his wretched creator.
I have to return back to that scene in the hovel. He watched the family for days and weeks. He watched them so much that he almost felt he was one of them. The more he watched the family in the cottage from a distance, the more lonely and wretched he became. Observation without communion led to alienation.
Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for other, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.
As Frankenstein’s monster silently observed he came to love them and he deeply longed to be loved by them. But this proved to be impossible. When he finally moves to engage with the family he is only met with scorn, hatred, and fear. He is, and always will be, a lonely wretch. When his creator refuses to create for him an Eve, the monster moves to make his creator every bit the lonely wretch that he is.
When I read the scene from the hovel, I couldn’t help but hear the echo of something contemporary. It strikes me that much of our online lives have come to resemble the hovel. Our Silicon Valley Frankensteins have taken away our communion and replaced it with mere observation. We watch other kids unwrap toys or play video games on YouTube. We anonymously watch influencers walk into the perfect sunset with the perfect tan and the perfect body on Instagram. We represent only a click for them. They will never know or care about our identity. If we ever personally introduced ourselves, they might have us arrested. We watch our friends go to parties that we weren’t invited to on Facebook. We watch fights between political rivals unfold in real time on Twitter. We sometimes jump into the fray. No one cares. Donald Trump can’t hear you tweet.
Is it any wonder that we have come to feel alone and wretched? Is it any wonder that feelings of alienation and isolation are on the rise even in an age of hyper-connectivity? We are living in a hovel behind a glowing window watching other people live their lives desperate for communion but only finding alienation.
The monster at one point says: “They did not appear rich, but they were contented and happy; their feelings were serene and peaceful, while mine became every day more tumultuous. Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was.”