This is an essay my school set. Let me know if there’s a theme you’d like to see some writing on!! And always feel free to email with questions firstname.lastname@example.org x
Compare the ways in which the writers of your two chosen texts present what it means to be human.
In both Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, issues of emotion, compassion and individuality lie at the core of the text. Exploring both the most primitive and complex aspects of human nature, both writers force us to consider the feeble link between “human” and “humanity”, and moreover how malleable a concept our humanness is.
In “Frankenstein”, the Creature is stripped of human attributes through the use of nomenclature, despite the fact that he built from human parts. Describing him as a “wretch”, “devil”, and “monster”, Shelley reduces our image of Victor’s creation to something sub-human and abhorrent, drawing on gothic tropes of satanic and occult imagery. While these descriptions alienate his character from a typical human, it is also Shelley’s use of determiners which stress his otherness. Defined as “the” creature rather than “a”, we suppose him to be one of a kind, and hence separate from humanity, which we view as a category. Shelley’s choice of the definite article shrouds the Creature in an aura of mystery, permitting him to exist only on the fringes of human society, as a spectator rather than a participant. Shelley’s depiction of the Creature plays on the gothic fascination for the uncanny and perverse, showing how disgusts manifests itself towards the marginalised.
Likewise, in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” nomenclature is used to divest Offred of power and individuality. Offred’s name is formed from the preposition “of”, followed by the name of her commander, hence it is not used to distinguish her from others, but to determine her relationship to a man. By defining her as the possession of a male, Atwood reduces Offred from woman to commodity, no longer a person but an item to be put to use. Atwood draws on philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s theory that the female is seen as a crude imitation of man, that “when she acts as a human, she is said to imitate the male.” Only permitting Offred humanity through association with a man, Atwood implies that our notion of “human” is intrinsically male. Like the Creature, who is a corrupted version of a human man, Offred too is viewed as a lesser copy of this same ideal.
While this may suggest that our idea of humanity is largely prescribed, both writers show that the individual may choose to see humanity where they choose. In “Frankenstein”, Walton notes a respectability and charm in Victor’s character which greatly influences our impression of him. By framing the central narrative with Walton’s letters, Shelley ensures we are first introduced to Victor through Walton’s admiring eyes, allowing us to perceive him as “gentle…wise, and cultivated.” While Victor’s actions may contradict these words, Walton’s unwavering admiration for his friend ultimately shapes our view of his character, allowing Victor to appear complex and three-dimensional. Shelley uses Walton’s voice to project a humanity onto Victor’s character, proving that ideas of human nature are shaped by perspective. Rather than presenting Victor as entirely evil and repulsive, Shelley draws on the Romantic preoccupation with heroism, presenting him both as an protagonist and antagonist who simultaneously attracts and repels us. Through his conflicting character, Shelley reminds us that a human demands flaws as well as strengths.
In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood also proves that we may choose to see human traits in someone otherwise deplorable. When Offred describes her relationship to the Commander, she often applies childish language to his behavior, describing him as “silly” and “juvenile.” Atwood’s flippant choice of words paint the Commander as an innocent and even sympathetic man, who Offred looks upon with a degree of pity. Like Walton, who finds a certain tenderness in the seemingly villainous Frankenstein, Offred permits us to see the Commander as human, assuring us that he is not “an unkind man.” We might argue that Offred’s character suffers from some form of Stockholm syndrome, trying to identify and empathise with her oppressor. Claiming that nothing in her novel had not happened before in the real world, Atwood proves an uncanny truth that acts of violence are committed by other humans who look like ourselves. Considering the depravity that inspired her novel – the Holocaust, the Magdalene Laundries and the Romanian birth control ban – it seems apparent that humans cannot all be characterised by a sense of humanity.
We may draw parallels between these descriptions of the Commander and Offred’s anecdote in chapter 24, where she recounts a documentary about the mistress of a Nazi. Musing that he must have had “some endearing trait” for her to believe in his goodness, Offred recognises that our ideas of a person are easily pliable. The mistress insists the man was not a “monster”, suggesting that anyone may be human if it is an “available temptation.” Ironically, no such allowances are made for the Creature in “Frankenstein”, who is also referred to as a “monster”, despite his initially benign intentions. Both writers pose the uncomfortable suggestion that we pick and choose who we treat as a human, for our own comfort rather than sincerity. Atwood’s poignant choice, to link this back to Nazism, draws a direct parallel between the supposedly fictional society of Gilead, and an atrocity only thirty years older than her novel.
Though essentially very different novels, both “Frankenstein” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” acknowledge the complexity of identity, and how easily this is shaped by voice and circumstance. The two texts question whether being human is a simple as an image or set of attributes, or potentially something indistinguishable, with no set meaning or form. While neither novel may resolve entirely just what it means to be “human”, they certainly reveal how broad an idea it may be – “How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all.”