In the final two lines of his poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats writes that what is beautiful is true, and vice versa. The creature constructed and animated by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus ishorrifically ugly and physically out of proportion, instilling immediate fear in all who see him. According to Keats’ aesthetic claim that beauty and truth are mutually requisite, there is no truth in the ugliness of Frankenstein’s creature. Keats’ notion of beauty as truth, and truth as beauty is applicable to the Creature because he is both ugly and false.
Most important is to first establish, on a definitive level, what exactly Keats means by the words “truth” and “beauty.” According to the definition in the OED specifically pertaining to this poem, truth is “that which is true, real, or actual (in a general or abstract sense); reality; spec. in religious use, spiritual reality as the subject of revelation or object of faith” (“truth,” n. 11a). Allen Austin proposes a multi-faceted definition of Keats’ use of “beauty” as “natural beauty (a rose), imaginary or ideal beauty (a perfect rose), formal beauty in art (the shape and design of the urn), and intensity of representation in art (the sculptured scenes on the urn)” (Austin 436). Therefore, if truth is what is divine, and beauty is to be found in nature and accurate artistic representation of the natural world, then what is divine is natural, and what is natural is divine.
The Frankenstein Creature may now be considered as an artistic representation of the natural; in this case, the animated representation of a human being. It is obvious that Victor Frankenstein made an effort to ensure that his creature was constructed based on symmetry and other physically attractive human features (wavy dark hair, white teeth) in his expression of disappointment in the final result of his labour: “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!” (Shelley 85). What Frankenstein has done is selected parts of human (and animal) corpses which are indeed beautiful as they are of nature (beauty) and created by God (truth), and has done his best to arrange them in the form of a well proportioned human. This is where the line between natural and unnatural is thinned, in his arrangement of genetically unrelated pieces into a whole. Frankenstein’s animation of this construction is where the line is effectively crossed. According to Christian creationism, which is an aspect of Keats’ divine sense of truth, it is God who gives life, and God who takes life away. It is Frankenstein’s animation of the Creature which renders him beyond ugly: “I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (Shelley 86). Therefore, the creature may have been ugly before it was given life, but it was still an accurate representation of a human, made out of human. However, when Frankenstein wields the exclusively divine power to give life, the Creature becomes a monstrous demon beyond conception because he was not created by the hand of God as Keats’ asserts is requisite for truth. The Creature’s aesthetic lack of beauty is therefore aptly indicative of his falsehood.
While considering the construction and animation of the Creature, Joyce Carol Oates concludes that “he springs not from a natural union but has been forged in what Frankenstein calls a ‘workshop of filthy creation’” (550). Oates is referring to the sexual union between a man and a woman which yields the birth of a child, as opposed to Frankenstein’s construction of the Creature. She later takes interest in the fact that nobody has yet commented on the unnatural synthesis by which the Creature is born, noting that “he is a monster-son born of Man exclusively” (Oates 552). It is important to note that she is not referring to “a man,” but “Man” as in humanity in general, without divine interference. Therefore, Oates is also suggesting that the Creature is not natural, for he is artificially created by one man rather than through the union of a man and woman, as is ordained by God as a natural process. This is why Frankenstein fails to create a beautiful human, because there is no divine truth in the process by which he makes the Creature, according to the interaction between truth and beauty in Keats’ poem.
David Collings takes a psychoanalytical approach to explain Frankenstein’s decision to go against nature and God, creating something neither beautiful or true. According to Collings, the death of his mother has distorted Frankenstein’s oedipal complex (Collings 281). Rather than the normal reaction of seeking a similar woman to replace his desire for the mother, which Frankenstein potentially has in Elizabeth, “he chooses to take exactly the opposite of the typical path, spurning the social realm in favour of the bodily mother, whom he attempts to recover by creating the monster” (Collings 281). Frankenstein seeks to uncover the secret to the life giving potential of the female body in an attempt to disrupt the natural process of life and death, which is specifically tied to the grief he feels for his dead mother, according to Collings. Collings even goes so far as to suggest that Frankenstein himself is attempting to become pregnant, in a sense. The unnatural birth of the creature becomes much clearer in light of this interpretation.
Earliest Surving Draft of Keats' Poem
Now that it has been discussed at length how the Creature is of unnatural (and therefore false) birth, it is time to consider textual evidence which indicates that the Creature is significantly out of step with the natural world and humanity, and therefore out of step with divine truth. The Creature’s first real observation of humanity is the De Lacey family, from whom he learns the French language and a very limited case study of the human family unit (Shelley 133-47). Of greater interest is the abbreviated, selective, and partly false historical account of the world the Creature reads from the books he finds near the De Lacey cottage, and the account of his creation, which he finds in Frankenstein’s diary (Shelley 152-55). Of particular interest is his reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost “as a true history” (Shelley 154). Paradise Lost, however, is a mythologized version of the Christian story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, with elements of paganism, rather than a genuine scriptural account. Due to the nature of his education, the Creature’s understanding of the world, both spiritual and physical, is largely distorted and false.
Further evidence that the Creature is simply out of step with the rest of the world is that “his bodily incoherence gives him access to no special mode of being but only blocks his access to satisfaction” (Collings 291). It is his superhuman ability and subhuman ugliness that ostracises the Creature from the rest of humanity, and Collings asserts that his only chance for satisfaction, to share “ordinary human experience” (291), is with another creature just like him, something just as unnatural. Therefore, the Creature is not only unnatural in his origin, but also unnatural in his incompatible relationship with the rest of the world.
Keats concludes “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with a reciprocal equation between truth and beauty, which have here been established respectively as the essence of divinity and nature. Shelley’s Frankenstein Creature certainly does not exemplify the beauty which is requisite to be considered a part of Keats’ conception of nature, and his lack of consistency with the rest of the world is further evidence of this. Therefore, for the Frankentein Creature; ugliness is falsehood, falsehood ugliness.
Austen, Allen. “Keats’s Grecian Urn and the Truth of Eternity.” College English 25.6 (1964): 434-436. JSTOR. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.
Collings, David. “The Monster and the Maternal Thing: Mary Shelley’s Critique of Ideology.”
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and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives, Second Edition. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. 280-95. Print.
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Third Edition: Volume 2A, The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education, 2006. 955-7. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Frankenstein’s Fallen Angel.” Critical Inquiry 10.3 (1984): 543-554. JSTOR. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.
Shelley, Mary. “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Version, Second Edition. Ed. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1999. 45-244. Print.
“Truth.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd. ed. 2009. Web. 25 March 2010.
samowhamo on February 02, 2013:
Very interesting article. I use to love Frankenstein it was one of my favorite horror stories I use to love horror and I still do (though not as much as I use to be). I think horror has a place in human culture because it helps to express what we fear and it sometimes personifies things we fear. If you are interested at all in horror stories I have an article here you might be interested in.