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Describe how any two texts written between 1680 and 1830 explore, challenge or embody the idea of the ‘monstrous’.

Describe how any two texts written between 1680 and 1830 explore, challenge or embody the idea of the ‘monstrous’.

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Laura Beattie. Originally submitted for Explorers and Revolutionaries at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Sara Lodge in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Laura Beattie. Originally submitted for Explorers and Revolutionaries at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Sara Lodge in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
1
Describe how any two texts written between 1680 and 1830 explore, challenge orembody the idea of the ‘monstrous’.Abstract
This paper explores the ways in which both Mary Shelley’s
 Frankenstein
and Aphra Behn’s
Oroonoko
embody and
 
challenge the idea of the monstrous. In particular, these two texts areconcerned with the question of whether monstrosity is an innate characteristic or a learnedone. In
 Frankenstein
, the text which has entered the collective unconscious as epitomisingthe monstrous, Mary Shelley challenges us to see the creature as a victim of monstrosityrather than just a perpetrator of it. The creature is born innately good but, due to his ugly anddeformed appearance, he is instantly misjudged and shunned by the rest of humanity as amonster. In the end, he is left with no other choice but to live up to this image which has beenforced upon him. Oroonoko, on the other hand, has ‘learnt his humanity’
1
,implying that therest of his race are uncivilised and brutish. Like Frankenstein’s creature, Oroonoko is also judged on his appearance but his perceived physical superiority over the rest of his racecauses him to be much loved and admired as opposed to hated. In a way, it is Oroonoko’sappearance that allows him to be judged as honourable. Thus Behn inverts the usualstereotype between the civilised (the white) and the barbaric (the black) just as Shelley makeit impossible for us to place Victor Frankenstein and his creature in a binary opposition of victim and monster. Therefore, these texts, in many ways, subvert our expectations and ideasof the monstrous.
Both Mary Shelley’s
 Frankenstein
and Aphra Behn’s
Oroonoko
explore, and in manyways challenge, the idea of the ‘monstrous’. The myth of Frankenstein’s creature has become inextricably bound up with the modern definition of the word ‘monstrous’ – aterm applied to something that is ‘strange or unnatural in conduct or disposition’ or ‘of extraordinarily large dimensions’
2
. However, the word was also commonly usedduring the time when both
Oroonoko
and
 Frankenstein
were
 
written to define animmoral action. A monster was ‘one who has so far transgressed the boundaries of nature as to become a moral advertisement’.
3
Here the unnatural element of monstrosity that will survive to the later meaning can be seen but it is important tokeep in mind that it can apply to moral as well as physical and social aspects of life.These two texts particularly explore the question of whether monstrosity is an innatecharacteristic or a learned one. In
 Frankenstein
, the text which has entered the
1
All quotations from Oroonoko in this essay are taken from Aphra Behn,
Oroonoko
A Norton CriticalEdition (London: W.W. Norton and Company Ltd, 1997)
2
www.oed.com
3
Baldick, Chris p48
 
2collective unconscious as epitomising the monstrous, Mary Shelley challenges us tosee the creature as a victim of monstrosity rather than just a perpetrator of it. He is born innately good, all he wants is to ‘excite the sympathy of some existing thing’
4
 but is forced through his mistreatment and rejection at the hands of others to becomevindictive and malicious. Oroonoko, on the other hand, has ‘learnt his humanity’
5
,implying that the rest of his race are uncivilised and brutish. Like Frankenstein’screature, Oroonoko too is forced to commit some monstrous actions, such as killinghis beloved wife, but he manages to do this without violating his principals of honour and in the end it is the white men who are shown to be monstrous.Frankenstein’s creature in his appearance is undeniably ‘strange’ and ‘of extraordinarily large dimensions’ – he frightens everyone who sets eyes upon him andhe himself is quick to realise that the only way he will be able to be judged justly andfairly is if he cannot be seen. Hence why he is the only favourable reception hereceives is by blind old De Lacey and why, when Victor Frankenstein refuses to hear his story and commands him ‘to relieve me of the sight of your detested form’ (p104)the creature places his hands over Frankenstein’s eyes, knowing that it is not hehimself whom Victor abhors but the idea of him that is created by his physicalappearance. When assembling the creature, Victor wanted to make him superior to therest of the human race; however ironically it is this superiority, and thus thisdifference, that causes him to be shunned by the rest of humanity through no fault of his own. As in the epigraph, Frankenstein’s creature did not request to be mouldedfrom the clay of recycled human body parts that Victor claims look ‘beautiful’ (p58)
4
All quotations from
 Frankenstein
in this essay are taken from Mary Shelley,
 Frankenstein
(London:Penguin, 1992) p148
5
All quotations from Oroonoko in this essay are taken from Aphra Behn,
Oroonoko
A Norton CriticalEdition (London: W.W. Norton and Company Ltd, 1997)
 
3when unanimated but immediately become hideous upon receiving the spark of life.The creature is instantly judged by everyone, without even receiving a fair hearing, to be a monster and thus it seems inevitable that he will be forced to become one because, in the end, it is going to be the only path that is left available for him to take.Oroonoko, too, can be viewed as ‘unnatural’ in many respects; with hisEuropean features and glowing ‘ebony’ (p13) skin he is decidedly different, but pleasingly so. Unlike Frankenstein’s creature, his master Trefry is proud to claimownership of him – Oroonoko is instantly given the friendship and companionshipthat Frankenstein’s creature so desperately desires. Oroonoko is also judged on hisappearance but his perceived physical superiority over the rest of his race causes himto be much loved and admired as opposed to hated. It is interesting to note thatalthough Oroonoko receives much veneration for his European looks and ways, whatreally elicits such respect and admiration from his acquaintances is his own inherentsystem of honour. We are told that ‘he could do nothing that honour did not dictate’(p42) and indeed he never does – he even seems justified in murdering his wife because he is saving her from a what could be a far worse fate. Yet, although his physical appearance does not dictate his moral outlook it is the only reason why he isallowed to be admired for it. Thus there is a paradox at play – as Jacqueline Pearson points out, in order for Oroonoko to be the hero he is seen to be, even in Coramantienhe has to be much closer to European culture than anyone else of his race.
6
However this is in essence only superficiality, even if all his outer trappings of Europeansociety were stripped away he would still be worthy of admiration. This is shownwhen his royal robes are replaced with the typical dress of slaves and yet the nobility
66
Pearson, Jacqueline ‘Slave Princes and Lady Monsters: gender and ethnic difference in the work of Aphra Behn’ from
 Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
(Basingstoke: Macmillian, 1995)

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