Frankenstein, Beowulf, and Heart of Darkness: How Being Human is Defined in Each
A theme is a serious attempt by an author to observe and record life in order to reveal some truth or some common characteristic of life. Themes aim to uncover aspects of a common human existence; and because these themes discuss the common human existence, universal truths have been revealed in separate bodies of literature. The observations made in assorted literature texts converge in an attempt to answer the timeless question: what is the meaning of being distinctly human? And although various writings have tried to respond to the posed question, a similar insight has been highlighted: humans are defined by the three pieces of Frankenstein, Beowulf, and Heart of Darkness coincide upon the same insight.
One shared topic of literature concerns characters and their struggle against monsters. Through character development, the universal notion that those who pursue monsters obsessively inevitably become one as well is revealed. This change is often fueled by ambition and the natural human instinct to be recognized and admired.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein creates a creature whom he brings to life; however, Victor spends the rest of his life in pursuit of the monster he has made. Initially, the monster is a permutation of his creator. For example, although the monster is made in the form of man, his grotesque combination of features and large stature sets him apart; also, just as Victor isolated himself from society and “procrastinate[d] all that related to…[his]…feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of..[his]…nature, should be completed”, the monster is isolated from society (Shelley 33). However, because of Victor’s denial and hate of the monster, he becomes one himself. Victor begins to see the monster’s actions as his actions as well; although it is the monster that has murdered William, Justine, and Henry, Victor Frankenstein “called…[himself]… the murderer of William, of Justine, and of Clerval. Sometimes…[he]…intreated my attendants to assist…[him] in the destruction of the fiend by whom I was tormented” (130). Frankenstein has created a monster, and in doing so has monster of himself because of his refusal to accept his creation. This morphing into a beast is initiated by ambition and intense desire for recognition.
In the epic poem Beowulf, the main character battles monsters in the pursuit of personal glory. However, in this pursuit, Beowulf shares characteristics with monsters he fights, ultimately becoming a monster in his own form. The first monster Beowulf battles is Grendel. Grendel is a monster that has been isolated from society because of his monstrosity and his grotesqueness. In a similar sense, Beowulf isolates himself from the community bond in his desire for glory: he attempts to fights each battle alone. In the description of the battle, both Beowulf’s and Grendel’s are paralleled: both, “venturing closer / his talon was raised to attack Beowulf / where he lay on the bed; he was bearing in / with open claw when the alert hero’s / comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly. / The captain of evil discovered himself / in a handgrip harder than anything / he had ever encountered in any man / on the face of earth”, are portrayed as good wrestlers and as warriors who refuse to give up. Beowulf is similar to the dragon as well. Just “as was the dragon, / for all his long leasehold on the treasure,” Beowulf hoards glory (Heaney 159). In fact, it is Beowulf’s ambition and pursuit of glory that leads to his death when he claims that “This fight is not yours, / nor is it up to any man except [him] / to measure his strength against the monster / or to prove his worth. [He] shall win the gold / by [his] courage, or else mortal combat, / doom of battle, will bear your lord away,” (171). In the end, Beowulf’s shared characteristics with the monsters is what causes to become one in the sense that his desire for glory is his motivation.
In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kurtz, motivated by ambition as well, becomes the monster he is trying contend with. Kurtz decides to go into the depths of Africa in pursuit of ivory, with the ambition of selling it and making money. However, as he fights against the native “savages”, his brutality ironically makes him a savage monster as well. During his stay in Africa, as Kurtz took advantage of the natives, he began to “forget himself amongst [those] people…forget himself” (Conrad 52).
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