Judging a Book by its Cover: Physical Image in Frankenstein and Beauty and the Beast

At the risk of only comparing our readings to Disney, I found some similarities between Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Beauty and the Beast.  Though the stories of the monster and the Beast’s creations differ greatly, their lives are markedly similar. Both are cast off from society and forced to live in isolation. Humans are afraid of them because of their unnatural appearance.

Shelley’s monster first discovers that he is different one day when he sees himself in a clear pool. His difference from Felix, Agatha, and the old man troubles him because he wants to be just like the family that he has grown to care so much about. He quickly makes the connection, however, that his looks are why the man in the first hut and the people in the village ran away.

Knowing that his appearance will cause his isolation, the monster hides himself from all people for the year, all the while watching Felix and the family. He learns to speak alongside Safie and is quite well-spoken (though admittedly, his words are told through Robert Walton’s explanation of Victor Frankenstein’s story, who is recounting what the monster said). Still, the monster’s interest in Paradise Lost and his analysis of it indicate a certain level of education and intelligence.

Thus, Frankenstein’s monster is an intelligent creature whose only act of violence (that we know of thus far) was in frustration and anger at the way he was treated. The Beast in the 1991 animated Disney film was less tamed, and his behaviors were similar to that of an untamed animal. He lashes out at Maurice and knows little of human nature.

Alternately, in the original Grimm’s fairy tale (which can be read here), the Beast is similarly eloquent. In fact, when the Beast asked Beauty if she thought he was ugly, she responds in the affirmative but then adds “but I believe you are very good natured.” The Beast, in spite of his short fuse (for he does lash out at Belle’s father when he tries to take a rose from his garden), seems to have a good education.

Of course, that education is due to his status as a prince, and his temper, like Frankenstein’s monster, is likely due to the discrimination against him. Still, it makes me wonder: both pieces were published in the early 1800’s. In both works, it’s clear that there was at least some understanding that appearance was a poor judge of character and that unjust persecution can alter a man’s character for the worse. Why, then, does our society still value beauty and image so much? It’s been over 200 years since the message was published in these two rather popular works of fiction. Why do we scorn those who are different?

(I apologize for my second Disney reference. I promise to try and mature my tastes before the fourth journal entry.)

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