Frankenstein and the Atavistic form

From a myriad of literary viewpoints, Frankenstein is extraordinarily ahead of its times. However, the novel additionally demonstrates progressiveness outside of the literary field, where the perspective of criminal psychology suggests the novel had deep insights, and even revelations, about the human psyche.

Psychology at the time of writing was in its earliest disciplines, and only just developing into a science rather than philosophy; it was decades later when the work of famed psychologist, Cesare Lombroso, would show Shelley’s psychological observations as far advanced beyond her years. Whilst this article is not suggesting that Mary Shelley predated psychological explanations for the criminal, it does link the interesting coincidences between assumptions made regarding her protagonist, Frankenstein’s monster, and assumptions made over half a century later by Lombroso in his work on Atavistic form.

The Atavistic form was proposed and developed by Lombroso predominately in the late nineteenth century, inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution, even though he ‘did not really understand the mechanisms (variation and natural selection) proposed’. Through his misunderstanding, he began to apply Darwinian evolution in retrograde to anthropology, specifically criminology, proposing that the criminal was an evolutionary ‘throwback’ linked to the primitive man and distinguished by the atavistic features of such.

It is clear that Lombroso, intentionally or not, exploited a common weakness of humankind

This form was based on the premise that a criminal was ‘practically a special species, a subspecies, of man’, resulting in a comprehensive list of features, including ‘deviation in head size and shape from the type common to the race… excessive dimensions of jaw and cheekbones; eye defects and peculiarities; ears of unusual size, or occasionally very small, or standing out from the head as do those of the chimpanzee; nose twisted, upturned or flattened in thieves, or aquiline and beaklike in murderers, or with a tip rising like a peak from swollen nostrils; lips fleshy, swollen, and protruding…’ the list continues in a similar fashion.

Whilst Lombroso’s work was praised at the time, much of his work is today regarded in little esteem due to flawed research methods — his evidence would never be enough in modern psychology to prove this point, and today explanations for environmental and biological factors influencing criminal behaviour are being explored at a much more complex level than distinguishing facial features. Even in Lombroso’s own time, he studied a group of Italian convict’s photographs and created a detailed criminal profile for each, failing to realise until after the results were published that the photographs had been sent by mistake, and were, in fact, a collection of applicants to the Italian police force. 

It is clear that Lombroso, intentionally or not, exploited a common weakness of humankind: to judge based singularly on appearance, a weakness which was painstakingly explored fifty years earlier in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In fact, Frankenstein’s monster is a writer’s epitome of a ‘sub-species’ of human, defined on numerous occasions as ‘daemon’ and far ‘more hideous than belongs to humanity’, which presents him as the perfect candidate to be the criminal of the novel, as Lombroso would suggest. Yet, coincidentally, through Frankenstein alone Lombroso is debunked almost a century before his ideas would truly be disproven, after his death in the early twentieth century. 

literature has, for centuries, consistently been revealing aspects of the human psyche that psychology can learn from

In Shelley’s novel, when the monster hides from sight, performing good deeds for the blind man and his family by an ‘invisible hand,’ he is praised as a ‘good spirit’ — yet when his true form is revealed, he is physically abused and cast out from the home. It is only after numerous attempts to integrate with humankind, faced with ‘the miserable pain of a wound’ even after saving a girl’s life,’ that the monster resorts to criminality, suggesting rather than biology, the environment plays a much large role: it is man who makes the monster, based on the judgement of his features alone in a trait akin to Lombroso himself.

Even before Lombroso was born, Mary Shelley, a teenage writer from London, had realised something that would take decades for psychology to uncover: criminal behaviour is far more than purely biological, yet the human race has an inherent instinct to judge people’s biology and initial image regardless of this fact. It is no coincidence that Freud used Shakespeare as a part of the foundation for his theories: literature has, for centuries, been consistently revealing aspects of the human psyche that psychology can learn from, and the two fields, in my opinion, are far more closely aligned than many would believe.

Although this article is merely a subjective opinion and a linking of two coincidental events, it is certainly thought-provoking to suggest a closer study of the interconnections between the two disciplines, and the potential it has for the future rapport between mankind and literature. 

By Ruby Tomlinson

Illustration: by Alyah Albader

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