Chapter XII

“I LAY ON MY straw, but I could not sleep. I thought of the occurrences of the day. What chiefly struck me was the gentle manners of these people; and I longed to join them, but dared not. I remembered too well the treatment I had suffered the night before from the barbarous villagers, and resolved, whatever course of conduct I might hereafter think it right to pursue, that for the present I would remain quietly in my hovel, watching, and endeavouring to discover the motives which influenced their actions.

“The cottagers arose the next morning before the sun. The young woman arranged the cottage, and prepared the food; and the youth departed after the first meal.

“This day was passed in the same routine as that which preceded it. The young man was constantly employed out of doors, and the girl in various laborious occupations within. The old man, whom I soon perceived to be blind, employed his leisure hours on his instrument or in contemplation. Nothing could exceed the love and respect which the younger cottagers exhibited towards their venerable companion. They performed towards him every little office of affection and duty with gentleness; and he rewarded them by his benevolent smiles.

“They were not entirely happy. The young man and his companion often went apart, and appeared to weep. I saw no cause for their unhappiness; but I was deeply affected by it. If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched. Yet why were these gentle beings unhappy? They possessed a delightful house (for such it was in my eyes) and every luxury; they had a fire to warm them when chill, and delicious viands when hungry; they were dressed in excellent clothes; and, still more, they enjoyed one another's company and speech, interchanging each day looks of affection and kindness. What did their tears imply? Did they really express pain? I was at first unable to solve these questions; but perpetual attention and time explained to me many appearances which were at first enigmatic.

“A considerable period elapsed before I discovered one of the causes of the uneasiness of this amiable family: it was poverty; and they suffered that evil in a very distressing degree. Their nourishment consisted entirely of the vegetables of their garden, and the milk of one cow, which gave very little during the winter, when its masters could scarcely procure food to support it. They often, I believe, suffered the pangs of hunger very poignantly, especially the two younger cottagers; for several times they placed food before the old man when they reserved none for themselves.

“This trait of kindness moved me sensibly. I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of their store for my own consumption; but when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained, and satisfied myself with berries, nuts, and roots, which I gathered from a neighbouring wood.

“I discovered also another means through which I was enabled to assist their labours. I found that the youth spent a great part of each day in collecting wood for the family fire; and during the night, I often took his tools, the use of which I quickly discovered, and brought home firing sufficient for the consumption of several days.

“I remember the first time that I did this the young woman, when she opened the door in the morning, appeared greatly astonished on seeing a great pile of wood on the outside. She uttered some words in a loud voice, and the youth joined her, who also expressed surprise. I observed, with pleasure, that he did not go to the forest that day, but spent it in repairing the cottage and cultivating the garden.

“By degrees I made a discovery of still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. But I was baffled in every attempt I made for this purpose. Their pronunciation was quick; and the words they uttered, not having any apparent connection with visible objects, I was unable to discover any clue by which I could unravel the mystery of their reference. By great application, however, and after having remained during the space of several revolutions of the moon in my hovel, I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse; I learned and applied the words, fire, milk, bread, and wood. I learned also the names of the cottagers themselves. The youth and his companion had each of them several names, but the old man had only one, which was father. The girl was called sister, or Agatha; and the youth Felix, brother, or son. I cannot describe the delight I felt when I learned the ideas appropriated to each of these sounds, and was able to pronounce them. I distinguished several other words without being able as yet to understand or apply them; such as good, dearest, unhappy.

“I spent the winter in this manner. The gentle manners and beauty of the cottagers greatly endeared them to me: when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathised in their joys. I saw few human beings besides them; and if any other happened to enter the cottage, their harsh manners and rude gait only enhanced to me the superior accomplishments of my friends. The old man, I could perceive, often endeavoured to encourage his children, as sometimes I found that he called them, to cast off their melancholy. He would talk in a cheerful accent, with an expression of goodness that bestowed pleasure even upon me. Agatha listened with respect, her eyes sometimes filled with tears, which she endeavoured to wipe away unperceived; but I generally found that her countenance and tone were more cheerful after having listened to the exhortations of her father. It was not thus with Felix. He was always the saddest of the group; and even to my unpractised senses, he appeared to have suffered more deeply than his friends. But if his countenance was more sorrowful, his voice was more cheerful than that of his sister, especially when he addressed the old man.

“I could mention innumerable instances, which, although slight, marked the dispositions of these amiable cottagers. In the midst of poverty and want, Felix carried with pleasure to his sister the first little white flower that peeped out from beneath the snowy ground. Early in the morning, before she had risen, he cleared away the snow that obstructed her path to the milk-house, drew water from the well, and brought the wood from the out-house, where, to his perpetual astonishment, he found his store always replenished by an invisible hand. In the day, I believe, he worked sometimes for a neighbouring farmer, because he often went forth, and did not return until dinner, yet brought no wood with him. At other times he worked in the garden; but as there was little to do in the frosty season, he read to the old man and Agatha.

“This reading had puzzled me extremely at first; but, by degrees, I discovered that he uttered many of the same sounds when he read as when he talked. I conjectured, therefore, that he found on the paper signs for speech which he understood, and I ardently longed to comprehend these also; but how was that possible, when I did not even understand the sounds for which they stood as signs? I improved, however, sensibly in this science, but not sufficiently to follow up any kind of conversation, although I applied my whole mind to the endeavour; for I easily perceived that, although I eagerly longed to discover myself to the cottagers, I ought not to make the attempt until I had first become master of their language; which knowledge might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure; for with this also the contrast perpetually presented to my eyes had made me acquainted.

“I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers—their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity.

“As the sun became warmer, and the light of day longer, the snow vanished, and I beheld the bare trees and the black earth. From this time Felix was more employed; and the heart-moving indications of impending famine disappeared. Their food, as I afterwards found, was coarse, but it was wholesome; and they procured a sufficiency of it. Several new kinds of plants sprung up in the garden, which they dressed; and these signs of comfort increased daily as the season advanced.

“The old man, leaning on his son, walked each day at noon, when it did not rain, as I found it was called when the heavens poured forth its waters. This frequently took place; but a high wind quickly dried the earth, and the season became far more pleasant than it had been.

“My mode of life in my hovel was uniform. During the morning, I attended the motions of the cottagers; and when they were dispersed in various occupations I slept: the remainder of the day was spent in observing my friends. When they had retired to rest, if there was any moon, or the night was star-light, I went into the woods, and collected my own food and fuel for the cottage. When I returned, as often as it was necessary, I cleared their path from the snow, and performed those offices that I had seen done by Felix. I afterwards found that these labours, performed by an invisible hand, greatly astonished them; and once or twice I heard them, on these occasions, utter the words good spirit, wonderful; but I did not then understand the signification of these terms.

“My thoughts now became more active, and I longed to discover the motives and feelings of these lovely creatures; I was inquisitive to know why Felix appeared so miserable and Agatha so sad. I thought (foolish wretch!) that it might be in my power to restore happiness to these deserving people. When I slept, or was absent, the forms of the venerable blind father, the gentle Agatha, and the excellent Felix flitted before me. I looked upon them as superior beings, who would be the arbiters of my future destiny. I formed in my imagination a thousand pictures of presenting myself to them, and their reception of me. I imagined that they would be disgusted, until, by my gentle demeanour and conciliating words, I should first win their favour, and afterwards their love.

“These thoughts exhilarated me, and led me to apply with fresh ardour to the acquiring the art of language. My organs were indeed harsh, but supple; and although my voice was very unlike the soft music of their tones, yet I pronounced such words as I understood with tolerable ease. It was as the ass and the lap-dog; yet surely the gentle ass whose intentions were affectionate, although his manners were rude, deserved better treatment than blows and execration.

“The pleasant showers and genial warmth of spring greatly altered the aspect of the earth. Men, who before this change seemed to have been hid in caves, dispersed themselves, and were employed in various arts of cultivation. The birds sang in more cheerful notes, and the leaves began to bud forth on the trees. Happy, happy earth! fit habitation for gods, which, so short a time before, was bleak, damp, and unwholesome. My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy.”

Footnotes

  1. Happy, happy earth! fit habitation for gods, which, so short a time before, was bleak, damp, and unwholesome. My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. This moment is also an antithesis to the myth of Narcissus. In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Narcissus was so infatuated with his own image that he wasted away and died by this pool. The creature’s reaction to his image in the water is quite the opposite to Narcissus’s as he is shocked by his own ugliness.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Despite the creature’s admiration and compassion for the De Lacey family, he remains separate and isolated due to his monstrous appearance. By demonstrating that the creature is capable of kindness, Shelley complicates the romantic notion that beauty is good and ugliness is evil.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. Education is a key theme throughout the narrative. Victor is usually described as a man of learning. Here, however, the creature is shown to engage in learning language by observing the De Lacey family. This moment foreshadows later learning when the creature begins to read and comprehend more complex ideas.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. As the creature observes the De Lacey family, he grows and discovers the nature of humanity. This moment shows the creature’s burgeoning understanding of class. The creature’s compassion for the suffering of the De Laceys demonstrates that he is capable of kindness and empathy. We are unable to view the creature as wholly evil, as Frankenstein does, but instead realize that he shares many of the same wants as humans—chiefly the twin desires for companionship and love. In speaking of the De Laceys’ poverty, readers also can draw comparisons to Frankenstein’s privileged upbringing. Unlike his creature, Frankenstein seems wilfully ignorant of poverty and class difference.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. From this statement we see that the creature initially believes that beauty and companionship are the only requirements for happiness. Under this metric, he believes he must be the most unhappy creature of them all since he possesses neither. However, upon further examination of the De Lacey family, the creature learns of other afflictions that may hinder human happiness.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The creature’s depiction of the De Lacey family shows them to be poor and belonging to the working-class. Felix and Agatha fulfil typical gender roles of the time, with the male leaving the house to find employment while the female remains home to perform domestic duties. The image of this family is the first introduction the creature has to what Shelley would have deemed “civilized” society.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Interpretation: This chapter continues Shelley’s Romantic desire to create the creature as a sympathetic character. It is truly trying to be “good” as he helps this poor family. Further, he is trying to understand the concept of love. It is also very important to notice the focus on emotions here. Note the stress on the creature’s thoughts about “happiness” at the beginning of the chapter. The creature is very surprised that the De Lacey family isn’t happy. Because they have love (as well as their own means of survival), they seem to have everything the creature could want or desire. Much of this chapter is spent with the creature “learning” how to do good works and “learning” the language the De Lacey family speaks and “learning” what it means to “read” and “learning” how to use his imagination to incite happiness. It would not be amiss for the reader to notice the similarity in consecutive steps for both the creature and for human children. Again focusing on the concepts of Romanticism, the end of the chapter is pertinent. Note the line that reads, “Happy, happy earth! Fit habitation for gods, which, so short a time before, was bleak, damp, and unwholesome. My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy.“ The creature is a completely unnatural creation, but even it finds solace in nature (to which all Romantics will attest). For a further explanation and description of plot, please see my first note that begins with the words “Plot Summary.”

    — Noelle Thompson
  9. This eNotes educator finds it interesting that the "unnatural" creature has his "spirits ... elevated" by the very "natural" appearance in the natural world.  The changing of the seasons "almost" can make the unnatural seem more natural.

    — Noelle Thompson
  10. Now the reader will see another aspect of human life the creature discovers:  imagination.

    — Noelle Thompson
  11. The De Lacey family uses these words to describe the creature, of course.  However, after being so disgusted by his own appearance and due to not understanding the nuances of the language, the creature fails to understand the significance of the description.

    — Noelle Thompson
  12. Although the proper words aren't used, one can realize here that the creature speaks of the change of season (from winter to spring).

    — Noelle Thompson
  13. It is important to note here that the creature does catch a glimpse of himself in a pond and immediately notices the difference of the natural (all the various complexions of the De Lacy family, both old and young) and the unnatural (the creature himself).  Again, the reader should note this as a very Romantic idea.

    — Noelle Thompson
  14. Note the length of time the creature takes to determine the language of the family.

    — Noelle Thompson
  15. Note that the creature takes a considerable amount of time to distinguish the reason for unhappiness here: poverty (in the form, at least, of  hunger).

    — Noelle Thompson
  16. Note the creature's observation of an impoverished family.  Because the family has love and affection (as well as the means to live), they seem to have everything that the creature longs for.  The stress on the emotion of happiness here is particularly a Romantic quality.  Living out in nature, perhaps the family should count their blessings.

    — Noelle Thompson
  17. Plot Summary: The creature created by Victor Frankenstein continues his love and affection for the De Lacey family throughout this chapter. The creature becomes more and more enamored of them as he hears their plight (which is the ever so common plight of the poor). They are hungry and have been forced to relocate to Germany (from France). As a result, the family speaks French fluently and, as they discuss their family situation, the creature learns the French language as well. The creature desires to be “good” and tries to help the family by doing chores (such as doing the hefty work of moving firewood and completing chores around the house), but only at night in order to hide his appearance. The family notices that someone or something is helping them and starts to call the creature a “good spirit.” The creature has a hard time understanding how the De Lacey family could be depressed. They seem to have everything, including love. The creature longs to be one of them and show himself to them. Unfortunately, one day the creature catches a glimpse of itself due to its reflection in a pond. The creature now understands that a family such as the De Lacey family may consider his appearance gruesome. Still, the creature is determined to do good work. For further explanation, please see my note at the end of this book beginning with the word “Interpretation.”

    — Noelle Thompson