In 18th century aesthetic and moral criticism, the word ‘monster’ signified ugliness, irrationality and all things and events unnatural. It was viewed as the antithesis of neo-classical values of harmony and unified composition. A monster portrayed an image of deformity and irregularity. In literary terms, it involved works that crossed the boundaries of reason and morality, presenting excessive and viciously improper scenes and characters.
In M. G. Lewis’s The Monk, the protagonist has been attacked in reviews for being a monster, that is, for representing and encouraging every type of improper, depraved and licentious behaviour. Indeed, the numerous evil aristocrats, monks and quasi-paternal figures – the staple villains of Gothic novels – display characteristics of monstrosity throughout Gothic fiction of that period.
The monster and the notion of monstrosity serve a useful critical and moral function in the Gothic tradition as a composite term for a collection of negative and socially unacceptable features. As overt displays of vice, monsters presented and cautioned readers against excessive and indulgence in improper behaviour – thus emphasizing the values and benefits of morally upright and honourable conduct and evoking the socially-expected reactions to examples of vice.
The monstrous disclosure of the instability of systems of moral and aesthetic meaning produced ambivalent monsters, best evinced in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Imbued with Romantic sympathies for the outcast and rebel, the novel presents a humane and suffering monster, less a figure of vice and transgression and more a victim of monstrous social exclusions. Indeed, blurring the boundaries between good and bad, human and monster, the novel interrogates prevailing value systems to the extent that monstrosity becomes uncannily pervasive, an effect of and intrinsic to the sphere of the human.
Courtesy of Caslin Luo, 2004, National University of Singapore class: EN 4223 - Topics in the Nineteenth Century: The Gothic and After, Gothic Keywords project .