Jennifer Weeks

Form, Function and Purposiveness: Kant in Frankenstein

The idea of beauty is integral to much of Kant's deliberations, and is also a powerful theme within the key portions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The moment of the creature's awakening is among the most powerful in the entire novel, and it is Victor's horrified withdrawal from his creature that sets up the plot of the rest of the novel.

Frankenstein addresses Kant's question of the interaction of form and function, as Paul Guyer discusses in his article on Kant's ideas of free and adherent (or dependent) beauty. Guyer says, "In the case of adherent beauty, the concept of the object that is presupposed by the judgment constrains or restricts what forms can find beautiful in an object of a certain sort by considerations deriving from its intended function…" (Guyer 358). Thus Frankenstein cannot find his creature beautiful, because its intended function is to be a man, but it does not have the proper form of a man. Since it does not look like an ordinary man, being eight feet tall and possessed of bizarre yellow eyes, it does not satisfy Frankenstein's constraints; Frankenstein cannot find his creation beautiful. This is because Frankenstein is judging his creature by dependent beauty, which belongs to purposeful objects, which the creature is. The creature was not made simply to be beautiful, he was made to be a man, and it is his inability to satisfy that constraint that denies him adherent beauty. In judging his creation on his adherent beauty, Frankenstein is behaving in accordance with Kant's delineations which say that, "Human beauty presupposes a concept of the purpose which determines what the thing is to be, and consequently a concept of its perfection; it is therefore adherent beauty" (Kant 266).

To Frankenstein's creation, function is paramount. He has the form of a man, and he wished to fulfill the function of a man - to mate. Mating is the "the object of [the]concept" (Kant 263). Indeed, this was the function for which Frankenstein created him, when he envisioned a race of happy creatures who would look to him as their progenitor. To the creature, questions of form are irrelevant.

Frankenstein, however, is obsessed by form. Everybody of whom he is fond is described as beautiful, and the hideousness of his creation repels him. He says, "Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance" (Shelley 57). This passage illustrates one of Kant's main tenets. In Critique of Judgment, he points out that one always experiences beauty (and by correlation ugliness) as something universal. Describing the person experiencing beauty, Kant says, "He will therefore speak of the beautiful as if beauty were a characteristic of the object and the judgment logical…although it is only aesthetical…" (Kant 261). Frankenstein's repulsion is, however, wholly unjustified, since he is solely responsible for the appearance of the creature in what Harold Bloom, in his essay on the novel, calls Frankenstein's "moral idio[cy]."

In Critique of Judgment, Kant associates adherent beauty with purposiveness rather than purpose, which he sees as detached from any perception of beauty. Kant says that, "Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived without any representation of a purpose" (Kant 266). According to this view, Frankenstein is disgusted by his creation, not because it cannot fulfill the purpose for which he had intended it, but because it lacks the harmony and purposiveness, "the unification of taste with reason" (Kant 266), which would allow him to view the creature as beautiful. Note that here we return to taste, which Kant has declared to be wholly subjective. But taste may be considered as one of the constraints of beauty: it is very difficult to find something beautiful that one finds unpleasant. Frankenstein's judgment is visceral and, as Kant puts it "an aesthetical and not a cognitive judgment" (264). Of course, Frankenstein's judgment is not pure, since Kant argues that no judgment of adherent beauty may be pure - that is reserved for a judgment of free beauty, as is accorded to flowers and seashells. Rather his judgment of his creation's hideousness is contaminated by his own expectations for the creature.
Frankenstein's creature is ugly, not because he is purely or objectively ugly, but because he lacks adherent beauty and purposiveness. It is this lack that causes Frankenstein to recoil from his creature, and shed all responsibility for it.

Works Cited:

Bloom, Harold. "An Excerpt From a Study of Frankenstein: or, The New Prometheus." Partisan Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Fall, 1965, pp. 611-18.

Guyer, Paul. "Free and Adherent Beauty: A Modest Proposal." British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 42, No. 4. October, 2002.

Kant, Immanuel. "From Critique of Pure Judgment." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford Books; 1998.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Penguin Books; 1818.

Information on Kant

Return to previous page