“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.”
Mary Shelley (1818)
Chapter Twelve of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explores the theme of surveillance when the Monster hides in a hovel close to the De Lacey’s cottage, and observes them as they go on with their everyday life. In this instance, surveillance occurs as a way to better understand someone’s actions, fulfilling the Monster’s desire to belong to a family by secretly helping around the cottage. The psychological struggle of the Monster can be represented through a Panopticon prison, as he was constantly scrutinised by society, deemed a danger to the status quo. This could be attributed to the broad friendship between Jeremy Bentham, who developed the concept of the Panopticon prison, William Revelley, an architect for the Panopticon project, and William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father. It is possible that Shelley was aware of the Panopticon structure, although Frankenstein’s narrative deals with the concept from a more psychological perspective, blurring the characterisation between the subject and the observer. Through Frankenstein, Shelley sought to criticise the elitism of nineteenth-century England, which saw outsiders as a threat to the state, suggesting that differences could mean progress instead of instability.
As the Monster changes from subject to observer, he is exposed to the possibility of love and companionship, which he was denied by his own creator. The Monster’s feeling of “otherness” is evident when he declares that the family ‘enjoyed one another’s company’, a stark contrast from the discrimination he experienced from the villagers. He resorted to ‘watching, and endeavouring to discover the motives which influenced their actions’, intrigued by the love and sacrifice they show each other. Before reaching the cottages, the Monster had been met with contempt, and as he watches the cottager’s interactions, he points out that he ‘longed to join them, but dared not’, conscious of the prejudice he has already faced. However, the Panopticon is broken down by the Monster converting from subject to observer, and his awareness of the challenges that both sides represent are what give him the ability to learn from the cottagers, by associating their behaviour with his own experiences.
The Monster’s fascination with the family is the result of his inability to understand the differences between him and the humans around him, which leads to him observing them to learn more about his own marginalised identity. However, his interest in the cottagers may also be reflected in their similar circumstances, both having been forcefully isolated by society. The De Laceys are descendants from an affluent French family, betrayed by people in whom they had put their trust. Similarly, the Monster is betrayed by Frankenstein (his creator) and all those from whom he seeks help. Although the Monster is not aware of their history yet, his observations allow him to realise that they were ‘miserable’, and although he cannot understand the reason for their unhappiness, he is ‘deeply affected by it’ due to his own afflictions. Having watched the cottagers for weeks, the Monster has developed a strong emotional bond with them, despite never having interacted with them. This demonstrates the effect of surveillance, where the observer begins to see the similarities between him and his subjects, identifying with their ‘wretched’ lives, and no longer feels detached from humanity. Despite our view that surveillance is a process of seclusion and individualism, Frankenstein demonstrates how this practice can also be used to unite people who would otherwise be isolated from society, encouraging physical and emotional growth.
Surveillance has a positive effect on the Monster and the cottagers, when he observes the family to learn more about their struggles, and this allows him to develop his own sense of self and help them in return. At first, the Monster decides to watch the family ‘quietly’ from afar, but as he begins to learn more about their life, he becomes involved in their affairs, helping them around the cottage to reduce their workload. The Monster notices that although they ‘possess a delightful house […] and every luxury’, Felix and Agatha often sacrifice themselves to satisfy De Lacey’s hunger. explains that ‘this trait of kindness moved [him] sensibly’ and, as a result, he collects wood and foods for them instead. As the Monster spends ‘perpetual attention and time’ surveilling the cottagers, he is able to discover companionship and sacrifice, learning more about what it means to be “human” by watching the family. Because of this, Frankenstein shows the progressive aspects of surveillance, where the Monster observes the cottagers and begins to emulate their behaviour, developing his own sense of self while improving their way of life.