Music in Birdsong

The theme of music is present throughout the entire novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Most notably is the commentary on music by the Monster as he observes different sources of sound. As the Monster gains awareness and observes both human and animal, he appears to be entranced by the pull of music. There is a distinct evolution of music from birds to Mr. DeLacey’s guitar, and these observations clearly demonstrate Mary Shelley’s perception of music as not just a human experience but also of the natural world, which even further alienates the monster.

When Frankenstein’s monster escapes into the forest, he very quickly becomes aware of the birds singing around him:

I was delighted when I first discovered that a pleasant sound, which often saluted my ears, proceeded from the throats of the little winged animals who had often intercepted the light from my eyes… sometimes I tried to imitate the pleasant songs of the birds, but was unable… sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again.” (Shelley 71)

This passage shines a light on Shelley’s ranking of music in the status of the human experience. Even before the Monster has learned language from listening to the DeLacey’s, he not only observes but delights in the musical improvisations of the birds. Indeed, he only can identify them as “little winged animals” even after he had developed language proficiency. Shelley, then, places more relevance on music than language simply by the order in which she placed the Monster observing them. First, he is aware of sensory experience as he observes his vision being obstructed by some figure. Then, he is delighted by a sound that he observes. Third, he attempts to imitate the sounds and becomes self-conscious as he realizes his vocal inferiority. It is the final step that he develops language and proceeds to chronicle this experience with the bird to Victor Frankenstein.

Shelley makes a point to not just allow the monster to be displeased with his voice when he attempts to imitate the bird. Instead, he is so horrified by his own auditory effect that he is “frightened… into silence again”. The Monster’s sounds are so inferior to that of a natural creature that he is startled into silence. It is here that the monster first experiences ranking rather than mere rejection. Previously, he felt the pang of rejection when Victor looked onto him with horror before he fled. This passage is the first indication of what will happen in the final section of the Monster’s chronicles as he curses his rank in society that alienates him from not just humans but the entire natural world.

Image: Spectacled Warbler, Dennis Lorenz, 2013 (Bird Photography). This bird is a typical songbird in Switzerland. We can, therefore, imagine that the bird heard by the Monster could look quite similar to this one.

Return to Project Home  < Back | Next >