Top 5 Misunderstood Monsters in Literature

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Tomorrow is Mary Shelley’s birthday, and we’ve decided to fête the famous author by getting a head start on Hallowe’en and defending the top five misunderstood monsters in literature. Mary Shelley, the daughter of feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote The Modern Prometheus (a.k.a. Frankenstein) in 1818. The Gothic novel, and the monster it describes, has gone on to be a staple in horror lore. However, along with featuring one of the most misunderstood monsters in literary history, the book itself if often greatly miscalculated!

1) Frankenstein’s Monster, in Frankenstein

First of all (unless you want to get all philosophical about the ethics of cloning and genome experimentations), Frankenstein is not even the name of the monster in Shelley’s classic novel, it’s the name of the scientist! Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s monster, born out of the scientist’s selfish and short-sighted desire to create human perfection, is manufactured from the body parts of deceased criminals. Really, what sort of result was he expecting? The monster is ugly beyond words and possesses superhuman strength and speed, so when the rest of Frankenstein’s family reacts in fear and disgust and Frankenstein turns his back on his creation, it should have been no surprise that the monster begins behaving unpleasantly towards those who abandoned him.

2) Quasimodo, in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Like Frankenstein’s monster, the hunchback Quasimodo is shunned and feared by his neighbours due to his physical deformity. However, unlike Shelley’s misunderstood baddie, Quasimodo does not let the cruelty of the outside world taint his true character and opts to live in isolation. Because this “monster” stays purely good, he is for a time able to live in the sanctuary he sought. However, because this is a Victor Hugo novel and nobody lives happily ever after, he also finds true love that is only fulfilled through his death.

3) Grendel’s Mom, in Beowulf and Grendel

Sure, her son was a pretty standard, non-misunderstood bad guy, but a mother’s love is unconditional. So when Beowulf comes roaring into town, rips off her son’s arm, kills him and keeps the arm as a trophy, can we really blame her for being upset? Unofficial Viking law allowed retaliation killing, so did Grendel’s mother really deserve to have her head paraded around town because she killed one Danish soldier as payback for her son’s death?

4) Severus Snape, in the Harry Potter series

Seriously, this guy was dealt a tough deck. He was in a love with a married woman and felt responsible for her death. In order to protect his beloved’s orphan son and keep magical goodness alive, he aligned himself with the evil Voldemort. The good guys hated him for being so evil; the bad guys hated him for being so close to their leader. Even in death, with his true motivations revealed, it’s hard to forget that he spent seven books tormenting Harry, killed Dumbledore and was generally a miserable wizard.

5) The Dragon, in every fairy tale

The dragon exists for one reason in fairy tales: to keep the knight in shining armour away from the beautiful princess. The better the fire-breathing reptile is at its job, the more maligned it becomes. Talk about unfair!

Still from Disney’s 1959 film the Sleeping Beauty

With the exception of Quasimodo all of these “monsters” have actually done some pretty bad things. However, they’ve all been deemed social outcasts simply because they possess some less-than-pleasant physical characteristics and behave antagonistically towards the more relatable characters. Perhaps on this, the 216th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s birth, we can take some time to rethink our preconceived notions about those we fear and avoid.

Who is your favourite literary villain? Was he or she misunderstood or rightly maligned as an evil character?

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3 comments on “Top 5 Misunderstood Monsters in Literature

  1. I believe the misconception of dragons stems from the Judeo-Christian association of the Devil with snakes (reptiles). I think there is also something going on with the fire-breathing and a deep-seeded fear that another being can harness elemental energy in a way we cannot. Heat and energy are essential to life, but it can quickly go out of control, i.e. the wildfires in the American West or the burning of 17th century London or 19th century Chicago. This is hard enough to deal with as an act of God, but as an act of hostility, it’s terrifying.

    • That’s a really interesting perspective, Robert! With the devastating wildfires currently sweeping through Yosemite, as well as all the terrible fires and floods in the news lately, I can definitely see how having this natural element used as an act of aggression would be especially frightening.

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