From the very beginning of his existence, man is orientated to love and desires love. In fact, St. John Paul II says in Redemptoris Hominis that “man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible in himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” Love, as St. John Paul II describes, is the “fundamental and innate vocation of every human being,” for the capacity to love authentically “constitutes the deepest part of a personality,” for it allows man to devote himself to the “cause of man, to people, and above all, to God.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI notes in Deus Caritas Est that man’s first and foremost vocation is to love, for he is called to reflect the image and likeness of God “whose very being is love.” Thus, as St. John Paul II reflects in Love and Responsibility, a person is an entity to which the only proper and adequate way to relate is love.
As we have been created to love and be loved, man’s life is greatly impacted if love is shown or denied him. Two stories which demonstrate the necessity of love are Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Grimm’s Beauty and the Beast. While Grimm’s tale relays the story of a young girl who sees past the Beast’s deformities, and through her love transforms him into a handsome prince, Shelly’s Frankenstein serves as a cautionary tale on the destructive effects of the absence of love.
The Tale of the Monster: The Human Desire to Be Loved
First let us examine Shelly’s Frankenstein. We are all familiar with the plight of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein, in his attempt to parody God, creates a monster. Unlike God, Victor does not deem his creation to be “good,” but instead he immediately recoils in disgust as he notices the ugliness of the monster. The scientist deserts his monster, closing himself to the possibility of loving or being loved by his creation. Victor goes so far as to liken the monster to the devil, exclaiming that even Dante could not have imagined such a wretched creature.
Left to find his own way in the word, the creature embarks on a journey—one that is both physical and intellectual. The monster reflects on his own identity and realizes that throughout his life he has never been shown love: he has not even been named. He becomes bitter and curses his creator.
This realization causes Victor’s monster to perform charitable works for others in the hope of being loved in return. He rescues a drowning child and empathizes with the situation of a poverty-stricken family, anonymously providing them wood. However, when he reveals his true identity to those whom he aids, he is invariably met with rejection and expressions of horror.
In a moment of desperation, the monster turns to his creator, and asks the scientist to create a female mate whom he can love and be loved. Though Frankenstein at first agrees, Victor soon decides that only ill can result from it, so he ruthlessly dismembers the female monster before the creature’s eyes. Filled with rage, Victor’s monster vows to kill those closest to his creator. With the destruction of his only chance at love, Frankenstein’s creature truly becomes a monster by his murderous deeds. His quest and desire for love has been thwarted throughout his life because of his features; consequently, his search for love ends in destruction.
Love That Transforms: Beauty and the Beast
While Frankenstein demonstrates the repercussions of failing to love, Beauty and the Beast demonstrates that love has the power to redeem and transform others.
The tale commences by speaking of a merchant who becomes stranded in a storm, stumbles upon a castle, and is well provided for by his hospitable host. However, the merchant incurs the wrath of his generous host, a monstrous beast, the following morning by plucking a rose from the beast’s rose garden. In order to remedy this offense, the merchant’s youngest daughter, Beauty, offers to remain with the beast. Though at first frightened and horrified at the sight of the hideous beast, Beauty gradually becomes friends with him as she soon realizes his good nature and eventually comes to enjoy his company. The beast quickly falls in love with Beauty, and though this is not reciprocated, he continues to prove his love for Beauty. While visiting her family, Beauty becomes disturbed by a dream of the beast dying. She rushes back to the castle only to discover that her fear has become a reality: the beast is dying. At that moment, the girl realizes that she truly loves the beast and exclaims that she will marry him. Beauty’s affirmation of love breaks the spell of the beast, causing his ugly features to be transformed into that of a handsome young man.
There is much we can learn from these two stories. Both relate the journey of two beasts who are social outcasts. In their respective interactions with their fellow man, each beast receives opposing responses for their desire to love. These responses shape the character of the beasts and directly influence the beast’s transformation, whether it be for the good or evil.
Contrary to Frankenstein’s misunderstood monster whose features evoke only expressions of horror, Beauty’s response to the beast’s imperfections is love. By lavishing love upon what she deems to be unlovable, Beauty discovers who the beast truly is: a beautiful, kind-hearted soul. Beauty’s treatment of the beast causes his transformation. Similarly, those who reject Frankenstein’s monster are responsible for his moral deterioration. As the creature’s desire for authentic love has been constantly denied him, the monster becomes unlovable for he allows hatred and resentment to rule him.
The stories of these two beasts mirror that of mankind. Humanity has been disfigured by the ugliness of sin, the result of the fall. By sinning, man distorts the image and likeness of God, of which he was created to reflect, thus likening himself to a beast. God, unlike Frankenstein, demonstrates love to us not because we are loveable, but because He is love. The ultimate Beauty, Christ, redeems and transforms mankind from his wounded nature by love through the sacrifice on the cross.
Even though Christ has transformed humanity, restoring to us our dignity by the sacrifice of the cross, man’s nature is wounded. We still sin, and so need to experience the transforming power of love through our daily interactions with our neighbor. As St. Francis De Sales teaches in his Sermons for Lent, we are called to
Love one another as Jesus Christ has loved us [Jn. 13:34; 15:12], not because of any merit that may be found in us, but only because He created us in His image and likeness that we ought to love and honor in all, not anything else that may be there. For really nothing is loveable in us which is of us, since not only does it not enhance this divine image and likeness but it actually disfigures, defiles and stains it so that we are scarcely recognizable. Now we must not love that in our neighbor, for God does not will it.
When we love our neighbor, we share and partake in what C. S. Lewis in his Four Loves calls the “transforming presence of Love Himself.” In this way our ability to love one another, as John Paul II expresses in The Jeweler Shop, “joins us with [Christ] more than anything because it transforms everything.” This call to love lies at the very center of our vocation, for man’s heart has been created to love. In fact, Saint Francis De Sales writes in his Sermons for Lent that “no one can excuse himself from [his vocation to love] and say that he does not know that he is to love his neighbor as himself, because God has imprinted this truth in the bottom of our hearts, in creating all of us in the image and likeness of each other.” By demonstrating genuine love of neighbor, we are able to be a manifestation of the love and beauty of Christ.
This is what Frankenstein and Beauty and the Beast convey, for they teach us what Pope Francis reminds us: that “our smallest gesture of love benefits everyone.” It benefits both the person receiving love and the one bestowing love. By never experiencing love, Frankenstein’s monster realizes that he can never be transformed. His life demonstrates the necessity of love for each human being. On the other hand, Beauty’s love reflects a divine love—a love that touches the life of another—a love that transforms not only the person receiving love, but also the one bestowing love. Beauty’s decision to love is reflective, not only of God’s unconditional love for man, but also of man’s vocation and duty to love his neighbor. The moral of these two tales are for young and old alike, for they speak of the necessity for man to experience the transforming power of love, without which he cannot live.
Editor’s note: The image above is a scene from the 1931 film version of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.