Friday, February 1, 2013

Reading Notes #4: Frankenstein

Title: Frankenstein
Author: Mary Shelley
Publisher: Everyman’s Library
Form: Hardcover/cloth
Pages: 231
Date of Publication: 1818*
Source: Purchased new
Dates of Reading: January 19, 2013 – January 29, 2013
The List: #67

"Shall each man find a wife for his bosom, and each beast have his mate, and I be alone? I had feelings of affection, and they were requited by detestation and scorn. Man! you may hate, but beware! Your hours will pass in dread and misery, and soon the bolt will fall which must ravish from you your happiness forever. Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness? You can blast my other passions, but revenge remains – revenge, henceforth dearer than light or food! I may die, but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery. Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict." (Chapter 20)

From antiquity’s Prometheus we go to “the Modern Prometheus,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s subtitle to her scary, sad, somewhat insane novel evokes the creation of man out of clay, the disastrous consequences of overreaching our destiny, the irresistible urge of a creation to become a creator, the frightful power of science and civilization, the curse of the outcast, and much, much more. Larded over this is the Christian analogue, specifically Milton’s Christianity as dreamed up in Paradise Lost, concerning the fall of an angel and the rise of a devil, the fall of man and the rise of civilization; and I think the parallels between Christianity and Greek mythology that I noted in my article on Prometheus Bound are not such a stretch.

Books upon tomes upon folios have been written about Frankenstein, and there seems paltry little I can contribute, in a brief essay anyway, to the unraveling of its horrifying and mysterious layers. The book is also further removed from unadulterated critical analysis by the plethora of film and pop culture adaptations, as society has put its stamp on the story over and over again, in an almost 200-year parade of variations on a theme.

As of this writing, I haven’t carefully watched any movie versions of Frankenstein, but the Halloween-ready, Karloff-cum-Munsters iconography has become pervasive enough for me to realize that the apples have fallen quite far from the tree. The fearsome but silly, wrathful but bumbling Frankenstein of pop culture bears little resemblance to Shelley’s “hideous” monster, who, of course, isn’t actually named “Frankenstein.”

Nomenclature notwithstanding, every child in America knows what a Frankenstein is, so it can be a shock to read Shelley’s founding text and find the monster capable of delivering speeches like the one at the beginning of this article. Eloquent, existential, and sensitive, Shelley’s monster has read Milton, Goethe, and Plutarch; he has observed human kindness, but received only human fear and hatred.

I was further surprised by the monster’s creation story, or rather, the lack thereof. How many times have movies and television shown the creature being brought to life on a stormy night by lightning summoned by a mighty apparatus, and sent surging through this unholy mishmash of humongous body parts? And yet none of that appears in the book. There is certainly the implication of lightning: a scene where a thunderstorm breathes inspiration into our desperate scientist, Victor Frankenstein, and the allusion to noted lightning specialist, Benjamin Franklin, in the name “Frankenstein.” However, it is never explicitly stated that a lightning-channeling apparatus is used to vivify the creation, nor even that any apparatus is involved beyond Frankenstein’s “chemical instruments.” And many people perhaps read into the book by assuming that the monster is created from portions of cadavers, but all we hear about are unidentified “materials.”

Frankenstein himself, as he dictates his story to us, insists that the secret of creation, the method he used to bring the monster to life, will go to the grave with him:

I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be. (Chapter 4)

And furthermore:

Sometimes I endeavored to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation: but on this point he was impenetrable.

“Are you mad, my friend?” said he; “or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you also create for yourself and the world a daemoniacal enemy? Peace, peace! learn my miseries and do not seek to increase your own.” (Walton, In Continuation)

What a tease! Methinks the lady doth protest too much, as Shelley really goes out of her way to justify denying the reader this juicy morsel. But the withholding of such details was not an uncommon technique in early science fiction, where the writers were less concerned about dreaming up the machinations, and much more concerned with the social implications of the nightmare scenario.

And indeed, the monster is basically your worst nightmare. Fearless and highly intelligent, and using all that fearlessness and intelligence to destroy your life. As I read, I imagined the creature as a combination of a nimble sasquatch, the Incredible Hulk, and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, though I would conjure for this description the most terrifying iterations of each of these creatures.

I was perhaps most surprised that there is just so much moral and formal complexity in Frankenstein. Shelley uses multiple narrators, epistolary sections, lengthy passages that read like a travelogue, a smattering of quotes from contemporary writers, including her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was a bedrock influence for Mary Shelley.

Often, readers express surprise that Frankenstein was written by an 18-year-old girl. But Mary Shelley was born into great expectations, the daughter of two heralded radicals and intellectuals, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and surrounded all her life by the intellectual and literary elite of Britain, as well as notable luminaries who would visit her family from America and Europe. At the age of sixteen, she married a bona fide poetic genius and scandalous reprobate, Percy Shelley, whose influence she effusively credited, and whom she idolized long after his death.

If I am surprised at her as a person, it is because of what she wrote in her 1831 introduction to a new edition of Frankenstein, thirteen difficult years after her book was first published:

And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words which found no true echo in my heart. Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more.

In 1818, when Frankenstein was published, Shelley had already had two children, the first of whom died shortly after birth. She grieved the recent suicide of a half-sister, and certainly endured some guilt when Percy Shelley’s first wife, from whom Mary had essentially stolen him, drowned herself and her unborn child. So to speak of those as “happy days” where “death and grief were but words” perhaps speaks to just how much she suffered afterward – the death of two more children, a near-fatal miscarriage, the death of her husband, the decline of her health.

It is appropriate that Frankenstein is the creation of some mix of joy and sorrow. Duality is at the heart of the story (as it was for Robert Louis Stevenson in his later story of monster and man, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). The monster is born of man, man who harnesses and manipulates nature, but ultimately cannot control it.

Through his literary education, in particular, reading Paradise Lost; through his months spent in hiding, secretly watching the kindness and magnanimity of a poor rural family, and the mere seconds it takes for the family to attack and hate him once he reveals himself, the monster identifies and condemns the hypocritical duality of humanity:

Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived as noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing. (Chapter 13)

The monster is isolated despite his hunger for companionship, and we watch his anger and self-loathing grow as his repeated attempts at human contact are violently rebuffed:

And what was I? . . . When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned? (Chapter 13)

Having received utter rejection when he solicits human compassion, he orders Frankenstein, who owes him at least the chance for happiness, to create for him a female counterpart. Though understandable, this ambition is arrogant, as arrogant as anything his creator pursued, and when this creative ambition is stymied, the enraged creature embraces the other part of his duality – his ability to destroy.

And so the creature’s anguish comes back around onto Frankenstein. When the monster ensnares him, framing him for the murder of his best friend, Frankenstein is made to understand what it feels like to be shunned and hated by all. To feel what his creation feels. And though it seems that his isolation and punishment is complete with the loss of all his loved ones, whom the monster murders one by one, agonizingly slowly, it is not truly complete until Frankenstein, like his monster before him, finally comes to condemn mankind as savagely as the monster did. He addresses a magistrate, exhorting him to help him hunt down his wretched progeny:

My revenge is of no moment to you; yet, while I allow it to be a vice, I confess that it is the devouring and only passion of my soul. My rage is unspeakable when I reflect that the murderer, whom I have turned loose upon society, still exists. You refuse my just demand: I have but one resource; and I devote myself, either in my life or death, to his destruction. . . . Man! . . . how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom! (Chapter 23)

“Man!” In one word, Frankenstein becomes his own creation, who had earlier cried, “Man!” at Frankenstein, enraged at the heartlessness and cruelty of humankind. Up to this point, Frankenstein has been motivated by ambition, and then fear. Now he is a creature of “rage.” Now, finally, Frankenstein becomes one with his monster, outcast from society, hopelessly miserable, just as the monster wished to make him.

So it makes quite a bit of sense that the monster himself has come to be called “Frankenstein.” The monster is like the scientist who made him, alike in sorrow and isolation, both helpless as creatures, both thwarted as creators.

We, too, are both Victor Frankenstein and his monster, both creator and creature. And as Mary Shelley noted in her own life and in the society around her, we are desperately alone, as was the monster, as was the man.

*          *          *

For my first month of this year of reading, I have unintentionally chosen to read four books in a row that are, in some sense, fantasies. I don’t mean “fantasy” in the genre sense (as epitomized first by Tolkien and currently by legions of his spiritual scions), though this is what the word has become. I am not primarily concerned with this generally underappreciated genre, though it is peculiar that in our times, literary esteem is typically lavished upon more realistic fiction, whereas fantasy writers are consoled, if at all, by filthy lucre and the hopes of selling something to Hollywood.

Yet most of humanity’s literary history has been dominated by tales of the impossible, or at least improbable. I suppose two thousand years is enough to transform fantastical stories about Greek gods and demons into “literature,” so perhaps science fiction and fantasy writers of today can hope for similar vindication from generations to come.

Perhaps the most useful label, should one be required, for Frankenstein is “romance.” Reveling in elements of the supernatural, shrouded in mystery, and elaborating its ideas through astonishing visions that have not and probably cannot happen, Frankenstein is the very model of the romance as described by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in his Preface to The House of the Seven Gables, writes that the romance allows its author “to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material.” And though there is a risk that the romance “may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart, [it] has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.”

Frankenstein is also called “Gothic,” and Mary Shelley surely owes a debt to the Gothic literature that was so popular at the time. In turn, her book’s influence, direct or indirect, can be seen in many of her kindred artistic spirits of the 19th century. The ominous atmosphere of living nightmares is highly reminiscent of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

There are shades of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, as well, in the physical and psychological isolation of Victor Frankenstein, and in his desperate hunt to kill his massive, elusive quarry.

And of course there is Hawthorne, whose many stories of phantasms and shattered ambitions seem to be a direct descendant of Shelley’s vision. Frankenstein was born in a dream, as Shelley describes in her 1831 introduction: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” This is the very archetype of many a young man who finds himself the unfortunate protagonist of a Hawthorne story.

Furthermore, this now makes four out of four books that seem deeply invested in exploring death in its various shades of horror. Slaughterhouse-Five is a meditation on death. The action and ideas of the Oresteia are pursued through the consequences of acts of murder. Though no deaths occur in Prometheus Bound, the title character is punished because he has saved the entire human race from death, so mortality should be very much on the mind of the reader.

I must admit, it doesn’t take a long walk or a far throw to touch upon death in literature. What else would an artist explore, but the greatest of mysteries, and the deepest of sorrows? There is also love, I suppose, but love is incidental – a happy, if confusing, accident. Death, on the other hand, is a certainty; thus its centrality in art.

Perhaps one could say, “All art is about love and death, for the two are irrevocably intertwined.” The Romeo and Juliet hypothesis.

*          *          *

A few notes on the edition I read, published by Everyman’s Library. This is a much-storied imprint that currently exists as a series of classic titles presented with a uniform look and style. Frankenstein is a rather lovely volume that includes such niceties as Smyth-sewn bindings, thick, cream-colored paper, dark green buckram covers, a silk ribbon-marker, and even a note describing the history of the typeface. This makes for an enjoyable reading experience, though I perhaps would have traded these luxuries for a moderately extensive set of annotations. More troubling is the omission of Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition, even though this copy uses the 1831 text.

It speaks to the experience that one wants when reading. Do you want a clean, uninterrupted text, where you are free to read without being distracted by outside interpretation? Perhaps a book with fine bindings, pleasant to the touch, like the books that Mary Shelley herself might have pulled from her parents’ estimable library? Or do you want as much knowledge as possible – information about the author’s life and influences, critical commentary, supplementary materials like contemporary reviews, and most relevant to me: explanations for every now-obscure reference (without having to dash to the computer every time)?

None of this information would have changed my reading, but it probably would enhance it more than the physical qualities of the volume. There is however, a trade-off – I have read books in the form of pure digital text, with the option of looking up anything and everything online, but I find that the reading experience on a computer or smartphone lacks the intimacy of having all the details I want in one volume, or perhaps one volume and a separate volume of annotations. It increases my respect for the curating process, and really the artistry, that goes into the creation of a book, whether physical or digital.

*          *          *

*I read the 1831 edition. According to Shelley, the changes are “principally those of style. I have changed no portion of the story nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances.” However, commentators note that the changes suggest a growing conservatism on Shelley’s part, particularly with respect to the characterization of Elizabeth Lavenza.  

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