Have you read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? No, I mean have you read it recently? It’s one of those books that you might have read if you had a very cool 11th grade English teacher. (We read The World According to Garp by John Irving. That was definitely eye-opening.) I don’t think I actually read Frankenstein until college, and I read it because I loved horror novels. A lot of people say that they’re sure they’ve read it, but, honestly, even I started to conflate the book with the many Frankenstein-themed films that are out there.
My seventeen-year-old son and I are doing a golem unit that I decided to begin with the Penguin Classics edition of Mary Shelley’s remarkable novel. (Because I am a very cool 11th grade English teacher.) My husband, who is an actual university professor with a fancy-pants Princeton English pedigree, said, “You’re going to want to take it slow. It’s a pretty dense novel.” Dense? thought I. I mean, it’s Frankenstein, not Dostoyevsky. And then I started gathering copies of it and reading background on it. Well, yes. It is a bit dense, compared to contemporary fiction. It deals with some deep philosophical questions, and requires some small background in pre-19th century western literature to see where she was coming from. Still, you can read it as a straight horror tale, and it works.
There are so many things I see in this novel that I didn’t notice in my first readings. Things that amaze me, but that also bother me as a writer of gothic stories.
Here’s a brief synopsis: Young Victor Frankenstein, in educating himself as a scientist, becomes enamored of the writings of alchemists, rather than later scientists versed in modern methods and subjects. While studying at Ingolstadt University, he becomes obsessed with creating life—specifically a human. He succeeds in creating an eight-foot-tall creature who, on awakening, is immediately repellant to him. Terrified and disgusted, Victor leaves the creature alone, hoping it will go away. And it does. Victor (who, we learn, is prone to very long fits of psychologically-induced illness) goes into physical decline. Once he rallies, he learns one of his young brothers has been murdered. Immediately, he suspects the Creature and hurries home to Geneva. A young servant in his father’s house is prosecuted for the crime, but the Creature confronts him and tells him how he framed the servant. He also tells Victor of his adventures in learning to speak, and learning to live in a world that despises him because of his horrific appearance. The Creature demands that Victor owes him a wife, and must create one for him. Fearful that the Creature will, indeed, continue to kill everyone that Victor loves, Victor agrees. He travels to Oxford, then Scotland, hoping that he won’t have to follow through. But, finally, leaving his good friend and traveling companion, Henry, behind, he travels to a remote Orkney island to create the Creature’s wife. The Creature, having followed him, spies on him in his workshop, and when Victor catches him, he realizes the horror of what he is doing—creating a mate for a creature that has so far only engaged in evil deeds—and tears up the new, half-finished female creature in front of his tormentor. Enraged, the Creature vows to ruin Victor and his loved ones, and leaves. Victor soon learns that his best friend, Henry, has been murdered. Victor has been framed, but goes into another mental/physical decline, and when he awakes months later, he is vindicated. Taken home by his father, he marries Elizabeth, his true love, but the Creature takes his revenge by murdering her. Victor chases his creature all the way to the frozen North Sea, but dies before capturing and killing him.
The story has a frame around it—that of a sea captain writing his sister about the strange man (Victor) he rescued onto his ship. The captain befriends Victor, and writes down his tale. He also witnesses Victor’s death, and, later, the lamentations of the Creature who climbs in the captain’s window to mourn Victor. The Creature announces that he, also will seek death and climbs back out of the window. The end.
Let’s get this bit of trivia out of the way, first. Everyone knows that the Creature is not named “Frankenstein.” That’s Victor’s family name. The Creature has no name, but many call him a monster, or, simply, the Creature.
One of the first major turning points in the story is Victor’s rejection of his creation. Even though you know it’s coming, it’s a huge shock. One moment, Victor is triumphant about his remarkable achievement—made over the unknowing skepticism of his university science teachers—and the next he is running away from it, a coward. I confess that I begin to despise Victor in that moment. And then when he collapses like, well, an 18th-century operatic heroine, I lose all respect for him. Yes, he had the hubris to step into the shoes of the gods, and found they were terrifying beyond his ken, but I want to bitch-slap him. Maybe it’s the mother in me. You don’t abandon your child just because he’s ugly and eight feet tall. (I think mothers are genetically programmed to believe their children are beautiful, even when they’re seriously homely, or babies would be abandoned left and right.) And forgive me if I append to unacceptable norms when it comes to masculinity, but, seriously, descending into the vapors for months on end, Victor?
How is it that the creation of life, especially the failure of his creation, so affected Victor?
Victor was born into a society in which there were such things as abominations: a religious, or at least a humanistic society that had fairly stringent moral codes. It was the dream of the alchemists to recreate Nature in their own image, and Victor made that dream come true. He knew he’d violated the code by creating life by his own hand. He supplanted God and suffered for it, externally and internally. (Worse, for Victor, is that he has unleashed a murderer on the world. He doesn’t just feel sorry for himself, so I must give him points for that.)
I’m trying to imagine anyone, now, worrying about supplanting God.
Or perhaps I am looking at the story from the wrong end. With so much talk and research into artificial intelligence, it seems we’ve come much further down the road of acceptance of our own godliness than Victor. We are plunging headlong into designing creations that approach life very, very closely. And how do we view them? Do we grant them some form of personhood? Victor’s creature very much considers himself a person. But is he human? Does being human bestow a kind of privilege on us above other beings? Will we someday be required to check our human privilege? What does personhood vs humanness mean? Does the holding of morals make us…superior? I think this will eventually be an important issue.
But I digress. Victor’s Creature is assumed to be fully human and desirous of becoming a moral human, if only someone will love him, will give him a reason to embrace goodness. He describes himself as Victor’s own Adam, and tells Victor it is his job to love him and teach him goodness. (Sounds like a very childlike idea to me. If you show me love, I won’t be a jerk. If you don’t, then I’m justified in being a jerk.) Eventually Victor learns about life and philosophy from the books he finds or steals, and from the people he observes. But he never absolves his creator of responsibility and, indeed, punishes him until death.
I feel compelled to mention a few coincidences of detail when it comes to the Creature—such as the way he helps himself to Victor’s clothing when he wakes up so he can move among other humans. He is EIGHT FEET TALL. Victor Frankenstein is not eight feet tall. No one is eight feet tall. There’s no way he could wear Victor’s clothes. At one point, when he is cold, he finds a cloak just lying at the edge of some woods. Hmmmm. But was it the cloak of an eight-foot giant? Even if he found a cloak that was five feet long…oh, never mind. Also, there’s never a mention of shoes or boots. He travels through the Alps and into the frozen north, apparently barefoot.
There’s also a problem with the Creature’s magical learning style. Hiding himself in a hovel (only a few feet high inside) attached to a cottage belonging to a small family, he spies on them daily for a year. Yes, an eight-foot-tall man lives on the other side of a wall of an eighteenth century cottage from three people and learns to speak and read by listening to and watching them through a crack in the wall. Conveniently, the family has a pretty Frenchwoman come to stay with them, and he is able to learn read and write German (?) as they teach it to her. And no on ever notices the giant eyeball spying on them all day and night, or the EIGHT-FOOT-TALL MAN scooching in and out of the hovel to collect berries for himself and firewood for the family. (He becomes a kind of an elfin do-gooder for them.) Oh, and while he’s hanging out at the cottage, he finds a “leathern portmanteau” in the woods containing Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and Sorrows of Werter to augment his reading skills. In fact, the Creature is so adept at learning this way, he becomes quite eloquent and manipulative.
Now, I know this is a story written by an eighteen-year-old early in the 19th century, and it’s full of melodrama. I don’t mind melodrama, and in fact indulge in it occasionally myself. Frankenstein is a prototype of a science fiction tale—though it plays fairly fast and loose with scientific facts. Mary Shelley received a progressive liberal arts education, including the study of the classics of her day. But she doesn’t seem to have worried much about scientific facts or even biology.
I am oddly attracted to this passage about the materials Victor gathered to make his creature: “I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials.” There is no supernatural activity here—this is gritty anatomists’ work. Though when Victor is in the Orkneys, he is installed in a hut on an island with only five inhabitants. He doesn’t talk about where the materials for his second creature come from. There’s no mention of graveyards or charnel houses or corpses. One of his chief worries is that the Creature and his bride will breed, creating an entirely new, “evil” race. He must be a very fine anatomist, indeed, to have connected all those reproductive organs correctly and gotten them up to breeding functionality.
Am I judging Mary Shelley too harshly? Frankenstein is a passionate read, and it’s written with pathos, energy, and a whole lot of passion. She wrote it from the single image of a waking dream, which she recounts in her 1831 Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition:
“…the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”
The introduction was written nearly fifteen years after the novel was first written. Truly, this image permeates the entire book. The relationship between the Creature and Victor is all there: Victor had imagined that he was creating the “cradle of life,” yet the thing stood looking down on him with “yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.” Eyes full of want and need. And Victor just wants him dead.
Indeed, the entire book, with the exception of the frame of the captain’s letters, has the feel of a fever dream. (Victor does spend an awful lot of time having fevers and sleeping.) It’s a smart book, if occasionally naïve. My son and I both benefitted from reading it slowly, over the course of two weeks. It left me time to think about the two chapters I read each day, to explore their depths. Looking at it from a psychological standpoint, the Creature is peculiarly rational and feels very modern to me, reminding me of an adolescent who is reaching, searching for some sort of moral framework, as we all do as we mature. And, like so many of us, both he and Victor spend considerable time feeling rather sorry for themselves, either overdramatizing the importance of their own actions, or blaming someone else for them.
If you haven’t read Frankenstein, I highly recommend that you take a look. It’s creepy, but there are no grisly passages. If I had to put it into a category, I would call it a science fiction tragedy. (And you know I can’t wait until we reach the Young Frankenstein and Golem film portion of the syllabus.)
In addition to watching several films, we’ll be reading a few more books and stories. It’s handy that my son’s mom has written her own Frankenstein story, Devil’s Oven, and his dad has an amazing golem story, Mudman, in his collection Miracle Boy. The fourth book we’ll read is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
January 18th Words
Journal: 150 words
Long fiction: 529 words
Short fiction: 0
Non-fiction: 0 words
Blogging: 2451 words
Exercise: 16 minutes treadmill
3 thoughts on “A (Mostly) Irreverent Riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”
Laura; as an English teacher, I am positively astounded by your excellent analysis of Shelley’s novel. This is an astounding piece of really GOOD writing; actually, you should submit it somewhere for its masterful assessment, and your method of writing is also perfect; I was transformed, but I have to admit I never read Shelley’s Frankenstein. Having read my way through the Canon as an undergrad and grad student, I never got to this particular novel ( I’m rather relieved) and in high school we studied other books, aka Silas Marner, A Separate Peace, etc. ( cried my way through all and hid it under eye liner and many layers of mascara). But I did see the movie with Boris Karloff many, many times. However, I did read and extol Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that’s due to the fact my family came from Ukraine and Prince Vlad’s castle was near my grandmother’s village in the Carpathian Mountains, so they made pilgrimages to his grave to spit on it and then make the Sign of the Cross as they fled away. Growing up, it was quite common for us to pretend we were the infamous blood drinking bat turned into human form. However, I digress, your piece is more than admirable. and Shelley’s theme is rather disturbing and visionary, I think.
That is so fascinating about your family history. What an amazing story to have come down to you, to spark your imaginations!
Thank you for your kind words about the piece. It’s great fun to discover books all over again with my son. I was moved by A Separate Peace, too.
I read some Anne Rice years ago, but not recently. So many books to read before I die. It’s sad to think of the ones I won’t get to. 🙂
Laura, have you ever read anything by Anne Rice: The Witching Hour or Interview with a Vampire?