On the rare occasion that I write about a novel – especially a classic novel – on this horror site, I balk at the prospect. Reviewing a movie – even analyzing some of its salient components – is fairly easy, but how does one “review” a classic work of literature? To what extent am I just writing a paper? Who am I to say whether Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a great piece of literature? Haven’t preceding generations already decided that? And what in God’s name am I going to say about this novel that is original? Such hesitant speculation deterred me from writing for about a day after I finished the text, but since I haven’t written for my beloved website for over a month, and since I just read frickin’ Frankenstein, it was hard to justify my lassitude on a permanent basis.
Well, insofar as my opinion on this issue does matter, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstien is phenomenal. I picked up this work in part out of obligation – I’m reading it for my PhD candidacy exam – but I was nonetheless excited to start reading. As of now, I’m warning the reader, spoilers may abound in this overview. To some extent, though, we all know what happens. Victor Frankenstein concocts a “monster,” sewn together from human limbs and jolted to life by some weird, unspecified “natural” science, then abandons said monster out of utter, loathsome detestation. He frequently refers to his monster as “devil” or “fiend,” especially after the creature kills Victor’s youngest brother to indicate what will happen if Victor doesn’t concoct a mate for the creature (who, after watching a family of cottage dwellers for an extended time period and feeling enchantment over their mannerisms and way of life, was vehemently rejected by them because of his grotesque appearance). Victor considers the proposition, but ultimately refuses out of an ethical quandary (what will happen if I create another “murderous beast” – will they join to overtake humanity? One may argue this is not a rational fear.) His refusal – his flagrant tearing apart of the second creature after he begins to create it, with the first creature watching on in anguish through a window – prompts further devastating killings (by the original creature), which culminate in Victor’s frenetic flight across a frozen sea. Victor crosses the sea in pursuit of his creature so that they may combat one another and he may avenge the death of his loved ones. But, starved and frozen, he encounters the exploration vessel of one Robert Walton and relates his harrowing tale instead. After telling his story, he lapses into death, and Walton watches on as the creature boards the ship, finds Frankenstein’s body, speaks in defense of himself, and leaves without hurting anyone else. The creature’s speech is a climactic work of beauty in the text – the section that gives voice to the so-called other, depicts Victor as he really is, and delivers Shelley’s points most eloquently.
So, that’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a nutshell, but who wants a shell? (As if you were craving my opinion of the work). The work is often read from a metaphysics of hubris that situates Victor as the quintessential, Icarian hubristic figure who “flies too close to the sun” (concocts a monster in a maddened frenzy for fame and fortune), and then painfully suffers the ill effects of his rash, insane impulses and damning success. I have no contention against this, except that Victor was never as young, innocent, and sympathetic as we would presume the less-characterized Icarus to be when he flew too close to the sun with waxen wings despite Daedalus’ warnings. I mean, I get that it’s only an allegory, but the two characters are astronomically different. After all, who wouldn’t be intoxicated by the experience of flight, the ability to flap one’s appendages and suddenly rise higher and higher above the earth? I can imagine the sudden rush of exhilaration, which descends after the first wing flap, and the assiduously escalating thrill of ascending, so that you lose your mind in the overwhelming beauty of the flight and forget how far you’ve flown until it’s too late, until you realize that the warm, sensuous heat that embraces you is the same heat that will melt your life-blood in the air, your wings, and send you, startled, plummeting to the ground below. Couple this very understandable situation with the fact that Icarus is a child, and he becomes the epitome of a sympathetic character, the boy who got a little excited and flew too high. We do not fault Icarus because his flight was not really an act of pride; it was an act of childish and understandable intoxication. And, after all, there is no sin in flying. As odious as Icarus’s tale is, I would fly if I could, if I had the wings and the chance, and I would wonder that anyone would decline the offer.
Icarus was never seeking renown or fame, which was one critical difference between the ill-fated boy and the avaricious Victor Frankenstein. Victor does not become intoxicated by the wonder of flight, but enamored by the prospect of renown – for which air flight is an admittedly poor metaphor, because it is an experience, not a status. In fact, it is rather ridiculous to compare the concoction of a human from limbs, the creation of a dead-in-life, alive-in-death being, the reanimation of a corpse, to the act of flight, and the fact that Victor is consistently intoxicated when surrounded by the horrid and grotesque (if dismembered human parts aptly fit that description, a testament to which the scientist may object), then there is really something perverse in his visions of grandeur. I would never deem Icarus mentally unstable, but, well, Victor – one wonders where his head is at toward the text’s beginning, and then throughout the rest of his debacle.
And still all of this is very sympathetic; I can forgive Victor’s indiscretion, even if he is “hubristic,” even if he takes the work of God, the control of life and death, into his own hands. As for myself, I am not immune to grandiosity (haven’t we all had flashes of it, in our most self-indulgent moments?) though I’ve never endeavored to reanimate a corpse. I think most of us dare to dream in our wildest moments, and dare to dream big, and I’d rarely fault the person who does; such dreams are delicious, delightful parts of being human, and for a few they come to fruition, making them seem not-so-silly. It’s what Victor does after he succeeds that interests me more, and here, I think, different human beings would react differently, and how one responds to such a cataclysmic, unhappy accident would be rather indicative of one’s character.
First, Victor flees his creation – leaves the site of his giant, ugly man-baby, rendering the unsuspecting creature defenseless against a world that will abhor him for his appearance. As with Victor’s frenzied climb toward creation, I can forgive this fault. If I were in the same room as a dead body that suddenly came to life, my inclination would be to leave the room. This is an instance that Showtime’s Penny Dreadful depicted wonderfully in their revisiting of Shelley’s classic story, when the creature describes his inception and Victor’s fear is showcased. Most sane, rational people would instinctively leave the room after they’d brought a dead man to life in a mad rush of ambition.
I think the test of character lies in how one reacts after one has created the situation, after the initial shock of seeing death transform to life wears off, after one gains a modicum of sanity and realizes that he (or she) has brought a being into the world against its will and against God’s will, a being that hasn’t a scintilla of a chance of being treated fairly in life – which we can presume is true according to the events in Shelley’s tale and Victor’s description of the creature. The problem is, (and this is a problem we see throughout history, when we are dealing with human beings, and not creatures), is that Victor never sees “the creature” as a human, though he has all the makings of a human being, and his ability to speak, to express his emotions, and his desire for the love of the cottage dwellers all emphasize this point. In the 19th century, the rise of humanism created either-or fault lines between what it meant to be human or inhuman, situated humans at the center of the earth with a concomitant disregard for nature and a disregard for (even de-humanizing of) people who were different. The so-called “tribal native?” He was not fully “developed,” not fully “human.” We women, with our allegedly limited strength and so-called diminished mental capacity, were also less than human. If it was so easy to dehumanize the living (as it, troublingly, still may be) then imagine how easy it was to dehumanize the living dead man, who was replete with a monstrous appearance. Victor hears the creature’s experience of desiring love and facing immediate rejection, of being alone in the world, but he can only ever see the creature as a “devil” or a “fiend.” When the creature requests a mate for companionship, Victor imagines two demonic creatures with their evil, satanic spawns overtaking humanity, his ethical ground for refusing the creature’s request. But if he could see the creature – even see past the initial murder, which is an act of desperation to try to persuade Victor to make a companion for him – if he could acknowledge the heavy supply of humanness in an admittedly ugly man, then he would fulfill the creature’s request by acknowledging his need for companionship and reasoning (rightly) that fulfilling that need will render the creature sensitive, without vengeance, and harmless, the way he was before he was tarnished by the experience of ostracism. The dramatic irony of the plot is that the reader infers this the entire time, but Victor cannot. He can never see the creature as more than a fiend, more than a monster, and it results in his own undoing, along with that of his friends and family.
This novel, then, in large part, is about being able to “see” the other as human, recognizing different people as people and treating them with the sympathy and regard that warrant being alive on this earth (an order that is especially tall and all the more real if you’re responsible for that life, or for that death-reversal, as Victor is). And it’s also about owning what you’ve done, which Victor only does to a limited extent. While he feels notably guilty (a guilt that’s poignantly and troublingly depicted in the novel) he ultimately blames everything on the “evil” of the creature, failing to acknowledge the creature’s pain or his own part in the creature’s pain, his continuous rejection of the creature, even after he glimpses the creature’s very human personality. His guilt, then, is paradoxical and oddly incomplete. He laments the death of William, Henry, and Elizabeth, but he never laments the pain of his own creature, the being who was brought back from death without wanting to be revived, simply because Victor sought scientific renown.
It is notable, too, that at the end of the tale, when Victor has told his story to Walton, Walton and his men are surrounded by icebergs in the sea. Walton’s men make him promise that they will turn around and go home if the ice melts and they escape the situation, surmising that the sea will only grow more dangerous and the trip isn’t worth their livelihoods. A weak and ailing Victor scorns them for their cowardice, condoning Walton’s desire for fame and conquest, unable to see that an irrational need for achievement at the expense of others was the very element of his own undoing. He is then, not only judgmental, but unable to learn from his own horrific experience. He cannot see the reflection of himself in Walton. For all his suffering, then, Victor is a flat, static character. He is unable to grow form his mistakes.
I realize this post is oddly moralistic for a horror site, but these are my “uncultivated” thoughts on the work, the points that simply come to mind without thinking about the text too hard. Perhaps I am unfairly judgmental of Victor, when, as I’ve noted, there is a little of Victor in most everyone. But, so it goes. I felt a bit bad for him throughout the story, until the conclusion, when he condemned Walton’s men, at which point he seemed simply stupid. And he unfairly maligns the creature to Walton, never acknowledging the possibility of the creature’s humanness. He wallows in pity and displays little ability for growth. And still, rather than have that be a failing of the story, it is, oddly, part of what makes it excellent. One is terrified by Victor’s experience while wanting to shake his shoulders and alert him to the reality of the situation. It is, in my mind, no wonder this work is a classic.
3 thoughts on “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”
While it may seem “oddly moralistic for a horror site” I think it fits…and is perhaps important too. I always love your pieces when you discuss the importance of horror as a genre or why we love horror even though the world’s dark already. I find those fascinating! I think this is another great answer for the question of why we are drawn to horror. Here Mary Shelley is using a “monstrous” creature to help us see our own selves more clearly. In addition to scaring us with a once-dead “creature,” it can also make us look deeper at ourselves, our culture, and how we act towards those we see as “other” while simultaneously piercing the other-veil. That is something profoundly important. It’s elevating and challenging us perhaps even when we don’t expect it. That potential is a powerful (and valuable!) tool at the horror genre’s disposal.
Well-stated. I like your idea that Shelley uses the monstrous as a tool for our self-examination, and I think it’s an important way to read the text.
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