Sunday, November 11, 2012


Frankenstein (1818)

“It was a dreary night of November . . .”

Given my love of the Gothic, it’s absurd that I’ve waited until the age of 28 to read Frankenstein, arguably the most literary, if not the most famous, of the Gothic tales.  I’m not sure what has prevented me other than not coming across it in school.  I thought to myself that 2012 was the year I would finally do it, and given that the actual text is surprisingly short (especially considered next to Dracula and, more relevantly perhaps, to Mrs Radcliffe’s romances) it was no great struggle.  I wonder, though, if my hesitancy was some instinctual fear that I would be disappointed.  Because I actually was a bit disappointed.   

It’s strange to quantify this disappointment.  I chose the 1818 text because I had been informed, contrary to critical belief up until recently, that it was preferable given it was more raw and creative a text; Shelley was nineteen, I believe, when she began drafting it.  I know the story of its composition probably better than I know the book itself; I have seen several film versions (who hasn’t?) and heard at least one (very faithful) radio adaptation.  Given that it has endured far more both in critical terms and popularly than Mrs Radcliffe’s romances, it is important for being one of the few female-authored classic Gothic texts.  I also wonder whether having read the introduction to the Oxford edition of 1998 by Marilyn Butler, I was led to too high of expectations:  basically, that the sum is less than the parts.

I love Dracula, and while it’s totally unfair (and not really relevant) to compare the two, I couldn’t help contrasting my reaction to reading the former (which was pleasure and elation) with the latter (some frustration, some indifference, and some interest).  I feel, on the contrary, that I should really read Shelley’s father, Godwin’s, Gothic novels in order to understand her contribution more fully.  Shelley’s work is demonstrably different from Radcliffe’s, and no one would presume to exchange Radcliffe’s novel(s) for Shelley’s.  I like the idea that the book can work on the folk tale level, with allusions to Cornelius Agrippa’s sorcerer’s apprentice, and to contribute to the then-current (1818) debates on science, humanity, and the soul.  

My favorite part of the story has always been the frame narrative, and this is something that (again, perhaps relevantly, perhaps not) Frankenstein shares with Dracula.  Walton’s journey to the Arctic, as described through letters to his sister, is not so different in some senses from Jonathan’s letters to Mina about visiting Romania (and vice versa).  There’s something very compelling, to me, about a stranger coming upon the end of this tale in a dangerous, primal environment.  (See Lockwood’s arrival at Wuthering Heights for another excellent example.)  Unfortunately, Walton himself—in this version especially—is not a likeable character, or even a particularly interesting one.  Forgive me for asking too much of Mary Shelley, but a bit more travel narrative, a bit less abstract theorizing, would have, for me, told me a lot more about Walton as a proto-scientist/explorer and as a person.  

However, Frankenstein himself is an extremely unlikeable and almost unsympathetic character.  By the end, I really rather wished he would hurry up and die.  The problem with Frankenstein is that he doesn’t learn from his mistakes, and that can be very frustrating to a reader; at least, it makes it difficult for me to take him seriously.  I understand that Shelley softened Frankenstein’s character in the 1831 version, making him more religious, more repentant, and in general less of a jerk.  I can understand why she did this (especially as the 1830s were heading into a more sentimental Victorian age) but, even if I don’t like Frankenstein in 1818, I admire her artistic choice to make him a bleak, unapologetic character, more akin to Heathcliff than Rochester (though I feel none of the attraction Frankenstein that I do to Heathcliff).  Frankenstein also has a weird tendency toward wussiness.  Jonathan Harker may seem remarkably effeminized to modern readers, but Frankenstein falls down with illness every five seconds, seemingly, and at extremely convenient times.  Despite this, his immune system is apparently so strong that he can last a few months in the extreme conditions of the Arctic.  What gives?  (See unreliable narrator, further on.)

Furthermore, I really found myself disappointed in Shelley’s female characters.  Mrs Radcliffe’s heroines are hardly nuanced characters of realistic shading, but then Jane Austen had died only the year before Frankenstein was published, and it is beyond question that her female characters are superior to Shelley’s.  I have tried to ask myself why this should be.  Surely, as a woman, Shelley would have wanted to present realistic and/or interesting female protagonists (say what you want about Mina and Lucy in Dracula, they are at least interesting).  What prevented her?  Was it plot necessity, which requires the women in Frankenstein’s life—his dependents—to be continually victimized?  Was it feminist subtext, suggesting that the repression of women resulted in characters that, at least as far the male narrators are concerned, are backdrop?  Was it a double-bluff resulting from the birth and post-natal depression inspiration taken from Shelley’s own life?  Was it her youth as a writer and reliance on some conventions in her first novel?  I am certainly open to suggestion.  I think it is without question that Shelley herself would have made a far more interesting heroine than Elizabeth, Victor’s mother, Justine, and Agatha (though Zafie has the potential to be the most interesting female character).  

The implication of guilt in furthering Frankenstein’s vain projects is interesting, more so in this 1818 version, where his father is implicated more and Inglostadt marginally less.  It is interesting to me, moreover, that Inglostadt can be so much to blame in the first place; the amount of freedom Frankenstein is given might be a subtle class criticism on the (decadent) aristocrat’s carefree manipulation of the world around him, damn the consequences (then again, it might not, given that Frankenstein was modelled at least in part on her husband, Percy).  Another disappointment for me was the lack of description concerning the way Frankenstein brought his creature to life.  To someone used to the step-by-step, journal-recorded detail of Dracula, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein’s generalizations are frustrating.  “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”   Frankenstein seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake; he does not seek immortality/reanimation to save a loved one, for example.  (I love the way that the Jekyll & Hyde musical felt it had to make Jekyll’s quest the result of his vow to save his father from madness after having been committed to a mental asylum; what a 20th century way of giving a framework of psychology to a Jekyll who, in the book, is rather a nasty character on his own.)  Frankenstein’s description of the Creature, too, is disappointingly vague (though, I suppose this allows the Creature to assume anyone’s nightmare shape and to stand in for any number of bogeymen).  It is also difficult to believe that, until the deed was done, Frankenstein had a mental block and could not see that this sewn-together corpse he was putting together was not, indeed, a beautiful object.  (Though, in the context of The Monk, I suppose the whole thing could stand in as a metaphor for sexual gratification.) 
Nevertheless, as a completely unreliable narrator, Frankenstein’s conception of and reaction to the entirety of the novel comes into question.  By his own admission, almost all of his own story could be a lie, an exaggeration, or a half-truth.  The only “proof” we have is of Walton’s letters, presumably discovered after his death; if we choose to disbelief even Walton’s story, we have one massive deception, which is really interesting to contemplate.  I have read criticism before that suggests the Crew of Light fabricated the whole of their “evidence” against Dracula and that the king of vampires could be construed, through careful reading of the “facts” of the text, as the victim.  Frankenstein could be entirely a parable constructed by a delirious Walton with no corroboration needed from the crew, if he doesn’t survive the trip, that is.  

The most satisfying and startling section of the book is when the Creature is allowed to tell his own story.  The confrontation on the glacier is the prose equivalent of Friederich’s paintings of the sublime.  This section is amazingly creative; can you imagine in 1818 being asked to dream up how a fully-formed semi-human would describe birth and infancy?  (In a sense, Shelley had a blueprint in Milton, to whom she owes an acknowledged debt; Eve’s first thoughts and actions in Paradise Lost are fascinating.)  The Creature experiences sensations without recognizing how they are generated; in short, a sensory overload overwhelms him.  His birth has been a hard one, and his upbringing lonely, confusing, unpleasant, and overpowering.  Only a reader with a heart of stone could fail to empathize with the Creature and, in my opinion, even in the 19th century surely would have looked beyond the superficial abnormalities and accepted him as better than his creator (or am I being unnecessarily generous?).  

The incidents with the DeLaceys are the most “tale-like” of the novel and follow the most closely on from Rousseau and Walpole himself; nevertheless, they are there for satirical purposes and soon shatter in a devastating (and highly dramatic/cinematic) way.  It’s strange that the reader’s hope is raised, in a half self-revulsed manner, that Frankenstein will consent to make the Creature a mate.  (Surely Frankenstein’s fear that the world will get populated by mini-monsters is unfounded, unless the Creature has the same miraculous powers of insemination that Edward Cullen does.)  The Creature’s anguished confessions of complete wretchedness after the death of Frankenstein are, again, one of the most masterful sections of the book.  His decision to throw himself on a funeral byre is both incredibly sad and somehow intensely poetic.  “Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?  Why do you not hate Felix, who drove his friend from his door with contumely?  Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child?  Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings?  I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.”  This put me very much in mind of the narrator of Phantom of the Opera’s (considerably less grandiose) speech about Erik wishing only to be loved for himself. (Has anyone ever speculated on Shelley’s influence on Leroux?)  

Perhaps it will be necessary for me to think on and revisit Frankenstein before I can regard it as highly as I regard Dracula.    

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