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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus"

It’s about time that I presented another of my favourite books. This time, it’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus. A couple of things to note. First of all, I anticipate this being a long entry, so I’ll be separating it into two parts. Second, all page numbers given refer to the paperback Oxford World’s Classics edition. Third, for those who are more familiar with one or another movie version rather than reading the original novel, I’d suggest that you erase the movies from your memory; every movie version of the book I’ve seen bears little resemblance to the book.

I’ll begin by summarizing the plot, so that the order of the main events is in everyone’s minds, and so that we’re all on the “same page”, as it were. Then, I’ll discuss the themes that the book brings out, of which there are six, generally speaking.

Plot Outline

The story begins in the form of an exchange of letters between an English ship’s captain named Robert Walton, and his sister Mrs. Margaret Savile. We don’t have Mrs. Savile’s side of the correspondence. Walton is sailing near the North Pole when his sailors spot the mysterious figure of a huge man off in the distance travelling by dog sled.

Some time later, his crew rescue a man near death. This man’s name is Victor Frankenstein.

Robert Walton relates to his sister the story of Frankenstein and the events leading up to his presence in the Arctic.

Frankenstein’s Narrative

Frankenstein is Swiss by birth, from a well-off merchant family in Geneva. By his own account his upbringing was rather idyllic. He was loved, and he experienced no material want. During his childhood, his parents adopted an orphaned “sister”, Elizabeth, who — rather creepily — would end up being Frankenstein’s wife. He also has a brother, and a best friend named Clerval.

He doesn’t experience his first brush with sadness and tragedy until his mother dies, shortly before he goes off to university in Germany. There, he develops an interest in the new sciences, and his research focuses on the “principle of life and generation”. He figures that he can actually make new life, and he does this by reanimating a person put together from body parts collected from graveyards and tombs. Shelley is vague on the science here, and for our purposes it’s not important.

He creates this creature, and gives it life. When it opens its eyes, Victor takes one look at it and flees in horror, at its ugliness. He then has a nervous breakdown and is nursed back to health after some months by his friend Clerval.

When he recovers he decides to return to Geneva, after receiving a letter from his father about the death of his little brother, William. William has been murdered, and the family’s servant Justine has been accused of the crime. (It turns out that Justine has a back story. She was taken in by the family after her father died, because for some reason, Justine’s mother conceived an irrational dislike of her. Sound familiar? It’s much like Frankenstein’s visceral dislike of his own “offspring”.)

Approaching Geneva, Victor catches a glimpse of his creature off in the distance, and realizes he is being followed and that his creature is responsible for the crime.

To cut a long story short, Justine is tried, convicted, and executed for the murder of William. To escape from their recent travails, the family travels to the mountains for a while. While on a hike, Victor runs into the monster. The monster tells the story of his experiences since his creation.

The Monster’s Narrative

We began with Walton, the English sea captain, who tells Victor’s story, and Victor now tells us the Monster’s story. So we have a story within a story nested within a story.

The Monster’s Tale begins at page 102. He describes all the events from the moment he opened his eyes to his meeting with Victor. He poignantly describes the moment when his creator retreats in fear and disgust, a creator who should have treated him with love.

He leaves (with Victor’s papers) and wanders abroad. At one point he is chased by villagers. Finally, he finds a dwelling place in a shed attached to a cottage. Through a chink in the wall he can observe the goings on of the family; the father of the family is blind. In a sense, this is the closest the Monster gets to an education, and though one might find this passage boring, it is actually quite interesting. The Monster describes how he learned language by listening to the family, and how he learned to read by watching them read and teach language to the Turkish woman named Safie.

He listens to them as they read works of literature. In so doing he has natural aversions to depictions of vice, and natural attraction to depictions of virtue. There is an underlying philosophical idea here, which is that morality is innate: The Monster is born good, and must learn to be evil.

The Monster decides to make himself known to the family. He waits until the blind father is alone, hoping to make a connection with one who won’t immediately be horrified by him, hopefully to prepare the rest of the family to accept him. Unfortunately, the family returns, are horrified at the Monster, and attack him, driving him away.

Even this does not completely twist the Monster’s character, for he subsequently helps rescue a drowning girl. However, a farmer sees him and shoots at him. From this point on he is twisted. He has made it his life’s sole meaning to destroy everything Victor loves, to reduce Victor to the condition of the Monster. Perhaps in a twisted way, it’s also an attempt to communicate with his father, to make his father understand how he feels. In any case, he tracks Victor down, using the papers he has taken with him from Victor’s study and that he has learned how to read. He travels to Geneva, where he kills Victor’s brother and frames the servant girl Justine for the deed. That brings the Monster’s tale up to date. We now return to Victor’s narrative.

The Monster tries to make a deal with Victor: If Victor agrees to make another creature, a female, the Monster promises to take his bride and depart from the habitations of man. There is something ironic in this: The Monster proposes to have another created like him, in the same predicament. He would in a sense be guilty of the same hubris and egocentricity as Victor, having another human life generated for his own selfish reasons.

It might be useful to note that in this the Monster is not that much different from other parents. I imagine that if we could all find out what were the exact reasons and motivations our parents had for conceiving us, we might not be all that impressed. Here are just a few possibilities:

* To keep their marriage together.
* Because they were bored.
* Because it was what was expected of them, and to be honest they didn’t really want a child.
* Because they weren’t really thinking about it at all.
* Because they wanted someone to look after them when they were old.
* Because they wanted to leave something of themselves behind when they died.

Anyway, to return to the story, Victor agrees to the Monster’s proposal. He goes to Britain with his friend Clerval. From there he travels to the Orkneys, where he begins work on a bride for the Monster. However, at the last minute he destroys his work. He can’t bring himself to complete the project. Unfortunately, the Monster was watching through the window and saw Victor destroy his intended bride.

The Monster continues his project of destroying everything Victor loves. He kills Clerval and almost succeeds in having Victor framed for it.

I will be with you on your wedding night…

It is decided that Victor shall marry Elizabeth, partly as a way of healing the grief in the family caused by so much misfortune. Before the wedding the Monster confronts Victor and issues the following ominous warning: “I will be with you on your wedding night.” When the wedding night comes, the Monster kills Elizabeth.

Now, Shelley repeats this warning several times throughout the book. What is so significant about the threat?

First, notice that the Monster has referred to the wedding night, not the wedding day. Although there is no indication in the text that the Monster has raped Elizabeth, I think the Monster is referring to what would have been expected to happen on a wedding night, namely sex.

The sense of foreboding could be a natural reaction of a woman to the (first) act, in which a man could be expected to be at his most animalistic. The idea is that on his wedding night Victor will be reduced to a state just as bestial as the Monster’s. On his wedding night, Victor will be no better, no more human, than his Creature. Whether it is by Victor, or by the Monster, there will be a violation that night.

Note too, that the sex act is necessary to procreation. It may be implied that the wedding night will be just as much a violation as Victor’s act of creation when he created the Monster. The Monster’s very creation was an act of violence.

To cut a long story short, the Monster murders Elizabeth. Victor vows vengeance and decides to track the Monster to the ends of the earth, to kill him. By the end of the novel both are dead.

So much for the novel’s plot. In my next posting I will go through some of the deeper themes that Shelley’s masterwork explores.

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