It’s alive! It’s alive!!
The Beamers took a break from the sultry summer weather this month to chase across the ice fields in pursuit of Frankenstein and his creation. What we discovered was a surprisingly modern book that feeds the roots of science fiction and continues to offer rewards for those contemporary readers who are able to overcome their “tender affections”.
It Was a Dark and Stormy Summer
Frankenstein was written in 1816 by a young Mary Shelley, as the result of a challenge to write “ghost stories” during rainy vacation days in Switzerland. What grew out of her imagination is arguably the first science fiction novel, a tale of a young scientist whose insight into the mystery of life leads him to animate dead flesh. Victor’s creation, shunned by people due to his horrible appearance, leads a campaign of vengeance on those who reject him, principally his creator. Nested together as a series of stories being told within stories, Frankenstein unveils the nature of the creature and his revenge and poses questions about nature-versus-nurture and moral judgment that remain open to debate even today.
Was She Paid by the Word?
But, it does take time to get going. Like most Nineteenth century literature, Frankenstein is, to current tastes, a bit flowery in its language (see those “tender affections”) and full of Romantic flourishes such as characters stricken with “brain fevers” and languors due to their emotional states. Further, Shelley overlays three different narratives (Robert Walton’s polar expedition, Victor’s biography, the creature’s tale), one inside the other, as stories told by each principal to another via letters, making for a bit of backtracking in the chronology. While epistolary novels were not new even in Shelley’s day, Liz applauded the experimental structure of the book for taking risks with its series of flashbacks, each revealing something new about the events of the book.
A Most Articulate Creation!
We did find ourselves sitting up and taking notice, though, when the monster starts to speak. Clearly the most nuanced and sympathetic character in the book, the creature (and we argued whether we could use “the ‘M’ word” or not) gives the most complicated narrative and the one most filled with instances of both joy and sorrow. Oversized and ill-made, he strives to find simple friendships but is rejected in spite of all his good deeds. Educating himself from found texts (Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, The Sorrows of Young Werther), he recognizes goodness and beauty in others but is convinced, time after time, that none can (or should) be found in himself. He is an outsider, enough so that we debated whether to consider him human or not, which theme we found congruent to the central theme of identity (alien or human?) that occupies much science fiction. He is also a figure with whom teenagers can identify, being themselves neither child nor adult, awkward, ill-fitting into society.
We, the Jury, Find …
How guilty or innocent is the creature? We debated this question, the one Merrie identified as the book’s central Nature-versus-Nurture theme, but we did not give a definite answer. Like the monster himself, the sense of whether it was inevitable that the creature fell into evil or was pushed eluded easy capture. Was he aware of the differences between Good and Evil? Alan thought that reading texts like Plutarch’s Lives, which helped establish in Western literature the convention of outward appearance reflecting inward integrity (handsome = good, ugly = bad), would skew the creature’s moral judgment. The creature’s murder of Victor’s young brother William, though portrayed as accidental, leads to his framing of Justine, the maid, whose conviction is one of the book’s deepest criticisms of human justice. So, we found it difficult to label simple villains in this tale.
Kids, Do Not Try This at Home
Except, perhaps, for Victor. Given quite a bit of praise (derived from being based on Shelley’s husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, as Eileen noted), Victor is quite flawed as a protagonist. Our major criticism pointed to his moral cowardice, leading to a series of abandonments that fuel the tragic events of the book. First and foremost, he simply ignores his creation, preferring to hide under the bedcovers (literally). Where the creature is afforded opportunities for moral education (see his cache of books, all recommended teaching texts of the time), he lacks any personal examples of love and affection (tender or not). I found Shelley’s focus on friendship and lack thereof to be startlingly current, corresponding nicely with much recent work on the role of physical affection in the development of young mammals. And Victor is squarely to blame, as he is with Justine’s execution, where he fails to testify on her behalf.
Stealing Fire from the Gods … with Science!
Victor’s diffident approach to his responsibilities made us question the subtitle of Shelley’s novel: “the Modern Prometheus”. Who was her Prometheus? For most of us, the obvious answer was Victor, since, as Alan pointed out, Prometheus is credited with creating humanity with the divine fire that he stole. But Fran noted that Percy Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama about rebellion against divine tyranny, a theme startling close to the creature’s motivation. I wondered if both Victor and the creature were Prometheus, different aspects of the same figure, as Victor mentions at one point how the monster is his twin. Kathy added that both of them die within a short time of each other, perhaps as neither could live without the other, providing some evidence but not enough to persuade the Beamer collective. Which, as Alan observed, is a hallmark of great Art, that it offers different readings to its different readers.
Things Humans Were Not Meant to Write?
Another hallmark is how great Art plays with or breaks the “rules”, something that Shelley also does. Eileen commented that Frankenstein challenges many of the cultural assumptions of its day (class prejudices, as seen via Justine, xenophobia with both the monster and with Victor’s indictment in Ireland for being a foreigner). I appreciated Shelley’s subversion of the moral pronouncement of the “deathbed conversion”, as Victor reneges on his denunciation of his work (“yet another may succeed”) and the creature’s suicide is more triumphal than shameful. Shelley does not falsify her characters to provide some comforting bromides for the readers. “Kill your darlings”, indeed. Which is not to say that its reliance on coincidence and convenience (Kevin questioning the availability of monster parts and lab equipment on semi-deserted Orkney islands) does not show through, only that such plot contrivances do not seriously distract from the philosophical conundrums.
Our final judgment on Frankenstein was to award it high marks (‘7’ and ‘8’ on our scale), considering it not only good to read but also to recommend, a book that rewards those readers who stick with it through the set-up and the painfully “hand-wave-y” act of building the perfect beast to reach its true core, the dilemma of being unique (“the only one of its kind, solitary, alone in its class”).