Book of the Month – February/March: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley

frankenstein

Following my visit last October to the British Museum’s fantastic exhibition on Gothic literature (see my post about my experience for all the details: https://thereadinglight.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/terror-and-wonder-the-gothic-imagination-exhibition-at-the-british-library/), in the ensuing months I have found my interest in the genre to be greatly revived and increasingly informed as a result of the myriad of fascinating things I saw and learned. When it came to writing an article recently for my school’s blog, my personal engagement in the topic saw me exploring the worlds of both literature and fashion by linking Gothicism to the eternal popularity of black clothing; come the composition of my Christmas wishlist, I eagerly asked for a collection of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, curious as I was to delve beyond the familiar ‘Disneyfied’ facades of common stories and discover their gritty, gory and gruesome original versions. And of course, a true interest in any area of literature simply would not be complete without reading (or rereading) a number of the corresponding works of fiction: in my case, my most recent of such reads was the gloriously chilling Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Although I had previously read this book a couple of years ago, I feel that upon a second reading I encountered a number of interesting elements which had escaped my notice the first time round, my familiarity with the plot meaning I was able to completely focus on the intricacies of character, language and narrative voice. For this reason, my reading of this book in late-February and early-March really resonated with me. I have therefore decided to forgo separate February and March ‘Book of the Month’ posts, for the simple reason that I honestly do not think anything else that I read during these two months can even compare to Frankenstein.

Not too long ago, I read a rather interesting article in which the writer disputes the eponymous character’s claim to the title of ‘The Modern Prometheus’, as the novel’s subtitle terms him to be. As many of you will no doubt already be aware, this subtitle is a mythological allusion to the Greek Titan, Prometheus, who created mankind out of clay and water, and delivered fire to men after it was denied them by Zeus and the gods. In some ways I would argue that the comparison between Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein is one that is entirely apt and exceedingly clever on Shelley’s part, for one can indeed see a number of similarities between the two stories. For example, just as Prometheus forms man via unnatural means, so too does Shelley’s protagonist go against nature by artificially fashioning a being, known only as the Creature or the Monster (the ‘Frankenstein’ of the title not, despite the misconceptions created by numerous Halloween costumes and the like, referring to this latter but in fact to his scientist creator). Moreover, according to mythology Prometheus’s act of bestowing fire is representative of man being gifted with knowledge, the fire’s light metaphorically symbolising humanity’s new-found ability to see with clarity those things that had previously been unseen, unknown and obscure. Similarly, in her novel Shelley depicts Frankenstein’s own desire to acquire knowledge of that secret which had always been denied from mankind, which had always been and should have always remained exclusively known to none other than the gods: the secret of life itself.

On the other hand, the interpretations which I gleaned from the previously-mentioned article have also opened my eyes to an alternative viewpoint as regards Frankenstein’s ‘Prometheus’ status. Now, it has been reported that during a reading of her novel Shelley once referred to the Creature as ‘Adam’; while this Biblical allusion to God’s first man is pretty self-explanatory, my interest and curiosity were aroused when I saw that the writer of the article argues that it is perhaps actually Frankenstein who better merits to be called Adam. Yes, it is true that Frankenstein is the creator rather than the created like Adam. What the two do have in common however is something much more frightening: they are both slaves to temptation, the consequences of which are a travesty for mankind. Unlike Prometheus, who can be said to benefit and enlighten man (both figuratively and literally) through the giving of fire, Adam cannot help but be tempted by Eve to eat the Forbidden Fruit, thus bringing about the fall of men, the expulsion from Eden and the introduction of sin and darkness into the world. Similarly, Frankenstein succumbs to the temptation of going beyond the bounds of human knowledge; like Adam, this temptation leads to him doing something that is forbidden (by nature in this case), the threat posed to humanity by the Monster he creates meaning that he too is condemning mankind by his actions.

Having said this, another important question that I asked myself as I turned the pages through Frankenstein’s devastatingly tragic tale was this: despite what we may initially think, just who is the real monster in the novel? It is an issue that has long been debated by many others before me, with strong cases being evident for both sides of the argument. For example, in the most typical sense of the word, it is obviously the Creature who is the monster, both in name, appearance and actions: with his threatening bulk and grossly disfigured form, his bare-handed murder of an innocent child and beautiful young woman, his sinister stalking and lurking in the shadows, he truly is the stuff of nightmares. And yet despite this one cannot help but feel a certain sense of pathos and even compassion for the Creature, since I feel that his monstrous behaviour can be directly traced back to his creator and the treatment suffered at his hands.

For indeed, had Frankenstein not abandoned his creation no sooner had he given it life, the Creature would not have been left alone and vulnerable to society’s horrified scorn, from which his bitter rage against civilisation developed; had the scientist not cruelly ripped to shreds the female creation he had promised as a companion to the Creature before his very eyes, the latter would not have sought his ultimate revenge by murdering Frankenstein’s wife, Elizabeth, on their wedding night. Perhaps then Shelley is raising the issue of culpability, forcing us as readers to ponder whether one’s negative actions are entirely the fault of the individual, or a consequence of those who are responsible for our upbringing. In the modern world, these people include our parents, our teachers and even the community in which we live, it being obvious to see how these influencing figures’ nurturing or lack of can majorly impact the person one grows up to be; just so, with such a man as Frankenstein as his ‘father’ – a man who has no qualms about barbarically stealing body parts from graves in the name of science – is it any wonder that the Creature should turn out to be a monster too?

Reading back what I have so far written, I would not be surprised if those of you who have not read Shelley’s novel deemed Frankenstein’s hideous and selfish parental neglect to be the worst crime of the book, therefore making him, not the Creature, the greatest monster. Indeed, speaking to my younger brother recently, who has played the eponymous role in a play version of the novel but has never read the book itself, he was certainly strong in his convictions that he felt nothing but pity for the Creature, entirely blaming the character in whose very shoes he had walked and with whom he had apparently been unable to sympathise. Personally however, I know that I would hesitate to completely deplore Frankenstein in such a way, nor would I entirely denounce the Creature as being nothing but an evil fiend. I realise that it is perhaps not very evaluative on my part, but if I am to be perfectly honest I would have to say that I cannot help but sympathise with both sides of this horrifying, twisted struggle: put simply, if this were a war I would be Switzerland.

In my opinion, my neutrality can be attributed to Shelley’s clever use of narrative, the novel being composed in such a way so as to allow readers to hear the voices, stories and emotions of both Frankenstein and his Creature at different points in the text. In essence this book is written in an epistolary form, Shelley employing a clear cyclical structure as it both begins and ends with a series of letters from Captain Robert Walton – the leader of an expedition to the North Pole, who has taken an emaciated and half-dead Frankenstein aboard his ship – to his sister in England. However, the largest portion of these letters (and thus the novel) is taken up by a manuscript of the story that Frankenstein tells his saviour, detailing his life from his childhood up to his present pursuit of the Creature and his intent to destroy him. As the majority of the novel is therefore written from Frankenstein’s first-person perspective, I found that despite the horror of his actions, the emotion conveyed to us by the insight into his feelings made it near impossible for me not to somewhat understand why the scientist behaves in the way he does. At the same time, mid-way through the text the narrative switches from Frankenstein’s voice to that of the Creature when the latter is relating to his creator his experiences following his abandonment. In my eyes, the Creature’s feelings of awe and wonder at the beauty he saw in a world that was entirely new to him were highly touching, to such an extent that my allegiances were temporarily switched from creator to created, before they were permanently split in half between the two once Frankenstein resumed control of the narrative. For this reason, I believe that Shelley did not wish either Frankenstein or the Creature to be entirely branded as ‘monster’: the former is merely a man who has given too much of himself and gone too far in his quest for discovery, Shelley perhaps using him to represent the potential dangers of trying to learn what it is not man’s business to know amidst a contextual backdrop of scientific advancement; the latter is a being who has turned to evil in face of isolation and rejection, a symbol of social disorder and break-down. Perhaps really, there is therefore a little bit of ‘monster’ inside all of us; the key is not letting it emerge.

By Rebecca.

Link to biography on Mary Shelley: http://www.biography.com/people/mary-shelley-9481497

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