Monday, October 18, 2010

My dearest fiend: on finally reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley

There’s that moment which occurs near the halfway point in Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein when Victor Frankenstein is finally reunited with the monster. Frankenstein has entered university, dazzled his mentors and, in secret, created his artificial man through some unholy marriage of archaic magic and scientific method. He’s fallen ill following the completion of his creation, like a mother weakened by the physical torments of birth. He’s utterly neglected to determine the monster’s whereabouts, and has gradually discovered its capacity for murder. He’s wracked with guilt over having breathed life into the monster’s piecemeal flesh, yet, foreshadowing all that follows, assumes no responsibility for the crimes the monster commits, crimes which Frankenstein, one of the worst parents in Western literature, could arguably have prevented.

The monster’s return is illuminated by a flash of lightning—the same phenomenon at which the 15-year-old Frankenstein marveled so fatefully. It approaches and, to the great shock of those familiar with Boris Karloff’s famously inarticulate manifestation, it begins to speak. “Do your duty towards me,” the monster beseeches his maker, “and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you in peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends… Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed… I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

Theodor von Holst's frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

The monster asks Frankenstein to hear his story, and so begins this landmark novel’s most astonishing and moving section, the testament of this eight-foot wretch, who begins his biography by trying to describe the memory of coming into this world fully formed, cognizant and sensitive to basic needs, yet mystified by every new occurrence, and from the start orphaned. He takes to the wilderness, eventually learns to observe and imitate humans, is stirred by music, beauty, and familial love, comprehends the importance of interdependence and the inevitability of disappointment in others, and even educates himself into literacy with the help of volumes of Milton and Goethe. By the time the monster is able to converse with Frankenstein he’s become as eloquent as any character in the novel. This might seem unlikely, even more unlikely than the fact of the monster’s creation, given what we now appear capable of producing nearly 200 years later. But eloquence of any sort can seem unlikely when weighed against the savagery that mankind continues to prove capable of. This novel itself seems unlikely, a succinct, surprising, and imminently durable masterpiece, whose ostensible flaws obey the logic of dream on which the whole is founded, whose epistolary structure of stories within stories within stories reads as so completely modern, and whose magnificence was brought into the world by someone all of 18 years of age.

The draft of Frankenstein

I’m a lot older than 18 and have only now finally gotten round to reading
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in a handsome hardbound edition (Everyman’s Library, $21), so you’ll have to forgive my rapture. Obviously, I was perfectly aware of Frankenstein’s immeasurable influence, but I somehow failed to anticipate just how fascinating and strange its structure is, how evocative and often poetic its language, and how rich and diverse its themes or motifs, which constitute the region in which Shelley conveyed her highest level of sophistication.

Walton, the Englishman who is ultimately the novel’s only (perhaps unreliable) narrator, seeks adventure and glory in the Arctic, and his letters to his sister speak repeatedly about the preciousness and rarity of friendship—a concern mirrored exactly in the confessions of Victor Frankenstein, whom he encounters during his arduous travels and whose tale he records. Walton longs for the companionship of his sister, and this longing too is mirrored, with more explicit creepiness, in Frankenstein’s story, which iterates again and again Frankenstein’s abiding love for his adoptive sister, to whom he’s inescapably betrothed. And in the story of the monster too these same themes dominate: loneliness, and the desire for a lady companion born of the same fault-laden parentage. (I had no idea that right here in Shelley’s Frankenstein lie the seeds for Hollywood’s Bride of Frankenstein.)

The Bride of Frankenstein

Frankenstein is a story of absent mothers, ineffectual fathers, men without women. But where this gets really interesting is in Frankenstein’s own participation in his undoing. The monster is the product of Frankenstein’s own hubris, yet it could also be interpreted as a whopper of an excuse for Frankenstein’s perpetuating a fearful avoidance of consummation. If Frankenstein fails to fulfill the not entirely unreasonable requests of the monster—to my eyes the novel’s most sympathetic character—to produce for him a female counterpart, the monster promises to return to ruin Frankenstein’s life precisely on the night of his wedding. What better way to prolong bachelorhood! Frankenstein’s anxiety surrounding marriage is subverted by an act of masculine immaculate conception and the brutal and terrifying incidents that accumulate as a result. There are multiple morals to be gained from Shelley’s tale, and I wonder if among them is something about the immense power of sheer procrastination, which in the hands of the wrong genius can itself prove monstrous.

No comments: