Thursday, September 22, 2011

Optional Work: Frankenstein

Okay, I really should label Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a monster as well, and not just because it deals with the creation of one. This is one of those books that is only 197 pages long but somehow takes forever to read. Maybe it is the language or maybe it is just the way the story is formatted (the whole story within a story within a story…seriously, look into it), but this book just takes me forever to read. To be fair, there is a lot there and the book is so dense. Anyway, with that in mind, let’s get to it.


We got some horror (yea!), the gothic, romance, and of course, science fiction. Horror and science fiction are fairly straight-forward and easily understood by the general public (a monster is created out of spare human parts and proceeds to kill a couple of people out of neglect and bitterness), but for mostly my sake, because I can’t seem to be able to grasp some of these genre definitions, I’ll go a little more into gothic and romance.

Gothic – Combines both horror and romance. Includes terror, mystery, the supernatural, darkness, death, doubles, madness, and on and on we can go. It includes the kind of terror that you can’t turn away from no matter how much it affects you and scares you. Something keeps you watching or reading or involved in some way because somewhere something inside of you is enjoying it. And that, in and of itself, is a little horrifying.

Romance – includes a look back at the past, heroic isolation of the artist or narrator, and respect for a sort of wild part of nature. Romantic authors include Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, so that should actually help clear things up a little. Honestly, this romance genre will have me confused for the rest of my life, but I am getting there.

The argument that this is actually the first true science fiction novel is supported by the fact that here, Victor Frankenstein actually makes the choice to turn to his laboratory to conduct a fantastic experiment that just happens to go horribly horribly wrong.


Let’s start with the obvious – the other. I would be hard pressed to think of a more appropriate example of an other than the monster that Victor manages to create. He doesn’t ask to created, and it is pretty clear he shouldn’t have been, and then he is rejected by everyone and everything, including his creator, only to die in some frozen wilderness alone in a horrible isolation. He is the ultimate outsider, and the only hope of no longer being on the margins comes after it is too late.

The argument has often been presented that the monster serves as sort of a double or doppelganger to Victor, which I am totally willing to buy. He is Victor’s creation (Victor gave birth to him, if you will…but I understand if you don’t), so there is a part of Victor in him. Much hard work and many nights of research and the stealing of body parts and organs went into making this thing. And once it is all finished, once the goal has been reached, Victor is horrified by what he sees. He is horrified by the monster and therefore horrified by the part of himself that was included in this and helped make it. In fact, that may be what has sickened Victor the most about the monster – he can see himself in this thing he utterly rejects. Victor then, understandably, attempts to distance himself from his creation, but it is simply not meant to be. The two are forever linked, even after Victor’s death.

Victor suffers from what I like to call Capt. Ahab syndrome (take a guess where I am going with this one). And the primary symptom of Capt. Ahab syndrome is the unending desire to do that which will eventually kill you even though it will, well, kill you. Oh yeah, and sufferers of this know it will kill them, but they do it anyway. And what makes this even more fascinating with Frankenstein is the fact that Victor is not the only who has this. Capt. Robert Walton also has this, and the crew of his ship are even aware (much like the crew of another famous literary ship…I promise I won’t say it) that his expedition will eventually end all of their lives if he does not give it up. Of course in Moby Dick (ah dangit!...sorry guys), Capt. Ahab already had his leg bitten off once, and then his first fake leg is bitten off, and then he still continues, only to die. Capt. Walton hasn’t had any experience such as that, but he knows death gets closer the further he goes in his expedition. And this serves to make Capt. Walton another double for Victor, which makes sense because, after all, Capt. Walton is the one telling the entire story.

And finally, I just have to bring up this strange level of cluelessness (that's probably not a word but go with me here) in this novel, mostly on the side of Victor. He is a smart guy, no question about it. I mean, you would have to be in order to, you know, CREATE LIFE! But while his scientific mind is intact, he lacks that all-important common sense. My first piece of evidence in this is when he creates life without thinking ahead to the consequences and is therefore horrified beyond belief. I mean, when has playing God ever really worked out? My second piece of evidence comes from the fact that he can manage to fashion a man out of bits and pieces he picks up here and there and gives it life in his lab, but when the monster requests a female companion, he has to go off to another land to do his research. And then, he doesn’t even complete it, so the reader doesn’t even get to see if he would have been successful even after his extensive research. He also seems generally oblivious to how to deal with women, even when it comes to his bride, Elizabeth. Shelley also uses the apparent gap between Victor’s mental knowledge and social knowledge to also illuminate the unequal education between men and women. Victor has every educational opportunity he could want and manages to screw up royally, while women like Elizabeth do not, and horrifyingly enough, she falls victim to Victor’s supposed intelligence.


Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was initially published anonymously with a preface written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which consequently lead to speculations of whether the 21 year-old Mary wrote it, or whether her 26 year-old husband did. The story was written out of a competition Mary and her husband, as well as Lord Byron and John Polidori, decided to hold together to see who could write the best horror story. Shelley dreamt of a scientist who created a life and was horrified by it, and so Frankenstein was written.

The novel is also a reaction to the emerging influence of science in Shelley’s time. Yes, all of these wonderful advances are being made, but how far would it go? And what would be the consequence?

Wow, that was actually fun. However, I doubt the next post on Wordsworth will be.

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