Mary Shelley, Frankenstein pt 3

Victor Frankenstein’s account continues (see previous post): he relates how he researched obsessively into genetics and anatomy at Ingolstadt. His words are recorded by the equally obsessive explorer, Walton, who’d rescued him from the polar ice. My commentary is partly taken from the Romantic Circles website, which has useful commentary on key phrases in the hyperlinks embedded in the online text of the novel; the Pennsylvania electronic edition edited by Stuart Curran is equally useful (and has a comprehensive index of links to further critical accounts).

Frankenstein title page

Title page of the 1818 first edition; Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but assume most readers will know at least the basis of the plot (which differs considerably from the representations in film and popular culture).

This is still vol. I, ch. 3:

Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens, than that which I now affirm is true. Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.

Victor’s insistence on his not being mad (or a liar) immediately raises doubts about his sanity. Presumably Mary Shelley is using the adjective ‘probable’ here in its now obsolete technical sense of ‘able to be proved’ [OED online definition 3].

Victor’s shrill insistence reminds me of the demented first-person narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s gruesome horror story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (publ. 1843): ‘Why, then, will you say that I am mad?’ [well, you murdered an old man because of his vulture eye, dismembered his body and buried the parts under the floorboards, where you gloated over your prowess to the detectives investigating!].

Victor’s hubristic boasting about his ‘miraculous’ discovery reminds us of his earlier enthusiasm for occult works of mysticism and alchemy; he’d mentioned the quest for the ‘elixir of life’. He hasn’t located that exactly, but feels he’s done the next best thing. Note the return to a dominant, emphatic first-person voice, to highlight the arrogance and egotism of his God-like achievement, of which he’s misguidedly proud.

The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture. After so much time spent in painful labour, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires, was the most gratifying consummation of my toils. But this discovery was so great and overwhelming, that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result. What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world, was now within my grasp…[passage omitted]

Victor’s language here takes on a decidedly erotic-sexual tone. ‘Labour’ is an obvious pun on the term for the birth pangs of a mother – yet his ‘child’ is the product of a perverse, ‘unhallowed’ [a frequent adjective in the novel] form of parthenogenesis.

‘Consummation’ is used (usually in a sense used by Hamlet in his famous soliloquy) four more times in the novel [the wonders of searchable e-texts] in various forms. On each occasion the sexual-erotic connotations are as clear as they are here, but at times associated with the apogee (or inverse) of sex: death.

In II.6, in the interlude where the exiled Creature observes the rural family and the arrival of the exotic ‘Arabian’ Safie, he hears the story of how young Felix De Lacey was promised marriage to her by her father as reward for his rescuing father and daughter from the Turks; this would be, he thinks, ‘the consummation of his happiness.’ Literally and figuratively.

In III.5, after receiving his cousin and fiancée Elizabeth’s loving letter, Victor’s joy is erased by the recollection of his Creature’s threat to visit them on their wedding night to ‘consummate his crimes by my [Victor’s] death’. Their sexual consummation, that is, would be prevented by his fiendish, murderous climactic act of malignant vengeance (for being rejected by Victor). Instead of producing another new life, another (this time, natural) birth, their union would result in unnatural death. The conventionally accepted ideals of motherhood are subverted by Victor’s ‘miraculous’ act of creation which violated the laws of nature and science, followed by his equally unnatural expulsion of his Creature because of its revolting appearance (and the over-reaching scientist-creator’s incipient guilt about and revulsion at what he’s done).

The Creature speaks in III.7 – in Walton’s epistolary “continuation” — after another death: ‘my crimes are consummated’ – a similar image to the previous one. A few paragraphs later he says, indicating Victor, and alluding to his own ‘agony and remorse’, ‘he suffered not more in the consummation of the deed’ – meaning the Creature’s act of murder – or could he be referring to Victor’s creation of this ‘monster’ – returning to the erotic-procreative sense of the word?

Finally, a couple of pages later, in his closing speech, the Creature (or ‘monster’ in Walton’s narrative) vows he’ll do no more ‘mischief’; his work is ‘nearly complete’:

Neither yours nor any man’s death is needed to consummate the series of my being, and accomplish that which must be done.

In a novel full of paradox, oxymorons and polar oppositions, Victor’s ‘bestowing animation on lifeless matter’ – a monstrous act of generation rather than birth – reaches its inevitable ‘consummation’ in the destruction of that being. The Creature had said earlier that he’s been ‘fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy’, and sought ‘the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which [his] whole being overflowed’, his ‘thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendant visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness’, but he found himself ‘barred’ from those very virtues and feelings by Victor’s act of rejection. This is what inspired instead his murderous, obsessive desire for vengeance and retribution, causing him to be likened to a monster or ‘vampire’ by those who can’t see past his outward hideousness.

He was created like Adam in Eden; in II.7, where he learnt to read by studying texts including the novel’s paradigm, Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic poem about the creation and expulsion from Eden of the first humans on earth, the Creature develops an extended analogy between himself and Milton’s Adam – and Satan – in his own narrative of this period of his life:

“Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator…but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me…I am solitary and detested.”

Later, he says simply, ‘”I required kindness and sympathy.”

In the closing section of the novel he explains again (for Walton’s benefit this time) how he became full of malicious envy and hatred – taught by his creator, the ironically and inappropriately named Victor:

…the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am quite alone.

Far from being simply the Gothic-monstrous Satanic villain of the novel that most Hollywood versions of the story have opted for, the Creature’s closing words reveal in his involuntary solitude and subsequent ‘misery’ that his nobility and capacity for good were perverted by the greater villainy of being ‘spurned’ by his creator, and other humans who encountered him. I’m reminded in his elegiac final words, as he prepares for self-immolation in flames on the ice (a kind of widowed sati, for Victor is both ‘mother’ and ‘spouse’ to him) of replicant antihero Roy’s famous death speech in ‘Blade Runner’. When the Creature first experienced the beauties of Nature in the world (Paradise to him) ‘”they were all to me”’, he says (though he’s misremembering when he makes this claim; he was actually created in ‘dreary’ November, was expelled an outcast into the cold and wet by Victor, and he wept; the following claim, then, is perhaps poetic licence, for it enhances his natural nobility with its rhythmic Miltonic cadences):

“I should have wept to die; now it is my only consolation. Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?”

Here too, the Creature is both ‘monster’ and fallen angel, and it was Victor who created and was responsible for both aspects of his being, providing ‘the spark of existence’ that he ‘so wantonly disposed’ in his ‘workshop of filthy creation’, then turning him into a ‘wretch’ and exile by rejecting him. Victor is surely the true monster in the novel.

Stevenson was to revisit this drama of reversals in his Jekyll and Hyde characters.

Maybe one more post to come on Frankenstein.

 

‘Rain and mist and darkness’: Patrick McGrath, Spider

Patrick McGrath, Spider Penguin 1992, first published 1990

Several of the books I’ve recently read deal with the traumatic impact on a child of the loss of their mother and the father’s cold, cruel behaviour, usually intensified by his replacing his wife with someone unsympathetic to that child.

That’s the case in William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. Even in Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, the eponymous heroine’s story is precipitated by the death of her parents and her decision to leave the unloving, constraining sanctuary she’d temporarily found with her brother and his family.

McGrath, SpiderPatrick McGrath (born in London in 1950, long resident in Canada then the USA) deals in darker areas of the human psyche. It’s not surprising, therefore, that his eponymous first-person narrator, Dennis Cleg, bizarrely but appropriately nicknamed Spider, will react to his family drama in far more extreme, dangerous ways than the characters in the books I just mentioned.

It’s a painful experience, reading this novel. Spider slowly spins out his web of a story in  sections of flashback – to the childhood when his father abused and tormented both his wife and young son, and to a present when it gradually becomes apparent that the grown-up Spider is living in some kind of halfway house after release from a mental institution.

He has trouble with the time frames: past intrudes into the present, and it’s not always possible for the narrator to distinguish then from now, reality from fantasy. He hears voices and disturbing noises in the attic. He loves the ‘rain and mist and darkness’, the ‘wetness and darkness and skies like thick gray blankets’ of grimy London slum of his childhood. His voice often resorts to that list structure and repetition of such details to evoke an obsessive attention and reaction to his bleak, modern-gothic surroundings.

The adult Spider spends his solitary days walking, sitting by a canal smoking roll-ups and trying to avoid looking at the gas-holders. He has a thing about gas, for reasons only revealed near the end.

I found this troubling and unsettling to read, not always in a rewarding way. I know when he was a child McGrath’s father was medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital, treating criminally insane inmates, and that he himself worked in a Canadian top security unit in a mental health centre. He uses this first-hand experience to chilling effect in his writing.

It’s never possible to rely on this narrative’s veracity; Spider’s story becomes increasingly incoherent and contradictory as his disintegrating mind circles around the objects caught in his web of memories and fantasies. There’s a murder, but he refuses to accept that he committed it, even though it results in his being institutionalised for decades. As a drastic coping mechanism he learns to split his identity or personality, one representing his ‘good’ side, the other that’s been ‘poisoned’ and gone ‘bad’.

He has an unhealthy attitude to sexual matters, and takes prurient interest in his father’s tarty replacement for Spider’s much-loved mother. Here’s his reaction to one of his father’s more vicious outbursts against her:

“It’s my fault – you go to sleep, it’s all right, I’m fine now.” And she leaned over to kiss me on the forehead, and I felt the dampness of her tears on her face. Oh, I hated him then! Then I would have killed him, were it in my power – he had a squalid nature, that man, he was dead inside, stinking and rotten and dead.

McGrath excels at using language to reproduce the voice of a deranged, troubled person; here the fractured or disjointed syntax and pulsating rhythms and repetitions are deeply disturbed and disturbing. Spider struggles with extreme emotions or challenging events; then he becomes, as he puts it, ‘uncoupled’ – a term that’s richly suggestive.

I can’t say then that I enjoyed this novel. Its deeply disturbed, damaged narrator’s voice is insidious, like a nightmare that you can’t wake from.

If you’re interested you might like my thoughts on the two other McGrath novels I’ve posted about:

Asylum (1996), which is the best of the three, in my opinion: again it deals with a psychologically disturbed man in…well, an asylum, and the wildly dangerous affair with him that the institution’s medical director’s wife enters into.

Constance (2013) has a narrator less psychotic than these other two, but still emotionally and mentally unstable.

David Cronenberg, himself not averse to exploring the disturbed psyche, filmed Spider in 2002. David Mackenzie directed Asylum in 2005.