Mary Shelley, Frankenstein – final post

I started assembling examples of the florid, over-written style Mary Shelley adopts in Frankenstein, but that way led to madness, so I’ll start afresh. Here’s just one random example; the Creature’s threat to Victor if he refuses to comply with its request that he make it a female companion is intended to be blood-curdling; instead it’s just…curdled prose:

‘I will glut the maw of death, until it is satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.’

The symmetries in the novel are one of its more pleasing aspects; there’s the doppleganger effect of Walton being another potential Frankenstein (and a strong homoerotic tone to his passionate outbursts about his new friend); this is mirrored in Victor’s relationship with Clerval. Even the Creature and Victor share many traits, some violent and vengeful, some noble and grand.

But these are far too heavily laboured and repeated in the text. A quick search for the word ‘miserable’ in the online text yields well over 50 results. There are too many shouty encounters between these two antogonists where they simply try to outdo each other as to which is either suffering more or more entitled to feel wronged.

Why did Mary Shelley subtitle the novel ‘the Modern Prometheus’? First, this classical mythological character was often equated in literary texts with Adam in Genesis; just as Prometheus breathed life (or fire) into inanimate clay to make human beings, so Adam was given life by God in the biblical text. Mary Shelley, as I have shown in previous posts on this novel, frequently alludes to Milton’s account of the Eden story in Paradise Lost; its epigraph is from that poem –

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me? (X.743-45)

This provides the novel with its central theme, which is dramatized by the tension and conflict between the scientist-creator, who offends the laws of nature with ‘the spark which [he] so negligently bestowed’ on inanimate tissue, and his innocent, potentially loving and good, creature.

In the Romantic period Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, was a popular subject for literary and artistic treatment, for he symbolised for artists of the time the spirit of rebellion against tyrannical, cruel power (Percy Shelley was working on his lyrical drama ‘Prometheus Unbound’ around the time of the publication of Frankenstein; it was published in 1820.) He was associated with the spirit of the French Revolution, with Christ and (Milton’s) Adam and Satan – we saw in my previous post how the Creature identified with both Adam and the ‘fallen angel’ – and with the divinely inspired artist or writer. Mary Shelley’s novel indicates that Victor explored the ‘bold question’ of the ‘principle of life’ at his own and his family’s peril; it was all very well for him to warn Walton ‘how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge’, but he didn’t heed it himself, with dire consequences for all concerned. Like Prometheus, he is tortured for the rest of his life – but so is his creature.

For modern readers this resonates particularly because of recent and current debates about GM crops and other scientific developments in biology, genetics and related fields, as well as in AI. The issues of sentient beings created by humans and of bioethics are raised and problematized in the novel in ways that Mary Shelley couldn’t have dreamed would resound as they do in later years.

Victor is shown to become ‘the slave of [his] creature’, and urged by it when they meet in the Alps to honour his ‘duties’ to it. ‘You are my creator, but I am your master. Obey!’ it commands him (with typical rhetorical bombast).The creature wanted Victor to make it a female companion (as mentioned above), with which it promised to go into voluntary exile and become a harmless recluse, away from civilization. Victor fails to do so, and terrible retribution follows. His reason: he finally realised that he was in danger of creating a ‘demoniacal enemy’ of humankind, the ‘hideous progeny’ as Mary Shelley described it in her preface to the revised 1831 edition of the novel. That was also why he refused to divulge the exact nature of his secret of creation: as he says to Walton, who had importuned him to reveal it:

‘Are you mad, my friend?’ said he, or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you?…to what do your questions tend?’

Punch cartoon 1882

Punch cartoon from 1882 representing the ‘Irish Question’ as another manifestation of Victor’s monstrous creation: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Be careful what you strive for, seems to be the moral for scientists and artists alike. The word ‘Frankenstein’ has become a modern cliché adjective for any questionable, potentially lethal scientific clone or product of genetic engineering – or even cultural-political development, as the cartoon indicates.

Later the Creature itself describes Victor as ‘my tyrant and tormentor’. So there develop some interesting and challenging shifts in the concept of Prometheus as the narrative proceeds and becomes more complex. Whether Mary Shelley is fully conscious of or in control of all of these mirror-images, doublings and shifts is as unclear as her often turgid prose.

Despite the tiresome repetitiveness and Gothic melodrama in the narrative, then, and the waywardness of the plotting and characterisation (and too many intrusive, tedious and laboured digressions, like the Justine and Safie episodes), there remain elements in the novel that explain why it still has such significance for us today.

Frankenstein OWC cover

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction by Marilyn Butler

I’ll end this sequence of rather rambling posts with a couple of links.

Richard Holmes recently reviewed in NYRB a couple of new scholarly versions of the texts – well worth reading.

So is the excellent Wordsworth Trust blog, which has this fascinating essay on Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister, described as ‘the archetypal Romantic woman’ by its author, Lesley McDowell.



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.