Sunday, October 30, 2011

Musings: Frankenstein

Frankenstein Cover
Peeps, it has been forever since I participated in a blog tour.  I am thrilled to once again join that well-read legion of book bloggers that participates in the Classics Circuit.  This go-round, the theme is Gothic literature, and I signed up to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which was not at all what I expected it to be.

First off, Frankenstein is not (in the purest, physical sense of the word) the monster in this novel.  He is the science-crazed, obsessed, but still quite intelligent, attractive and philosophical student who creates the monster.  And the monster himself (who I don't believe was ever given a name, but we'll call him Adam) wasn't all that monstrous.  In fact, he was really well-spoken and had great capacity for kindness and eloquence.

Anyway, the story!  Victor Frankenstein grows up in an affluent household in Switzerland, where he is quite taken up with the study of physical sciences.  He pursues these studies in college and somehow discovers the miracle of life.  Thrilled with this (and completely heedless of the consequences, I might add), he does God only knows what sorts of things to obtain body parts and then gives that body life.  But as soon as his creation wakes, Frankenstein realizes just what a thoughtless thing he's done (bad sense of timing) and quite literally runs screaming from the room and falls into a Decline.  He falls into several more Declines over the course of this novel, none of which really accomplish anything.  When he finally deigns to speak to his "abhorrent" creation Adam (this conversation is interspersed with more "Begone!s" than in all the other stories I have ever read.  Combined), he is actually impressed with the man's eloquence and concedes to create for him a wife.  But then he thinks maybe this isn't such a great idea, Adam gets very angry, and the story continues on its suitably Gothic horror-esque path.
Frankenstein Penguin Cover

This story confronts many issues that were of moment in the early 19th century:  the idea of nature vs. nurture, the ethical dilemmas that science can create, the disenfranchisement of the lower classes.  It is a novel that is symbolic of the class struggle, and the anger of the lower classes, finally rising up in justified anger at the aristocrats.  On all these levels, it's a successful and fascinating novel.  Who is the real monster?  Is it Adam, who wanted only to experience kindness and friendship, but was spurned for his appearance and then became vengeful and angry?  Or is it Victor Frankenstein himself, who created a monster and then did nothing to help the creature, but ran away instead and ruined so many lives?

In this novel, Mary Shelley seems to subscribe to the belief that how you look on the outside is indicative of who you are on the inside.  She also is full of characters who are somehow forced to live beneath their correct stations, but because they are such wonderful human beings, manage to make a living and be happy with whatever lot they are given.  Victor Frankenstein is described as being handsome and intelligent.  His friend Henry Clerval is much the same, his lady love Elizabeth is the most beautiful woman in the world, as are his brothers, his mothers and even those who are lucky enough to be his servants.  Adam spends months observing a happy family, of which the daughter and son both exhibit physical perfection.

But Adam himself is, by all accounts, terrifying to look upon.  He's huge, he's made up by a bunch of spare body parts, his eyes are creepy, and he has a really gruff voice.  Whenever anyone sees him, they run away terrified.  They never even stop to listen to the guy, and he becomes so lonely and feels so miserable, going through life completely isolated.  He spent many sleepless nights gathering wood and doing small favors for this beautiful family, and then once he tries to introduce himself to them and become friends, all the women faint and the father is so disturbed that he falls into a horrible illness.  Poor Adam.  He comes to realize that:
"the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches...And what was I?... I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property.  I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome...Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?"
His every experience leads him to believe that if you're ugly, you're repugnant and evil, and if you're beautiful, it's because you're kind and wonderful.  And because of this belief, Adam becomes repugnant and vengeful and angry because he sees no reason to be kind when no one believes he is kind, anyway.  Especially when he compares his life to that of his creator, Victor Frankenstein.

There can be few more self-absorbed characters in literature than Frankenstein.  Everything is about him.  No one suffers as much as he does, no one feels as much remorse as he does, no one understands the torture he's under.  Frankenstein is born to the life that Adam comes to realize is vital to succeed.  He is born into money, he has an old and "unsullied" name.  He's handsome and popular, loved by his father, his friends and a beautiful woman.

He also created Adam, but is the first to completely dismiss him and run away.  He thinks he's created a monster and therefore does create a monster, but only because of his own behavior.  When he finally has a conversation with Adam (after having run away screaming from the man), does he greet him with a, "Hey, how's it going, son?  I'm so glad to meet you and have a conversation."  No.  Instead, he greets him with, "Begone, vile insect!  or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust!"  (Note:  That is a direct quote. He really does say that.)

Well, that's not a nice way to greet your lost son.  I can't help but think that if Frankenstein had just been nicer to Adam on their first meeting that things might have gone very differently in this story.  But instead, he's unkind and unfair, and we descend into horrors.

I did not love this book.  It's one of those that I appreciate very much for the symbolism and historic significance and the many thought-provoking ideas it brings up.  But it's not one that I enjoyed for the story itself.  I thought Victor Frankenstein was so whiny and self-absorbed, even going so far as to claim that a girl on death row did not suffer agony to the extent that Frankenstein suffered on her behalf.  (Get over yourself, Frankie.)  And the narrative is written in such stilted language, like:
"The expression of your sentiments of this subject, my dear Victor, gives me more pleasure than I have for some time experienced.  If you feel thus, we shall assuredly be happy, however present events may cast a gloom over us.  But it is this gloom, which appears to have taken so strong a hold of your mind, that I wish to dissipate."
Is that how a father would talk to his son?  I don't think so, even in the 19th century.  That is a lot of commas. The story was interesting and arresting on an intellectual level, but it didn't capture me on an emotional level.  Still, though, I recommend a read just to get the juices flowing on the many important issues that Shelley delves into here!


  1. I love the line: Get over yourself, Frankie. LOL

  2. I laughed at your reaction to all the commas because I know that is a huge pet peeve for you. It does sound as if this book would be interesting for the symbolism and themes, but it also sounds hard to read what with all the whining from Frankenstein. I certainly don't ascribe to the belief that goodness and worthiness is aligned to beauty, and that ugliness means badness, so it would be interesting to see how I would react to this one. Until I started reading the reviews of this book I had no idea just how deeply psychological this book really was. Excellent review today, my friend! Happy Halloween!

  3. I felt pretty much the same way about this one (from what I remember). I read it some four years ago or so. I definitely appreciated it, and the structure of the novel and its themes were really interesting, but overall it was more of a "good for me" type of novel as opposed to one that grabbed me by the hair.

  4. I really enjoyed this novel when I read it last year, far more than I expected to.

    To me it's a book about choices. Victor chooses to create a monster, but he doesn't think about the consequences, though to be fair it's unlikely he ever expected to succeed in his wildest nightmares. The monster didn't choose to be born - he's incredibly intelligent, sensitive and articulate - but looks horrendous. And he chooses his actions, knowing full well what he's about to do ie. ruin Victor's life - you made me a monster, so I'm bloody well going to act like one!

    And Victor still doesn't learn - there he is on that ship in the Arctic, and what is he doing, apart from dying? Urging the Captain to continue with their quest in the name of science and exploration, even though it would almost certainly result in the death of some of the crew before too long.

  5. rhapsody - I stand by that statement! I mean, saying you care SO much about someone that you suffer more than her, even though her life is about to end is pretty self-absorbed.

    Zibilee - YES, I hate extraneous commas! I also hate over-the-top drama, so I just don't think Gothic literature is for me. Happy Halloween to you, too!

    Andi - Yes, exactly! It's kind of like vitamins...

    Tracy - That's a really good insight. Yes, choices and the consequences of those choices came up repeatedly in the novel. And I agree about Victor - to me, there was really no redemption in his character at all.

  6. Anonymous10/31/2011

    Yes to the whining and yes to the stiltedness. I was so bored by the prose, which is a shame, because the whole concept is great.

  7. I have heard that this book surprises people. I will probably read it at some point to see if it surprises me, but no idea when...

  8. I completely understand the distinction you make between loving a novel and appreciating what it achieves, but Frankenstein is one of those books that do both things for me. I can see why the commas would drive people crazy, but when it's Mary Shelley they somehow charm me :P A fascinating post, Aarti! I love how you engaged with all the questions the novel raises.

  9. I was surprised by the book as well, possibly because it's nothing like it's portrayed in popular culture. ITA with your assessment "Get over yourself, Frankie!" because what a moping whinging selfish loon. Not only does he bring it all on himself, he drags the rest of his family into the pit as well.

    I'd read a lit crit somewhere stating that only a woman could have written Frankenstein, it dealt with childbirth.....and argh. I thought it was Gertrude Stein but google isn't pulling it up.

  10. I tried to listen to the audio and just couldn't finish it. Too flowery and I kept getting lost on wandering thoughts and realize I missed a story line - or DID I? and it was agony. It would have been better to read it.

  11. softdrink - Oh, I completely agree. Great in concept, not my style in execution.

    Kailana - It's a pretty short read, so you would be fine, I think :-)

    Nymeth - I can see why you really enjoyed it! I totally see the positives of the novel, just didn't appreciate them myself.

    Carrie - Yes, "moping, selfish loon" completely sums it up!!

    Care - LOL. I think with all the narrators, it could be hard to keep track!

  12. I also appreciate this novel rather than love it, which is a shame because it seems like one I should love to bits with all those ideas in there. In the end it seems Dracula's more my cup of tea that Frankenstien in the battle of classic monster novels, but I still think Shelley is a very fine writer. It's more that her book is very idea laden, less about adevnture plot and (like you say Frankenstien is a tool) while Dracula is the kind of book that cloaks its ideas in adventures and creepy running around (and I find it easier to ignore Van Helsing's toolishness). Maybe I'll revisit it when I'm in a more 'ideas' mood.

  13. Well, you've completely convinced me to read Dracula!

  14. I read this book last year and like you, it was a book I appreciated more than loved. It's not that long of a book, but I remember it took me a while to get through it because it's just not naturally a 'page-turning' book. I liked the descriptions of the places the characters traveled to.

    I had never thought of the book as having class themes before, but that makes sense. And I love your discussion of beauty = good and ugly = bad. These are definitely assumptions that are alive and well today.

  15. I just finished this in audio this past weekend. I think I enjoyed this more than you, but I agree 100% about Frankenstein. He thought way too much of himself.

    This book wasn't what I had expected, either. I was thinking it would be all mad-scientist and villager's stalking with torches. Instead, it was a rather psychological look at the nature of evil.

    I'm glad we both read this for the first time this year.

  16. I skimmed your post because I still haven't finished the book, but your last point made me want to comment. I was pretty surprised too at the effusive formality in speech between father and son, and also between Elizabeth and Victor. And yeah, the story isn't pulling me in at an emotional level - it's intriguing, but I'm not getting attached.

  17. Christy - Yes, the beautiful scenery descriptions were fantastic! Definitely need to get myself back to Switzerland :-)

    Literate Housewife - Yes, I definitely thought there would be stalking villagers! But it was more a sad than horrific tale, I think. But maybe it would be more horrific in that time period, when the idea of bringing something to life out of spare parts was totally different and new.

    Aths - YES, right? I can't imagine anyone talking to their children in that manner.


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