Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Re-Read: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

by Mary Shelley

“I expected this reception. All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, 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 at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.” 

Walton is a young, passionate explorer on an expedition to the Arctic. He is consumed with his own trials and tribulations and loneliness, until one day, a bedraggled, dying man crawls aboard his ship. Thinking he has finally found a friend, Walton is horrified to hear the haunted story of the man, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster he created.

I remember absolutely loving this story in high school. It was all about how man should not play God or the consequences would be dire. We learned all about the sublime, the concept of something so beautiful and awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time. It was certainly the best monster book I read (Dracula was too weirdly sexy and Jekyll and Hyde was boring if you knew the twist at the end). Reading it again, however, I was struck by so many new things! 

I can see why high school me was so in love with it. It is the perfect book for a high schooler. Everything is so dramatic! Victor is the center of his own universe. Everything lives to serve him. Everything that happens to him is either the best thing in the world, or the worst thing of all time. Granted he is dealing with a bit more than high school politics, but it is a very high school state of mind. Very melodramatic and full of big, juicy ideas of fate and death. 

During this re-read I was shocked to realize that the book was about something completely different than what everyone told me. It was not about how a scientist tried to play God and was punished for it. Victor succeeded in playing God. It worked. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Even though the creation is a newborn, and is unable to articulate or comprehend on an adult level, he grows quickly in mental and emotional capacity, so that within a year of being born, he can express himself better than I can! He is fully human. He is thought of as sublime, like the mountains or a thunderstorm, all naturally occurring things. The only downside is that he is ugly (rather than the angelic, noble visage Frankenstein intended), and those seeing him for the first time run in fear or hurt him. The resurrection process works. Frankenstein is not punished for trying to create life, for creating an unnatural aberration. He is punished for not taking responsibility for it. 

Victor spends a lot of this book avoiding things. When he first see's the monster, he faints, and then goes and takes a nap. And then is sick for a long time. He never thinks to ask where the monster went, he is just glad he is gone. In fact, he spends a lot of this book unconscious or on vacation in beautiful places, trying not to think about the monster. If I was the monster, I would get frustrated with him too!

It is assumed that the monster is responsible for the deaths of everyone in the book. And that is technically true. He does kill all but one of them. However, in each case, Victor could have prevented the death by taking responsibility for his actions. William's death is the result of Victor not taking responsibility for the care of the monster immediately upon creation. Justine's death is because Victor would not stand up before the court and say "I created a monster, and I saw him in the mountains where William was killed," because he thought people would think he was crazy. So Justine died for the murder of William because Victor did not speak up, even to say "I saw a scary man on the heath." His reputation was more important than Justine's life. 

Victor refused to make a bride for the lonely monster. He makes excuses, saying that the monster is evil, and so she will be evil, and they will have thousands of evil children (can they reproduce?), or they might not even like each other. Much flawed logic there. The monster is lonely and cruel because he has been treated with cruelty his whole life. He is not inherently evil. If anything. he is inherently good, and has learned cruelty from never having been treated with love. He has the most human-like war of love and hate within himself. He has as much of a chance as any other human has to be good and happy, perhaps more so, as he is so much more self-aware than many humans I have met. While I understand that it would suck to be the bride of the monster and wake up to a husband you hated, I say, give the crazy kids a chance? The monster takes full responsibility for the situation, and all Victor has to do is make her, and the monster will stop killing his friends and move to South America. But Victor throws a hissyfit and destroys the bride, and so Clerval dies. And then Frankenstein's own bride, Elizabeth (the epitome of all things good and angelic and flat) dies as well. 

As you can see, the monster has convinced me. While he does some horrible things, I know exactly why. He explains himself clearly, calmly, and logically, appealing to emotions as well as reason. He states, "If you would only accept me, I would be amazing and good and love you and everyone! I would frolic in the fields and pick daisies and put the star on the top of the Christmas tree" (not a direct quote). But Victor flails and blames fate and calls the monster names, and does not address any of the monster's concerns. Honestly, the monster makes a better argument. 

I am not saying that he should have killed everyone. I am saying that Victor needed to grow some balls and stop avoiding his responsibilities as creator. 

I was also rather surprised to realize that Victor creates the monster in an apartment in the city, not in a castle. There is no mention of electricity (aside from the fact that he is inspired by lightning striking a tree); he flatly refuses to tell us any details of how he did it. There is no Igor. The monster is afraid of fire when it burns him, but then he learns to make it, and it is all fine. He is initially inarticulate, but then learns to speak and read. There are no angry villagers, or pitch forks of any kind. No one even knows the monster exists. It is just Frankenstein vs. the monster pursuing each other until death. A tale in two strong voices wrestling with each other for all time.

I would love to see a faithful adaptation of the book, not a faithful adaptation of the original movies that were only based on the book in so much as there was a guy named Frankenstein who made a monster. The ideas of fate and responsibility are so juicy that it doesn't need to be "improved upon" by completely disregarding the stuff already there for new made up stuff. Anyway, that is a rant for my Dark Forest blog when I talk about Frankenstein in Once Upon a Time

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