“Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated;…perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
“Alas! I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery…”
The catalyst for Frankenstein Mary Shelley explains, is that she and her husband Percy were visiting the home of Lord Byron one dark and stormy night, when Byron laid down the challenge that each must tell a ghost story. Byron and Percy were able to create a story on the spot, but it took Mary a few days. In fact, she dreamed it. The result is one of the world’s most well-known classic tales of necromancy and Gothic story-telling.
As often happens when I read a classic novel that has seen countless film adaptations, I was very surprised that the book tackles far more than just the ‘monster parts.’ Shelley proposes thoughtful and deep topics and asks questions about personal responsibility, the quest for life’s purpose and leaves me wondering whether a monster has a soul?
Frankenstein is told as a story within a story by Robert Walton who is at sea and is corresponding with his sister, Margaret. But when the ship gets stuck in the ice floes of the Arctic, in the span of a few hours two very odd things happen. First, the crew spots a huge human-like creature driving a sledge with a pack of dogs passing at a distance. The next morning, they find another man, but more normal-looking, who is also driving a sledge, floating near them on the ice. He is near dead. The crew rescues him, revives him and while recuperating tells Walton how he came to be floundering on an ice floe in the middle of the Arctic. Walton records the tale for his sister in a journal. Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein, youthful scientist and budding necromancer whose interest in natural philosophy takes a turn from the traditional path of changing lead into gold to the perilous route toward creating life from death.
At university, Victor studies physiology, anatomy, the life process and the progression of death; he visits charnel houses and sees how the body corrupts and wastes away after the bloom of life.
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….It was already one in the morning….I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
After two years of working toward this goal of animating life from death Frankenstein succeeds. But instead of celebrating the work, he is horrified. He has created a creature, a monster. He cannot sleep for the nightmares that consume his waking and sleeping hours and falls into a many-month illness. From the very beginning that sparked the life of the monster, Victor is unable to accept responsibility for what he has created or the repercussions of the monster’s actions. This weakness in character will hound him for the rest of this life.
Meanwhile, the monster flees the town. He is a fully formed human-like man and as he roams the countryside coming into contact with people he not only sees, but feels their fear and disgust. He shows up near Victor’s home and kills his younger brother. Victor is still at university when he hears William has been murdered; he knows it is the monster. Unable to confess to the authorities what he knows for fear of being branded insane, he keeps quiet. An investigation and trial is held for the murder and through circumstantial evidence Justine, a trusted family servant of the Frankenstein’s is convicted of the crime and hanged. “The first hapless victims of my unhallowed arts.”
The monster is desperate for a place of refuge and finds it in an abandoned hovel near a cottage. The cottage is occupied by a brother, sister and their father. Through watching the interactions of the siblings as they care for their blind father he learns how they take care of one another, how they speak in kindness toward each other and what it means to be part of a family. Aware of his physical deformities he knows to keep out of sight, but he takes a chance on the father when the children are away during the day and forms a friendship with him. But the day comes when the children see him and the family flees the cottage. Brokenhearted, the monster understands his kindness or concern for others will always be outweighed by his physical appearance. There is no place on earth for him.
Where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses;…From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I?
The monster finally confronts Frankenstein and describes his life, how he came to speak, to think, to understand society by watching this family. And now, by bitter experience he will never be able to live as they do, in a family or as a common man.
Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
He pleads with Frankenstein to make him a companion like himself, so he can live as he sees others doing.
You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being….I now indulge in dreams of bliss that cannot be realized
What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself….we shall be monsters…Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel.
The monster compels Frankenstein to this task and promises to live in secret, perpetrating no violence to any animal and away from any human contact.
Victor Frankenstein indeed created a monster, but what is amazing about this one is his heart, soul and intelligence. He has the potential to be every bit as kind and compassionate, moral and honest as any other man, yet he will never be accepted because of his physical appearance. No matter his good works or heroic deeds, his physical presentation will always negate his integrity.
Victor Frankenstein turns his back on what he created. He abandons him on the first night, but once he hears his story, it is obvious this is a feeling, thinking human-type being, deserving of assistance, mercy and companionship. Would someone who created life really reject it like he did? The monster may be hideous to look at, but inside he is made like any other human being with the full capacity of feelings and outlook on life.
Would you reject a “nonperfect” child and would you expect it to fend for itself? Or is this something entirely different? Because the monster is not a helpless baby, but came into the world fully formed, who learned to speak, to cultivate his intelligence, to live in the world through observation, because he was made with wisdom already intact. Does he have a soul? He acts like it. He quickly becomes Victor’s intellectual equal. And Victor is given ample opportunity to make things right for him, instead he gives into fear.
Hounded for years by the being he created, Victor dies on the ship still unrepentant and without accepting any responsibility toward the monster; even as he lay dying he just wants the wretch dead.
The fate of the monster is sealed at Frankenstein’s death. Walton hears noises coming from the room where Frankenstein has died. He sees that it is the monster lamenting his existence that there will now never be redress against the man who created him.
Frankenstein forced him to a life of misery and neglect and now he will end his own on a “funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames….my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace….”
Shelley goes through such pains to tell the monster’s story and she imbues the creature with humanity and sympathy as with any other human being. She shows his compassion, his intelligence; he is creative, hard-working and capable of contributing positively to society. He develops the full capacity of feelings, agency and responsibility for others and this is to me the tragedy of Frankenstein and his monster.
Because the monster is a victim. And it is easy to interpret Frankenstein as a warning for these modern times as science advances toward cloning and other forms of creating genetically modified life. Can we use Frankenstein as a forewarning to illustrate imagination gone wrong, to get us to think about the results of such experimentation and to ask how and what we are responsible for when we take these steps? Is creation and human life about outward appearances as we go about creating perfect people? What do we owe to them when they turn out to be not so perfect?
Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion….When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.
Author: Mary Shelley
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Device: Trade paperback
Challenges: RIPXIV, Classics Club, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge