Saturday, October 27, 2018

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein


Opening Passage:

To Mrs. Saville, England.

St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17—.

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.

Summary: It is lonely in the heights of greatness. The human mind and will can achieve sublime things, and, being human, wishes to share it with a mind and will that can truly appreciate the sublimity, that can answer back with its own sublimities. But in sublime things, as the old proverb goes, 'My friend, there is no such thing as a friend'.

We open the book with Walton, writing to his sister Margaret. Walton has set out to explore the arctic regions and find the North Pole. It is a high and sublime deed, and a very lonely one. He writes to his sister of his loneliness, and the ache of having no one with whom he might really share any success he might have: "I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate in my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection." But into his life falls Victor Frankenstein, and this, at last seems to be the friend for whom Walton has wished. For Victor Frankenstein has already achieved a high and sublime deed, the creation of rational life. It is an achievement far beyond what most people can even imagine doing. And yet Frankenstein, too, is utterly alone. Horrified by the thing he created, he was unable to share it with his closest friends, Elizabeth Lavenza and Henry Cherval; and both of them were murdered by the creature.

The creature, too, has a mind capable of high and sublime things; he shows a genuine genius and a capacity for learning that runs far beyond what most people could possibly have. But he is also utterly alone. He was born a new thing in the world, a pinnacle of human achievement, but, grotesque to the eye, his own creator repudiated him. Uncared for, he wandered, and realized that everyone would treat him has his creator did. He demands that Frankenstein make him a companion who could understand him. Frankenstein agrees, but, in terror at the thought of what such another monster could do in the world, he backs out on his promise, destroying the companion before he has brought it to life. So close, so close to having a friend, to ending that pain of loneliness, and Victor Frankenstein destroyed it right in front of him. All the two have left between each other is revenge, and the absolute guarantee that one of them must die.

Thus by the end, everyone has been cheated of all possibility of a friend. Such is the splendor of the heights.

Much of this gets pushed into the background by the interest of the main characters. Walton himself comes across almost as a nonentity; in the abstract, he's an interesting character, but in the actual course of the story he can't compete with the high tragedy and pain of the creature or the infinite melodrama of Frankenstein. He is also, perhaps not unrelatedly, the character who is least concerned with himself. Frankenstein himself is immensely self-absorbed -- not a bad man, but he is really ally about himself. When he vows revenge on the creature, one of the sacred things he swears by is his own grief; he treats all of his actions as being of world-historical significance; the creature calls him, correctly, I think, "[g]enerous and self-devoted being"; Walton says of him, impressed, that he "seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall." This is, indeed, part of what other characters find so magnetic about Frankenstein: he is very well aware of his own importance and the assessment spreads by a sort of sympathetic contagion.

Most mind-bogglingly of all is that Victor Frankenstein, who has violated practically every obligation he has undertaken, is quite totally convinced that he is justified. "During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable." Did you not create a rational being, Victor? Yes, in a fit of "enthusiastic madness". Were you not bound to care for such a creature, Victor? Yes, but there was a higher obligation, to the beings of his own species, so I destroyed the companion I was supposed to make for him; and he acted with malignant selfishness.

But, of course, it is impossible not to think that the creature has had the worst of the exchange. Yes, he did deliberately murder innocent people, but one can sympathize under the circumstances. And it would all have been prevented if Frankenstein had fulfilled his obligation to care for the life he had made. For that matter, further deaths after the first would likely have been prevented if Frankenstein had spoken up at the trial of Justine; he excuses himself on the grounds that they would have thought him a madman, but when he finally talks to a magistrate later (his own skin on the line), he actually gets a remarkably sympathetic hearing. And, of course, it is possible it could all have been brought to an end again if Frankenstein had not broken his promise to his creature by destroying the companion, because there is nothing at all that sparks vengeance as having your hope dangled in front of you and then deliberately ripped up so that it will never be fulfilled.

In addition to reading the book, I also listened to two radio versions of the story, one from the classic show Suspense, and the other from The Witch's Tale. Unsurprisingly, they both focus on the making of the monster. Both put some emphasis on the trespassing-human-bounds angle -- an aspect that you can find, here and there in the book, but that does not actually play a major role in the story. The Suspense version particularly suggests that Frankenstein's problem was a lack of religious humility. Of the two, the Suspense is much less faithful, being closer in structure to what the story becomes on stage or screen. The Witch's Tale, on the other hand, makes a truly valiant attempt to distill as much of the sprawling story as possible into about twenty minutes -- an impossible task, but it's a fairly impressive attempt. Plus, I really like the sheer, savage rage of the creature in it.

Favorite Passage:

“Oh, it is not thus—not thus,” interrupted the being. “Yet such must be the impression conveyed to you by what appears to be the purport of my actions. Yet I seek not a fellow feeling in my misery. No sympathy may I ever find. When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to be participated. But now that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair, in what should I seek for sympathy? I am content to suffer alone while my sufferings shall endure; when I die, I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory. Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment. 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. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. 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...."

Recommendation: Recommended.

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