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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

December 14, 2010 18 comments

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein starts as an epistolary novel. Robert Walton is writing letters to his sister Margaret from Russia. He wants to explore the North Pole, eager to leave a mark in history. During his journey, he rescues Victor Frankenstein, who relates his story. He tells about his childhood, his adolescence in Geneva. We get acquainted with his family, especially with Elizabeth and friends, particularly Henry Clerval. He was already interested in science and chemistry.

He then leaves Geneva to study in Ingolstadt, Germany, and resumes the study of galvanism. He launches himself in deep study and feverishly and enthusiastically fabricates a creature. When it wakes up to life, Victor is frightened and gets nervously sick. The creature escapes but Victor does not care to find him. Victor’s friend Henry then comes to Ingolstadt and nurses him back to health.

Victor’s health recovered, he and Henry go back to Geneva, just in time to hear that Victor’s younger brother William has been murdered. Victor connects this murder to the wretch he has created and feels miserable. His misery will increase as the family acquaintance Justine is accused of the murder, tried and condemned to death. Victor, having the death of two innocent people on his conscience, tries to find solace in hiking in the Alps.

There starts an interesting section of the novel as he meets his creature. He tells him what his life has been since he was born. He asks Victor to create a female for him, because he frightens humans and thus cannot share their life. He advocates that he and his fellow creature would leave the country to live in a barren country, away from men. The monster threatens Victor to hurt his family if he does not agree to the bargain.

Victor consents, willing to protect his family. He starts a journey to Great Britain, to meet the scientists who can give him the remaining knowledge he needs to create a female. Henry Clerval accompanies him. Victor settles in a remote village on the Scottish shore and starts his work.

After a while, he realises that if he creates this female, she and his first creation may breed and start a new kind. He figures out that he has no way to ensure that the creature will keep his promise and leave Europe to live in inhabited areas. He cannot know whether this female will love her mate and will graciously follow him in an isolated zone. Victor decides he cannot take that chance and destroys the female he had started to create. Giving life to another creature to protect his family seems the utmost selfishness. When the monster understands that he has definitely abandoned his work, he threatens him “I WILL BE WITH YOU ON YOUR WEDDING NIGHT” Victor does not change his mind. To prove his determination, the creature murders Henry.

Victor is accused of the murder but after a while cleaned of any accusation. He is sick again, another nervous fever. His father has come to Scotland to nurse him and brings him back to Geneva, where he is to marry Elizabeth as soon as possible. The wedding takes place and the creature strangles Elizabeth early in their wedding night. Victor decides to pursue his creature where ever he goes, to kill him or be killed.

This chase leads him in Siberia, where he meets Walton and it is the end of Victor’s flash back. Upon Victor’s death, the creature commits suicide.

I’m not going to analyse such a famous book, I don’t have the skills for this. I just want to share some thoughts about this. I can only guess that Frankenstein inspired SF writers and film makers, I’m not familiar with that genre. I admire Mary Shelley’s intelligence in this work. This tale was published in 1818 and she was only 19. Victor’s creation is not named in the book, a way to show he never recognized himself as his father. We see the events through Victor’s eyes and he calls his creation “daemon”, “wretch”, “monster”, “fiend”, all negative words.

I was a bit lost in the Russian dolls construction of this book. There are stories in stories. Walton on his boat telling Victor’s story who is telling the creature’s story who is telling the cottagers’ story. Not all these stories were necessary. I think the introduction to how Walton met Victor and the beginning of his tale is too long and that the cottagers’ story was useless. (Or I haven’t understood what Mary Shelley wanted to show through this)

Victor Frankenstein really got on my nerves. He is thoughtless. It takes him almost three years after he has created his monster to question what he has done on a larger perspective that the misery it brought on his family. He has no insight whatsoever and from the description of his enemy he should have guessed Elizabeth was in danger. He creates a being and then, horrified by its look, escapes and never cares about it in two years. He is irresponsible. He is the image of the crazy scientist caught up by his passion and who never thinks of the consequences of his research. This topic is premonitory and really contemporary.

The section where the creature explains to Victor how he has lived during the two years between his first day in Ingolstadt and their meeting in the Alps is interesting. He spent a long time hidden in a hovel adjoining to a cottage, from where he could observe the inhabitants. Mary Shelley describes how he met civilisation, learnt how to speak and witnessed affection. Strangely, the creature raises more philosophical issues than Victor. Mary Shelley is very insightful on how self-consciousness relies on other people’s look and regard. Interaction with other beings is needed to develop one’s personality. Culture is above nature: she explains we need to grow up among other humans to discover love and companionship. Seen in another way, it also reminded me of the myth of the noble savage. The creature was good in itself before humans turned away from him with disgust and taught him hatred. Very Rousseau.

The style was a bit complicated for me. The sudden switch to antique forms always took me by surprise and slowed my reading.

“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”

or

 “Still thou canst listen to me and grant me thy compassion. By the virtue that I once possessed, I demand this from you.”

Moreover, some sentences sound so French they seem to have been translated from French rather than written in English, like this one:

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

I don’t know if it is because Victor is Francophone or because Mary Shelley just wrote that way. Of course romanticism is in the background. When Victor is hiking in the Alps, trying to find some peace of mind in admiring the grandeur of nature:

“Dear mountains! My own beautiful lake! How do you welcome your wanderer?”

The description of the valley of Chamonix is beautiful and sad when you know how it looks like now. The glacier is melting due to the global warming. A motorway arrives in Chamonix and the Tunnel du Mont Blanc, allowing trucks to join Italy from France is nearby. Within two centuries, the destruction of the natural setting shouts at the modern reader.

Something else. Stephenie Meyer sure knows her classics. In addition to the two ones openly referred to in the Twilight Saga (Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights), I had already noticed how the scene of Jane Eyre meeting with the now half-blind Mr Rochester had inspired a scene between Edward and Bella in New Moon. Now I found common points between Frankenstein’s creature and her vampires, especially when the monster describes his first sensations after he was born. Then of course, there are the creature’s characteristics: strong, fast, enduring and his method for suicide – fire. But I’m such a weak reader of SF that I can’t really tell if Stephenie Meyer conscientiously used Mary Shelley’s work or if Mary Shelley’s invention is now a vampire cannon.

If I turn back on this book, I’m glad I’ve read it but I didn’t enjoy it. Mary Shelley’s style is too romantic. As usual, it doesn’t speak to me. This story is powerful but too long. Victor’s mulling over, weeping, moping, complaining bored me. Two nervous fevers in a book for one character is too much for me. He never really copes with the consequences of his acts and I didn’t like him for that.

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