I bet you are all familiar with the plot of Frankenstein: Victor Frankenstein is passionate about science and believes he has found the way to bring live to lifeless matter. He creates what he later denotes as a monster. Horrified by the looks of his creation, he falls ill and tries to forget about the existence of ‘the monster’. But soon, he realises that the monster won’t be so easily forgot, as it sets out to avenge his creator for leaving him all alone in the world.
When I set out to participate in The Classics Circuit on Classic Gothic Literature, I knew I had set myself a challenge. I avoid “scary” books as a rule. However, I soon found out that Frankenstein is not so much scary as it is atmospheric. Shelley sets a tone and mood in it that makes you think and feel uncomfortable more than it makes you jump out of your chair. This may be why I enjoyed reading it so much.
I am afraid my thoughts on this book are little coherent, which is why the title of this post says “observations”.
- Frankenstein is told through three narrators. The first is a man who is on an expedition by boat through the arctic? sea, where they come across Frankenstein chasing his monster. The narrator takes Frankenstein in to nurse him back to health and this is where his part as narrator starts. In the middle of Frankenstein’s story as told by himself, Frankenstein is approached by the monster who then continues to tell his side of the story. I thought this was an interesting way to build the narrative, it is rather like a Matryoshka doll; as a reader you travel from an outsider perspective to an insider perspective (first Frankenstein and then the monster) before you return to Frankenstein and later on the outsider perspective again. I wonder why Shelley chose to write Frankenstein like this? What exactly is the point of the first narrator? Is he supposed to make us feel more friendly towards Frankenstein? Or is it meant to give the story a more realistic feel? It still puzzles me, more so because you never really find out much about this first narrator, he seems more like a tool of storytelling than a person with his own story worth telling.
- The three narrators also give this book the feel that I associate with Wuthering Heights: Who of the narrators is telling the truth and with whom are we supposed to sympathise? Particularly the dynamic between Frankenstein and his monster raises these question. While reading I often found myself annoyed with Frankenstein, couldn’t he stop pitying himself for a moment, act up, take his responsibility? And then the monster told his story and I almost pitied him, his side tugs at heartstrings that Frankenstein’s story never does. But why? Both are caught up in their own “misfortunes”, both bewail them. One, the monster, acts upon them in rage and jealousy, the other passively tries to ignore the consequences. Thus, both are not creatures we would identify as ‘good’ or ‘humane’, yet both deserve out pity in some ways. I am sure Mary Shelley meant the reader to go from Frankenstein’s repulsion towards understanding the monster’s side of the story, but then she makes you question it again, when she has Frankenstein say that the monster is manipulative and knows exactly how to influence humans. So was I taken in by the monster? I don’t know.
- It was interesting to read Frankenstein in the context of the Romantic movement. Now, I know only what I was taught in introductory history courses, but it was easy to identify some key ideas of the time. First, there is the atmospheric and yes, what I can only call romantic, description of landscapes in Germany and Switzerland. As soon as they move through the Netherlands and into the UK, there is a lament about this ‘lost world’ of truly beautiful nature. On his travels through the UK (I do not remember exactly which places he visited) he remarks that the scenery is nice, but that it needs the mountains and other scenery of his own home land.
On a side note: the story portrays Ireland as a rogue country where people know little kindness? Am I supposed to just accept that or can I take a few words to say that this seems a rather biased portrayal, very fitting to the times in a way?
- Romanticism also when you read the book as a critique of a belief in an all-encompassing power of science. Clearly, in some ways, Frankenstein’s monster became a monster because Frankenstein made the power of creation human, but was not ready to face the responsibilities this brought with it.
- There’s also a possible reading of a nature-versus-nurture debate, though I think these are not exactly the correct words to use. Was the monster ‘doomed’ to be evil from the outset, since he was created by another (flawed) human? Or is it Frankenstein’s lack of empathy for his ‘monster’? Does the monster become a ‘monster’ because he was denoted as such by Frankenstein? Thus, is there something like inherent evil, complete and blind evil, or is it a part of everyone and was it the lack of companionship that made the monster so? Reading the story I think Mary Shelley tried to show us the latter.
- All of this leading to the question, of course, who the real monster is in this story. Is it ‘the monster’, who is ugly on the outside but according to his own story tried to find companionship and only later turned against humans (but nevertheless consciously did so), or is it Frankenstein who in his arrogance and pride thought he could show up all scientists and then shunned his responsibilities. I cannot decide. It is easy to say ‘the monster!’, it is easy to say ‘no, really, it is Frankenstein!’ But I wonder if it isn’t rather that both are monsters to a certain extent, because in many ways, both shirk their responsibility towards other living creatures and both fail to balance their emotions and agency with responsibility. Or at least, I think this may be what Mary Shelley was trying to say in part.
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This post is one of many stops for the Gothic Literature Classics Tour of the Classics Circuit. Check out the other stops through the link.