In her provocative anti-war tract Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf again and again invokes a horrific wartime newspaper photograph, manipulating (to good purpose, mind you) the delicate sensibilities of her readership. However, as she reminds us, the figure responsible for the pictured atrocities—this shadowy, gargantuan figure we might call ‘Tyrant’ or ‘Dictator’—cannot be wholly disavowed by members of ‘respectable society.’ The ‘Tyrant’ is not entirely other to those capable of ‘identifying’ him, as such. Indeed, for Woolf the photograph itself “suggests a connection…that the public and private worlds are inseparably connected; that the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other…It suggests that we cannot dissociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure.” The division of parts, the distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed, the good and the bad cop, dissolves under pressure; such lucid myths cannot hold.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus seems to me to provocatively prefigure this sentiment. For, despite your—or my—expectations, Shelley’s Frankenstein is no drive-in monster movie. Dismiss visions of rectangular greenish skulls, inconvenient steel bolts, and incomprehensible low-throated grunts. There is a dash of suspense here; a spine-shiver or three there; but the tale is horrifying more pointedly in the way that campfire stories chill the childlike sense of wonder we persistently retain. In fact, the story evidently originated in a scene rather like that, around the eerie glow of the campfire, though I suppose most of us cannot boast winning three-legged races or battles for the top bunk against Percy Shelley or Lord Byron.
The body count is relatively high for such a highbrow novel, but the chief terror of this novel is its indictment of an ambitious, seemingly charmed intellectual who presumes to play god. Frankenstein (Victor, the creator; the monster has no name) believes he has discovered an antidote to the usual cycles of life—birth and death—or at least unearthed paths that obviate the conventional route humans trek along. When the creature that emerges from his unethical (or at least blasphemous, if you go in for that sort of thing—and I don’t) experimentation turns out to be visually repulsive, Frankenstein abandons him to the cruelties of the human world and subsequently expects his own life to resume its usual motions. Indeed, it is this conflict that tends to be left unmentioned when people speak of Frankenstein—or at the least, it was a tension in the novel that I was more or less unprepared for (particularly seeing as I consider myself a fairly well-informed ‘literary’ type).
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