Saturday, July 31, 2010

The N-Spot: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus

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).

The monster learns his rhetorical style from Milton; his inclinations toward sympathizing from Goethe. His pleas to his creator—that he should have a right to happiness, having been brought into the world without his consent, and then tossed, as it were, to the (human) wolves—are among the most moving moments of the novel, and certainly raise some of the more pressing philosophical questions Shelley seems concerned with. If we bring life into the world, should we not adequately equip it to cope with the strife of inhabiting our world? V. Frankenstein is the nineteenth century equivalent of the prom night teen parent flushing its newborn brat down the industrial strength school toilet. When his creation seeks to turn the tables on him—to make him, in short, as miserable and isolated as the monster himself has been—Frankenstein imagines the vengeful, malicious impulse to be implicit to the creature’s nature, rather than as an effect of Frankenstein’s reprehensible neglect.

Is this a novel of evolution? I couldn’t say, as I don’t have a great deal of background in the scientific history of the nineteenth century. Origin of Species was published in 1859, but a number of literary critics now try to tie nineteenth century novels to that sort of intellectual milieu (Wuthering Heights is a novel particularly besieged by this critical approach these days, it seems). I think Shelley certainly seems intrigued by the precarious divide between nature and culture; Frankenstein seems to be a proponent of a more literal imaging of intelligent design, and yet cannot concede that he himself has made of the creature a monster. As the novel progresses, Frankenstein and his monster become increasingly indistinguishable from one another; each is motivated purely by his rejection of his earned lot in life and his impulse toward revenge.

I had a pet theory until the very final pages of the novel in fact; which is to say, I questioned whether or not this could function as a tale of madness—of a split psyche—rather than as one of monstrosity. Certainly the novel proposes significant questions regarding the process of ‘othering.’ Against whom do we constitute our humanity? Victor Frankenstein spawns his own shadowy double, and yet believes his cause to be just by virtue of the fact that he is human; the creature’s ‘humanity’ is questionable, at best, in Frankenstein’s eyes. It is only by the near-ceaseless pursuit of his own doppelganger that Frankenstein justifies his terrible actions; but what challenges his narrative is that, yes, the monster-other speaks: “‘mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I will revenge my injuries: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.’” In seeking to adapt to a world of misery, the monster argues that “‘My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal…and become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded.’”

My pet theory was that perhaps the monster never truly existed; that this was a tale of Frankenstein’s inability to cope with his own monstrosity. I think of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as an example. The dark double/shadow-other/doppelganger trope is no stranger to nineteenth century literature; nor is the monstrous brooding hero (re: Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights; Rochester of Jane Eyre), or even the dark mirror of the bright outcome (see the tale of the fallen woman in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, or even the madwoman in the attic, Bertha Rochester, to Jane Eyre’s Jane). My pet theory was unfortunately demolished in the last page or two of Frankenstein, but despite this, Shelley maintains a provocative ambiguity until nearly the end of the novel that almost reminds me of Agatha Christie’s approach to constructing a mystery.

Ultimately, the novel allows a number of significant fundamental questions room to breathe: what constitutes our humanity? How do we categorize a moral life? How does the emergence of evolutionary biology compromise or augment our ability to live a ‘good’ life? Are we born into the world with an irrefutable ‘right’ to happiness—and what would this entail? For the monster, ‘happiness’ is in fact simply the absence of isolation and the right to be left alone. I don’t claim to be innovative here, just to reiterate the very basic power of a classic novel to remind me that there are many simple questions that we have yet to adequately answer, or even to approach in a satisfying way. For this, I don’t envy those who dismiss classic novels as boring or tedious; as ardent a consumer as I am of contemporary lit, there are much older works that affect me in a more elemental way than almost any modern author is able. Again, I think of Wuthering Heights or Dorian Gray or Madame Bovary or Austen or the poems of Emily Dickinson or The Awakening, and so on. Frankenstein is tedious at times, without doubt. Victor is largely an insufferable character, and his travels seem to blur together until you feel you’ve been to each of these ‘sublime’ paths one time too many, and at times you simply wish the monster would have done with it. But in the end, the novel not only questions what makes its own characters human (or not) but touches on nerves in the reader—or me, in any case—that seem to challenge or bolster that reader’s very humanity.

Now I leave you with a quote, a lovely moment of crisis in the monster’s narrative: “I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator; but where was mine? he had abandoned me, and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him.”

God is dead, friends, and our monstrosity may be all that yet faces us.

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