Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review -- FRANKENSTEIN, or A MODERN PROMETHEUS by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley

"These thoughts supported my spirits, while I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement. Sometimes, on the very brink of certainty, I failed; yet still I clung to the hope which the next day or the next hour might realize. One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance, that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion."
Thus, the modern Prometheus of the title goes about his work, setting himself upon a path that would lead him to commit one of the greatest sins possible--rejection and loathing for one's own child.

Mary Shelley is the daughter of Mary Wollenstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and William Godwin (author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice), and the wife of Percy Bisshe Shelley, the renowned Romantic poet who died at a tragically young age in a shipwreck in the mid-1820s.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein after vacationing in Switzerland with her husband and a few other notables, including the Romantic poet Byron, when they all agreed to attempt to write a ghost story. Only Mary Shelley actually managed to scrawl out an entire novel, the rest were better at poetry than prose, apparently.

Frankenstein is a horror novel, but the horror is personal and internal, not external. It is a very tragic tale, in which the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, is a self-absorbed "Prometheus" who is so engaged in the prospect of creating life from the base material parts that he doesn't consider the reality of what he is creating. Daydreams of being worshiped as the creator of a new species are dashed at the awakening of his "monster," which he perceives as hideous and malformed only once the animating spark is endowed. Frankenstein's great sin, however, is not the creation of his monster, but his sudden and irrational rejection of it. Indeed, the monster is not much of one, at the beginning, but becomes one when he learns only cruelty and hate from the humans that surround him.

This is an incredibly misunderstood book, in my opinion. The horror is not actually of the monster, but of the black depths of the human soul--our fear and revulsion of that which we do not understand. H.P. Lovecraft wrote that the oldest and strongest emotion in humans was fear, and the oldest and strongest fear was that of the unknown. This terror in the face of the ugly and unfamiliar can lead to hate and abuse--the sort of treatment that the monster suffers. It learns, at the hands of humankind, to be a murderer and to avenge its wretched existence against its tormentors, and it focuses its hatred on the man most responsible for his miserable state--Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

There isn't much that I can say after having read Harold Bloom's "Afterword" (from the Signet Classics August 2000 printing). In his words, Frankenstein "is an important book, though it is only a strong, flawed novel with frequent clumsiness in its narrative and characterization," but nevertheless "contains one of the most vivid versions we have of the Romantic mythology of the self, one that resembles Blake's Book of Urizen, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, and Byron's Manfred... ."

I've not read those works, but Bloom gives enough of a representation for Prometheus Unbound in his "Afterword" that you can get a gist, and I'm familiar with Blake's interesting mythology and prophetic poetry. Indeed, Mary Shelley's work is rife with references to a great many inspirational works--one of which is Milton's Paradise Lost, which plays a vital role in educating the monster and is perhaps the catalyst that sets him in vengeful antagonism against Frankenstein.

I will leave the analysis to others far more suited than I, and the Signet Classics edition has a decent bibliography for further references. Nevertheless, I'll endeavor to assess the work, though I can only doubt my qualifications to undertake so daunting a task.

First, the story itself is deep, but not entirely eventful. Those expecting a tale full of dreadful screams and horrific acts of brutality might find themselves disappointed. In Aeschyline style (can I say that, or must I say Aschylus-esque?), most of the murders take place "offstage" although the details of one are relayed through flashback.

The horror, however, comes forth through how these murders impact the psyche of Victor Frankenstein. Each one drives him further and further from something human and deeper into a sort of animalistic desperation. In this, as the analysts often note, the dichotomy of Frankenstein and his monster crystallizes, and the two are revealed to simply be reflections of one-another. Thus, the horror is created in the mind of Frankenstein himself, as well as the monster, who had suffered at the hands of humanity indescribably during his brief period of innocence.

Second, the prose itself feels a bit forced at times. It is revealed in the Forward that Percy Shelley edited much of the novel, and is responsible for some of its unnecessary verbosity. Although at times, the prose can be exquisite, at other times, it can be wantonly purple. I felt the hand of Percy throughout the novel strongly, simply because there were times when the dialogue and the description of things were stretched. Brevity was ignored in some places, and the forward even pointed out a number of instances where a plain, quick, and simple sentence was made needlessly complex by Percy for the sake of satisfying his poetic taste. While this might work in meter, I don't think it works quite well in prose, which may be one of the reasons many poets don't seem to make good prose writers and vice versa.
At these moments I wept bitterly and wished that peace would revisit my mind only that I might afford them consolation and happiness. But that could not be. Remorse extinguished every hope. I had been the author of unalterable evils, and I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness. I had an obscure feeling that all was not over and that he would still commit some signal crime, which by its enormity should almost efface the recollection of the past. There was always scope for fear so long as anything I loved remained behind. My abhorrence of this fiend cannot be conceived. When I thought of him I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed. When I reflected on his crimes and malice, my hatred and revenge burst all bounds of moderation. I would have made a pilgrimage to the highest peak of the Andes, could I when there have precipitated him to their base.
It's beautiful, it's descriptive, it's poetic, but it slows down the narrative to a snail's crawl at times. I won't say much about it, though, because at least the Shelleys are doing something with the language rather than simply rattling on about the temperatures of tea or going on and on about a certain woman's rich appearance like someone we know. This is, therefore, an extremely minor nitpick, but the Shelleys engage in this sort of poetic rabbit-trail so often it does become tiresome at times.

Nevertheless, aside from that complaint, I must admit the novel, though around 180 pages, seemed awfully short. I read it on the subway over a period of two weeks, while reading other books. This adds up to probably about six or at worst seven hours spent on the novel alone, not including the forward and afterword. Perhaps it is because I had become so accustomed to reading long, meandering history books or epic fantasy novels spanning 400+ pages (at minimum) that Mary Shelley's novel seemed to simply fly past (with small print, in fact!).

Though it feels like the novel has few events within it's brief 26 chapters, it is, nevertheless, quite the page-turner. Though at times the verbosity of the prose caused my mind to drift a few times and I found myself having to re-read whole pages, I still found myself pulled through the book by the plot. Though most of the characters are a bit too archetypal to seem anything more than the two-dimensional models they are, I found the monster and Victor Frankenstein to be quite interesting. His love and hate seem almost arbitrary depending on what he wants at any given time, whereas the monster's desires seem somewhat stable and unchanging. This makes them more interesting than the stock-characters that populate the rest of the novel with their overly predictable behavior. It is difficult to sympathize with Victor Frankenstein, for from the very moment his creation breathes life, he casts the eight-foot-tall infant from him, and the two years that it wanders and sojourns in squalor teaches it to be as cruel as the humans into which it had blundered. The monster should invoke our pity, as should his victims. Nevertheless, I still felt for Victor Frankenstein's losses at the hands of his monster, partially because of the imbalance--Frankenstein gave life and little else, but the monster took away from Frankenstein that which he himself had wanted.

The impact of the book is incredible, and has spawned a great many adaptations, some of which are more faithful than others. There is, of course, the classic 1931 James Wale film starring Boris Karloff as the monster (often mistakenly named for the doctor) and Colin Clive as Henry (note the name change) Frankenstein. The film has become the most iconic representation of the story, recognizable to everyone, and reflects the technological advances of the century between the novel's publication and the movie release by adding an electrical element in the re-animation of the dead matter. As a pop culture touchstone, it's weight is everywhere, and Colin Clive's ecstatic cries of "It's alive, it's alive!" express heartfelt jubilation to present a perfect counterpoint to the terror that will be unleashed.

The irony is that the film did irreparable damage to people's understanding of the book. The focus went from Victor Frankenstein's heartless rejection of the monster and the fruits of his own cruelty to Henry Frankenstein's desire to "play God" and the repercussions of his hubris. The most humorous treatment to come out of the pop culture cauldron is probably Mel Brooks' The Young Frankenstein (ahem, FrankenSTIEN), where the doctor and the monster forge a loving bond with one-another, reversing the tragedy of the novel for comedic purpose.

All-in-all, the book is far more important for the ideas it conveys than for the style in which it was written, or the complexity of the plot itself. The ideas are incredibly powerful, and lace the narrative with a great deal of meaning that goes far beyond the simple passage of events. Mary Shelley's invocation of such works as Paradise Lost and the monster's "education" should make the importance of the ideas themselves abundantly clear to the reader. Therefore, this book has earned quite high marks. It shouldn't just serve as a cautionary tale to scientists, but also as a source of moral challenge to the reader, who will find the both Frankenstein and his monster simultaneously abhorrent and pitiable.

Frankenstein, or A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley
Style A-
Substance A
Overall A-

1 comment:

Annabel Lee said...

Thanks so much, you really had such great insight about that novel..I totally loved the way you express..I will almost read about all your views and the novels you suggest, keep it up tnx