The last time I read Frankenstein was in high school and I don’t quite remember it being as wonderful as it is. In fact, I think I must have skimmed most of the book in an attempt to get through it as the narrative was barely familiar to me on this re-read. Such is the seventeen-year-old’s attention span.
What struck me upon this reading was the depth of the work. Although written quickly, in a sporting challenge with lover Percy Shelley and friend Lord Byron – Mary Shelley creates a work touching on many of life’s most fundamental, (if you will – existential) questions. In particular I am intrigued with the inquiry about what it means to be human, versus simply being possessed of life, or in contrast to the life of nature – questions which are obviously explored through the tortured existence of Frankenstein’s monster.
For Shelley creates a very “human” monster, but in whom the physical and emotional characteristics are magnified to the degree of becoming grotesque. This is a monster with whom we can sympathize – his desires and needs are familiar to us – while at the same time recoiling from their excesses. Everything about this monster is out of proportion, and yet whose fault is this? The creator in his lack of foresight and his incredible hubris, is more to blame than the created forced to roam the earth without companionship.
First of all – we have the physical countenance of the creature – which although Frankestein claims he had “selected his features as beautiful”, he acknowleges that “I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then….” Of course he couldn’t have know that “when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived….” and yet still one wonders at the lack of foresight with which Frankenstein animated this pastiche atrocity?
From this we derive our “larger-than-life” not-quite-human figure who features “…yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” Not mentioned in Frankenstein’s narrative, but referenced at the start of the book is that the monster is also physically very large – “a being which had the shape of man, but apparently of gigantic stature” – and so the reader is brought to understand that not only is the creature ugly, but of a threatening size to his human cousin and creator.
Rather than taking responsibility for the horror, Frankenstein immediately departs the room and leaves his accomodation for the outside courtyard, passing the night there. When he returns to his rooms the next afternoon, he is “relieved” that the monster is gone rather than concerned for its wellbeing (or worried about the ramification of an animate but inhuman creature roaming the streets), and the onset of his subsequent psychic/physic illness renders him incapable of taking any further responsibility for his creation.
Of course, this is not the end of the story and the creature later returns to murder those loved by his creator, thus attempting to render Frankenstein as alone in the world as his creation. We are invited into the monster’s story when he confronts his creator in the mountains and tells his side of what has happened – and here we realize that not only is he physically large, but he also possesses an enlarged capacity for both intellect and emotion – for the monster is the most verbally eloquent character in the tale as well as the most ruthless when it comes to avenging his orphaned state. In this scene, articulates his struggles at making connections in a hostlie world and advances rational argument for the creation of a female counterpart, so as to solve his burden of solitude. While Frankenstein is emotionall moved by the plea of his creation, he is equally revulsed, and refuses to take any responsibility for the plight of his experiment and its outcomes.
It is clear that Frankenstein, doesn’t hold a candle to his creation on any front which is why he ultimately can’t contain what he has unleashed into the world. He carries not the intellect or the passion to truly see through killing the monster, no matter how many of Frankenstein’s loved ones perish (for the record this includes his brother, a family-friend and serving girl, his best friend, his wife on their wedding night). The monster manages to outwit his creator at every turn (Frankenstein misses even the most obvious clues), which demonstrates the superiority of the creation right into the end of the tale.
But as much as the creation is “greater-than-human” in many respects, his grotesque appearance keeps him from being able to bond with others. Not even Frankenstein will take him in as a friend, for that would require admitting to his own family of his mistaken arrogance (and connection to the muder of his young brother William). What the monster is thus denied in these rejections, is the ability to become fully human through society with others. While he is able to learn to speak, read, and about family relations through watching a poor cottage family over a one year period (thus attaining some knowledge of the world and notion of socialization), the fact that he is ultimately denied community is what turns the monster towards the murder of William (and revenge on his creator). Not only solitude, but the knowledge it will be never-ending, drive the creature to a madness in which his emotional responses are enlarged to encompass even acts he knows to be hideous (the killing of a child).
I believe that this need for companionship is in some part a need for a witness to his life – something reinforced by the structure of a narrative inside a narrative inside a narrative which Shelley employes in her tale. The story is told to Walton by Frankenstein, and the monster’s story is told to Frankstein who tells it to Walton, leaving the reader as the final witness in a chain of witnessing. This is what the monster is after – to be seen! For he can live alongside humans while concealing himself quite easily, but this is only half a life. To fully live, one must engage with others and must be seen to have lived.(As if to underscore this lack of identification, the monster is never even given a name).
Some other themes I think are worth exploring through Shelley’s Frankenstein (and would if I didn’t feel so poorly at the moment) include:
- Frankenstein as a birth narrative (Mary Shelley’s birth killed her own mother)
- The relationship between created and creator
- Class relations in emergent industrial society
- The monster as sympathetic (of us)
- The essence of creation – what is natural? what is not natural? where do we draw the line in a world where the “creation of life” is a possibility?