Category Archives: Frankenstein

Frankenstein: Read from August 24 to September 1, 2018

The Onion’s Book of Known Knowledge says of Frankenstein: “You are probably looking for Frankenstein’s monster, you idiot.” While this is always a “fun fact” for that know-it-all friend we all have (certainly that’s not us, right) to trot out in an effort to make everyone around them feel inferior for not having actually read the book, I think there is something deeper going on here than just confusing the monster for its maker. The fact that even after having read the book – and I’m only discussing the original 1818 version, not the later revised edition – I still want to call the monster Frankenstein speaks to what I think Shelley was really going for at the heart of this novel.

A common misconception about this novel is the idea that she was writing about science gone amok. True, her revised edition 1831 edition contains far more musings that touch on this point, but her original intention, her original creation was about something far more interesting: relationships. When we first open the book we a reading the letters of Walton, a captain of an Arctic Research vessel who laments that he does not have a friend in which he can share ideas with and help him be a better man. Walton is smart enough to know that even at our best, we are always better when a friend can challenge us, bounce ideas off of us, and flat-out remind us when we’re being foolish. And so enters Victor Frankenstein and by the end of the novel when Walton’s crew seems near the verge of mutiny, Walton decides against pressing the adventure on and bravely turns the ship around. Walton, unlike Victor literally changes course rather than pursuing a course that could kill his crew and himself.

And this is what I believe is at the core of what Shelley wanted to explore: isolation breeds inhumanity. Think about how when Victor creates the monster he does so all alone and at the expense of all his relations. Later, when he first submits to create the monster a mate, he does so on an isolated island while his vacation partner and best friend, Clerval, is left behind. Or from the monster’s point of view, he is at his most humane when he is surrounded by the family he spends a year observing in secret. The monster gains insight into the best traits of humanity, but once he is shunned, he reverts into an actual monster that places no value on human life.

Shelley is not so much interested in “the dangers of science”, she’s interested in the dangers of isolation from humanity. She is telling a story about how we are at our best when we have companionship, when we have people around us who challenge and love us but when we turn from humanity, for whatever reason, we lose our humanity because our humanity is defined by the people around us.

Shelley spends a lot of ink in the novel describing how beautiful the landscapes are and how when Victor experiences nature with his friends and family he’s at his best, or at least not nearly as depressed, yet when he confronts the monster and then later chases after him the scenery is a blank ice sheet, a wasted void of nothing and devoid of all life and humanity. Victor keeps turning away from companionship and instead chases after his inner obsession. And by inner obsession I mean that the idea of the monster started out as just an idea that he was able to actually manifest physically – his inner thought literally were made manifest and were given their own agency. The monster is an avatar of his obsession to plumb the absolute depths of his intellectual abilities by isolating himself from all distractions until he was successful.

And perhaps this is why upon seeing the monster come to life he immediately turned away from it because what had been a beautiful idea in his mind (and he had thought he was creating something beautiful) he saw just how ugly the inside of his own mind was, just how ugly that absolute obsession turned out to be. The monster was a product of Victor’s sick, isolated mind and, like Gogol’s Nose, the two had to reunited, only here it wound up being tragic.

And so when we think of the monster as an unnatural abomination, what we are really reacting to is that the monster represents the inhumanity of isolation from humanity. It represents the dangers of shunning humanity while we pursue our obsessions. The monster does not, however represent the dangers of pursing forbidden knowledge since what Victor was initially attempting to do was not at all against nature. Victor wanted to cure death, Victor wanted to understand how life worked which are not unreasonable goals. Victor was applying good scientific principles to his pursuit by taking what he knew and actually applying it via real demonstration.

This is how science has always worked and the fact that what Victor created turned out horribly isn’t an indictment of science, it’s an indictment of pursuing something to such an isolated extreme that the result is perverted because the process didn’t take place as part of a community. Scientists work together when exploring the secrets of nature and the universe, they bounce ideas off of each other, they learn from scientists who came before them, and they allow independent scientists to verify (or falsify) their findings. The process does not happen in isolation and the results are always tempered with collaboration.

Victor’s failing was to think he could do this all on his own, that creating a human could be done without the help of other humans. When humans have children (biologically) it takes at least two people to create a child, and even in cases where someone can’t have children then there are doctors and adoption specialists and surrogates who make up the community of parenting. Victor failed to take into account the neighborhood of man, a line Shelley uses again and again in the novel, and when he tried to create a human being like himself, all he did was create a manifestation of his ugly obsession.

99% done with Frankenstein

V3, Ch7: Walton was right to listen to his crew. What good is it to go to the ends of the earth when all there is is death? Pursuing some fantastic discovery will still lead to death, so why not enjoy the company of the living instead of chasing after the inevitability of death? Is it cowardly to choose life? Better to choose life than revenge, anyway. Better to pursue fellowship than hatred and bitterness.

89% done with Frankenstein

V3, Ch6: And there we have it: total, inevitable destruction. And now as he does confess to his part, not only is he not believed but he can’t get anyone to join him. He’s utterly alone with only his demon to pursue him (and pursue). Society is abandoned for both of them, they are like 2 evil planets orbiting only each other. And as much as Victor created the monster, the monster has created this Victor.

86% done with Frankenstein

V3, Ch5: This is sort of like being in a car when you know you are about to be in an accident but you can’t do anything about it. Tragedy must be coming and neither Victor or monster will find peace or happiness. The monster, though miserable, is still responsible for murder, especially of Clerval since that we premeditated. But Victor is just as responsible in not taking responsibility for his role. The end is near.

81% done with Frankenstein

V3, Ch4: “He may be innocent of the murder, but he has certainly a guilty conscience.” And Victor is carrying his prison around with him everywhere. And not just death, but his friendships and relations have been suffering this entire time. He’s been withdrawing since he first read those books on alchemy and false science. His desire to be God has cursed him and everyone around him.

76% done with Frankenstein

V3, Ch3: No good can come for Victor by not obeying his monster. Tearing up the bride will only probably cause his own fiancee to be destroyed one way or another. And now he is the villain, he is looked at with accusing eyes, he is outcast and murder follows him everywhere. Death has come from the life he created. But then didn’t the same thing happen to God? We could have lived in Eden but we became monsters instead

72% done with Frankenstein

V3, Ch2: What if she rejects the monster? You can’t force love. Victor is now an island unto himself, alone, terrified, living in squalor just like the monster. He has the whole world possible for him, yet he wastes it and allows his demons to pursue him. Is it no wonder that his marriage and the monster wanting a mate line up so perfectly? He’s barely human at this point.

68% done with Frankenstein

V3, Ch1: The marriage to his cousin has come up but he needs 2 more years to comply with the monster. This whole story feels like the monster is not actually real but is some manifestation of Victor’s dual human nature, his depression, his isolation, his inability to connect with human beings. Both characters are outcasts but the monster deserves a real life more than Victor does.

62% done with Frankenstein

V2, Ch8: It really is heartbreaking to read this – it’s almost as if we are God listening to the cries of all of humanity who ask why they must suffer. All-in-all this story always centers around fellowship, companionship, friendship, to be part of something bigger, to have someone to listen to, to empathize with, to remind us we are not totally alone.

58% done with Frankenstein

V2, Ch7: Is man so detestable that everything he creates in his image is a horror-show? We are capable of such great art and refined thought but when we apply that to something that might resemble us we are a little terrified of it, like those Boston Dynamics robots that seem just a little too real. We can express our essence, but we can’t reliably duplicate it at will – that’s still totally random.

51% done with Frankenstein

V2, Ch5: The Arabian is a convenient character that just so happens to also need a primary education. But what he’s also learning is about the duality of man. Here, hidden away watching this humble, loving family, he is experiencing both the best and the worst of humanity at the same time – he is happy and miserable. But he is especially sensitive to the cruelty.

47% done with Frankenstein

V2, Ch4: This is very touching and very sad, but also a little creepy. Here is this poor family struggling to survive with an alien living among them. He sees everything, knows everything, they have no privacy, no secrets – he is like a god and a demon watching, learning, judging. Yet he means no harm and gains an understanding of the best of humanity through the virtuous poor people (isn’t that trope played out?). And as soon as spring begins to bloom, so does he.

45% done with Frankenstein

V2, Ch3: Structurally, we have a story being told 1) to us by the captain, 2) to the captain by Victor, and 3) to Victor by the monster. It’s all second-hand, just as the evidence against Justine was second-hand, circumstantial evidence (though isn’t nearly all evidence circumstantial?).

The monster lives initially in a sort of impoverished Eden where the knowledge of good and evil – and everything else are foreign.

39% done with Frankenstein

V2, Ch1: VIctor, though overcome with grief, has not confessed his part in all this. It’s very Poe-like. There is no hiding from what he has created, however, it is following him everywhere so much that the monster is not just a physical creation, but an emotional part of him made manifest. All of his inability to understand and empathize is now a burden which chases after him.

36% done with Frankenstein

V1, Ch7: Justine is accused of the murder, but even though she is innocent, the priest bullies her into thinking she is a monster and just wants to be at ease (she’s already grieving). Victor’s lack of action to remedy this – so far – is the true hell and all this suffering and anguish is his creations. And all this fear and confusion mirrors what the monster must be going through.

32% done with Frankenstein

V1, Ch6: The hens have come home to roost and Victor is responsible for creating that which has now taken a life, a life he was intimately connected to. We could almost read this as his seclusion into his experiments as being made manifest in how that is destroying his relationships. He may have not done the strangling, but he created the opportunity and means for a life and relationship to be destroyed.

28% done with Frankenstein

V1, Ch5: He’s drawn back to the living thru his relationships with his friends and family but there is a cloud hanging over all this within the story of Justine and how her mother abandoned her and how that led to tragedy. This further reinforces the theme of relationships Shelley is interested in and how losing those relationships could be seen as a loss of humanity.

25% done with Frankenstein

V1, Ch4: He is disgusted by his creation immediately upon it coming to life, it’s sort of a post-coital, postpartum depression. It’s also as if he poured part of his own essence into the monster which has sapped him of part of his own life. I’m reminded, in part, of Gogol’s Nose wandering about, detached from whom it belongs to, but here it’s not funny and the monster wants to be united.

14% done with Frankenstein

V1, Ch1: More emphasis on friendship and the desire for true companionship. Our captain seems intent on keeping his new friend far from the crew whom we previously learned were, seemingly, good people. Our hero is obsessed with forbidden knowledge, that Faustian desire for godlike powers, for fame not from money but for controlling the energy of the universe. His mother’s desire to see him and Emily married is odd.

10% done with Frankenstein

I have to admit that I did not pay close enough attention to who was writing the opening 4 letters and was surprised when they saw the monster from the ship and then pulled up his creator not long after. There is a strong emphasis on friendship in these opening letters, specifically the desire to find a friend who shares in one’s passion and intelligence.