Reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a peculiar and unnerving experience. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. It’s a short book and a long, slow read, a horror tale that is not at all horrific but instead wallows in tragedy, on one level a novel of provocative ideas, but on another level an action story that seems turgid and dull. Despite its flaws, it has made such an impact on the cultural imagination because the idea of creating human life is a science fiction fantasy that we move closer towards day by day without having solved any of the moral problems that Mary Shelley’s novel highlights.
We begin with a framing device. Robert Walton is attempting to fulfil his dream of sailing to the Arctic when his ship becomes stuck in the ice. And thus he is witness to a strange chase; an unnaturally large man is headed into the wilderness on a sleigh pulled by huskies, and not far behind him, drifting on a broken fragment of ice with only one dog remaining, is another man, almost destroyed by the harsh, freezing conditions. The crew drag him on board and nurse him back to health at which point he recounts to Walton the tale that led him to this place and time, and our captain notes it all down.
The man is Victor Frankenstein, once an ambitious and brilliant young scientist who created a living human being in a fever of passion for new discoveries in chemistry and biology. But once he had brought the creature to life, he was horrified by what he had done. The thing was ugly and, through Frankenstein’s flawed causality, therefore wicked. He disowned the creature who ran away from the laboratory, leaving Frankenstein to the lengthy collapse of his health after his demanding but failed experiment. But this was only the start of the story. When Frankenstein hears that his much younger brother has been murdered, and their servant girl, Justine, framed for the crime, he knows that the monster has come to avenge himself. Whilst his family grieves, Frankenstein sets off in pursuit of his botched creation and tracks him down in the mountains. There the monster recounts his coming to consciousness, and his excruciating discovery of his outcast status. People run screaming from him, they faint at his feet or try to destroy him, and it is the extreme misery of abandonment that makes him angry and violent. Victor has been the cause of all his woes and he needs him to put things right by creating once again, this time a female monster who could be his companion and provide the benefits of being alive – love, companionship, sympathy. If Victor refuses to do this, the monster swears to make his life a living hell.
Various devices are employed to try to make Victor Frankenstein appealing. The captain of the ship, Robert Walton, is fascinated by him, to the point of almost falling in love with him. His family adore and revere him. And Frankenstein moans on and on about destiny, and how he could not have escaped his cruel fate. But it’s easy to see that the problem here is Frankenstein himself. He is a dreadful mother, one who has rejected and disowned his creation. The monster is truly a product of nurture and not nature in this narrative.
Mister Litlove suggested to me that this book is about the potentially disastrous consequences of men mothering – their competitive natures demand alpha male products, and anything else is rejected as unworthy, hateful, wrong. Frankenstein cannot come to terms with the failure of his experiment, and he cannot judge it as anything but ‘wicked’ despite the monster’s eloquent account of his troubles and his genuine desire to be happy and good. But we could also see the novel as what happens when a woman writes a monster story. Mary Shelley knew that the clash between man and monster would result in a battle to the death, whereas what the monster needed was the feminine qualities of understanding and acceptance, kindness compassion and love.
In a culture that remains obsessed by monsters in films and video games, and where the only method of dealing with them is apocalyptic destruction, we might usefully bear Mary Shelley’s perspective in mind. It is Frankenstein’s horror of himself that gets projected onto his creation, his distress and shame at what he has done. It is his insistence on the monster’s badness that ultimately turns him bad. The sumptuous and grandiose desire manifest in so many films to destroy, wipe out, nuke or explode anything that threatens could be read as a painfully ironic comment on the way we deal with our fears. Frankenstein reminds us that hostility is the veil through which monsters are perceived.
Talking of things going to the bad, I find I cannot comment on wordpress posts at the moment. I keep being told to log in but that doesn’t solve the problem. Immensely frustrating! Seeing as I cannot nuke wordpress, nor would I want to, I’ll have to hope to find an answer soon. In the meantime, I am reading you all, even if I can’t say so.