Rhapsody in Penguins III — Fourth Movement: Frankenstein

Frankenstein (1818)
by Mary Shelley
edited by Maurice Hindle

When I was in Australia last year, I was told about lots of anniversaries that was happening around that particular year. Besides being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emily Bronte — whose novel gave me the indelible image of Kate Bush dancing around a field — 2018 was the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, which everybody cannot. Stop. Going. ON ABOUT.

Still, fame has coagulated around this book, for many well-deserved reasons. It is, for instance, widely regarded as the first true science fiction novel — which we wouldn’t normally associate with a book written in 1817. Then there are the countless horror franchises which have spawned from Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny”, countless portrayals in drama, film and a gazillion other representations that are a true testament to man’s ability to wring money out of a single work of literature.

However, as interesting as capitalism is, Frankenstein’s staying power ultimately comes from the story itself and the lessons it teaches. Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the novel will have no doubt heard of this moral — “ah yes, this is a story about pride” — and this thinkpiece is to a certain extent about that, but I want to push that a little further. Because at the centre of Frankenstein’s whirlpool of depravity is not just the problem of pride: it’s also, more broadly, about how an individual places themselves in relation to the people around them, and how misjudgements made on that front can be very, very dangerous.

Victor Frankenstein’s world is, to say the least, very limited, as it only revolves around the one person worthy of being his centre of attention: himself. This is not an observation limited to me: the very fact that he dares to play God and replicate life — something that would have been unheard of. And there’s plenty of evidence to that effect, but my favourite is from after Victor Frankenstein and his monster have sort of declared war on each other.

I thought again of his words — “I will be with you on your wedding-night.” That, then, was the period fixed for the fulfilment of my destiny. In that hour I should die and at once satisfy and extinguish his malice. The prospect did not move me to fear; yet when I thought of my beloved Elizabeth, of her tears and endless sorrow, when she should find her lover so barbarously snatched from her.

Now let’s break that down a little, because I am a literature student and I am literally stuck for words on this one. The words “me”, “my” and “I” are used six times in two sentences, which is certainly a bit overdone, but not enough to make him an egotist. However, his next action is to prepare himself very well against the danger while totally forgetting the human with some sort of vague relationship that is next to him (also known as HIS WIFE). When Victor finally remembers that Elizabeth also exists, it’s also to cry “oh dear, what would she do without me”. There are many adjectives one could append to Victor Frankenstein, but “modest” doesn’t seem to be one of them.

In any case, his self-preservation works wonders for him, which here means “the monster, in a completely unexpected move, strangles Elizabeth instead of Victor”. He imagines Elizabeth helpless, unable to combat the monster — little realizing that he’s already doing that by leaving her alone, unguarded, with his hideous monster in the next room. Ironically, the helpless situation he’s envisaged for Elizabeth happens to him instead, and it’s precisely because of his negligence and his inability to focus on anybody but himself. With every person he neglects, he erases the connection between them and him, leaving him lonelier and lonelier — and also angrier and more unable to function socially. (Perhaps that’s why he’s such a megalomaniac — the amount of attention he bestows on people directly affects whether they survive.) It’s a vicious cycle from which he never gets to extricate himself.

But is that it? Are his interpersonal oversights the only reason why he loses everyone he loves? It’s not so simple: negligence comes in many forms — even when you take note of people physically, I’d say that you’re still neglecting them if you don’t tend to their needs and desires at least occasionally. Such is Victor’s pride that he fully believes in himself: I’d also argue that it also caused a sort of insensitivity that made him cruel, heartless and somewhat unlikable.

Example: when the monster asks him to create a female counterpart, it’s not entirely reasonable: it’s a pretty lonely business when you think that you’re the only one of your kind in the world. (A sentiment that will be shared by anyone who has desired a partner.) But Victor’s only response is to commit to it hazily, and then reject it outright when suddenly seized with the impulse, unrepentant about his decision. Notwithstanding the fact that he is very capable of limiting the use of the reproductive organs, he shouldn’t even have a say in another person’s (or monster’s) happiness. But even when the monster has pleaded, threatened, tried to appeal to his finer senses, Victor refuses — with terrible consequences. The monster does not feel loved by Victor — and without love, he turns to the only alternative of hate.

Same goes with his family. Earlier on we saw Victor building his monster. He tells Captain Walton that as he continues to work on his creation:

I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination. I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed.

(Most people procrastinate on their work. Victor Frankenstein, however, procrastinates on his feelings.)

People who have ever worked very hard for something (cough capstone cough) will have no doubt have felt very focused on the work they’re doing. We might even ignore one or two things we’d normally take for granted. But none of us would reach the levels of our Victor when he’s out to prove himself. He knows that he is the greatest scientist in the world (I mean, he IS the only person who has been able to create life while still being a virgin). And yet, at the same time, he becomes less and less connected to the things that make him human: he takes away his feelings of affection and even says that he’s swallowed up every bit of his nature. And without human nature — what’s left? Is the monster the one who’s having his guts reassembled on a bench, or the one who’s doing the reassembling and ignoring all the calls from his family?

Now, I don’t wish for this thinkpiece to become yet another of those cliched and sentimental “the real Frankenstein is the friends we forgot to make along the way” so-and-so — I do like to think that a good writer can be above that kind of thing, or at least find a way to make it less mushy. But I do think that too often in life we forget about other people because we’re too busy wading through our own crap. We spend loads of time on ourselves, and we neglect the people who have made it possible. Where would we be, after all, without the support of our family, our friends, our acquaintances? Victor is a successful scientist, but he’s a failure in human society in that he doesn’t really care about others’ concern for him. (Perhaps he’s also autistic.)

It’s a defect of mankind that in our selfish desires, we often forget to balance what we want to do with what other people want from us. Even as Victor tells us his story, we are conscious of the whole thing being repeated in Captain Walton: eager to make history as the first man who reached the North Pole, he ignores the increasing discontent of his crew to return. It might not be malicious — or at least I believe it isn’t malicious, sunny optimistic uncynical person that I am — and it’s tolerable to a degree, but it just doesn’t reflect well on us if we take their love for granted without at least appreciating it, making the other person feel valued as well.

In that respect, Victor truly is a master of creation: first he creates his own monster, then he creates his own loneliness, and finally his own downfall. It’s a lesson that we might learn from: after all, he wants everyone to heed his story and to learn about the dangers of pride. And perhaps Victor’s final creation — the story he tells — might be the only good thing he created in his life.

Next time: This book was edited by Maurice Hindle, a professor who’s done Shakespeare, Romanticism, and weirdly, the Beatles. (I mean, he has good taste, especially on that last one.) He also edited the next book on our roster, and it’s none other than the other famous monster in English literature: it’s Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”!

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