"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 107
Believe it or not, I've never read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein before! Everything that I know about the "Modern Prometheus" and his monster, I learned from pop culture. And apparently, there's a lot that pop culture has seen fit to gloss over, like the character of Robert Walton.
Six years have passed since I resolved on my present undertaking. I can, even now, remember the hour from which I dedicated myself to this great enterprise. I commenced by inuring my body to hardship. I accompanied the whale-fishers on several expeditions to the North Sea; I voluntarily endured cold, famine, thirst, and want of sleep; I often worked harder than the common sailors during the day and devoted my nights to the study of mathematics, the theory of medicine, and those branches of physical science from which a naval adventurer might derive the greatest practical advantage. Twice I actually hired myself as an under-mate in a Greenland whaler, and acquitted myself to admiration. I must own I felt a little proud when my captain offered me the second dignity in the vessel and entreated me to remain with the greatest earnestness, so valuable did he consider my services. And now, dear Margaret, do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose? My life might have been passed in ease and luxury, but I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path. Oh, that some encouraging voice would answer in the affirmative!
LTG mentioned that Frankenstein would be a good segue from last month's Oryx and Crake readalong--and we surely have our first connection here, in our "ordinary" narrator. When I was in uni, the Professor who included Oryx and Crake as an optional novel in his paper said that one benefit of such a framing device is that it makes the most fantastic settings and situations seem more believable. And that's probably why Margaret Atwood didn't get the evil genius Crake to tell his own story, but handpicked his old buddy Jimmy to do it. (Yes, before Crake chose Jimmy, Atwood chose Jimmy. Poor guy.) But Shelley's Walton serves a second--and I daresay, a more important--purpose.
The Letters and Chapters 1 to 4
Something that I didn't expect to find in Frankenstein was the theme of friendship. It shouldn't have been too surprising: I had been aware of the Monster's great loneliness at being the only one of his own kind. But now I see that it is more than just an aspect of the Monster's character; it is something that can be felt by all men. And we first see this longing for a true companion in the loneliness of Robert Walton, who lives and works among men whom he admires but cannot truly consider his peers.
. . . I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil, I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother! I am too ardent in execution and too impatient of difficulties.
I wish that I had paid more attention during my Romantic Literature lectures. The above passage definitely matches the reading that I had to do for it, but I can't think of the proper words to describe the essence that I see there . . . although it is something that I have felt myself.
What complicates matters is Walton's worry that he himself is not up to snuff. He didn't receive the same education that he imagines sympathetic souls did--and one reason why he wants a true friend from this class is that he believes only one such as these could "endeavor to regulate [his] mind." And whether or not he is right to wish so, he gets exactly what he asked for in Victor Frankenstein.
There does seem to be a real sympathy between the two men that the huge differences in their backgrounds cannot account for. Frankenstein certainly sees himself in Walton--and it is this connection which moves him to share the story he might otherwise have taken to his grave.
When I was thirteen years of age, [my whole family] went on a party of pleasure to the baths near Thonon: the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind . . .
I'd naturally focus on Frankenstein's discovery of an influential author, but he was drawn to "natural philosophy" long before he stumbled upon that old book. "Nature" was a willing partner to "nurture." I find it so interesting that Frankenstein muses that the reason Cornelius Agrippa was able to seize him so firmly was that nobody else was around to be a guide to him: his own father, although fully aware of the criticisms of Agrippa's science, didn't explain them in a way that would have helped his son. I don't think that the latter is passing the blame in thinking this--just musing that it would have been so easy for his life to have gone in another direction. Or would it? For apart from "nature" and "nurture," Frankenstein also recognises the influence of non-material forces, which he calls "the guardian angel of [his] life" and "the Angel of Destruction." (Sometimes he refers to the latter as "Chance" or "Destiny.") And just as I started to scoff at the latter idea, it occurred to me that I might be sliding into some philosophical materialist pit by doing so.
"Nature" and "nurture" are respectable because we can provide evidence of their influence. They don't determine absolutely everything, of course, and there are countless exceptions to their rule that people with a such-and-such family and upbringing inevitably grow up to be such-and-such folk . . . but even those who see exceptions every day don't dismiss the idea. Totally supernatural forces, on the other hand, are kind of embarrassing. =P No matter what you call them, you don't really want to say in mixed company that you believe they are more influential than they seem. Better to say that someone was limited by his race's average IQ and his low social class than that he was held back by some malicious "Angel of Destruction." And yet I pray after every Mass to St. Michael the Archangel, that he may protect me from "all evil spirits which prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls."
But greater than all these external forces is Frankenstein's own free will. He may give a lot of weight to the former, but he also believes that can choose which "angel" to listen to. Otherwise, he wouldn't be advising Walton to make the choice that he didn't.
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.
It's a moral that I can, with a few reservations, get behind, but I have to wonder if Shelley herself believed in something so antithetical to the Romantic movement and her own life. Since it comes so early in the story, she's probably being ironic. In any case, we'll find out soon enough what lesson she wanted us to draw from the passionate life of Victor Frankenstein . . . and whether it is, as Frankenstein believed, the same lesson that we can find in the equally passionate life of Robert Walton.
What do you think of the Letters and Chapters 1 to 4?
1. Does Walton's "Romantic" definition of friendship apply to your own relationships?
2. Was there a turning point of discovery or awakening in your own childhood that matches one in Frankenstein's?
3. How influential would you say supernatural forces are in our lives?
4. Do you agree that the measure of any activity is how well it meshes with "domestic affections" and the "simple pleasures" of life?
Image Source: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley