21 October 2014


"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


Brandon said...

I think Walton's standard for friendship is a very tall order. But I think it is true that we tend to benefit from having someone who can see something of our point of view but also who can see our behavior from the outside. (I think it's also the case the Frankenstein especially could have benefited from such a thing.)

The remark about domestic affections is interesting, because Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Preface singles out "the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection" as one of the goals of the novel.

mrsdarwin said...

"No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself." This seems a key line -- Frankenstein has possessed that very thing which his monster will long for, a family who loves him deeply and without reserve. As he labors to create his own man, it doesn't seem to occur to him that perhaps this being too might want a family, somewhere to belong and be loved unconditionally. His creation is simply a way to give glory to himself and to science. In comparing Frankenstein's ambitions to those of people who also create life in test tubes and petri dishes to serve the desires of adults, one wonders if these modern creators ever give a thought to the desires and wishes of the children they mix up to have what everyone else takes for granted -- a natural generation, the safety of the womb from the very instant of conception.

I did not at all remember Walton as a character in Frankenstein, though for some reason the image of the monster sledding over the ice has remained with me for years.

Meditating on #1 brings to mind a bitter, humbling memory of philosophies of friendship gone wrong. When I was 17 I read C.S. Lewis's book The Four Loves, a seminal work for me and one that first introduced me to any kind of philosophy. I thrilled to his account of friendship -- two people with some interest in common, something that binds them, the "you too?" factor. And it's proven a good and valuable definition. But in my junior year of college I fell out with my roommate -- a real falling out over a real cause, but a falling out such as one has at college, one that would take more time and energy to explain than any listener would have the patience to absorb. And in the course of some stilted conversation late in the disintegration of our relationship, I said to her that we had never really been friends -- thinking of Lewis's deep shared interests (though of course he points out that people can bond over ephemeral and bad causes.) I felt I was justified in saying this; my roommate and I didn't have all that much in common, and less and less as the semester went by. But I realize now that I hurt her deeply, and looking back years later on the event, I writhe with humiliation and sorrow that I could have ever been so cruel as to use friendship as a blunt instrument. And so although Walton is using a Romantic definition of friendship for a nobler end than I did, I have fallen prey to the over-glorification of "Friendship" to the extent of hurting real people with idealistic conceits.

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- Walton's standard resonated greatly for me and for another blogger who read this post (but hasn't commented here), and I think it's because he and I are both quite lonely. We know that we don't have to be: in fact, he recently wrote a post about perfectly good friendships that get rejected because the prospective friend doesn't fit some random, arbitrary standard that the lonely friend-seeker has. I've seen this as a personal shortcoming for a while, but I'm not sure how to fix it.

Mrs. Darwin -- At least Crake from the last readalong novel created a whole society of "Crakers"!

Walton reminds me of Mr. Lockwood in Wuthering Heights.

I read The Four Loves many years ago as well. What I remember most is the idea that when one of your friends dies, the part that he brought out in your other friends dies, too. But I recall his "You, too?" factor from elsewhere . . . maybe in Mere Christianity, where he says that being holy is like being part of a secret society.

About two years ago, I ended a fifteen-year friendship for reasons also too complicated to explain.

Since then, I've reflected on my equally "unsatisfying" (for lack of a better term at the moment) relationships with my siblings and my cousins and on how I managed to make those "work" without hurting anyone. I think it helps that there is something other than a shared interest or belief which binds us, because it keeps us from feeling too hurt when we start to disagree or start to drift apart in other ways. And I wish so badly that my former friend had been a cousin or something. =(

There were also times when I thought that she and I had never really been friends, because a connection which I consider essential wasn't there--and indeed, I had "extended credit" to her for six years, hoping that it would grow. Was that even right of me, though? Was I making our friendship conditional, when real friendship is about total acceptance? The truth is that we had been friends, albeit not ideal friends.

Brandon said...

Incidentally, I find the cover you show to be very appropriate in some ways. I suspect it was chosen just because The Wanderer is in some sense a 'Romantic' painting, but I was struck in reading these first few chapters with the importance of sublimity, which is emphasized again and again in describing the scenery. And that makes sense, particularly since it is here described in typically Romantic fashion: the sublime is something that exalts our minds so much that it almost terrifies. It makes for an interesting contrast with the friendship theme, since that theme very much describes something with which we are naturally at home.

Sheila said...

I had a very romantic view of friendship growing up, probably because I had no friends. When I did have one, I idolized her and imagined that we were like all the "best friends" in all the books ... when in reality I wasn't all that close with any of them. For a long time I let the perfect be the enemy of the good -- holding people at arms' length and refusing to call them "friends" because we weren't super close. Silly! There are many kinds and levels of friendship.

About romanticism and simple pleasures, I don't think Walton's going so far afield of the Romantic ideal. Simple pleasures like nature and family are important -- science is somewhat feared. And although it seems like none of the Romantic authors ever experience any tranquility, they do seem to value it.

About question #3 .... I don't know the answer to this question. I wish I did.

DMS said...

I have never read Frankenstein- but I recently put it on a list of classics I would like to read in the next year. Interesting to read your thoughts on it so far. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- There are a few Frankenstein covers which emphasise that Romantic sense of the sublime in "extreme" places in nature. I ultimately went with this one because the lone figure in The Wanderer is also a bit like both Frankenstein and Walton.

Sheila -- Oh, gosh . . . Making the perfect the enemy of the good is totally my problem in any sort of relationship! =( I also had very few friends growing up, mostly thanks to my trouble speaking my own country's language and my shyness, but also due to how quickly I'd give up on a potential connection if there wasn't enough of a "spark" at the beginning. It took me a long while to learn that some things that take time to grow can be just as wonderful as stuff that's great from the get-go.

About the Romantic ideal . . . I guess my understanding of it is more influenced by the Romantic writers' lives than by their actual writings! It's interesting to me that they'd value tranquility so highly when, in my opinion, most of the choices they made and the steps they took led directly to the turbulence that they experienced.

Jess >-- Frankenstein is shorter than I thought it would be, so it should be a quick read when you do get to it. =)