"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 108
The scene in which Victor Frankenstein successfully animates a corpse is a favourite among filmmakers that even those who have never seen a Frankenstein adaptation expect a really dramatic "It's alive! It's ALIVE" moment. So it's a bit of a shock to read the novel and to see how understated it originally was.
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!--Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
Mary Shelley is very stingy on the technical details, but she does have
I loathe Victor Frankenstein. What a COWARD. I can understand why he runs from his own creation after it follows him around his home . . . but if he truly believed that he had made a mistake, he should have dealt with it. There's a sense in which it would have been better for him to have killed his new creature after he realised that he couldn't even stand to be around it: yes, it would have been murder . . . but at least he would have been cleaning up a mistake. That is, he would have done something ordered to some good.
Do you know who Frankenstein reminds me of here? Walter White in the first few episodes of Breaking Bad! Basically, Walt has to figure out what to do about someone who can testify that he cooked up crystal meth, killed one person (albeit in self-defense!) with some dangerous chemicals, tried to kill another, and then kept the second person chained up in a damp basement for a whole day. The obvious moral answer--and Socrates would agree with me--is to let the witness go and to accept the consequences if he runs straight to the police. And Walt totally gets that; he just doesn't want to face the music. The obvious other answer is to silence the witness forever, in cold blood. But Walt doesn't really want to do that, either. And it is while he is hovering between the two options and trying to convince himself that he's not really a bad guy that he admits aloud that what he is, is a coward.
At worst, a coward; at best, someone who thinks that if he looks the other way and pretends that something didn't happen, it will go away. But although the Monster does go away, Frankenstein can't escape him. Indeed, just when the latter thinks he's in the clear, because his old pal Henry Clerval has cheered him up again (Oh, how nice for you, Victor), he learns that his brother has been murdered . . . possibly by the Monster.
My first thought was to discover what I knew of the murderer and cause instant pursuit to be made. But I paused when I reflected on the story that I had to tell. A being whom I myself had formed, and endued with life, had met me at midnight among the precipices of an inaccessible mountain. I remembered also the nervous fever with which I had been seized just at the time that I dated my creation, and which would give an air of delirium to a tale otherwise so utterly improbable. I well knew that if any other had communicated such a relation to me, I should have looked upon it as the ravings of insanity. Besides, the strange nature of the animal would elude all pursuit, even if I were so far credited as to persuade my relatives to commence it. And then of what use would be pursuit? Who could arrest a creature capable of scaling the overhanging sides of Mont Saleve? These reflections determined me, and I resolved to remain silent.
"Reflections" is a nice, Romantic word, but I believe that what Frankenstein really wants here is "rationalisations."
Anyway, okay, I can understand why he decides to remain quiet at that point, because telling the truth wouldn't bring his brother back to life. But it hardly excuses him from remaining silent when someone else whom he knows to be both innocent and of good character is accused of the murder. Oh, yeah: she's an old friend, too--though probably not by his Romantic standards. Unlike Clerval, Justine Moritz doesn't do anything for Frankenstein, in the active sense. And yet everything that Frankenstein has said about Clerval--that the latter "called forth the better feelings of [his] heart . . . again taught [him] to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children . . . [endeavoured] to elevate [his] mind until it was on a level with [Clerval's] own . . . [whose] gentleness and affection warmed and opened [his] senses"--he might have also been able to say about Justine, had he simply allowed himself to be moved by her undeserved sufferings to do the right thing.
At this point, I think it's safe to say that Frankenstein likes having friends but isn't very good at being a friend. He certainly doesn't make a peep to help Justine at her trial.
During the whole of this wretched mockery of justice I suffered living torture. It was to be decided, whether the result of my curiosity and lawless devices would cause the death of two of my fellow-beings: one a smiling babe, full of innocence and joy; the other far more dreadfully murdered, with every aggravation of infamy that could make the murder memorable in horror. Justine also was a girl of merit, and possessed qualities which promised to render her life happy: now all was to be obliterated in an ignominious grave; and I the cause! A thousand times rather would I have confessed myself guilty of the crime ascribed to Justine; but I was absent when it was committed, and such a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman, and would not have exculpated her who suffered through me.
Nice sidestep there! I wonder if this was deliberate on Shelley's part, to show how committed Frankenstein is not to incriminate himself: he even makes excuses to himself! It was one thing for him to think, on the morning of his homecoming, that no one would believe that he had seen the Monster during the previous night's thunderstorm--because lightning can play tricks with our eyes. But now he's not even thinking of telling the truth: he's thinking of fighting a lie with another lie, and concluding that he might as well remain silent because his lie wouldn't make a difference. It no longer occurs to him to think that the truth might make a difference!
For someone who spent a year doing everything in his power to reanimate the dead, he's full of excuses about why he's powerless to help the living.
Now, I know that I'm currently not that great at getting readalong posts up, so if you'd like some related reading to tide you over, try Terry Nelson's riff off Walton's thoughts on friendship at Abbey-roads and Mrs. Darwin's impassioned and Frankenstein-referencing response to the idea that motherhood equals lost productivity and is therefore bad at Darwin Catholic.
Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Chapters 5 to 8:
1) The creature having been brought to life, what should Frankenstein have done next?
2) William and Justine didn't deserve what they received, but can we say Frankenstein's anguish and guilt at their deaths is something that he had coming?
3) Is there a character in media from our own times who reminds you of Frankenstein?
Image Source: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley