29 October 2014


"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 an excuse a reason for it. Frankenstein is so horrified by what he has unleashed on the world that he wants to make sure that no one else ever has a chance to do it. That's probably a good thing . . . but it's also a case of too little, too late.

Chapters 5 to 8

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


Angie Tusa said...

And you've reached the point where this novel drove me crazy, and made me wonder how I had ever enjoyed it back when I first read in high school. Frankenstein is a miserable and horrible protagonist. All he does is sit back and whine while things happen all around him! I'm sure it was intentional, but it makes for such a difficult read to get through. I can understand why so many film adaptations downplay a lot of it and focus more on the events themselves.

Brandon said...

I think that in many ways Frankenstein represents modern man -- full of rosy-hued dreams of progress, then running away or trying to ignore the bad side of what we set out to do, but unable as well to get rid of it.

I found Frankenstein's yo-yo mood swings a bit difficult to follow at times. I suppose these chapters take place over a period of two years, but the tale moves so quickly it was difficult to keep that in mind.

On (2) I think we see here a good case in which feeling things is overrated. He feels and feels and feels, and through it all he would be better off if he felt a lot less but actually tried to do something. That's a very modern fault, too, I suppose. And you're right that we see this on the friendship side, too: so much emphasis on exaltation of mind and the feelings of the heart as part of friendship, when he would be better off being a friend to this one person in need.

There's an old saying, though, that in the end everything harms the unjust man who does not properly repent, because it either punishes him or makes him worse, and I think that's applicable here. Frankenstein certainly was unjust to his creation; and he keeps not repenting of it. And now we see events unfolding in which he is both tormented and committing yet more injustice.

Enbrethiliel said...


Angie -- Frankeinstein puts the ROT in protagonist! =(

I also agree that it's intentional on Shelley's part, but now I wonder what point she was trying to make. Was Frankenstein a recognisable type in her day that she was satirising? Or is this a general Romantic criticism of science and the idea that it could bring about an utopia?

Brandon -- The pacing could definitely use some work! (In general, I'm surprised that an enduring classic is turning out to be so obviously rough!) If a couple of years literally do elapse between the creation of the Monster and Frankenstein's second encounter with him, what has the Monster been doing all that time? Were there no unexplained murders or even just people reporting sightings of the Monster? I imagine that Frankenstein would have blissfully ignored them anyway--but that would only have highlighted the tragic aspect as his denial leads all the way to William's and Justine's deaths.

I wonder if Frankenstein even understands, on an intellectual level, that what he did was morally wrong. He seems to let his feelings be the barometer for everything. I'll grant that we can often sense the immorality of something even before it registers in our minds, but there are so many connections that he's not making!

Star Crunch said...

I was definitely brought up short by the non-"It's alive!" part. I especially noticed the "glimmer of the half-extinguished light", as versus the thunder and lightning attached to so many dramatizations.

The moment where Frankenstein and Clerval were about to head back to the former's place was a great awkward moment. "Oh, that's right, there's a monster there..."

Justine has (well, had) quite a brutal confessor!

Also, not to dismiss any of what's been said about Frankenstein's character, but did I overlook something that actually incriminated or even suggested the creature in the murder? (When they looked at the brother's neck my thoughts went first to strangulation, but of course it turned out to be for a different reason, and I don't recall any actual description.) It just seemed to be a hunch, and then all the rest of his thoughts built on that already shaky foundation.

That said, the last part you quoted calls to mind a passage by Hannah Arendt, on Himmler. (The chapter VI one, in particular.) "Look at the misery I have to see!"

mrsdarwin said...

"I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."

Shades of Tamar and Amnon! He wanted to create life with a idolatrous zeal, and then once he gets what he wanted so badly, he's disgusted beyond all reasonable bounds with it. You want to slap him here and tell him to man up and face the consequences of what he's done -- it's not as if he didn't have two years to ponder what might happen after he flipped the switch.

Something about the way that he describes the monster reminds me of the Uncanny Valley effect: the closer something approximates the human form and face, the creepier and more unrealistic it becomes. Frankenstein put all the parts together just so, but the final effect is bizarre and appalling.

Again I'm struck by how much Frankenstein dotes on his family and friends (when he's not allowing them to go to the scaffolding, of course), a source of solace that he's denied his own creation. The monster has no Clerval, no Elizabeth, no little William or Justine or devoted father. Frankenstein has the luxury of friends to tend him in his illness, and a nice family home to shelter him when he returns. Meanwhile, he's abandoned his creature at the moment of his birth. Makes me think of Rousseau, working away at Emile while his bastards were raised in an orphanage.

And yes, it struck me that the one thing that Frankenstein doesn't contemplate is simply telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may. But his morally weak response to Justine's predicament isn't really out of keeping with someone who spend two obsessive years trying to create life without considering the consequences both for himself and the life.

Enbrethiliel said...


Star Crunch -- You make a good point that we don't actually know that the creature (whom I should really stop calling "the Monster") killed William. And I did almost include a paragraph in which I argued that it is more evidence of Frankenstein's over-reliance on his feelings: he only feels that the creature did it, and that is enough to convince him. But something else that I vaguely remember is that he and the creature do talk about it at some later point . . . and that the creature was responsible, if not also malicious. (Ah, but I could be wrong!)

Besides, while I generally do think that our beliefs should stand up to reason, I wouldn't shut the door on our sensibilities as another way of knowing something to be true. Without sharing too many sordid details, let's just say that many years ago I sensed that another girl was going to try to steal my best friend. And I warned my friend, "She's the type who goes for the one dearest to you! She'll go after your boyfriend next!" Everyone who knew that I felt this way told me that I was just being irrationally jealous--and I totally understood, because I could hear myself and I sounded crazy. =P But then the other girl did make a move on my best friend's boyfriend . . . and suddenly, I was the unsung genius of the gang! So yes, I do think that Frankenstein has built his conclusions on some very shaky foundations--but his sensibilities were right the first time when they convinced him that reanimating corpses was possible, and they could also be right this time.

The Catholics in this story are quite disappointing. LOL! I wonder whether Shelley honestly based them on Catholics whom she met in Switzerland or was being Victorian here.

Mrs. Darwin -- Great connection! At that point, Frankenstein reminded me more of a seducer than a rapist, but the point is the same: having got what he wanted, he immediately grew bored . . . and even disgusted with himself--though as Star Crunch pointed out, he found a way to make those feelings less about what he did than what about what he had to go through. (Oh, poor you, Frankenstein.)

I really felt the contrast between Frankenstein's family and his creature's lack of a family when reading the next five chapters. They highlight Frankenstein's sheer lack of responsibility--and yes, again, a parallel to someone else who thought that he could sin sexually with impunity works.

Sheila said...

Still pondering your questions, but just this morning I stumbled upon something related -- a YouTube series retelling the Frankenstein story! I loved these people's version of Pride and Prejudice (The Lizzie Bennett Diaries) but couldn't get into their Emma, so we'll see how this one is.


Sheila said...

Never mind, started watching and am not impressed.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, that's too bad. =(

mrsdarwin said...

By the way, have you heard of this?


I wish there were any way to see it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Yes, I have heard of that production, Mrs. Darwin! =D I'm not a big Benedict Cumberbatch fan, but I've admired Jonny Lee Miller since his Trainspotting days and have wanted to see him live on stage, too.

I think that there's an official video of it available . . . or at least that's what some clips that I've seen of it have led me to believe. That wouldn't be as good as seeing it live, of course, but it would be more realistic for me than the ideal option!