05 November 2014

+JMJ+

"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 109

When I anticipated getting my heart ripped out by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I envisioned something gruesome, bloody, and grunting. I had no idea that it would actually be emotional. And yet that is what the five chapters we are tackling today have been. By "emotional," I certainly don't mean emo, although Frankenstein has that all sewn up, as usual.

. . . Elizabeth read my anguish in my countenance, and kindly taking my hand, said, "My dearest friend, you must calm yourself These events have affected me, God knows how deeply; but I am not so wretched as you are. There is an expression of despair, and sometimes of revenge, in your countenance, that makes me tremble. Dear Victor, banish these dark passions. Remember the friends around you, who centre all their hopes in you. Have we lost the power of rendering you happy? Ah! while we love--while we are true to each other, here in this land of peace and beauty, your native country, we may reap every tranquil blessing--what can disturb our peace?"

. . . not the tenderness of friendship, nor the beauty of earth, nor of heaven, could redeem my soul from woe: the very accents of love were ineffectual. I was encompassed by a cloud which no beneficial influence could penetrate. The wounded deer dragging its fainting limbs to some untrodden brake, there to gaze upon the arrow which had pierced it, and to die--was but a type of me.

Oh, shut up, Victor, before I get Bella Swan to punch you in the face . . . Seriously, someone needs to slap Frankenstein the way we slap people who panic during a crisis, to help him to snap out of it. He lets his emotions rule him without even trying to gain the upper hand. This would be annoying enough if it weren't made worse by his never even pausing to wonder what his Creature might be feeling.


Chapters 9 to 13


We know what inspired the novel, but what do you suppose inspired the character of Victor Frankenstein? Did Mary Shelley base him on someone whom she met in real life? If so, that person must have been horrible! =( Or did she have a sharp enough understanding of a certain psychological concept to build a three-dimensional character from it? I refer, of course, to scapegoating.

While Frankenstein can see that William and Justine would still be alive it if weren't for him, he seems to transfer all accountability to the Creature--or as long as I'm tossing words like "psychological" around, he seems to split himself into "good" and "evil" parts and to see all the "evil" parts concentrated in the Creature. Frankenstein really does seem to think that all he needs to win his innocence back is to wipe the walking, talking evidence of his own misdeeds off the face of the earth. Yeah, because it was so successful when Caiaphas tried to do it, aye, Victor? . . . But never mind him any longer. Let's consider the Creature.

Now we finally find out what the Creature has been up to since the night of his "birth." In our last discussion, I wondered whether there had been other mysterious deaths during that period, which we, the readers, would have linked to the Creature, but which Frankenstein, the master of denial, might not even have noticed. Well, I can quit my wondering now. When the Creature comes face to face with his creator again, he reveals that he has been living with a family. Well, sort of.

My mode of life in my hovel was uniform. During the morning, I attended the motions of the cottagers; and when they were dispersed in various occupations I slept: the remainder of the day was spent in observing my friends. When they had retired to rest, if there was any moon, or the night was star-light, I went into the woods, and collected my own food and fuel for the cottage. When I returned, as often as it was necessary, I cleared their path of the snow, and performed those offices that I had seen done by Felix. I afterwards found that these labours, performed by an invisible hand, greatly astonished them; and once or twice I heard them, on these occasions, utter the words good spirit, wonderful; but I did not then understand the signification of these terms.

"My thoughts now became more active, and I longed to discover the motives and feelings of these lovely creatures; I was inquisitive to know why Felix appeared so miserable and Agatha so sad. I thought (foolish wretch!) that it might be in my power to restore happiness to these deserving people. When I slept, or was absent, the forms of the venerable blind father, the gentle Agatha, and the excellent Felix flitted before me, I looked upon them as superior beings, who would be the arbiters of my future destiny. I formed in my imagination a thousand pictures of presenting myself to them, and their reception of me. I imagined that they would be disgusted, until, by my gentle demeanour and conciliating words, I should first win their favour, and afterwards their love.

Mrs. Darwin has pointed out that all the things which Frankenstein cherishes the most are exactly what he has denied his Creature. If we also look at the things which Frankenstein takes for granted, but which are a natural part of being born into a family--like knowing your parents' history and being able to orient yourself in a tradition--then we see that he has dealt his Creature a terrible hand. The worst part is that he isn't even sorry.

That is, he isn't sorry that he has caused the Creature to suffer. He is sorry that others have suffered because of the Creature. Because the Creature is all "evil," remember? But as we listen to the Creature's story, we see that that is hardly the case.

How very sympathetic he suddenly is! He may look frightening, but underneath, he is vulnerable, sensitive, and even shy. He feels drawn to gentle people as much as Walton and Frankenstein do--and he tops them both by trying to make those others' burdens lighter. He is intelligent enough to figure out how to tend a fire (though not how to make one) and to learn a language just by listening to others. He is moved by music. He understands the horror of his own appearance, but nurtures the hope that truly good and kind people can learn to love him in spite of it. Maybe he idealises the poor family somewhat--as Walton idealises friends--and their depiction is often too sentimental for me . . . but they are the only family that he has ever known. We can hardly count his early fleeting encounter with his creator, although we can certainly make the case that Frankenstein is the Creature's father.

My friend Bob likes to point out that the word "bastard" means both a fatherless boy and cruel man--because cruel men are often fatherless in some sense. Well, now the son has come home to his prodigal father, to ask for his inheritance. And I think that those who have ever felt let down by their own fathers--and who may have also watched other families with longing--can completely relate.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Chapters 9 to 13:

1. At this point, what should Frankenstein do about his Creature?
2. If the Creature spent a year watching your family through a chink in the wall of your home, what would he be most likely to learn about humanity and culture? 

Image Source: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

10 comments:

Itinérante said...

This is a very nicely put post =) Thanks Enbrethiliel!

I liked the second question suggested for discussion!!
I do not know what they might learn from us in particular... perhaps they will learn that anyone can paint even if it's just throwing some colour on a paper... or garden even if it means constantly replacing decaying ones!
Maybe they can learn a lot of other things too... (I hope Mrs Darwin answers this one!!)
I will be thinking about this ^^ Thanks!

Angie Tusa said...

I remember feeling far more sympathetic for the Creature the first time I read the novel, but not so much the second time around. However I think it has more to do with what happens in later chapters so I will hold back for now. However he does seem to share his father's traits of seeing things in a very dramatic fashion and not being very pro-active to do anything about it, he just has more cause to hold back than Frankenstein does.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Itinerante Thanks! Sadly, I don't think the Creature would be very inspired by my family. He'd probably just watch TV over our shoulders or something. LOL!

I think that Mrs. Darwin and other parents would provide the best answers to that question. =)

Angie -- Interesting! I'll keep that comment in mind as I read on.

mrsdarwin said...

Victor Frankenstein is an asshat. His first words to his creature are, "Devil, do you dare approach me? and do you not fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head?" (Yeah, right, Vic; we've seen how effective you are at taking action.) "Begone, vile, insect! or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust!" And then when his creation, whom he abandoned the moment he first saw it, answers him in exalted language, he isn't amazed at its abilities and eloquence. He doesn't even question where it learned to talk.

I think Frankenstein is summed up by the last sentence of the last section: "... I beheld those I loved spend vain sorrow upon the graves of William and Justine, the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts." The creature doesn't rate as the first victim? I'm surprised Frankenstein doesn't include himself as the first victim.

A line that wrung my heart: when the creature is first aware, and has escaped to the forest, but doesn't understand anything around him, "I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept." He sounds like a newborn babe, abandoned. Mary Shelley must have felt the innocence and the vulnerability of babies keenly; the foreword to my edition has an excerpt from her journal, written when Mary was seventeen, weeks after her first baby died, in simple language that evoked tears that the strange eloquences of Frankenstein could not: "Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day."

I think that the creature (he never even has a name!) does idealize the family too much, which must inevitably lead to some disappointment. But that Frankenstein can hear the creature's story and not be moved at all to feel some real responsibility for the deaths of Justine and William makes him as internally hideous as the creature is externally.

I suppose that our house would be a good one to observe for a creature just learning about human interactions, since we have lots of children and babies who are learning as well. We are a happy household, by and large -- happier than my own family was, growing up, because the parents are are happier. I hope he'd learn to speak through hearing lots of books read, and I hope he'd learn about religion, which he never seems to see practiced anywhere. Probably he'd learn that mothers spend too much time on the computer and that fathers have a finite tolerance for chaos and noise. But we are a family that comes from generations of good, strong fathers, and I think that comes through in our stability and content. I know I don't look to any other family with longing.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

The account of the Creature's first days wrung my heart, too. He is like an abandoned child--but without any of the sweetness of appearance that can be children's only defence or way of appealing for help.

I've started thinking that Frankenstein isn't really the protagonist, though he seems that way. He's actually the villain.

There's a YA series which is supposed to be a prequel to Frankenstein. I haven't tried it yet, but I wonder what kind of picture it paints of the young Victor Frankenstein.

Your family would be a fun one for the Creature to observe . . . but the catch is that it might just make him sadder. =( At the end of this section, he says that learning about families and children only shows him how deprived of essential human connections he really is. I'm reminded of orphanages in the Philippines that stopped letting the children have Christmas dinner with families because it only made the children feel their lack more keenly when they had to go back to reality.

Brandon said...

The development of the monster's mind is interesting; Shelley uses a lot of terms that were commonly used in accounting for the origin of our ideas, so I think she intends it as an imaginative attempt to think through what it would be like in a rigorously scientific way. (Allowing for the quirks required by the tale, of course, like the fact that the monster has to be up and walking and telling his story.)

One thing that struck me in these chapters is that Frankenstein uses the natural world as a crutch -- he takes refuge in experiences of natural sublimity so that he doesn't have to think about the creature. I was also struck by the fact that he first has the idea that he may have some obligation to the creature only after the creature has spoken to him.

Sheila said...

Frankenstein IS the creature's father, and his responsibility is clear from the beginning, to care for him. Though I suppose there is a point past which he would not be capable of caring for the creature -- if it is angry at him and larger than him, how exactly can he show it love? But when he first creates it, he should have realized that his *feeling* of revulsion is nothing compared to the *fact* of his responsibility.

All I can think is, thank goodness no creatures staring through my windows. They'd see toddlers attacking each other for the stupidest reasons and the mother shrieking a LOT more than is reasonable. And that, of course, is very shameful, because what do I have but three little "creatures" who know nothing about life other than what I show them?

Argh, the guilt. But, well, at least I'm a better parent than Frankenstein.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Brandon -- I liked reading about the development of the Creature's mind, too. He seems to be a blend of child and adult in the way that he picks things up. Some things require a greater suspension of disbelief than others, but I didn't find them totally implausible. Besides, it all ties in to the previous unschooling theme. LOL!

Every time I get another angle from which to view Frankenstein, I loathe him a little bit more. Which means that I respect Shelley a little bit more. =P Frankenstein's shortcomings are versions of weaknesses that we can see in other character-driven tragedies.

Sheila -- Frankenstein thinks he's like a wounded deer (Oh, please, Victor . . .), but I think he's like some cads whom I had the misfortune to meet in real life. I will never forget the man who said that he would always take responsibility for children whom he had wanted to father, but didn't see why he had to take responsibility for children whom he hadn't wanted to father. I'm sure that he thought he was being very rational, but what he was really saying was that he'd only care about any children of his whom he felt good about.

Sheila said...

Kids arrive whether you want them or not. Who, I wonder, is supposed to take responsibility for the kids nobody wanted? :P

I think Shelley is great at letting her protagonist condemn himself out of his own mouth. She doesn't have to intervene and tell us "Victor is a bad guy." And yet no one who reads the book can disagree that he is.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I did come across a book which argued that having an abortion is a legitimate way to take responsibility for an unwanted pregnancy . . . and I can't totally condemn the author for seeing it that way, having written, in the readalong post right before this one, that if Frankenstein had killed the Creature right after he had brought it to life, it would have been "something ordered to some good." That is, I do know that it's highly immoral, but I also know what it's like to see things from that perspective. And I'm sure that abortion has been the key to some blissfully happy lifestyles for many people.