11 November 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 110

Do you like finding books within books? I do! It's nice when characters are also readers. =) It strains credulity a bit that the Creature learned how to read while observing other people doing it, from outside the latter's home . . . but no more than that he should just happen to stumble across some pretty good books in the wilderness. So let's just accept it, aye?

I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books. They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings that sometimes raised me to ecstasy, but more frequently sunk me into the lowest dejection. In the Sorrows of Werter, besides the interest of its simple and affecting story, so many opinions are canvassed, and so many lights thrown upon what had hitherto been to me obscure subjects, that I found in it a never-ending source of speculation and astonishment . . .

As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener. I sympathised with, and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none and related to none. 'The path of my departure was free'; and there was none to lament my annihilation. My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.

The other two books are Plutarch's Lives and John Milton's Paradise Lost--and together the three make an odd collection. It's true that the purpose of literature is to teach us what our immediate experience cannot, and these books certainly expand the Creature's intellectual world. But they seem to be here mostly for contrast, for the effect that these worthy classics have on him is nothing compared to the effect of some other reading material that he finds in his own pocket: his creator's journal entries.

Chapters 14 to 17

The Creature can't seem to catch a break, can he? His plea to De Lacey and the chaos that follows were as hard to read as his account of his first days. It's especially disheartening to know that his moving words come to nothing in the end: De Lacey surely told Felix what the Creature said and might have even put in a good word for him, but Felix is convinced that something so monstrous looking wants only to do monstrous things that he is determined to relocate the whole family, before the Creature can come back to kill his father. How terrible to be so misunderstood!

How do you suppose Safie, the newest member of the De Lacey family, reacted to the story? Do you think it rang a bell at all? I hadn't been planning to say anything about "the Arabian," but it has just occurred to me that there is something very significant that she and the Creature have in common: they are both outsiders who nonetheless have something to recommend them to those on the inside.

Safie related that her mother was a Christian Arab, seized and made a slave by the Turks; recommended by her beauty, she had won the heart of the father of Safie, who married her. The young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom, spumed the bondage to which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion, and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet. This lady died; but her lessons were indelibly impressed on the mind of Safie, who sickened at the prospect of again returning to Asia and being immured within the walls of a harem, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements, ill suited to the temper of her soul, now accustomed to grand ideas and a noble emulation for virtue. The prospect of marrying a Christian, and remaining in a country where women were allowed to take a rank in society, was enchanting to her.

At first, I just blinked a lot at Shelley's characterisation of Safie. She's at once so fantastic and so flat that she must have been based on Romantic-era ideas of Muslims rather than on any actual observations by Shelley. But her otherness doesn't seem to have been held against her at any point--and her desire to be with gentle people like the De Lacey family rather than her own devious father is even a mark in her favour. Perhaps it helped that she grew up in her mother's Christian faith and has this extra tie to recommend her to her European friends. In any case, she is accepted by them with open arms.

Safie runs away from her father, but the Creature has no choice but to run back to his own. This time, however, he is no longer hoping to be accepted by some inner circle; he wants a circle of his own. And perhaps it was Paradise Lost which inspired him to ask Frankenstein for a companion of his own, "of the same nature as [himself]."

Ironically, there already seems to be someone who fits the bill exactly, though that person is not of the opposite sex. I mean, doesn't the Creature remind you of someone when he says:

". . . If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion; the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes, and I shall become a thing of whose existence every one will be ignorant. My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded."

Frankenstein and his Creature have not only the same Romantic notions of friendship and companionship, but also the same tendency to split themselves into "good" and "evil" and to try to place the latter on something else's head, so as to destroy it forever. While it may be true that forced solitude is hardly conducive to virtue, and that externals that are "near occasions of sin" should be avoided, neither do virtues "necessarily arise" as a result of changed circumstances. Which means that Frankenstein's condition that the Creature and his new companion leave Europe forever isn't going to solve things, either. Even if Frankenstein is truly never bothered by them again, he will still be a total wimp inside and it will continue to eat him.

In this respect, both Frankenstein and the Creature are like someone I know who, for a decade, couldn't hold down a job for longer than a few months, but insisted that he would be a model employee if only he could find a decent boss. Ah, yes, if only . . .

Totally Optional Questions about Chapters 14 to 17:

1. What book would you have laid in the Creature's path?
2. Is the Creature making reasonable requests of people? (Was he asking too much of the De Lacys? Is he within his rights to demand a companion from Frankenstein?)
3. How would you measure an outsider who wishes to be part of your community, to determine whether or not he would be a good fit?

Image Source: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


Brandon said...

I'm still in the middle of reading these chapters, since I've been swamped with grading, but I thought I'd make a quick comment. I've read Frankenstein several times before, but I don't think I've ever noticed before just how paradigmatically Romantic it is even in its little details -- the almost overwhelming insistence on sublimity, the titanic emotions, and even in the reading list -- The Sorrows of Young Werther being about as stereotypically Romantic an item on a reading list as you can get. The fact that the Creature sees himself in the extraordinarily melodramatic and suicidal Werther is itself proof that he is a true child of Frankenstein.

I'll be back once I've caught up....

Enbrethiliel said...


I wonder if a Romantic novel within a Romantic novel is laying it on too thickly. To one of Shelley's contemporaries, would it have been as blatant as mentioning Twilight in a Romance would be to us today?

Brandon said...

It does seem fairly thick -- not only does she mention Goethe, she quotes Coleridge (Ancient Mariner) and Wordsworth (Tintern Abbey). And the story of Safie is practically Romantic arabesque on its own.

The one thing that surprised me was Plutarch's Lives, which would have been well known but which I don't associate with Romanticism. However, looking around, apparently (according to some sources) Mary Shelley liked to make up reading lists, and all three of the Creature's books are on the reading list for 1815, the year before the summer when she first came up with the story. So maybe it really would have been like mentioning Twilight in a Romance today. (In a weird way, the book is a Bildungsroman, giving us an account of what it is to have a Romantic education. But it is so in a very weird way.)

One thing that I think is interesting about the conception of friendship portrayed by all the characters so far is that it's all about finding someone who is an equal in the sense of being able to sympathize with oneself. It's interesting to contrast this with a more classical conception of friendship, like that of Aristotle, who insists that friendship consists more in loving than in being loved, and that it is the friendship itself that makes people equals.

Enbrethiliel said...


It currently seems to me that a Romantic education would be a very, very bad idea. =P

When I started reading Frankenstein, I could relate very deeply with Walton--and if Shelley has an Aristotelian moral about friendship, that's probably why she put him there! Frankenstein is too obviously awful: no one would want to relate to him, even if they did have a lot in common with him, and so no one would really get the moral in the end. But Walton hasn't made any tragic mistakes (yet?) and tried to hide from them, so he's a safe emotional "thumbtack" to hold us in place for the moral. (I wonder what he himself feels at this point in Frankenstein's story.) But he is burdened by the same wrong idea that he would be a better person if only he had a friend--that his authentic and higher self is held back by his circumstances, although someone who is leading an arctic expedition in pursuit of a scientific dream can hardly be said to have been "held back" by anything! In that case, he wants to believe that he's handicapped in some way. Which is something straight out of The Last Psychiatrist blog! That really fascinates me because while I think TLP's analysis of the modern world is very insightful, I hadn't seen that we might also apply it to people who lived 200 years ago.

Anyway, I still sympathise with Walton's desire for someone who just "gets" him (and presumably someone whom he'd please by also "getting"), but it's clearly something that we shouldn't get too hung up on.

PS -- If I remember correctly, St. Thomas Aquinas was using Aristotle's definition of friendship when he said that the greatest friendship is between a husband and a wife.

Sheila said...

1. Till We Have Faces. Everyone should read that book. I remember it really jolted me out of a selfish phase ... perhaps it would help the Creature too.

3. Kindness. I would be willing to be friends with almost anyone provided they, like me, care about others and wouldn't willfully hurt another person.

Funny you say a romantic education would be bad -- I pretty much began serious study with the Romantics. The novels and poems I was really appealed to my pre-teen self, and they did have moral messages I absorbed (like, for instance, Jane Eyre). Of course Romanticism is incomplete, but it can be a start. I think a big part of it is just that I'm something of a romantic myself -- I trust my "better feelings" to lead me right, and they generally do.

Sheila said...

*I was READING, not "I was really"

Enbrethiliel said...


Another friend periodically recommends Till We Have Faces to me as well. C.S. Lewis is kind of "hit or miss" for me, though, so I've been waffling.

Jane Eyre is my favourite novel and what I like to call "the secret template of my life," so I'm not knocking Romantic literature entirely. But I always remember a great comment on it by one of my Literature professors that I also consider a mark against it: he said that if he were an official in a totalitarian regime and he could ban only one book from our syllabus (which included Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Dickens' Great Expectations, Forster's Howards End and Passage to India, Conrad's Under Western Eyes, and Lawrence's Women in Love), he would choose Jane Eyre in a heartbeat, because it begins with the most subversive image ever--an individual enjoying a book alone. And that's the sense that I get from all the Romantic literature I've read: a great feeling of individuality, to the point of aloneness, sometimes coupled (as in Frankenstein) with the strong belief that only a "soul mate" who really understands could be a true friend to you. And so we have both Jane and Mr. Rochester and Frankenstein and Henry Clerval. Not to mention Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. =P

The Romantic emotion is just one of many sensibilities in the vast human range, but the one which a lot of people since the Romantics have (in my opinion) given a higher rank than it should have. To use a military metaphor, it's not cut out to be a general and yet it's commanding all the forces. I think that it has contributed to a lot of the fragmentation in society today, with people playing Walton and rejecting entire communities for not "getting" them.

Which is not to knock feelings, either! I've personally experienced a sense of fear so strong that it was what some might call "psychic" . . . and also (as I told Star Crunch in an earlier meeting) a sense of jealousy that turned out to be accurate insight into a near-stranger. On the other hand, the last time I was so overwhelmed by my feelings that I let them call the shots, I ended up breaking up with a friend whom I had known for fifteen years.

You've probably heard that story before, aye? I bring it up all the time because it's a decision that I will always be uneasy with. It's also a perfect example of the fragmentation that I mentioned: I "dumped" that friend because her insistence on going to Mass only when she felt like it (because Jesus doesn't want us to be there if we don't want to be, right?) made me feel (Oh, the irony!) that we weren't really friends. That, in fact, we hadn't been true friends for at least six years, dating from the time she insisted on getting confirmed so that her paperwork would be in order, while rejecting many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. That led to our first big fight, which made a wall go up in our relationship. I felt very strongly that I couldn't really be friends with someone who put up such a barrier between us. And well, while the Romantic writers might agree with me, I know that Aristotle would not.

What a long, messy answer to your simple comment, aye? LOL!

Sheila said...

The thing I like least about Jane Eyre is the way Rochester and Jane, from their very first meeting, cut Mrs. Fairfax out. Jane points out to us that she isn't following the conversation, and the hint is that she is a dull, unenlightened individual who can't understand either of them the way they understand each other. And I felt, even at 12 when I first read the book, that Jane was wrong to make assumptions like that -- and worse, even if true, to call attention to it. Romantics' worst flaw is that they are so focused on what THEY feel that they completely overlook (sometimes) how they are making OTHERS feel.

The internet today allows us to find friends who do agree with us, and its chief danger may be that it gets us out of the habit of getting along with people who don't. (I counteract this by hanging out with my extended family on Facebook. There is no one less likely to be congenial, in your social circles, than the ones there by pure chance of birth.)

But I admit that I still do make the distinction between first-tier friends -- who GET me, and whom I can confide stuff in because I know they won't either laugh at me or try to argue with me -- and second-tier friends. Non-Catholics, people with hugely different parenting practices, and so forth are always stuck on second tier, because I can't *really* relax around them, even though I like them.

Enbrethiliel said...


After everything I've said about Romantic literature, it's a little embarrassing to confess that I like that Jane and Mr. Rochester actually are the only ones who can really "get" each other. She has been so lonely because she has had no proper peers, and he had completely given up on finding a woman who would understand and accept him. It's not that the other characters are so dull and unenlightened, but that they just can't understand. Can sparrows truly understand eagles? And how terrible to be an eagle among sparrows all one's life!

Of course, saying that some people are innately eagles while others are innately sparrows--and we're not even thinking about those who may be innately vultures (LOL!)--is problematic. Even if it is also true, the Romantics have nothing on which to base such a view of society except their own feelings.

You might remember from Grace Like Igor that I've felt Jane's loneliness as well. One reason why it was so easy to let go of the friend I keep bringing up was that I considered her a second-tier friend. Only later did I see my big mistake. So now I'm trying to see this loneliness as something that I can do something about, instead of an indelible curse of being a different bird among so many sparrows. And what I'm trying to do is to value in the good in my friends, even if it's not "my" good. (I don't know about you, but in my case, my sadness that nobody was "getting" me had a lot to do with my own refusal "to get" other people.) I've found that if you have your foot in the door, the ability to relax will come over time. And as we've already discussed, we all also pick up each other's ideas over time!

The Romantic ideal is that you and your soul mate were made for each other and will know each other immediately or very soon after you meet. But I think that it's closer to the truth to say that people who love each other become soul mates over time, as they grow closer and learn to accommodate each other. This isn't to rule out love at first sight (which we've argued about before--LOL!); it's just to say that I believe a good but slightly awkward fit can get better. Much better. =)

mrsdarwin said...

I have to confess that I laughed out loud when I saw the three books the Creature discovered. How fortuitous, to find The Sorrows of Young Werther and Plutarch's Lives and Paradise Lost just sitting in a satchel in the woods! But then, how fortuitous to find a little cottage with a hovel no one ever seems to check, and how fortuitous to find an educated family needing to teach someone the lingua franca, and fortuitous that Frankenstein left his journal in his cloak pocket... If none of these had happened, the story would not be what it is.

I think that the perfect friend pair in Frankenstein is not Frankenstein and Clerval or Walton, but Frankenstein and his Creature, only Frankenstein can't unbend enough to admit it. They are the most well-matched in mind and in inclination. The pity of it is that by the time they finally speak, they've both wronged each other so irreparably (Frankenstein by his desertion of the Creature, the Creature by his murder of Frankenstein's brother and the death of Justine) that it's like a second fall of man, to quote Henry V. They need a redeemer that never appears. The Creature has the passionate despair of his creator -- he throws himself onto M. de Lacey's pity in such a precipitate headlong way that all future contact there is cut off, just as Frankenstein threw himself into his life's work. But the Creature is always more active, because he has to be; he has no one to be active for him. So he does not fall into a lethargic despair, like Frankenstein's. His is an active, destructive despair. Whose is more disordered? After Frankenstein's first great sin of commission, his are sins of omission. The Creature has more agency, and that agency is less repulsive than Frankenstein's self-absorbed paralysis.

mrsdarwin said...

Also, if I had to ban one book from your list, it would be Women in Love, because the world needs Jane Eyre more than it needs more frank, unflinching discussion of sexuality.

Enbrethiliel said...


Those books totally come out of nowhere, don't they? LOL! They're even funnier when we consider that the plot would have been perfectly fine without them.

That's a fascinating point about Frankenstein and his Creature being a perfect pair: the latter created in the image and likeness of the former . . . or at least the latter playing the picture to the former's Dorian Grey! (Frankenstein sees his own ugliness when he looks upon the creature; he just can't bear to admit it.) That also builds on what Sheila and I have been saying about friends, reflecting the sad truth that we sometimes reject those who would make great friends for us, because of superficial reasons or airy ideals.

I'd ban Women in Love, too, because I hated it. But I think someone in a totalitarian regime would be okay with it for the reasons why you don't like it! LOL!

Sheila said...

Me, I've always felt like a sparrow among eagles --- watching *other* people find true friendship while finding me wanting. So my sympathies are always with the bystander, watching the true friends whisper to each other behind their hands or exchange sly winks. :P

So as a result my main qualifications for true friend are "willing to consider me good enough to be a friend" and "not so put-together that I feel inferior all the time."