21 November 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 111

If I bring up Stephenie Meyer's Twilight up a lot during our discussions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, that's because the latter is the unacknowledged great-grandfather of the former. Edward Cullen is the perfect blend of Frankenstein and his Creature . . . if you overlook the sparkling. But seriously, the Romantic ideal of being lonely and lost in a beautiful but comfortless world, until you find the individual who is the perfect and only mate for you, is believed by both Edward and the Creature. And the idea that you yourself can have a hand in creating this individual is explored by both Meyer and Shelley.

. . . a train of reflection occurred to me, which led me to consider the effects of what I was now doing. Three years before I was engaged in the same manner, and had created a fiend whose unparalleled barbarity had desolated my heart, and filled it for ever with the bitterest remorse. I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighbourhood of man, and hide himself in deserts; but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species.

But if you really think about it, the Frankenstein of Twilight is Carlisle Cullen, the vampire who turned Edward and the rest of his coven . . . and who would have been willing to turn Bella had Edward continued to refuse. Something that I've long felt the Twilight series fails to explain is why Edward has always had only admiration and affection for his "sire," when he himself is so ambivalent about what he was turned into.

Chapters 18 to 21

There's something very indulgent in the writing of Frankenstein. As Brandon pointed out, the books that make up the Creature's Romantic education were on Shelley's own reading list the year before she wrote this novel; and I suspect that the route which Frankenstein and Henry Clerval take as they make their way to Scotland was determined less by considerations of efficient travel than by Shelley's own wanderings over Europe. (Just contrast the descriptions of that journey with the vagueness the Creature's trek to Switzerland.) So Frankenstein doesn't win any points for realism--but then again, it never set out to.

On the other hand, I'd say that it absolutely nails Frankenstein's type. So far, I've connected him only to other fictional characters, but I'll bet that if I ever run into one of him emotional cousins in real life, I'll be able to note the resemblance as well.

But now what of Clerval, whom I've barely mentioned? It is he who seems to be the perfect product of a Romantic education--the student who got it right after Frankenstein and the Creature both flunked the course.

Clerval! beloved friend! Even now it delights me to record your words; and to dwell on the praise of which you are so eminently deserving. He was a being formed in the "very poetry of nature." His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the worldly-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination. But even human sympathies were not sufficient to satisfy his eager mind. The scenery of external nature, which others regard only with admiration, he loved with ardour . . .

Just a few days ago, I had tea with a friend who was telling me about her favourite travel buddy. The best part about sightseeing with the latter, she said, was getting to see everything through her eyes, which could zero in the nuances of a culture's architecture and pick up the most idiosyncratic details everywhere else. Having seen the photos from that travel buddy's last trip abroad, I agreed that I'd love to visit a foreign city with her someday. She is the sort who will notice that the nth woman cyclist of the day is pedaling in high heels . . . and that the city put an image of its signature tree on all its manhole covers!

The people whom we travel with can really make a difference in how we see a place--so I hope that Frankenstein doesn't ruin too much for Clerval. =P But Frankenstein's other constant companion on the journey helps to colour in the landscape as well, and our protagonist-villain finds that can't ride as high on the beauty of nature, the magnificence of history, and the intelligence of those whom he considers his equals as he would like to. (Do you have any idea how Emo this is???)

Let's contrast that with the Creature's journey along the same route:

. . . "Do you dare to break your promise? I have endured toil and misery; I left Switzerland with you; I crept along the shores of the Rhine, among its willow islands and over the summits of its hills. I have dwelt many months in the heaths of England and among the deserts of Scotland. I have endured incalculable fatigue, and cold, and hunger; do you dare destroy my hopes?"

The first difference is, again, the lack of detail--though the drama tries to make up for that somewhat. The second difference is what was in their hearts (so to speak): the Creature might have suffered more while shadowing his creator, but at least he was able to travel with hope and some seeds of happiness. His emotions would have been as much a contrast to his surroundings as we have seen in Frankenstein's case . . . but this isn't a difference anymore, is it? Juxtapose both of them now with Clerval, whose inner life makes a worthy mirror to everything he sees, and we know who the odd one out is.

In our last meeting, Mrs. Darwin proposed that the "perfect friend pair" in this novel is not Victor Frankenstein and Clerval or Frankenstein and Richard Walton, but Frankenstein and his own Creature. But one won't have anything to do with the other (which we can't hold against him after a certain point) and the other has become convinced that only a perfect equal of his own type will do for him (which arguably is the Biblical template). The whole set up has what I can only describe as "Bromantic Tragedy" elements.

Which brings me to "the feels." I'm truly amazed at the importance given to feelings in this book. Compared to Shelley, Meyer is a stoic! So much rises or falls in Frankenstein's life depending on what he is feeling. But although feelings (and his inability to get them under control) got him into this mess, they aren't getting him out.

. . . My father was enraptured on finding me freed from the vexations of a criminal charge, that I was again allowed to breathe the fresh atmosphere, and permitted to return to my native country. I did not participate in these feelings; for to me the walls of a dungeon or a palace were alike hateful. The cup of life was poisoned forever; and although the sun shone upon me as upon the happy and gay of heart, I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me. Sometimes they were the expressive eyes of Henry languishing in death, the dark orbs nearly covered by the lids, and the long black lashes that fringed them; sometimes it was the watery, clouded eyes of the monster as I first saw them in my chamber at Ingolstadt.

"Permitted to return to [his] native country" . . . HA! Happy feelings are Frankenstein's native country, and he simply can't go home again. At least not while the Creature lives. And maybe even if the Creature died. And now we also know what his idea of hell is: a state of melancholy from which there is no escape.

But now it occurs to me that there was always a trapdoor available to Frankenstein, albeit one which he didn't even consider until he met a sympathetic stranger. If he had just confessed his misdeed to someone--preferably someone not as helpless as he is in the face of feelings--and been able to get an objective, unemotional perspective on it, he would have seen than he isn't actually the centre of the universe. The reason why he keeps his crime a secret is that he is afraid everything around him will come crashing down should it be revealed. Note: not that everything will come crashing down on his head, but just that it will come crashing down. He truly believes that what he did in Ingolstadt is big enough to destroy the world, and that the world now depends on him to be its saviour (OMG!!! I can't even!!!), when what he did is probably, in the tradition of all science-driven horrors, ultimately not that big a deal.

I'm thinking of the AIDS scare and the climate change hysteria--both of which we touched on in Meeting 86, when we were reading Michael Crichton's State of Fear--and also the nuclear-fueled paranoia between the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and die Berliner Mauerfall, the fallout from which still keeps the Doomsday Preppers prepping. You are familiar, of course, with Ebola. And I'll even throw in the theory that birth control pills are making women manlier, while the hormones from those pills which get into the drinking water are making men girlier, which means a more confused world all over. Now, I'm not saying that these things aren't happening--just that we seem to be reacting to them in the wrong way.

To paraphrase Crichton, we are more comfortable feeling scared than feeling reassured because reassurance depends on something that takes real work. Frankenstein is more comfortable rolling around in misery because recovering from it requires that he realise he isn't as important as he thinks he is. Yes, what he did was awful. No, it never meant the end of the world. If we ever find ourselves in the same dungeon of feelings that he is living in at this point, let's remember that we can always climb out.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Chapters 18 to 21

1) When you find a friend really admirable, do you try to emulate him? If not, why not?
2) How would you describe your ideal traveling companion?
3) How much importance should we give to our feelings?
4) What is your favourite science-driven scare from real life? 

Image Source: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


Brandon said...

One thing that's interesting is that Frankenstein has yet again broken his obligations to the Creature. This seems a recurring pattern with him.

Frankenstein's insistence on handling it all himself does seem to be a serious problem. I think it's a point that makes an interesting contrast with Dracula, where the solution to the problem arises as soon as everyone figures out how to work together. But Frankenstein practically shoves Clerval off when it comes time to make a companion for the Creature. For someone who insists so much on the importance of friendship, he actually doesn't do much with his friends -- he shares the superficial things with them, but the things he considers of profound importance are entirely secret.

I found the ending of Chapter 20 a little odd. He says, "it requires all my fortitude to recall the memory of the frightful events which I am about to relate, in proper detail, to my recollection" -- and what follows is just an account of the grand jury. I suppose he could perhaps mean the whole rest of the tale and not just the following chapter, but even if so, it still builds up Chapter 21 as if it were an especially significant turning point. Although, perhaps, the primary point of Chapter 21 is not the grand jury but the repeated thoughts of suicide.

Enbrethiliel said...


Frankenstein seems to be an instruction manual on what not to do unto others. I'm surprised that Frankenstein finally manages to do something for the benefit of another, although it costs him something, when he meets Walton.

Now that you point it out, Chapter 20's ending does pump us up for nothing . . . though I suppose, for someone as driven by his feelings as Frankenstein is, thoughts of suicide are as big a deal as real actions.

mrsdarwin said...

Bobbing to the surface here to say how shocking it was when Frankenstein destroyed the female creature. Even though it was an awful thing for him to go back to creating life, even though she wasn't even animated yet, I was taken aback by how appalled I was when he demolishes his work, in the sight of the Creature. It was almost like reading about an abortion. And it must have been a messy business too -- there was enough of the female around that he needed to bury her in the sea.

And thinking of abortion, I wonder if the Creature felt like a father whose child is aborted -- impotent to alter the process, and yet feeling as if part of him has been ripped apart. In a sense, the female did have two 'parents': the Creature, who wanted her, and Frankenstein, who created her. When Frankenstein made the Creature, he was only amusing himself, as it were. But with the female, someone else has become involved, and Frankenstein has incurred several conflicting obligation, and everything is even messier than before.