"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 112
The events in the novel started speeding up even as my blog started slowing down. Or at least it felt that way a whole month ago. =P If anyone is still with me, I'm finally ready for our last meeting on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. As before, let's begin with some of Victor Frankenstein's feelings . . .
The deep grief which this scene had at first excited quickly gave way to rage and despair. They were dead, and I lived; their murderer also lived, and to destroy him I must drag out my weary existence. I knelt on the grass and kissed the earth and with quivering lips exclaimed, "By the sacred earth on which I kneel, by the shades that wander near me, by the deep and eternal grief that I feel, I swear; and by thee, O Night, and the spirits that preside over thee, to pursue the daemon who caused this misery, until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict. For this purpose I will preserve my life; to execute this dear revenge will I again behold the sun and tread the green herbage of earth, which otherwise should vanish from my eyes forever. And I call on you, spirits of the dead, and on you, wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work. Let the cursed and hellish monster drink deep of agony; let him feel the despair that now torments me."
Sigh. Projecting much, Victor? The Creature probably swore a similar oath on the night when he had to watch his creator destroy the body of what he had hoped would be a companion to him. Frankenstein might as well swear to rend apart his own shadow. An apt metaphor, when you consider that the only way to destroy your shadow is to destroy yourself first.
Chapter 22 to Walton's Continuation
Have you ever known someone who, you eventually had to admit, was incapable of seeing himself as others do? Granted, we're all trapped in our own heads, but some of us seem to have the imagination and empathy that it takes to see things from another's perspective--including seeing ourselves. To answer my own question, I do know someone like that, and I'm not the only one who has decided that it is easier to be fake around him and to clean up his messes when he isn't looking than to expect him to learn not to make them. And as this novel was winding down, I realised that Frankenstein was exactly the same sort.
But character flaws are one thing; practical stupidity is another. We already know the excuses we could make for Frankenstein, because they are the same excuses our age has made for men (and women!) who don't want to deal with the very serious consequences of a night of passion . . . but there's nothing that can defend his failure to protect his wife on their wedding night because he thought that he was in greater danger than she. It's almost like cowardice, isn't it? And indeed, we see that this appalling lack of competence is rooted in his lack of virtue anyway.
Speaking of his late wife, what did Elizabeth see in him??? Probably what Walton does, aye? I don't know about you, but when I shifted back to Walton's point of view and saw that he was still fawning over Frankenstein, I felt that the novel had failed.
Thus has a week passed away, while I have listened to the strangest tale that ever imagination formed. My thoughts, and every feeling of my soul, have been drunk up by the interest for my guest, which this tale, and his own elevated and gentle manners have created . . .
Our conversations are not always confined to his own history and misfortunes. On every point of general literature he displays unbounded knowledge, and a quick and piercing apprehension. His eloquence is forcible and touching; nor can I hear him, when he relates a pathetic incident, or endeavours to move the passions of pity or love, without tears. What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity, when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin. He seems to feel his own worth, and the greatness of his fall.
Wow, really, Walton? Or should I be addressing my incredulity to Shelley? If I don't, it's because I have no idea what she means by letting one character who stands in for the reader continue to champion a moral midget. (The other stand-in for us is, of course, Walton's sister Margaret--but we're not privy to her impressions.) My first explanation was that Walton himself is a moral midget: note that one thing which he gets from Frankenstein that the reader doesn't is a nice bit of flattery. At the start of the novel, the latter's implying that he sees himself in Walton must have been immensely gratifying to our correspondent, who has been lonely for a friend just like his surprise guest and hungry for the kind of connection they have together. On the other hand, in this part of the story, we read Frankenstein's wonderful (Yes, I can admit it) defense of Walton's expedition, in the face of a near-mutiny by the crew. Who wouldn't be grateful for that kind of passionate support from someone who'd have nothing to gain by it?
Ironically, through the better part of the story, we've been so trapped in Frankenstein's own head that we've been unable to see him any more clearly than we see ourselves. That is, unable to see how others saw him-- and in my case at least, to say what both Elizabeth and his friend Henry Clerval found worthy in him to love. But now let me amend the main thought of this paragraph, for we do seen Frankenstein clearly from one other's perspective: the Creature's. Now the question is whether this limited view is also the best view--like Jackie Kennedy Onassis's firm statement, "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much." But is that fair? If a neglectful parent finds a cure for cancer, will that breakthrough not "matter very much"?
We know what Frankenstein's answer would be, from his deathbed "confession":
During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature.
For our protagonist-villain, the "proportion of happiness or misery" should be one's main consideration when deciding to do something. It makes me wonder what his defense of himself would be, had he created ten creatures in one go and neglected them all . . . though we'd have a different story, wouldn't we, if the Creature had had companions from the beginning? I also notice that Frankenstein totally skips over a step--namely, his duty to his Creature before the latter ever asked for a companion, which was, ironically, the same thing: to be that companion. I would have given anything, at that point in my reading, to have done a proper cross-examination.
At the very end, we finally hear some real repentance . . . and of course it's from the Creature.
"You, who call Frankenstein your friend, seem to have a knowledge of my crimes and his misfortunes. But, in the detail which he gave you of them, he could not sum up the hours and months of misery which I endured, wasting in impotent passions. For whilst I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were for ever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me? Why do you not hate Felix, who drove his friend from his door with contumely? Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child? Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice.
"But it is true that I am a wretch. I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept, and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing. I have devoted my creator, the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men, to misery; I have pursued him even to that irremediable ruin . . ."
Yes, the Creature is ultimately guilty of all the things that everyone had feared he would do . . . but was he also a creature of their fears? That is, did he do the things he did only because others feared that he would do them? And would he have turned out to have been the most virtuous of companions, if someone else had only extended him some moral credit? We clearly have a tragedy on our hands--but how much stems from the Creature's flaws and how much stems from the rest of the world's? Even as we acknowledge that he was cheated of the duties that others owed to him, we can't let him blame others for the rest of his life.
Which brings me to the thought I had at the close of the novel, which seems only appropriate for the close of the readalong: can the Creature even die? Having been brought back from the dead in a sense, is he also now a stranger to it? Did anyone else get the sense that the Creature lived on much longer after his creator's demise . . . and that within the world of the novel, he remains alive to this day?
Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Chapter 22 to Walton's Continuation
1) Why do you think Shelley seems to be on Team Frankenstein all throughout the novel?
2) How much weight should the "proportion of happiness or misery" carry when we must decide the right thing to do?
3) Were the "monsters" of society born that way or are they a creation of a society that didn't do right by them? (Somebody spot the pop culture reference!!!)
4) How would the novel be different if the Creature had also died at the end?
Image Source: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley