23 December 2014

+JMJ+

"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

10 comments:

Brandon said...

It's impressive that even when swearing furious vengeance, one of the sacred things Victor swears on is his own feeling of grief. I also find it very ironic that Frankenstein insists so vehemently that he "felt attracted even to the most repulsive" among his fellow human beings when he has repeatedly put so much emphasis on the repulsiveness of the Creature.

I found his self-justification particularly interesting, because this balancing of happiness and misery is very consequentialist/utilitarian; and it shows the problem with such justifications: Frankenstein recognizes that he had a moral duty to the Creature -- and insists that he had a right to break that duty -- and blames the Creature for the events following from Frankenstein's own escalation against the Creature. (We also get Frankenstein's odd accusation against the Creature that he destroyed "beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom" -- not the most obvious way to blame someone for murder. It's a common argument against utilitarianism that it can't see persons themselves, only their experiences.)

I like your description of Frankenstein as protagonist-villain. I think Shelley is on Team Frankenstein in part because she sees human beings in general as being Frankenstein-ish -- we are just not so boldly painted and larger-than-life, or, ironically, successful in ambition. Like Frankenstein, we all have a tendency to depreciate "small" things -- ordinary friendships, simple family life, little improvements in life -- and tend to compare them with "great" things. And Frankenstein manages to create life, which is pretty high up in what we would usually consider "greatness". But the irony is that he doesn't actually know what to do with "greatness" when he achieves it, and it ends up destroying the "small" things in life -- which, as it turns out, was everything on which his actual happiness was based. It's a common human tragedy played out on a scale much larger -- and much more deeply felt! -- than it usually is.

At least, that's the closest I can get to making sense of it. I think because of it Frankenstein is a much more intelligible character than Crake -- if anything, his problem is that he's a bit too intelligible, since he insists on laying out exactly what his feelings and motivations are at every step. It's hard, though, to get around the fact that some of Walton's most mancrush-y statements about Frankenstein often occur immediately after Frankenstein has been described in a way that makes him sound rather unhinged; and all so sincerely said that one wonders if Mary Shelley herself was a bit in love with Victor Frankenstein.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I love your insight about Shelley having her own crush on Frankenstein! =D Oh, that would explain so much! But now I'd like to know what she, like Elizabeth, ever saw in him. For I can't also say, as I did with Elizabeth, that Shelley saw a side of Frankenstein that was concealed from the reader.

Hmmmm. Perhaps I sympathise with the Creature too much, but I would have said that human beings in general are more Creature-ish: born with the potential to be great, but also with a vulnerability to harsh or ugly circumstances that could lead to a "fall." (Oh, wait. That's Frankenstein, too, isn't it? LOL!) Not that I wholeheartedly agree with that view; it just seems to reflect the nature vs. nurture debate that is a personal fascination of mine.

But if Shelley does see human nature as Frankenstein-ish to some degree, does that make this novel a cautionary tale? Don't aim too high, as the original Prometheus did, or you will be punished by the gods . . . or by fate . . . or even by own inability to deal with what you've wrought? Even Walton is frustrated in the end, though it's not clear whether that is ultimately a good thing or a bad thing.

Sheila said...

Do you suppose Shelley always sides with Frankenstein because she wants us to condemn him -- that she lets him condemn himself out of his own mouth so that we don't suspect *her* as the one who is condemning him? Or is that way too subtle for her?

But the other possibility is that she really doesn't see what is so obvious to you and me -- that he IS to blame for rejecting the Creature, that he COULD have shown it kindness and love, but he didn't.

The thing about the "proportion of happiness or misery" rubric is that no one can possibly know what others' happiness or misery is, how great it is or how it will be affected by his actions. He says his duty is to his fellow men and not the creature, because men's potential for happiness and misery is greater, but how can he know that? He's letting his own emotions dictate his moral choices and masking that in a pretend moral rationale.

Haven't we been talking on my blog about this? Our moral choices are often a good bit less rational than we like to pretend.

Star Crunch said...

Not only was there no "It's alive!" scene, but the villagers never rose up with pitchforks, either. :( Didn't they sometimes storm a castle, too?

Fairly early on, I got a sense of some of Shelley's own personality leaking through. It's been quite a while, so the actual details have grown fuzzy, but I remember she and her husband just sounding off, when I read some biographical bit on them.

My cursory attempts to re-investigate didn't turn up too much, unfortunately. They did, however, suggest that she dove into writing the story without much planning. Maybe the character got away from her? She was quite young when she wrote it, too.

"And as this novel was winding down, I realised that Frankenstein was exactly the same sort." If you ever lose your cool around this person, you should tell him "You're just like Frankenstein!" and walk away.

I did find myself thinking "He's not dead", but I suppose a lot of that comes from (anachronistic?) genre-savvy, given how often it's done at the end of movies and games and such. Also, in response to your earlier question about the creature watching one's family for several months, I remember thinking "He'd freeze to death!" (northern Minnesota). Later I not only remembered the sled scene but he outright says toward the end of the book that the cold has no effect on him, and it was a short hop to invincible in my mind.

Merry Christmas!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Sheila -- It would be nice if a Shelley scholar stepped in now to say which of the three suggestions that we've put forward is most likely--for I really don't know what to conclude! Right now, my opinion is somewhere between Brandon's suggestion and your second idea: that Shelley was too blinded by her crush on Frankenstein to see that he was terribly wrong to abandon and to reject the Creature as he did.

I agree with your assessment of the "proportion of happiness or misery" rubric. Would you know if giving it as much weight as Frankenstein does was typical of the Romantics?

Star Crunch -- Don't forget the different body parts sewn together to make a new body! That's probably the later addition that I missed the most.

Since this is the only work by Mary Shelley that I've ever read (and I have virtually no memory of the Percy Bysshe Shelley stuff that I "studied" in uni), I can't be sure when she is merely projecting what she wants reality to be, whether or not it fits everything else in the story.

On the other hand, I know all about writing stuff as a teenager that turns out to be too hot for you to handle just yet--so maybe that is what happened. She set out to depict a tragic Romantic hero, painted herself into an unheroic corner with her own plot, but didn't want either to abandon the story or to rewrite huge chunks of it. I also think that she made stuff up along the way, as inspiration came, and just shoved the new stuff wherever it would fit, even if it fit awkwardly. The characters of William and Justine are perfect examples of obvious afterthoughts. So much for having Frankenstein edit Walton's manuscript as it is being written! =P But perhaps that last detail of their "bromance" was an allusion to Percy and Mary's literary relationship!

Finally, yes, there probably is some "genre contamination" in our sense that the Creature yet lives and will be back for the sequel and all the other stories in the franchise! LOL! As invincible as he has been, the original readers--and Shelley herself--probably took it for granted that he died.

Merry Christmas to you, too! =D

Brandon said...

Apparently some have suggested that Victor Frankenstein is modeled on Percy Shelley (e.g., he used 'Victor' as a pen name in his first publication), which would suggest the crush aspect. On the other hand, Mary's relationship with Percy was more than a little tumultuous, so even that doesn't rule out the possibility that she does want us to condemn him, or at least be highly critical of him, as Sheila suggested. For such a transparent character, he really does end up being surprisingly ambiguous in the context of the story.

mrsdarwin said...

In defense of my lateness to the thread, I want to say that I read this post as soon as it went up and went to leave the first comment, only to find that I was going to have to go through the dance of logging Darwin off and logging myself on...

I was taken aback that Victor Frankenstein seemed to remain the hero of the story both in Walton's eyes and in Shelley's. Perhaps Walton's man-crush is of a piece with his myopic polar obsession and his narrow pursuit of a friend, but I felt that he became a kind of cardboard character by the end. I wished he would have had some more conversation with the creature. The creature is the most rounded character in the book, mostly because he seems to have the capacity for change. Does anyone change? Elizabeth is uniformly devoted, virtuous, and sweet, and not in the interesting, human way of the saints. Frankenstein lets nothing touch his inner core of narcissism. Friend Clerval is appealing and seems like he might actually be the sort of person one would like to know in real life, but he of course must be sacrificed to the story.

I did read a number of Shelley's short stories in an anthology, and they were extremely undistinguished, so much so that I wondered if Frankenstein was indeed a story that grew beyond her abilities. The characterization of Frankenstein et al. is about par for the course for her heroes and villains, stuffed with all honorable virtues, as it were, but the Creature seems to be unique in her fiction -- a rounded character, one that changes, that reflects, who sees the world beyond the confines of Shelley's style.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Since this post was really late first, let's call it even. ;-)

I loved all the points that you've made during this readalong, Mrs. Darwin, and the latest one about the characters not really changing is no exception! That is so true. And perhaps it was what Shelley believed about people in general.

This reminds me of a philosophical issue that I learned about recently: the relationship between the intellect and the will. There are some who believe that the intellect precedes the will, which means that once the intellect is formed, people cannot make themselves change their minds. But there are others who say that the will precedes the intellect, which means that someone of good will (bonae voluntatis) can always reach the truth. I that think it's fair to class Shelley with the first group, while I (obviously?) belong with the second group. And it seems that you do, too, which is why we're both disgusted by Frankenstein's weak will and sad that she couldn't write a better character arc for the Creature.

Victor Krieg said...

Thank you for reminding me of one of the most beautiful and frightening stories I have read as a young boy.

To answer:

1) I think Shelley was disenchanted with the modern world at the time. The constant claims of Man's superiority over nature, the need to be God instead of seeing and communing with Him, the tendency to debase the intellect of those we have condemned to be monsters or inferior... it all creates such a dreary, Dickensian world that she would rather speak of the Creature as more human than Victor, consequently implying that people are bigger monsters than the aberrations they create.

2) Ideally, the right thing to do must make us happy in the course of our desire to do it. Otherwise, as is commonplace in the world we live in, people are inclined to choose what makes them gratified, regardless of it being right. One cannot easily weigh the feeling of misery and happiness and yet still maintain a constant ideal. I may sound rather pessimistic in this sense, but the Tragedian in me remembers Candide and Pippin (not the silly Shire fellow).

3) In stark contrast to #2, I see the world in rose-tinted glasses. People may have a darkness in them that exists regardless of who conceived them, where they grew up, and who they live with... nevertheless, I believe we still have to tend that darkness before it becomes truly Evil. "Never fear the dark, only what it hides." Rousseau would be proud of me, yes?

4) The novel would be different and far more tragic. Why? Because the most human of all characters in the story would no longer Live and redeem himself.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

You're welcome, Victor! And thank you for taking the time to comment! I admit that I did a double take after I saw your name in this thread. ;-)

1) I'm not sure that I understand your answer. You seem to be saying that Shelley was more sympathetic to the Creature than to Victor Frankenstein--which is the opposite of what I got out of the text. I'd agree that Victor does come across as a bigger monster than the Creature, but it doesn't seem to be Shelley's intention. On the contrary, she's totally on his side to the end.

2) I agree with you that it is difficult to take into account the misery and happiness of the majority while staying constant to an ideal . . . unless, perhaps, your ideal is the misery and happiness of the majority! LOL! I'm always a little surprised that people who have lived through the mass movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can still subscribe to something like that, but perhaps it's part of human nature. And along with a frequent disconnect between what makes us right and what makes us happy, is proof that we live in a fallen world.

3) I agree, though I'd go with the abstract term "concupiscence" over the poetic word "darkness." ;-) We really do have to will evil--to open the door to it and invite it inside--before it can have any real power over us.

4) The ending is so open that we don't know whether the Creature redeems himself at all! But I'd also like to think that he repents and makes the rest of his life better than Victor's ever was. How do you see him redeeming himself?