Thursday, 19 August 2010

To be Frank(enstein)

As promised, today I'll be talking about Frankenstein - and bonus marks to those of you know knew that the narrator is in fact Walton, a sailor who takes Frankenstein on board at the beginning of the novel. He relates the story Frankenstein tells him, who in turn breaks off to relay the Monster's tale in the middle - so layers upon layers, wheels within wheels, and whatnot.

This was my first reading of Frankenstein, and was for a book group - which new Oxfordian Naomi (of Bloomsbury Bell) attended, by the by, and it was lovely to have her there. I was a bit worried, before I started the novel, that we wouldn't have much to say about it. How very wrong I was - it was one of the best and most animated discussions that we've had, as we fiercely and (in my case) almost hysterically took sides. But more on that later...

Obviously, like more or less everyone, I was familiar with the image of Frankenstein's Monster which has entered popular consciousness. I was even canny enough to know it was Frankenstein's Monster, rather than Frankenstein, who was the... er, monster. (I'm going to refer to him as Monster throughout, which raises all kinds of issues I'm sure... but I'm going to do it anyway). Probably everyone here knows that much, regardless of whether or not they've read the book. And so I thought I knew what to expect when I got it out of the library. To an extent I was right... but for the most part I was not.

Firstly, who's this Walton bloke? Like so many eighteenth century books - striving after 'authenticity' for their narrative, even when obviously fictitious? - there are layers surrounding the narrative, and to be honest I could have done without them. Walton is writing to his sister about his voyage to the Arctic, and in the third letter or so becomes embroiled with a mysterious man they've taken on board, one Frankenstein, who has a strange tale to relate... which Walton then writes out wholesale. I like to imagine Walton's sister getting this letter, utterly nonplussed: "Er, Wally, I just wanted to know how you were getting on... not the ramblings of a madman." I'd have been more than happy had all this been dispensed with, including the section documenting Frankenstein's childhood, and instead we'd have started at the words which Mary Shelley claims came to her in a dream at a houseparty held by Byron. That's how all my best anecdotes have started.
It was on a dreary night of November
The creation of Frankenstein was much what I expected, and of course it came as no surprise when the Monster came to life - but, even with foreknowledge, I still found this quite chilling:
It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! - Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.

[...]

Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.
As you see, Frankenstein himself was similarly disconcerted, and off he went in a fever for a while. It's extraordinary the number of times this man swoons or has a fever - spending quite alarming quantities of time in bed. (Yes, Dad, I know). Off the Monster runs, and Frankenstein tries to think about other things... until he founds out his brother has died. Which is very sad, although perhaps would have been sadder had Frankenstein been much in touch with said brother for the past few years.

But what of the Monster? He eventually re-encounters his creator, and has his own tale to tell. Luckily Frankenstein and Walton both have extraordinarily good memories, and are able to quote the Monster verbatim... we hear how, confused and infantile, the Monster had taken to watching a family who lived in a cottage, all bursting at the seams with virtue and valour despite their poverty (and, what luck!, they're actually exiled noblemen and noblewomen, so their poverty comes with none of that nasty taint of the lower classes.) The Monster learns French more or less by eavesdropping - he learns the words "son" and "daughter" and then, more or less instantaneously, the entire French language. In fact, this was what most surprised me about Frankenstein - how eloquent the Monster is. In my mind, he just bumbled around with his arms stretched out and knocked over shelves of potion bottles. Turns out, he's quite the rhetorician. And I do love to read early nineteenth century novels for that beautiful rhythm they always seem to have - a perfect balance to each sentence. Jane Austen, of course, is the past-mistress of this, but Mary does a great job too.

Much of our discussion centred around the sympathies (or otherwise) we had for the characters... and I had very few for the Monster. Lots of interesting parallels drawn in the novel with Paradise Lost - one of the texts the Monster reads. And all sorts of God/creation ideas... how much responsibility does the Creator have for his Creation, and so forth. Nobody would have Frankenstein as their role model, and certainly wouldn't choose him as their God, but I think the position he finds himself in is insurmountable, and thus I feel sorry for him... Naomi will doubtless come by and fight the other corner! Of course, I'd love to know anyone's thoughts if they've read Frankenstein...

One final point - despite being penned by a woman, the women in this novel are ghastly! There's only really two - Frankenstein's cousin/betrothed, and the woman in the cottage which the Monster spies on. Both are hideously virtuous, with nary another characteristic. Par for the course, I suppose, but one might have hoped for a little more from the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft...

Still - I'm very glad that I've finally read the novel, and haven't just got hearsay to go on. I recommend it to anyone who likes to see these things first hand, and if you can wade through the first thirty or forty pages, the rest brings up all sorts of fascinating questions and arguments. Not bad, considering it was dreamt up by a 19 year old...


Books to get Stuck into:

I think these have turned up on the Stuck into selection before, but I don't think you can do better for two 20th century novels about creating a human, and the intricate struggles between creator and created:

Miss Hargreaves - Frank Baker

The Love Child - Edith Olivier


14 comments:

  1. I've never read this, but I'm really interested to now, thanks for the review!!

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  2. We read this in school and I remember how much I'd been dreading it, only to find it quite entertaining. However, the best part of the experience was when we, a class of sixteen sixteen-year-old girls, ripped into Mary Shelley. We'd just finished reading "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" and were aghast that Wollstonecraft's daughter could have crafted such awful female characters in her novel. Poor Mary Shelley was much abused.

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  3. Well, that's a very thorough review - which almost saves me the trouble of reading the book. I didn't know there was so much too Frankenstein - I read Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein last year which would be a good counterpoint to the real thing perhaps

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  4. I remember being really surprised that Frankenstein wasn't the monster, either! I love the ridiculous convoluted narratives within narratives of 19thc novels - especially when they are written as if they are letters, and the letters are 90 pages long - seriously, they wouldn't have been able to DO any of the things they describe doing really, because they'd have spent all their time writing their ridiculously long letters!!

    I am glad you are taking care of Naomi - she has strict instructions from me to read every 19th century novel your book group enforces on her. :) I was very happy to hear Villette will be the next choice! There's nothing like being thrown in at the deep end!

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  5. Frankenstein is the classic along with Wuthering Heights that I am embarrassed I haven't read yet. I think for the cultural references alone, they should be read soon. I knew that Frankenstein was the doctor and not the monster though!

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  6. I read this for a History of Science course I took at uni and was surprised at how eloquent and sensitive Frankenstein's monster was. I was expecting the usual from all the tv and films I'd seen and was actually quite touched by the tragic story. I then went on to read Bram Stoker's Dracula. That was pretty good too and a little different from what I expected.

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  7. You had me laughing at your image of the monster bumbling about...hilarious!

    When I was ten years-old, it was the summer of Frankenstein and Dracula. Fabulous stuff for under the covers with a flashlight! My mother was more than a bit worried that I was weird...imagine. Your bookgroup sounds like a lot of fun and how lucky for Naomi to have someone familiar to welcome her.

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  8. I read this in 8th grade, and the only part I liked was the part told from the monster's perspective. I remember feeling distinctly sorry for him, but I didn't have much patience for Frankenstein (he DID after get himself into the predicament in the first place!).

    Perhaps I will have to add this to the ever-growing pile of books to be read again...

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  9. Thanks for the review, Simon. I haven't read the book either (interesting about the letter format) but did know the monster's name wasn't Frankenstein - and, I saw the movie as a child, waaaay back when (my grandmother sneaked my brother & me around the corner from where our mother had let us off for a 'kiddie' movie at another theatre) - and, of course saw & enjoyed "Young Frankenstein" in the '70s, starring Gene Wilder & Terri Garr.

    Sorry for the detour. I'll refrain from adding links to the musical number "Puttin on the Ritz" and to dialogue quotes from the movie. :-)

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  10. Like other commenters I read this in school, and was blown away by how much food for thought Mary Shelley provides. It's a shame that society has somewhat reduced it to a simple horror story.

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  11. I am so sorry I have only just dropped by - the last few days have been mental what with swanning off to hay on wye - anyway, I had an absolutely lovely time at the book group and will most definitely be returning!

    Despite the fact that I disagreed with you entirely! And I think that I was fairly hysterical in defending my side - i.e. the correct side. That the monster is to be forgiven and that Frankenstein is the true monster. But we could go around in circles on this point forever!

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  12. Elise - you're welcome! I think it's fascinating to read the book behind the image in everyone's heads

    Claire - poor Mary S! But not entirely undeserved (although if Mary W had been my mother, I'd probably have been so embarrassed by her outspokenness that I'd have become similarly conservative in a novel, if not in life.) I started A Vindication a couple of years ago, but stalled after a while...

    Tom - oh dear, hope there is some desire left to read the novel! Someone recommended the Casebook to me the other day, but... I think I'll let Franky lie for a few months at least.

    Rachel - haha, so true - the letters in Pamela get quite ridiculous. Nearly being raped every ten minutes would take up most of her day, yet she still has time to write letters and secrete them about her person. And Naomi has been taken in hand! Although I definitely lean towards 20th century, so I may not be a helpful influence... but Villette should be fun!

    Claire B - only two? There are dozens I'm embarrassed not to have read! I hate Wuthering Heights, but I think it is brilliant... the intensity of my hatred for Heathcliff made it difficult to read, and I doubt I will ever re-read.

    Sakura - Dracula is next, then! How fun to read them for a History of Science course, a new angle to see them from.

    Darlene - gosh, when you were ten? I'd have definitely struggled with this when I was ten... I think I was reading Goosebumps then! (Probably, in turn, heavily influenced by Frankenstein et al)

    Read the Book - ahha, you're on the Monster Side! I must admit his section was the most compelling to read, but I didn't trust a word of it(!)

    Nancy - haha, sing away! I haven't seen any film of it, although of course am familiar with, erm, whatshisface in it. Boris something...

    sequesterednook - you're right, the popular image of this does remove so much of the thoughtful stuff on relationship between creator and created. I'm still so impressed by all those people who read this at school!

    Naomi - haha, glad you stopped by - of course you're WRONG AS, but glad you stopped by nonetheless ;-) I hope Villette inspires similar hysterical reactions on all sides!!

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  13. I'm very sorry to have missed this as I would have had plenty to say myself. Sounds like Naomi got it right (sorry, Simon). Hope she turns up for Villette.

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  14. I just finished reading this and I am able to relate to your reaction to this. I was quite surprised that how this "creature" - yes, I have grave objection to calling it to a monster- was able to pick the languages and ways of men, read advanced literature without any real tutoring. I also find it a "convenient plot extension" , that "Safie" was introduced with no other purpose but to provide a way to educate the creature.
    I do have limited sympathy for the "creature" - isn't this is the classic nature vs nurture dilemma - was it in the nature of the "creature" to feel in extremes or was he not groomed enough to be told what was extreme and otherwise?

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