Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein is such a fundamental piece of Gothic horror (or Romantic literature, depending on your preferred classification here), reinterpreted and refaced in so many awful ways, that getting back to the source is much like knocking off generations of spackle and dirt to get a look at the original design with new eyes. Well, sort of new: I've held on to one passage of Mary Shelley's novel with suffient clarity to imagine it as one of my personally influential literary tidbits, a fact that is made odd by the mental blank I had for the rest of the story. None of the other plot and theme came back to me on a reread, and I must conclude that those five paragraphs where the creature identifies the lovely moon from a storm of unformed sensation is all that I had ever read. (I've also never caught more than a five-minute segment of any Frankenstein movie not made by Mel Brooks. So it all works out.)

As a whole, the novel suffers mildly from the literary sins of the period: it rambles, in terms of pacing, language and location; it's dripping with overwrought emotion of every flavor; and every character is a naturally gifted windbag with a rich command of adjectives and sentence structure, and is possessed of an uncanny skill to accurately recreate someone else's lengthy spoken reminiscences. The characters need this ability, because the novel actually employs multiple framing devices, nested within one another. The whole text is formally contained in an explorer's (Robert Walton's) letters to his sister during a failing arctic expedition. He finds Victor Frankenstein dying on an ice floe, and the record of the scientist's story of hubris and attendant consequences includes the creature's story, reported at length when he meets his creator. It's awkward, and it distracted from the book's more compelling parts.

The scientist, as we all know, fabricates a creature* but then abandons it in an epiphany of horror. Terrible events follow, perhaps invetably so, thanks to the character of man and, well, man. Shelley is subverting some of the conventions of her times here. Frankenstein is meant to evoke pathos. He's painted with such effort as sincere and empathetic (with one big exception), but he is also intentionally something less than noble. His neglected responsibility is not forgiven, and his family is ruined at the hands of it. He's the Prometheus of the subtitle after all, who has damned both himself and his creation by the act of granting knowldedge. His fervor, illness, and later misery are not symptoms of madness, as a hundred shitty knockoffs would have you believe, but workoholism toward a noble goal, that leads to personal tragedy. The introduction** made a reasonable case that this is an early feminist critique of the male-dominated field of science. Obsession is not the fatal flaw in the Greek sense, it's more like a gender problem. It doesn't undo the men (Walton is also on a consuming quest, and so is the creature), it infects their character at all levels. It's unfortunate for readers that Victor is given such an operatic streak, where even his happy emotions are expressed in the superlative. The book succeeds easily in evoking the sense of Frankenstein's self-involvement, but it took a lot of murders to register any empathy for the guy--I had no idea why all of the wonderful people he described ever thought to love him.

[Frankenstein is usually considered the first science fiction novel. Morality plays aren't foreign to the genre, and like her heirs, Shelley gets at her metaphysics by way of physics (or near-physics), taking the conceit that would eventually become the hallmark of nerd fiction: not "merely weaving supernatural tales," but relying on science that "affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions moer comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield."*** Well, and good, but it makes the above reading kind of an amusing chore for SF geeks. A science fiction novel that played to the usual modern sensibilties would have celebrated the devotion to craft a little, wouldn't have neglected the cool details about the project that kept the man going. Shelley hid the half-built creature on the table without description (it was evidently built bottom-up, and something much more interesting than stitched-together body parts), and begged off on describing the reanimation process (no wonder filmmakers would get googly with the lightning bolts). Frankenstein is perhaps better appreciated for the small handful of modern Promethei that eventually followed in the doctor's footsteps, but I don't see the scientist who turns his back on his success as the norm, really. In Frankenstein's case, creating life doesn't necessarily pass my test of soul-crushing horror--it's certainly not enough that he's ugly--and I don't understand the doctor's lack of empathy for the sad being on the table.]

It also took a depressing quantity of murder to make the creature fiendish. From the beginning, he is the most engaging member of the cast, forced to develop his consciousness and his morality unguided. Learning the art of being human from Milton and from surreptitious observation, hungering in obscurity for the familial acceptance that his appearance forbids him. His behavioral development may be called simple--he is motivated from hunger, loneliness, and anger--but his intellectual character is clearly more multifaceted than Victor's, and at least as capable. He's more honestly contemplative of his own nature, and his simpler desires are the more poignant because of it, and more sincerely lamented. His confrontation with the cottagers is the best scene in the book, as the creature lays his hopes of human kindness on a confrontation.

In his lesson from Paradise Lost, it is strange that the creature should reject comparing himself to Adam and put himself in the role of the envious Satan instead. Lucifer occupies a similar mythological space as Prometheus, which is to say, damned for effort. Adam, the being reasons, has the comfort of knowing his place in creation, of acknowledging a benevolent creator. And he's got it exactly wrong. The creature is unique in knowing where he came from (even if it's not fulfilling to know), and it's we poor bastards in Adam's role that must suffer along without a place in the universe, struggling with the ideas of inscrutable mythical beings. Frankenstein fits Prometheus well enough as a flawed shaper of clay, but bringing Paradise Lost into it, it starts to spell out the same implication or the big good Daddy Himself. In truth, both the man and the creature take on multiple matching roles of nobility, genius, and unfortunate capability. She does link their creative monomania, for example. "A frightful selfishness hurried me on," the creature exclaims over the body of dead Frankenstein, "while my heart was poisoned with remorse." It is interchangeable with his maker's lament about his project. There's one part Adam in there, torn up by the misery of his existence, and one part Satan, who acts on it. It's hard to be (hu)man.

* Really the right word here. He is not a monster, but he has been created. We might call him artificial, for similar etymological reasons.
** Walter James Miller, in the "Signet Classics" paperback edition.
*** from the preface.


Schmutzie said...

Embarrassed to say I haven't read the book, yet, so this review is very helpful. The list of books that I have got to find the time for is too long for my lifetime.

Your description of the pacing and character development, the overwrought emotion and wordy windbags, brought a grin when I considered the way Brooks portrayed everyone.

Just the thought of Peter Boyle's eyes darting back and forth while Wilder celebrates "It is alive!!!!"

Lesson for me I guess is never see the parody before reading the original. I'll be picturing Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman instead of concentrating on the plot development.

Keifus said...

Mel Brooks is pretty far removed from the novel. It's like a different story entirely. (Although I bet she pronounced it Frankenshteen.)

It's actually not too long, and if it's rich in that 19th century english, it's still got a decent voice. If you were to skip to the best parts, you'd get a hell of a novella.