DECONSTRUCTING THE CLASSICS Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Who is the Monster? Dissecting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
JANET TAY explores a favourite classic made popular by movies and remakes and discovers there’s more to it than just a zombie-like creature and terrified damsels
MENTION THE NAME ‘FRANKENSTEIN’ and most people who haven’t read the novel would immediately think of the generic monster-type creature with bolts in his neck, a rectangular face and a ridiculously disproportionate, oversized upper body that walks around in a zombie-like manner, making sounds unlike that of a human being. They are in fact referring to the nameless creature in Frankenstein, a creation of Victor Frankenstein, an overzealous student of philosophy who allows his enthusiasm to blind him not only to the ethical implications of playing God but also to the irresponsible and devastating consequences of him unleashing a creature who could potentially (and eventually does) wreak havoc on humankind.
Before I read Frankenstein, I merely had hints of its story. After all, popular culture has made Frankenstein so infamous that one cannot hear the name ‘Frankenstein’ without conjuring the image of the monster with bolts in his neck. When I began to read the novel, I was completely immersed in the dark journey of Victor Frankenstein which not only deals with his personal despair and turmoil as a result of his personal tragedies but also the constant struggle between Good and Evil as well as the philosophy and rhetoric of Mary Shelley throughout the novel which constantly questions the nature of the individual man, the nature of society, and wrestles with the notion of whether Man is inherently good or bad. I was surprised at the presence of philosophy throughout the novel; my preconceptions were that Frankenstein was a Gothic/horror novel and dark in nature. Instead, there were many layers which one could unravel as one travels with Victor Frankenstein on his agonising journey.
What was also enjoyable about the novel was its seamlessness. Unlike other authors such as Jane Austen or even Charlotte Brontë, Shelley does not linger in one spot, at least not for a period that one would notice, but constantly moves Victor and the plot towards his destination.
Although frequently described as horror fiction, I found it to be a novel of suspense and intrigue. It is nevertheless highly disturbing in its questions pertaining to the nature of human beings and Shelley’s illustration of the monstrosities that can be committed whether by ordinary men and women or a physically horrifying figure such as the creation of Frankenstein.
During the reading and analysis of the novel, Frankenstein’s creature reminded me of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Certainly there we are presented with a completely different physique; Heathcliff is an exotic, dark and unconventionally handsome figure but also regarded, due to his unbridled passion-induced ways, as a “lying fiend, a monster, and not a human being!”
I was also reminded of the fall of Man from the garden of Eden; Genesis from the Bible and also John Milton’s Paradise Lost immediately come to mind. Shelley herself does make references to Frankenstein’s creature as Adam and also as the fallen angel (“Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”); we are to answer that question, it seems, of which persona we are to place the creature.
Past critics have suggested that Shelley may have held the view that humankind was to be punished for introducing science and technology which may ultimately result in its own devastation. However, my reading of her novel does not evoke such thoughts. I felt that Victor Frankenstein’s discovery could have been regarded by Shelley as a quantum leap in the progress of science but that she felt these experiments or discoveries should equally come with the requisite responsibility.
The question in Frankenstein begs to be answered; who is the monster? Victor, our Prometheus, already indicates his pleasure from playing God in the first chapter where he describes his sentiments prior to the introduction of Elizabeth Lavenza, a “child fairer than a pictured cherub—a creature who seemed to shed radiance from her looks” to their home by his mother who “presented Elizabeth to [him] as her promised gift.” We can see that Victor’s proprietary inclinations and desire to play God begin in his childhood and progress in young adulthood when his curiosity of the “secrets of heaven and earth” is encouraged by a professor, M. Waldman, who charms Victor with “his voice the sweetest I had ever heard.” His propensity to research into the possibilities of resurrection of the dead is perhaps compounded by the death of his mother, which naturally causes much grief to Victor but also keeps him in a denial which prevents him from accepting that death is natural and inevitable.
Victor’s personality is a dark one, his temper “was sometimes violent” and his “passions vehement” but with the existence of the symbols of virtue in his life—Elizabeth and Henry Clerval, his best friend, Victor never really crosses the line to evil and darkness although he inadvertently creates the creature and his ensuing neglect and denial of the same was later to be his greatest sin imaginable. Unlike Pip whose virtues are kept in check by Joe Gargery in Dickens’s Great Expectations despite constant temptations, Victor loses the battle between good and evil when he succumbs to the temptation of ego and pride which leads him to embark on the project of breaking through the “ideal bounds” of life and death when he says: “Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”
When Victor stands back to observe his creation on a “dreary night of November,” he is horrified to discover that he had created a physically abhorrent being which was too repellant even to look at, that caused him to “[rush] out of the room, and [continue] a long time traversing [his] bedchamber, unable to compose [his] mind to sleep.”
Where one might have earlier felt ambivalent about Victor, it is at this juncture that feelings of horror and disgust at Victor are evoked for his irresponsibility and cowardice in failing to care for his creature, deformed as it was, and chooses instead to avoid the consequences of his action. The ensuing events of murder by the creature of Victor’s loved ones—beginning with Victor’s brother William and later progressing to Henry and Elizabeth appear to insinuate the presence of karmic retribution. One wonders whether Shelley had intended to depict the idea of just deserts, that Victor’s irresponsibility and cruelty to the creature should naturally punish the former in return.
The concept of the monster in the novel is a multi-faceted one. There are at least four ideas of the monster: the creature himself, a physical deformity; Victor, the irresponsible Creator; the cruel and judgmental nature of society and the failure of justice systems which convict the innocent based on face value. Like the creature, Justine is convicted on circumstantial and superficial evidence and she is not given an opportunity to fully defend herself. Frankenstein’s creature may be a murderer, yet I could not help wondering whether he was truly evil or merely an overgrown child who was badly hurt and desperate for love, and never had anyone to teach him how to tell right from wrong. A parallel can be drawn here to Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men where he tells Curley’s wife the reason he killed the puppy in innocence and inadvertence is somewhat reminiscent of how the creature had killed William: “He was so little,” said Lennie. “I was jus’ playin’ with him ... an’ he made like he’s gonna bite me ... an’ I made like I was gonna smack him ... an’ ... and I done it. An’ then he was dead.” Later, Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife (in much the same way as his previous killings of a rabbit and the puppy) and his ensuing remorse suggests that he does not understand the severity of his actions, only that they were a “bad thing”: “And she continued to struggle, and her eyes were wild with terror. He shook her then, and he was angry with her. ‘Don’t you go yellin’,’ he said, and he shook her; and her body flopped like a fish. And she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck.”
Although the creature in Frankenstein possesses a more sophisticated level of comprehension, he nevertheless illustrates his amorality in his murder of a young child, whom he understands would “create desolation” but only because he revels in a childish desire to hurt Victor as he had been hurt: “The child still struggled, and loaded me with epithets which carried despair to my heart; I grasped his throat to silence him, and in a moment he lay dead at my feet.”
Chapter ten of the novel begins the creature’s sorrowful tale of abandonment and neglect, not only by Frankenstein but also society at large. I was moved by Shelley’s criticism of the judgmental and superficial nature of society which does not afford any opportunity for the wretched to speak in their own defence. Shelley’s firm grasp of philosophy is most apparent in the creature’s rhetorical exchange with Frankenstein. I found myself not only impatient to unravel the rest of Shelley’s story but also provoked to absorb her philosophical musings on the reality of human nature and how unforgiving it can be. Frankenstein’s creature echoes Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis and both ponder on the seemingly meaninglessness of life—to be born into suffering and then to die on a funeral pile in “an agony of the torturing flames.” It is with this sentiment that I savoured the ending of the novel, with the solemn contemplation of Victor’s burden and journey of guilt, and the creation of a creature who only knew pain and never the true purpose of his own creation other than to satiate the ego of an irresponsible Creator.
JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
Reproduced from the April-June 2008 issue of Quill magazine