Flashback to Frankenstein

I reread Frankenstein in 2011, along with my students, but I never posted on it.  So, I thought I would have a bit of a flashback and post my original post from LiveJournal that I wrote while I was studying for my M.A. exam in 2008.  This is the form that I used for studying for exams, and I posted them all on a blog, so I guess that was my first real foray into book blogging. Since what follows is all academic-y, I'll also mention that I love the book.  The language is a bit turgid, but it is a wonderful, thought-provoking book.  So, here it is, my study guide to Shelley.

Author/Title: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818, 1831)
Major Characters: Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth, Henry Clerval, the Monster, Walton

Plot Summary (SPOILERS AHEAD): The narrative begins with the letters of R. Walton, describing to his sister the voyage he undertakes to explore the North Pole.  On this expedition he comes across a man stranded on a floating chunk of ice.  He picks up the man (Vicor Frankenstein), befriends him and listens to his story, which dominates most of the remaining narrative.  Victor is a scientist who learns to create life from inert matter.  He determines to create a man, and does so by collecting parts of corpses and animating the final product, which is ultimately fearful.  He feels like he is losing his mind and allows the monster to escape.  Eventually his father writes him to say that his young brother Willliam  has been strangled and he must return home immediately.  He does so and sees the monster.  He knows that the monster has killed William, but the innocent Justine is blamed and put to death.  Victor feels guilty for both of these deaths.  The monster confronts him and tells his story of being shunned by the world.  He retreats into a hovel where he learns to speak by observing a family in a nearby cottage.  He determines to confront them and try to befriend them.  He approaches the blind father, but when the children arrive they are frightened and he leaves.  Realizing that he has no chance to befriend humanity, he embarks on a path of destruction.  He wishes for Victor to create a woman that will be equally hideous and will be his companion.  Victor agrees and departs for England with Clerval.  The monster follows.  Victor begins his new creation but determines that he will not continue because he does not want to wreak havoc on the world.  The monster is angry and kills Clerval.  He tells Victor that this is not the end, but he will “see him on his wedding night” and will kill him.  Victor weds his intended Elizabeth, but on their wedding night, the monster arrives and strangles her. Victor embarks on a quest to find and kill the monster that brings him to the Arctic.  Meanwhile on the boat, the men are planning to revolt against Walton because they wish to return to England.  Walton encourages them to continue on, but eventually agrees to retreat.  Victor wants to stay and continue his pursuit, but is physically weak and dies on the ship.  Walton comes in and sees the monster standing over the scientist’s body.  He says that he is sorry for what he has done.   He tells Walton that he will kill himself for his crimes and then disappears into the darkness.

Major themes: Science, Masculinity, Monstrosity, the Fall, Romanticism, Guilt
Common trope, textual motif: Ice, Nature, the Monster, epistolary
Important quotations or page/chapter references:
“It was very different, when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed.  The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded.  I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth” (29).
“After days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue,  I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (33).
“I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (37)
“I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness” (66).
“Every thing is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin; the whole detail of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced it is set in view; the minutest description of my odious person is given, in language which painted your own horrors, and rendered mine ineffaceable.  I sickened as I read. ‘Hateful day when I received life’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of your’s, more horrid from its very resemblance.  Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested” (99).
“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 greater proportion of happiness or misery” (171).
“He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery. He might dissect, anatomise, and give names; but, not to speak of a final cause, causes in their secondary and tertiary grades were utterly unknown to him.  I had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and ignorantly I had repined” (200).

Contexts (critical, historical, cultural, theoretical, etc.): Masculinity studies, Romanticism, many intertexts particularly Coleridge “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the Prometheus Myth, and Paradise Lost

Narrative voice, tone, pacing: The novel begins as an epistolary and then begins Victor Frankenstein’s tale, and within that the tale of the monster.

Misc. responses: (THE GOOD STUFF)
Science:  There is a clear message here that science has destructive potential.  This is a theme that is pervasive amongst the 18th century satirists as well.  Shelley clearly sees that attempts to control life and death, makes man into a god (or into Satan).  Similar themes are present in Hawthorne in “Rapaccini’s Daughter and The Birthmark.”  When hunger for power leads one to imitate God, the impulse becomes destruction.

Male Reproduction:  The way the power plays out in Hawthorne is that the men of science take control of the female body. Paradise Lost (if we don’t count the Bible) is the Ur-text of male reproduction.  The great patriarch is the creator.  Frankenstein is the story of science as a similar type of creation. This is creation without a mother, and without the proper psychological identifications that occur in infancy.  The monster has a warped initiation into the human realm.  He is initiated into language and confronts his own self image, but all he finds is the grotesque.  His ultimate desire is for a female presence that he is denied in a mother figure.  There is a lot of anxiety here about parenting and giving birth (Gilbert and Gubar point out that Mary Shelley was nineteen and pregnant when she wrote the novel), that is played out in a very expansive realm.  So many relationships are implicated here: parent/child, father/son, God/man, God/Satan.  Much of the time, it is unclear who is playing what role. Both Victor and his monster occupy the role of Satan, but also God and Adam.  Then Walton is a mirror of Victor and in the same way that the monster appears as the uncanny representation of Victor’s desire, Victor does the same for Walton and his grand ambition.

Don't worry, I won't post many more of these:)  Reading back through it was a fun flashback for me though.  Have you read Frankenstein?  What did you think?


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