Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus
by Mary Shelly
Page: 280 pgs, Publication Year: 1818
Genre: Classic, Literary, Fantasy
So embedded in our culture is the name ‘Frankenstein’ that even those who have not read the book have at least heard of its titular monster. In fact, many people who’ve only heard the name think that the name itself belongs to the monster (the name ‘Frankenstein’ actually belongs to the monster’s creator, the one who bestows life upon inanimate human concoction he has built); the monster’s image has been popularized by its movie made in 1931: a dessicated looking creature with rugged, pale, rectangular face upon which drooling eyelids, mountainous nose and concave lips precariously hang. Along with ‘Dracula’, the name ‘Frankenstein’ resides in our culture as sui generis other-worldly creature.
The author, Mary Shelly, wrote the book when she was in her early 20’s. The circumstances in which she had written the novel had crucial impact on the contents. Eloping at a young age with a married man, she led a life replete with dramatic events: Her sister’s suicide, her children’s early death, and other kinds of sort. Despite such hardships, she grew up surrounded by many books including ones written by her parents (who were themselves scholars), thus enabling her to write such a timeless fiction even in her young age.
Robert Walton, while on the voyage to find the ship-route to northern arctic, rescues Victor Frankenstein who is devastated both mentally and physically while chasing down the monster he himself had created. On the ship, Victor reminisces and narrates his life-story beginning from his peaceful and affluent childhood up to his current debilitated state. Ever since he was young, Victor was fascinated by mystical science and pursued its knowledge to the fullest. Convinced that the ultimate answer to life lies in the secrets of life and death, he endeavored to create life. After toiling many years studying in the school and science lab, he becomes capable of bestowing life upon artificial human stature he has enjoined together from parts found in a morgue. The result is the monster so heinous and ugly that Victor flees from it as soon as it opens its eyes. Couple years pass, and Victor finds himself in deep trouble because the monster has apparently been on a killing spree.
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…”
Main theme of the book seems to lie on how this monster became immoral. Interestingly enough, the creature wasn’t created as a monster (at least not inwardly. His initial disposition was that of a newborn creature, curious about his surroundings and desirous of learning), but rather he was made into one. Or does the referent ‘monster’ denote outward appearance? Then he certainly is a monster. Then, is being a monster a result that has no accordance with one’s will since we cannot choose how we look? (Although in this 21st century, we have some control over how we look thanks to the advent of plastic surgery) Certainly, the main character (who is narrating most parts of the book) refers to his creature he has created by the name of many things including ‘monster,’ ‘fiend,’ ‘wretch.’ But why? What characteristic of this creature merits such referents? In the act of such referring, the act of creating happens, in this case that of creating ‘evilness’ or a ‘monster.’ The word itself performs an act and brings forth an idea. Then, is the evil (or evilness) one of the inventions of human beings and not natural ontological phenomena that is ‘a priori’ in this world?
“I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept.”
What’s interesting about this remarkable work of fiction is that we readers start to empathize with the ‘monster’ because of his evident human qualities and his effort to become ‘good’. In a hyperbolic sense, this ‘monster’ is analogous to Christ since he is born atypical, fundamentally blameless yet is sinned against by humankind, and he tries to teach what sin is.
This critical review/essay will examine two aspects of literary sources put into use in narrating this story.
1) Throughout the story, the author seems to disseminate her conviction that a new knowledge will often lead mankind to harsher and more difficult path. Pursuing a new knowledge is putting one’s first step toward the road to perdition.
2) The usage of literature technique called ‘frame narrative’ is used to its full extreme in order to shroud the apparent unreliability of the story’s narrators. The stories narrated in turns by Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster itself are built on top of one another and within those ‘framed’ stories, several chinks speak of unreliable qualities of such narrations. Such narration is also called ‘Chinese box’ effect.
Victor Frankenstein starts off his tale by warning Robert of the dangers of pursuing a new knowledge by recounting the perils he has gone through. Such theme (that a new knowledge can be a poison) forewarns of the imminent contextualization of the author’s life into the remaining story. Robert Walton is on a dangerous pursuit: he wants to find the new ship-route toward arctic region. Writing a letter to his demure sister, he emphatically voices his yearning. “There is a love for the marvellous, belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men.” Upon learning Robert’s desire, Victor recounts how his yearning hurried him out of the common pathways of men. “Treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” Frankenstein believes that it is his desire for a heavenly knowledge that brought chaos upon his life. He seems to infer that there is limitation when it comes to question of attaining metaphysical knowledge, and we need to respect that limitation. Overstepping that line of limitation may wreak havoc. Frankenstein says “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my examples, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” Even the monster acknowledges the sentiment by saying, “I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me: I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge.”
Why such repeated references to a new knowledge as a curse? Knowing the outlines of Mary Shelly’s life leading up to the time she had written the book, a reader might conclude that she must have wanted to put herself where new knowledge about life cannot bring more grief into her life. Married so early in her life to a married man, she committed herself to the flame of love, not knowing that the lick of fire would cause severe burns. Due to her choice to elope with her lover, the wife of her lover committed suicide while she was pregnant. Mary had numerous miscarriages, one nearly fatal. For some, the desire for new knowledge is implacable, yet it is that very nature which brings misfortunes in our lives. If Frankenstein relented against his desire to create a life, his own life must have taken a peaceful course with his loved ones, avoiding the deaths of his friend Clerval, his fiancee Elizabeth, and his brother William. In fact, William is name of one of Mary Shelly’s son who has died during his infancy.
The book exemplifies the certain literature technique called a ‘frame narrative.’ There is a story within a story within a story. Each rendition loses more authority than the previous one because the narration is relied upon the one preceding it, and so on. It’s like a copy of a copy of a copy. The story is told in epistolary form written by Robert Walton to his sister. In the letter, Robert writes Victor Frankenstein’s story that Victor relates to Robert while convalescing, and also within Victor Frankenstein’s story, the monster tells his own story. To push it farther, within the monster’s story, there is a story of De Lacey, the elder of a family whom the monster observes to learn about the workings of human life. No story is told directly in this book, and this technique serves useful purpose in this narrative.
Granted, all these narrators are unreliable narrators. (Victor of a delusional mind, at least at the time of his narration, Robert also of possibly a delusional mind since he is blinded by his dangerous yearning and harsh surroundings of arctic, the monster of inchoate acquisition of language that might not yet be suitable for proper communication required to narrate one’s anecdote.) At the time when Victor is telling Robert his story, he is extremely weakened in both mind and body. In addition, he has been constantly sick from his young age. He might have made up the story of the monster in order to mollify his sense of failure. He also truly believes that the ‘spirits’ are guiding him while he is pursuing this monster for the past six months. Robert actually encounters the monster after Victor dies, but the scene is told through his letter. Feeling strong empathy toward Victor, Robert might have wanted to make Victor’s story real by putting it to the writing. In addition, just as people see mirage in the sizzling hotness of a desert, one might see similar hallucination in the cruel, freezing coldness in the arctic. Other unreliable source can be traced to the speed in which the monster perfected the language. Within a couple of years, he becomes fluent enough to read the challenging books (Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and Milton’s Paradise Lost) and even capable of describing abstract matters in poetic forms!
Undeniably, the story embodies the characteristics akin to those of science fiction genre. Bestowing a life upon an inanimate object is not humanly possible, yet Victor Frankenstein achieves the feat at relatively young age with relatively moderate effort. Paradoxically, this use of the frame narrative all told by unreliable narrators makes a whole story more believable because such technique helps to thin the line between realist novels and fantasy fictions. Becoming aware of the unreliable narration in the book (in one page, Victor even confuses the month in which a certain event has taken place), we readers find ourselves questioning whether to believe the narration at all or not. If we choose not to believe, then the novel takes the form of realist fiction since all such narration from delusional beings is surely possible. This sense of realism may pass on when we readers, on a chance, give credibility to the existence of monster. Through the use of this frame narrative, the book gives off the aura of realism although the context itself can only be described as a fantasy novel.
According to Jonathan Culler, “The complications of narrative are further heightened by the embedding of stories within other stories, so that the act of telling a story becomes an event in the story – an event whose consequences and significance become a principal concern. Stories within stories within stories.” Then, for Mary Shelly, is the act of telling the story the most important facet of the whole book instead of what the context is?
As many great works of literature are, Frankenstein is as relevant today as when it was first written. Numerous symbolisms are embedded within the book, thus providing a reader a lot to think about when the last page is turned. Depicting through the fictional characters, the author posits a question that has been hovering over our heads for millennia: what is morality and how do we human beings define it? What’s our moral limitation?
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
“Satan has his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.”
“When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?”