Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Mary Shelley - Frankenstein
Frankenstein's a classic, and I'm sure that most of you reading this will have either read it or at least heard it discussed. Shelley's novel is very interesting both from a historical perspective and in how it approaches the horror genre. Frankenstein is a book, however, not an interesting piece of memorabilia, and my high expectations while reading it were not so much matched as smashed to pieces.
When compared to other classic horror authors, Shelley’s outlook is interesting in that it seems to be one profoundly antithetical to horror. Shelley’s world is a fascinating place passionately described. Landscapes, waterways, and glaciers are all rendered vivid at the stroke of her pen, and there is a vastness to her settings – to the waters which, at one point, bear her protagonist haplessly away from his destination or from the freezing arctic where both the tale’s frame and conclusion takes place. All that might be superficially relatable to the feeling of the world as a dangerous place that one gets with many horror authors, but while Shelley’s world is a dangerous place, it’s never a frightening one. That’s not to say that Shelley does not attempt to invoke fear, mind you, but her fear comes entirely from what’s known to man, from what man creates. The natural world here is, at times, both invigorating setting and potentially lethal setback, but it is never the enemy itself, and there is never the claustrophobic feeling that Shelley’s world is populated by the unknown. Her horror comes purely from man, a horror that is frightening precisely because it comes from man.
Shelley is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Lovecraft (who tackled similar themes in Herbert West - Reanaimator). Lovecraft took a resolutely rational approach to portraying the irrational, an atheist evoking towering monstrosities to show just how empty our world really is. Shelley, on the other hand, takes an irrational route to portraying the rational. Shelley's writing isn’t precisely spiritual, but she does constantly invoke the supernatural with regards to chance, motivation, and the outcome of events (It was a strong effort of the spirit of good; but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter destruction. (p. 23)), all the while making her monster strictly scientific and rational in nature, albeit impossible by any natural laws. The romanticism of the text – the feeling that the world is something vast and wondrous all around us to be felt and experienced – shifts for the chapters that the monster narrates. The monster is scientific in his outlook, piecing together our world from observation and trial and error. There is a lot of stumbling around in these sections, and the outcome of the monster's tale is rather obvious, but these sections are still by far the most powerful of the book.
Everyone knows the basic story of Frankenstein, I think: Victor Frankenstein makes a monster from dead flesh, and the monster's not the nicest of fellows, though one must admit that it's rage is somewhat justifiable. The key flaw in Frankenstein is the near total lack of tension, caused both by wordiness and a horrendously loose plot. Shelley's prose is very much driven by the character's emotional state. Her writing latches onto an event and circles around and around on it, pontificating at such length on the most minute matters that it soon manages to loop around entirely and contradict itself. On page 141, we learn that: As the period fixed for our marriage drew nearer, whether from cowardice or a prophetic feeling, I felt my heart sink within me. Then, on the very next page: Indeed, as the period [of our marriage] approached, the threat appeared more as a delusion, not to be regarded as worthy to disturb my peace, while the happiness I hoped for in my marriage wore a greater appearance of certainty. (p. 142) Both being terrified and undisturbed, now that's a feat of cognitive dissonance, Victor.
As for the actual plotting, one would be able to reach roughly a hundred of this book's hundred and sixty-seven pages and assume it had nothing whatsoever to do with any monster. In the author's reprinted foreword, we learn that Shelley intended Frankenstein to be a short story but was persuaded to make it a novel. The signs of filler are everywhere; the book is an exercise in the most lax plotting, and bloat practically bursts forth from its seemingly slight page count.
The novel's frame story is a man exploring the arctic who stumbles upon Victor in pursuit of his monster. Those opening pages are told through letters from the man to his sister. But here's the catch: Frankenstein is not spotted until page eight, and his story does not begin for several more pages. The opening scenes of the story are spent setting up the frame character who is almost wholly irrelevant to the novel. It's a slight matter, admittedly, but it's a sign of the excess to come.
Frankenstein is ashamed of his creation and does his best to try and put it out of sight and out of mind. That's totally fine. It's believable and shows every scene of leading to personal struggle and all that. But it's taken to absurd lengths. Frankenstein flees his apartment when he creates the monster, and then proceeds to do nothing about it. It only really becomes important again when he's about to lead a friend into his abode: I dreaded to behold this monster; but I feared still more that Henry should see him. (p. 38) Bringing dead tissue to murderous and horrible life is upsetting, sure, but if our friends saw it'd just be too much! Read a bit too fast and you might be left with the impression that Frankenstein isn't worried so much about breaking all natural and moral laws but rather the playboys he might've left in plain sight.
Perhaps I should give Victor a bit more leeway, though. After all, he'd just been subjected to a rather bad shock. Shortly after, he comes down with a debilitating fever, and maybe we should excuse him for his actions. In fact, the book seems to be looking up. He's heading back, and it seems that something terrible has happened n his absence. If this was the only instance of bizarre nonchalance, it'd almost not be worth mentioning. But it is, of course, not the only instance. Far from it. Frankenstein is a master of fretting. He has perfected the art of completely ignoring the monstrosity he's created for pages on end while he does absolutely nothing, all the while thinking about how he must hurry to resolve the situation before it rends him and all he loves limb from limb.
The worst example of this comes when Victor takes a multi-month sightseeing tour of the United Kingdom. This section is infuriating. Perpetually horrified, Frankenstein takes the time out of his busy schedule to visit tourist attraction after tourist attraction. These are, every one of them, described. Not in terms of the plot, or even in terms of how the character feels about them. Nope. We just get to have brief history lessons: We passed a considerable period at Oxford, rambling among its environs, and endeavoring to identify every spot which might relate to the most animating epoch of English history. Our little voyages of discovery were often prolonged by the successive objects that presented themselves. We visited the tomb of the illustrious Hampden… (p. 117) It goes on like that. For pages.
Sadly, when Frankenstein does come around to the point, it's not much better. Now, there are effective sections. The problem is that they're few and far apart. The majority of the books climactic scenes drown whatever genuine emotion there was to be found in torrents of melodrama, obscuring tragedy with phrases like: The human frame could no longer support the agonies that I endured (p. 129). The core of the novel is never described to the reader. Any chance of us developing our own terror of the monster is smothered by Victor's awe inspiring gushing.
The issue is not truly the scenes of action themselves but rather Frankenstein's general personality. He responds to every event with rapture or terror; he is incapable of concluding the simplest sentence without an emotional exclamation point, a habit that's rendered even more grating when coupled with his indecisiveness. When first confronted by the monster's demands, he says: "I do refuse it […] and no torture shall ever extort a consent from me.[...]" (p. 104) Then, after a single page, he admits: I was moved. I shuddered when I thought of the possible consequences of my consent, but I felt that there was some justice in his argument. (p. 105) The end result of such effusive dialogue is a thundering hesitancy, a narrative filled with grand declarations that, ultimately, amounts to nothing at all.
If Frankenstein had been written last year, I would have declared it turgid and sworn never to read the author again. As it's a classic, however, my disappointment's mixed with incredulity. Frankenstein is not bereft of virtues. The premise is excellent, but it's horribly executed. The monster's perspective was interesting, but it's highly digressive (even if less so than the main narrative). And so on. Frankenstein may be worth reading for its historical value, but, as a novel, I found its every page miserable.
[Note: all page numbers from the Dover Thrift Edition]