Category: New Criticism (1/22)


The Creature’s Path to Peace

On reading the last two paragraphs of Frankenstein, I was struck by the number of different views on the path to happiness, peace and tranquility that were explored in this novel. The Creature’s thoughts on this changed drastically over the course of the novel, and they seemed to culminate in these ending passages. It is this theme that serves to resolve the curious paradoxes, tensions and ambiguity in these passages and provides the organic unity necessary for the new critical method.

The Creature initially believes that he can achieve bliss by finding somebody who will accept him regardless of his appearance. When this fails, he turns to revenge as a means of alleviating some of his rage and loneliness. However, in the end his experiences make him seek only death as his way to bliss, as his misery and isolation are too excruciating to live with. This is observed in the paradox of “sad and solemn enthusiasm” and the tension in “exult in the agony”, and it seems strange that he looks forward to his painful death, but not if you see that he does so because it is his path to contentment.

The motif of fire is very predominant here with words like “burning”, “flames” and “conflagration”. I think this is because fire is associated with peace. The passage brings us back in a circle to the beginning of the monster’s life, when the fire he finds in the wood is his most precious possession and he “was in the greatest fear lest my fire should be extinguished”. The fire gave him life and contentment, by providing warmth, comfort, and cooked food, while now he implores it to give him death, and so peace and rest.

These paragraphs seem to suggest that the Creature believes that, after his death, everything that he experienced and and everything that he was, will be as if it never existed. This is seen in the usage of words and phrases such as “extinct”, “fade away”, “lost” and “my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds”. He desires this oblivion and believes that it will allow “his spirit to sleep in peace”. However he does not really achieve this as the Creature and the tale of his life have been immortalized in Robert Walton’s records, which is ironically how we are learning of it. We see that Shelley purposely leaves the ending vague saying that he was “lost in the darkness and distance”, making it ambiguous as to whether the Creature actually died and if, whatever the answer to the previous question, he truly obtained his peace. The lack of this certain conclusion in the ending forces us to question death’s role as the only final path to peace and bliss.

 

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The end of Frankenstein’s monster’s lamentation comes with as much passion and emotion that had guided its words since it first spoke to Robert Walton at its creator’s corpse, and yet more as its final words ring out while it resolves to depart the world of the living.  Through this, the monster carries the allegorical reference to fire to the end of the novel, mentioning its “burning miseries,” the “torturing flames” upon which it shall die, and the “conflagration” as another term for this fire. The monster is regretting the gift of fire, the feeling and passion which it was searching for, that his master unknowingly bestowed upon him.

The primary conflicting image the creature presents is an image of his internal fire, his miseries, dying and becoming extinct, yet he is doing so through fire itself. The irony is not lost, that the fire of life is being extinguished by fire itself, as it is clear that the monster wishes he had no such flame within himself, that he had not destroyed the life of his creator and those that his creator loved. In addition, there is a strong tension between the context of the language with how the creature is described saying it. The creature is described to say these words with enthusiasm, and mentions that it “shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames” (189). This disconnect between the emotions we would expect a creature of sadness to feel from the actual energy and almost excited anticipation for what it is about to do to itself creates a strong dissonance that perhaps is meant to reflect the creature’s own inner conflict, that it found passion, but only in the form of hatred inspired by his creator. This is the sad truth of the story, that Frankenstein did indeed fulfill his creation’s wish – yet in doing so doomed himself and his creature’s hopes for achieving humanity.

Phoenix_fire

The miserable creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein purports to kill himself, yet his words invoke a curious sense of triumph and hope in an afterlife. This seeming paradox is far from it, for the fire he plans to die in is at once destroying and purifying, emphasizing the creature’s spiritual humanity.

This goes without saying, but burning alive is horrifying. The creature recognizes so much, saying he will “exult in the agony of the torturing flames” (Shelley 189). I’ll get to the strange exulting part, but, hey, let’s first recognize the very real, very scary agony and torture he’s facing. Worse, the creature declares that his present miseries will be “extinct” (189), invoking dramatic finality since, by nature of his unique creation, his demise will literally be an extinction.

That’s pretty dang sad. So why exult? Part of it has to do with fire’s purifying properties. The Bible describes how, as a blacksmith refines impure minerals in a fire to produce dazzling gold, God can purify a man from unrighteousness. The creature subscribes to this, believing that the death of his physical body is not truly an end since, as his “ashes will be swept into the sea” (189), his “spirit will sleep in peace” (189). This image works on multiple levels, invoking the idea of “from dust to dust” as well as that of the majestic phoenix (his spirit) rising from the ashes. Finally, as the creature is “soon borne away by the waves” (189), I cannot help but think of how he may soon be reborn as his spirit moves on. The circle is complete, for as a “spark of being” (60) initially brings him to a hideous earthly existence, a grand “conflagration” (189) sends him out into a new purer one. The creation may’ve been dead parts come to life, but he sure appears to have a soul. And he goes out with a bang.

Exulting in the Agony

In the last two paragraphs of Frankenstein, the creature gives a farewell, for both himself and the entire novel. “But soon…I shall die” he says, and proceeds to tell the audience what will happen. He does not say if, he never says maybe. His entire speech is delivered with calculated certainty; it is in this certainty that the unity of the new critical method is found.

The creature uses specific words, such as “soon” and “I shall” several times, to create both a sense of immediacy and a sense that the monster is not guessing at his future, but has planned it, or been told by some outside force what will occur. When the monster says “I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames,” there is tension between the verbiage of triumphantly…exult” and “agony…torturing.” These words seem disjointed when separated, but in the context of the paragraph, they make sense; the certainty of the creature in what will happen make it easier to accept that the he will “exult in the agony.”

Between the two paragraphs, also, there is tension. The first paragraph, with the end of the creature’s speech, give promises of what will happen, but the last paragraph, ending “he was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance,” does not resolve the expectations of the creature’s speech. The actual action of the resolving plot seems to be missing. The certainty of his speech, however, tie together the detailed description and the ambiguous ending, in that the creature, so sure of what will happen, has resolved the end already. The last paragraph does not need to describe what happens, because the creature already has, and with an assuredness that makes it clear that it truly is what will happen.

The final two paragraphs of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are packed full of detail and life. The creature in his final moments shares his plans for suicide as well as his emotional state in a few sentences. The way in which he presents himself on its own has an incredible amount of meaning. The creature’s “body language” speaks volumes to why his ending statements are framed in the way they are.

Mary Shelley writes, “He [Frankenstein] cried, with sad and solemn enthusiasm,” (Shelley 189). This statement poses an interesting paradox that opens a window into the soul of the monster. A strong statement is made just by paying attention to the wording of the phrase, “…with sad and solemn enthusiasm”. The definitions of sad and enthusiasm are nearly complete opposites yet the word sad accompanied by solemn are used to describe an enthusiastic cry from the creature. This creates a paradox that has not always been observed but plays a key role in the last two paragraphs.

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According to the new style of critical thinking, paradoxes should be explained in the text. Mary Shelley is quick to do just that as she writes the dialogue of the creature. The creature states, “I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct” (189). From these lines, it becomes apparent why the monster cries with sad and solemn enthusiasm. The enthusiasm stems from the fact that his emotional struggles are coming to an end. The creature is enthusiastic to finally be able to escape from his emotional weight. The sad tone in his voice however is an indication of several things. First off, the creature is about to kill himself. There is no joy in this suicide and he has decided to choose what he sees as a fitting death by fire. Secondly, these final words are spoken as the creature stands over his creator’s dead body. He says these things in sadness because not only is his creator dead mostly due to him, but many others have perished under his hand. The monster chooses an interesting term, conflagration, for the flame he is about to extinguish. A conflagration is a destructive fire and I believe that the monster realizes that not only is he extinguishing the conflagration that is his emotions, but he is literally extinguishing himself, the destroyer of many lives. His mood comes from the fact that he is ending all the destruction which is good, yet he was the cause of the distraction so he is in essence, ending himself. This would put the creature in a sad, solemn yet enthusiastic mood which, due to its placement in the story, sets the tone for the entire book.

Exulting in Death

The last two paragraphs of Frankenstein give a stark description of the effects of intense and prolonged social rejection on an individual. Social rejection has the potential to emotionally pain a person so badly that they feel the emotional pain far outweighs any physical pain or fear of death. “Sad and solemn enthusiasm,” seems to be quite a contradiction. Normally, “enthusiasm” would be associated with words like “excitement,” “happy,” and “joy.” In most contexts, enthusiasm is a positive looking-forward to something. However, the creature’s enthusiasm is for his death. If he ever feared death, he no longer fears it now. He looks forward to it. The creature also says he will, “exult in the agony of the torturing flames.” “Exult” is another word with normally positive connotations, and “agony” and “torturing” normally has negative connotations. The pairing of these contradictory connotations reveals the creature has truly lost his desire for life, and that he will only find joy or happiness in death.

The creature’s existence has become painful to him. Exacting revenge against his creator was not enough to make up for the fact that society completely and utterly rejected him. That rejection is so painful that the creature wants to, “ascend [his] funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames.” “Torturing flames” could be taken as a reference to hell, which would imply that the creature would be happier in hell than on Earth. A more literal interpretation would be the creature’s cremation. However, the creature doesn’t have anyone to light his funeral pile for him after his death. Therefore, if he truly desires and plans to revel in the flames, he has to light the fire himself. He will have to burn himself alive. The pain of rejection by society and his creator is as or even more intense than being burned alive. Because he has been shown repeatedly that he has no place, the creature desires death.

A Monster Martyr

Spoken entirely in the future tense, the monster’s final statement is, effectually, anything but final. Instead of offering readers a sense of resolution, his concluding speech details what he “shall” do and what “will” be, suspending the end of the novel in a state of uncertainty.

The victorious language with which the monster describes how he “shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony” further enhances the uneasiness surrounding his departure. His “sad and solemn enthusiasm” defies any previous expectations of his defeated, hopeless position. Instead, his words evoke the image of early Christian martyrs, who, out of religious devotion, approached their deaths with a similarly “solemn enthusiasm.” Drawing such a comparison between the monster and persecuted religious figures, Mary Shelley leaves her readers to consider his ambiguous role as both a criminal and a victim.

Despite the violent images of “torturing flames” and “that conflagration,” the monster maintains an unexpected dignity through his calm certainty that “what I now feel be no longer felt….my spirit will sleep in peace.” The description of his own destruction with such a solemnly resigned tone in fact reflects the opposing tendencies of his character: at once a hideous, violent monster and a being capable of feeling compassion for his maker and “bitterest remorse” (189) for those horrendous deeds.

Shelley extends the religious symbolism by referencing the sacred cycle of life and death with the images of “light… [that] will fade away” and “ashes…swept into the sea by the wind.” By including himself in this process of natural decay, the monster makes a final, subtle appeal to his humanity.

Even with his resolute and firm “farewell,” the monster’s departure, “borne away by the waves…lost in darkness and distance,” retains an unresolved aspect, as “darkness and distance” are purposefully indefinite measures. The concluding effect for readers is an uneasy, and unanswered, reflection on the monster’s sacrificial death, professed humanity, and his possible continuation in that “darkness and distance.”

The ending of Frankenstein subtly recalls to mind the Promethean myth that is featured throughout the story. When Prometheus gave fire to humans, he also brought to them the consequences of Pandora’s box, which made humans suffer through disease, war, hunger, and calamity. From the point of view of the humans in that story, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine they would see Prometheus’s ‘gift’ as more of a curse.

Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus, gave his monster the ‘gift’ of life. But more than this, Frankenstein created a monster who was doomed to suffer. In giving his last words, the monster clearly demonstrates how he would have rather not been given Promethean fire. In planning his self-cremation, he refers to his demise as “exult in the agony of the torturing flames”. This representation of the flames as torturing and ultimately harmful represents the other Promethean perspective. Where Frankenstein might see fire as a source of warmth, light, and nurture, the monster sees it as agonizing and torturous. Similarly, while Frankenstein’s Promethean intentions are good, the reality is that his monster comes to see the forces that brought him to life as cruel.

In this abrupt ending, the monster assumedly kills himself, which is represented as a release from his miserable reality. What’s missing in this text is what many people find missing when faced with suicide in real life, and that is a firm understanding of simply the why. The monster eloquently offers his reasons behind his desire to kill himself, and as readers we can clearly understand them. But suicide always leaves those who are left behind a feeling of longing – was there nothing he could have done short of killing himself? This longing for answers makes the ending of Frankenstein all the more compelling – so while the story is complete, our feelings and understandings are left incomplete. I was left pondering and thinking for quite some time after my first reading of the story. I think that is precisely what Shelley would have wanted – encouraging the readers to pause and reflect on the nature of humanity and life.

A Murky End

The conclusion of Frankenstein leaves much to be desired. The last two paragraphs of the novel comprise of the creature’s stirring farewell speech to Walton, where he describes with great detail and passion his impending doom. He paints an intricate scene, for the audience, grandiosely outlining his choice of death and what will become of his departed spirit and physical remains. However, despite these assurances of suicide, a huge void in the text is the actual execution of the proposed events. Walton (and the audience), never actually witness the death of Frankenstein. This is a huge factor in the tension created by this conclusion. I for one, felt a niggling sense of unease upon completing the novel. Only upon further reflection was I able to pinpoint the unresolved fate of the creature as the source.

This tension is developed by the language of the creature, where the word “shall” appears repeatedly. “I shall die”and “I shall ascend my funeral pile” does not exactly inspire confidence in the reader of the creature’s certain death. To take him on his word after the horrendous acts of treachery he engaged in through the novel would not be the most rational course of action. Furthermore, the symbols of light and darkness are prominent in this concluding paragraph. The creature associates fire and light with his death, a seemingly ironic connotation. Following this train of thought, he takes his death to be a positive and his life to be grim and dark. However, in the final line, where he leaves the boat, he once more is “lost in the darkness and distance.” This contradicts his previous speech and imagery, once more giving the reader cause to believe that the creature continues to live. This ending employed tension masterfully, leaving the audience with no closure to the fate of the creature. The contributing choice of language used by the creature and the symbols surrounding this last scene further reinforces the general uncertainty of the creature’s end.Unknown-1

Close Reading of the Novel’s ending

For this Thursday (1/22), students will write a post that provides a close reading of the last two paragraphs of Frankenstein on page 189 (starting with “But soon” and ending with “distance”).  Please categorize under “New Criticism” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags.

To help you with this post, here are 5 close reading guidelines you should follow:

1. Note key words or phrases that repeat in that passage.

2. Look for irony, paradox, ambiguity, and tension.

3. Note those words or phrases that seem odd or out-of-place.

4. Note any important symbols, motifs, and themes.

5.  Is there anything missing from the text that should be there?