Tag Archive: fear

The Hierarchy


The passage describing Mont Blanc and its surroundings on pages 89-92 seems to be a near-exact translation of Percy Shelley’s poem, “Mont Blanc,” into prose, particularly on page 90 at the beginning of chapter ten. As Victor describes falling ice and avalanches, he speaks of, “the silent working of immutable laws,” and the ice being, “but a plaything in their hands” (90). This goes hand in hand with Percy Shelley’s lines: “Thou has a voice, great Mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe” and “Is this the scene / Where the old Earthquake-demon taught her young / Ruin? Were these their toys?” (lines 80-81, 71-73). Victor conveys the same awe as the speaker in the poem. Similarly, “my slumbers, as it were, waited on an ministered to by the assemblance of grand shapes which I had contemplated during the day” echo’s Percy Shelley’s lines: “Some say that gleams of the remoter world / Visit the soul in sleep–that death is slumber / And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber / Of those who wake and live” (Frankenstein 91, “Mont Blanc” lines 49-53). Victor dreams of Mont Blanc, and, indeed, his dreams and sleep do seem to offer a death-like state, as they “gathered round [him], and bade [him] be at peace,” evoking the image of a funeral (91). However, one guest of the poem doesn’t appear in Victor’s dream: “the wolf [who] tracks her [the eagle] there” (line 69). This, and other predatory hints in the poem like, “The glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey,” seem to be lost on Victor (line 100-101). Since Victor doesn’t allude to these lines, he doesn’t see the danger of his situation. He doesn’t sense a snake watching him or a wolf tracking him. He doesn’t realize the creature hunts him. When Victor sees the creature, it takes him a moment to realize that the figure he sees is, in fact, the creature.

All I have to say is, Victor, why so dense? “Mont Blanc” suggests nature’s superiority over humans, saying, “Frost and Sun in scorn of mortal power / Have piled: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle” (line 103-104). Victor also alludes to nature’s architecture, as well as continually comparing Mont Blanc to a ruler. The creature, however, “bounds over the crevices in the ice, among which [Victor] had walked with care” (92). The creature moves swiftly and without hesitation through this landscape, without a single trace of reverence or care. This indicates the creature is superior even to nature, and thus, humans. Why does Victor not realize that the creature has him outmatched in every possible way? Why does he think that he can fight the creature and win? I think that, despite his over-drowning melancholy, Victor has what we might call a “creator complex.” To Victor, the hierarchy probably looks like: humans at the bottom, then nature, then the creature, then Victor himself. Because Victor created the creature, he thinks he is superior to the creature. He knows he has power and a say in the creature’s life, but he doesn’t realize that the creature also has power and a say in his. He underestimates the creature, and overestimates himself. Because the prose and poetry are so similar, the differences point out that Victor doesn’t realize he created a being superior to himself, and even to nature itself. This adds insight into why the creature cannot be accepted as animal or human, as of nature or of civilization. His appearance and his abilities make him other-worldly to both.

(Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vd1966/15166280897/in/photolist-p7c9VF-gH2W7x-prVnHq-dajET8-5Ziqun-kfTE9G-gdAwcu-fXuo6E-pWzNdg-cHbDiA-dajEWv-agdkY1-fAzB6u-bzYhvU-34s8Y-5ZnBsG-mLu14-5i8bQy-cyXTWf-fSFGQu-cyjb1A-6oDYGL-hb5LP9-j4NceT-npScAB-dajEQa-j9tEcP-r5kuis-pnMRDp-dajEAX-ocQac2-q2ycL5-mQH9FS-fjztS2-5J7AWM-qtXUiq-e9oPX2-9VN8PB-prVsd7-gXYhSQ-5HY1Hr-nup4wE-nxxZQ1-pRhix9-2mnBNg-iPyKkt-j8jzR-5SMBXh-o7mwq8-6F16QP)

Sympathy for a Tragic Hero

Passage: p. 178 “You have read….on his prosecutor”

The narrative frame, by which Robert Walton relays Victor’s story in his letters to his sister, sets readers at a safe distance from the tragedy, as if we, like Margaret, have only “read this strange and terrific story” (178). According to Edmund Burke’s theory on sympathy, this removal from terror “produces delight when it does not press too close” (42), an effect evident in Robert Walton’s response to Victor’s narrative.

In his initial reaction Walton dwells upon Victor’s outward displays of anguish rather than the horrific story itself, repeatedly noting how Victor was “seized with sudden agony” (178) as he related “words so replete with anguish” (178) with eyes “quenched in infinite wretchedness” (178). His fascination with Victor’s apparent suffering testifies to Burke’s claim that “we have a degree of delight…in the real misfortunes and pains of others” (42). Further, his tone of excited curiosity in the way he questions whether “you do not feel your blood congeal with horror, like that which even now curdles mine” (178) reflects Burke’s sentiment that “objects which in reality would shock, are in tragical…the source of a very high species of pleasure” (41). Walton’s speech assumes this excited energy as he describes Victor’s multifarious expressions of grief. Broken into phrases signaled by pairs of opposing prepositions such as “sometimes…at others” and “now….then” (178), the choppy structure of his sentences reflects Victor’s fitful behavior and testifies to his seemingly misplaced enthusiasm. Ironically, as Walton describes him, Victor sometimes appears more like the monster with eyes “lighted up with indignation” and “an expression of the wildest rage” (178). There is an emotional tension between this violent image of a man like “a volcano bursting forth” (178) and a pathetic figure “subdued to downcast sorrow” (178), resulting in simultaneously overwhelming feelings of fear and pity in the reader, as in Walton, toward this tragic figure.

Through Walton’s perspective we can perceive Victor as a tragic hero who “seems to feel his own worth, and the greatness of his fall” (179); and like Walton in his fascination, we feel both sympathy for the ruined scientist and fear that we might not make his mistakes. Burke attributes this cathartic fascination to the quality of pity as “a passion accompanied with pleasure” (42). In his exalting lamentations of Victor’s condition, “noble and godlike in ruin” (179), Walton demonstrates his delight derived from his sympathy for Victor. Because Walton remains removed from any active role in Victor’s narrative until this point, he can experience this kind of exhilarating terror, which, as Burke describes, “is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close” (42).

More than Mad Science

Young Frankenstein

Before reading the novel, I thought the story went something like this: a nameless mad scientist works in a lab. His creation lies lifeless, strapped to a metal table. A little, hooded, hunchbacked attendant assists the scientist (Igor, was his name?). “Yes, master. Of course, master,” he says. He pulls a switch, sending volts of electricity through the creation, probably electrocuting himself as well in the process. It is dark and stormy outside. Lightning flashes and thunder clashes. The creature, Frankenstein, rises stiffly from the table, breaking the straps as it moves. “It’s alive! It’s alive!” the mad scientist yells gleefully. His eyes are wide and gleaming as he approaches his creation. More lightning. Before the scientist can speak, or maybe after he gives an order, the creature knocks him aside. Then the creature attacks Igor, or it trashes the lab. Whatever the creature does next, the actions show that the creature is violent and unable to be controlled, and that creating it was a mistake.

Needless to say, that isn’t exactly what happens in the novel. For starters, Victor Frankenstein, before he made the creature, at least, was not a mad scientist. He was a college student. His studies led him to research the cause of life. It was after his discovery of how to create life that he animated the creature. Instead of an insane scientist, the book portrays a relatively rational scientist who genuinely wanted to improve people’s lives. It’s only after the creation scene that his sanity starts to whither.

The creation scene in the novel contrasts starkly with what I thought happened. Victor works alone. Where did Igor come from, anyway? When the creature comes to life, Victor immediately backs away in horror. He is not at all excited or ecstatic like I thought the scientist was. This is what surprised me the most: that Victor was immediately terrified of the creature. I had always thought that the creature had done something fear-worthy. He’d killed some people (which he does later, but at the point of his creation he has done nothing). He had attacked Victor; he burned some buildings, destroyed some property (which, again, he does do later). I didn’t think that some green guy with bolts in his neck who moved like his arms and legs were stiff planks was all that scary. The moment the creature opens his eyes, however, Victor high-tails it out of there. The creature’s mere appearance inspired fear and hate. The creature hadn’t had a moment to act, to reveal his nature, and already he was judged.

Before reading, I also thought that the creature was mindless, mindlessly bent towards violence. However, the creature is intelligent. He becomes proficient in a language in a month or two. He has his own hopes and desires. He wanted to be able to be a part of society, at one point. Reading the novel has shown me that Frankenstein is about much more than a mad scientist’s experiment.

(photo from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dropoutart/4925278873/in/photolist-8vekPg-5heH3d-dct2ri-9REANm-6NbU1-ptSGH-2TrnH-4r5xa9-2QEuT-2SJiLF-4XYkoH-886onX-pWE1SP-94Wr3-5vxo8B-gtaKNf-4BsYjC-pWE3Nn-dtoAzJ-diQ3NM-4W7t9b-avKTWW-53p1uu-asyk3U-joN4R3-fZT2tE-c6KF4m-4fjZCP-77D9bU-8xSnvd-cjmzAS-8XXRYc-8Ltk6w-9STrEQ-eEnycr-fmYueU-fqLsrA-5qVdsH-pEpe4X-6NbTY-5vBjGZ-pEuoyu-qKv9Vc-qBGvo9-6NbTX-abyuPf-pWDN6X-pNJ6pr-nZqFVy-4W7toN/ )

A Child’s Toy?


I cannot reconcile the chilling melancholy I felt while reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with the green plastic figurines found in the children’s toy aisle. I find it so peculiar and rather unsettling that such a complex literary figure would be considered an acceptable amusement for children. The story itself, which requires a high level of emotional and intellectual maturity for comprehension, is evidently not appropriate material for the young children who dress in the monster’s likeness for Halloween. I believe Frankenstein’s somewhat comical, grotesque appearance in children’s toys and cartoons testifies to our culture’s subconscious efforts to obscure the true terror that the monster incites by attributing the cause of fear to his brutish form and threatening manners. Frankenstein is not scary because he is a monster. Frankenstein is scary because he is human. He expresses, in such an eloquent and thoughtful manner, the desires and emotions we recognize as our own: compassion, loneliness, and the desires for acceptance or companionship. The sense of familiarity toward a being of such dissimilar origin and demeanor is what disturbs us most. So, we impose a stereotype on the monster as a beast inferior in both manner and physicality, bearing no intellectual resemblance to humans, in order to avoid confrontation with this truth, that Frankenstein might be just as, or perhaps even more, human than we are.

Source for the image: www.degrotespeelgoedwinkel.nl/producten/01-411-9466_4/groot/9466-lego-monster-fighters-frankenstein.jpg

The Monster’s Ambiguity

After analyzing the monster through multiple schools of analysis, it is safe to say that finding a concrete representation of the monster is often very difficult. The intentional fallacy tells us readers that we would be mistaken to base our understanding of a work on what we presume to be the author’s intention in writing, and this holds true as we readers try to decipher Mary Shelley’s cryptic layers of symbols and themes. However, the frustration involved with trying to discover the monster’s true meaning only serves to bolster the ambiguity surrounding the monster, creating a figure that is dark and mysterious, and making the terror that the monster inspires all the more tangible.

Even before reading Frankenstein we encounter ambiguity in the fact that “Frankenstein” is the name of the creator and not the creation. Applying Edmund Burke’s ideas of the sublime versus the beautiful and the ugly we see that the monster elicits the beautiful quality of sympathy with his eloquent prose, while contradicting this sympathy with his sublime and fear-inspiring murderous actions. A Marxist analysis makes the monster a symbol of the suppressed proletariat, yet the monster is still depicted as powerful and in control of Frankenstein, who is a symbol of the should-be-in-power bourgeoisie. All of these examples reinforce the confusion surrounding the monster. Falling victim to the intentional fallacy, it seems as if Mary Shelley attempted to obscure the monster as much as possible in order to amplify the reader’s sense of fear in the unknown.

Humans have an innate fear of the unknown; when we cannot decipher something’s intentions or purpose we feel unsettled. From the beginning, the creation of the monster is obscured; fragments of the text in which Frankenstein is working on his creation are omitted and Frankenstein never reveals the secret of how to create the monster. The monster stays out of view, and Frankenstein feels a constant sense of paranoia that his creation is watching him from the shadows. Frankenstein is not able to interperet that the monster is plotting Elizabeth’s murder, thinking instead that the monster will be coming for him on his wedding night. The monster is never even given a name, and thus has no identity. The sense of mystery that surrounds the monster stirs the human depths of fear – we fear what we cannot understand.

Obscurities in different schools of literary analysis mirror Shelley’s ominous plot omissions, and serve as reinforcements for the unease that the monster causes. Just as the monster hides away in the swirling mists of vast mountain ranges to avoid detection, the reader’s role is to derive meaning from a mist of different schools of literary criticism. Our inability to fully understand the monster in a figurative context only serves to heighten the sense of ambiguity and thus horror that we feel.

Though both Karl Marx and Mary Shelley both died more than a century ago their work lives today and will continue to do so well into the future. Though one is a gothic novel and the other is a publication about how the nature of politics, society, and class shape economic systems, both play on two of the strongest human emotions: pity and fear. Both the creature in Frankenstein, and the poor working class in The Communist Manifesto evoke these to primal emotions.  In his Marxist criticism Warren Montag concedes this point, but argues that more than the creature representing the poor, working class proletariat, he represents their unrepresentability.

Pity: As readers we pity the creature because of his extreme solitude. Just like humans, he had no say in his own creation, however he is unlike humans and therefore readers in the fact that he will never be able to join a community because he is the only one of his kind. This is the same pity readers have for the poor working class that Marx describes in his writings. Just like the monster the poor are trying to find a place in a society that was not built their survival. They have been used for economic progress by the elite just as the monster is used for scientific progess by Frankenstein.

Fear: The monster it just that, a monster. He is an uncontrollable other of unimaginable horridness, strength and size. This is another way in which the monster is just like the working class. Just as we fear what the monster will do next, so do we fear the power of the working class when banded together. Both the monster and the proletariat represent an uncontrollable mass of moving parts that has the power to overthrow their creators.

More than both fear and pity however, the creature most closely mirrors the sheer unrepresentability of the proletariat. Both are uniquely alone in their existence and therefore are impossible to fully represent. We struggled as a class to visualize the creature with interpretations that ranged from a veggie tale to a shadow figure. Similarly, if the class were asked to draw the working class many different images would crowd the whiteboard. Overall, I agree with Montag in his assessment that more than representing the working class with the and pity he evokes, the creature represents how the proletariat cannot be represented.