Tag Archive: Mary Shelley


Here’s a full pic of our completed in-class graphic idea map.  Students can use it as a study guide to help them prepare for the blog summary due next week.  The green color is for William Godwin, the red for Edmund Burke, and the blue for Mary Wollstonecraft.

We’re making steady progress in our historicist analysis of the Justine episode in Frankenstein.  Please feel free to comment on students’ impressive idea map.

 

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Throughout modern civilization, Frankenstein stands resolutely as one of the greatest and most commonly appreciated horror narratives. The story has long passed the tests of time, serving as bastion for fear and terror that is lovingly passed from one generation to the next. Its elements and structure are simple and unmistakable: a misguided scientist revives the dead, his creation escapes his control, and chaos breaks lose. The story is good fun for the whole family, and the monster can rightfully take his place at Halloween or other festive gatherings.

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To the average individual, unfamiliar with the story’s origins, this is a perfectly valid way of understanding and representing the tale. As the picture above might express, a cultural stereotype exists towards the narrative that casts it as an insubstantial, a slightly frightening tale not to be thought of seriously. However, to those initiated in the study of Mary Shelley’s original novel, the deep fissures in this model begin to reveal themselves. The horror in the novel is much more strong and unique, and the ideas it presents are great in intellectual scope. Very quickly, cultural expectations and confidences are wiped away as the true form of the text appears.

This was highly confusing for myself, personally. Why is there so great a chasm between the cultural understanding and its literary source material, especially in such a well-appreciated story? I began to realize that there appear to be two separate Frankenstein tales: one written by Mary Shelley, the other propagated by society and culture.

The version embraced by society takes the form of a folk myth. The purpose of this story is to entertain, titillate, and frighten. The principal entity and subject is the monster; he holds such a central role, that it is common belief that he himself is titled “Frankenstein.” He is slow moving and slow witted, inarticulate and insensitive, existing in classic form with protruding neck bolts and a flattened cranium. The monster is easily typified by the “undead,” creature trope, marked with many characteristics common to the category. The scientist who creates him is nothing more than the modern manifestation of the sorcerer, seeking dark and mysterious knowledge within science, rather than the arcane arts.  The creator is also an accessory figure, used to grant novelty, relevancy, and interest to the monster’s history and birth. Although well loved, this iteration of the story can be placed alongside many other simplistic frightening folk myths, describing feared entities from witches, to trolls, to werewolves, to golems. Poignant qualities in Shelley’s text led to a reiteration of this type of story for the modern world. Some important qualities were retained, but it was altered to fit this structure to a great degree.

In writing her original, however, Mary Shelley appears to have had drastically different intentions. Although both her original novel and the myth both are linked to ancient types of storytelling, the novel functions more as high literature, bearing similarity to high myth or epic. The story is obviously cast in the vein of ancient Greek origin myth, with the subtitle of the modern Prometheus. This type of story seeks to entertain to a degree, but it also offers intellectual and moral meaning, and a more fully nuanced and complex expression of human culture and linguistics. This manifests itself in the great complexity that I was surprised to notice. Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are both discussed and explored, with neither being forced down as an accessory subject. Most of the text is not devoted to describing the birth of the monster or violent chases. Rather, a great deal of time is focused on the introspective thoughts of the characters, poignant and meaningful events and actions, and small elements of perception. Both Frankenstein and the monster have complex and very human thoughts, motivations, and questions. The large themes and tropes, such as tragic fall, human hubris, and life’s creation are complex enough to merit serious literary analysis.

In Frankenstein, there is a unique duality of meaning in the two forms of the story. Both reflect common structure, with the folk myth speaking to primal feelings and simple cultural traditions, and the novel appealing to high myth and intellectual pursuits. The almost universal appeal of the former often hides the latter, resulting in the inconsistency that many readers of Frankenstein experience when introduced to the reality of the novel.

Going into this course, I was heavily insulated from the story of Frankenstein, perhaps more so than most, by the one-dimensional ideas that pervaded my pop culture exposure and childish Halloween fun. As I delve deeper into the story, I am dazzled, as most readers seem to be, by the multidimensional nature of the tale, particularly by the enormous humanity that exists within Frankenstein and his monster. Victor Frankenstein seemed to represent a sleepless and hollow man, a creature in his own right. But Victor enters the narrative boldly, a naked man discovered as little more than a skeleton floating in freezing waters. He appears to be extremely vulnerable, yet he speaks and acts with the passion of a recently woken man, one who, despite his circumstances, is happy simply to be a part of life. Indeed, Robert Walton expresses astonishment when Victor, floating alone in the Arctic Ocean, demands to know the destination of the ship before agreeing to board. Our minds now captivated by a still-nameless character, Shelley traces Victor’s beginnings, painting an intimate and very human portrait of him, so that when he is buried under his madness, I see within him not simply the empty shell of a mad scientist, but a shocking evolution fueled by a very human passion. This is the depth of character that often gets lost in the thrill tactics of popular culture, and as such, the character’s enormous platform to speak to his audience and to society is torn out from beneath him.

Similarly, the creature is often presented as a bumbling abomination, a burden on humanity rather than a part of, a product of, humanity. We are only beginning to be introduced to the creature, but already this iconic image seems at best incomplete.

The creature’s face is expressionless and his eyes, barely open, are enveloped in shadow. Of course, all art is subject to one’s own interpretation but to me, his existence in the image feels almost ghostly, like an idea or a fear rather than a physical presence.It robs us of the opportunity to feel a human energy from the creature. This is the way he was always presented to me, and it is only in the uncovering of Shelley’s words that he is becoming something more.

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, the story of a scientist and the creation that results in his downfall, has endured in Western culture for nearly two decades and created a lasting impact on stage and screen. There are several aspects of the Frankenstein story that have modified in these adaptations and differ from the tale that Shelley originally created, such as the intelligence and capability of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, but to me the most interesting change is the representation of the doctor himself.

Before I read the novel, the image I had of Dr. Frankenstein was through the film versions of the novel, and the references made in popular culture to those versions. The modern Frankenstein is portrayed as the quintessential “mad scientist”, a person bent on proving societies misconceptions about his work wrong at any cost. Films such as 1931’s Frankenstein, a picture from which is shown here, enforce this image of madness through the creation of a new character, Igor, the deformed henchman that assists Victor Frankenstein in giving the monster life. No such image is given in the Shelley novel, and the doctor is presented not as an insane, vengeful lunatic, but as a deeply rational and selfless scientist that attempts to conquer death in order to cure disease and pave the way to immortality. The film Frankenstein is also oblivious to the horror he created until killings start to occur by the creature’s hands, while the literary Frankenstein regrets his endeavor almost instantaneously upon animating it.

Perhaps Frankenstein has been transformed into a relatively one-dimensional character in order to give more attention to the creature he creates, a figure that is undoubtedly both enthralling and repulsing. Between the intended and the modern stories of Frankenstein a great degree of change has taken place. Despite being a 19th century tale of fear, one might proclaim that “It’s Alive!”

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The Creature is Human

The stereotype that our culture has developed about Frankenstein’s monster is one of simplicity: he is either a misunderstood creation, or a killing machine that is to be feared. However, my reading of Frankenstein changed this because, for the first time, I saw the Creature as both. He is learned, intelligent, and reasonable, and yet he brutally kills Elizabeth and Henry Clerval. The amazing thing is that by portraying both sides of the Creature, Shelley makes him distinctly human.

When Frankenstein looks into the eyes of the monster and remarks “if eyes they could be called”, the implication is that he sees no soul in the being that he created. Perhaps the emptiness he perceived was just a reflection of his own eyes, for he is the immoral, hollow man who  abandoned his best friend and his true love in the pursuit of perverting the laws of nature. The creature, in fact, does have something there. He is not violent by nature, and becomes well-read and educated. When he confronts Frankenstein again, his initial reaction is not one of violence, but of love — he asks for a wife. When he acts violently, it’s in moments of temporary rage and passion similar to any other human being. And when Frankenstein deprives the Creature of its one request, the creature vows to have his vengeance in the same manner that people have for thousands of years.

Most telling of the Creature’s humanity is his deep remorse for the death of Victor Frankenstein. He realizes that all the destruction he wrought has brought him no peace. He understands now that he has fallen from virtue, from the creature that was “once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.” His tragic fall is parallel to every other fall from grace that man has experienced. When Robert sees him drift into “darkness and distance”, the Creature leaves the novel as a human being, not a monster.


I used to look at this iconic photo and fear the Creature. I saw the wrinkled skin, and the shadows under his eyes, and the painful bolts protruding from his neck and my heart would race. Now, I see not only the fear; the wrinkles on his face are that of an old man, wise and learned. His worn jacket is that of a middle-class man, warm-hearted and caring. And the radiant darkness that his eyes project is that of the lonely man, who wants nothing but to be accepted as an equal.

Maybe it’s high time we stop calling him the Creature.