Tag Archive: Shelley


Setting the Scene

cropped-mountain1.jpgIn the scene that pages 89-92 cover, Frankenstein is traversing the mountain scape on his way back home. As he returns, a rather disproportionate amount of time is spent describing the sheer grandness and majesty of the mountains. This is a direct reference to Shelley’s poem Mont Blanc, where the sentimental detail of the mountain  makes up the majority of the poem. Frankenstein essentially gives us the novel version of the poem, rewriting the same themes that appear in the poem, such as the audio/ visual contrast and the man versus nature motif. Frankenstein also incorporates the poem “Mutability” into the passage, where he uses its main theme of the insignificance of man to add to his image of the sublime and awe-inspiring mountains.

In describing the mountain in all its magnificence to the reader, Frankenstein basically expands on Shelley’s work. A parallel theme that runs through the poem and that Frankenstein incorporates is the audio/ visual component of the scene. In Mont Blanc, a line that captures this audio component is “A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame”. This is then recast by Frankenstein as a array of formidable noises such as the “thunder sound of the avalanche” or “the fall of some vast fragment”. Additionally, the man versus nature motif ties in with the poem “Mutability” to add to the growing sense of the insignificance of man in the natural world. Frankenstein not only quotes the last two sections of the poem but adds to his sense of helplessness. “Why does man boast of sensibilities those apparent in brute, it only renders them more necessary beings.” The poem “Mutability” focuses on the ever changing world and how nothing can last forever. Change is always bound to destroy any attempt to remain stagnant and permanent. This is something the Frankenstein recognises, as he laments the petty ways of man in the grand scheme of the world. The poem is inserted right after this monologue, a direct support to the statement and the tone of inconsequentiality Frankenstein is aiming for.

These powerful images of huge mountains and booming sounds serves to evoke a sense of insignificance in the audience. The use of Shelley’s poems and the revised paraphrasing of these texts serve to set the sublime scene that Frankenstein is inhabiting. His focus on detail (mirroring that of the poems) really drives home the impressive and terrifying nature of the landscape.

15166280897_09c0d14f77_o

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)

The meaning of the fifth stanza of Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc has always been up for debate. There are several parts of that stanza in the poem that makes little sense, including the rhyme scheme. When looking at the different possible ways a form of writing can be arranged there are pieces of insight that are sometimes uncovered. By changing the rhyme scheme into couplets, some interesting parallels can be made between the fifth stanza and a passage on pages 91-92 in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that might even answer the puzzling question at the end of the stanza. The paragraph that will be referenced starts with “The ascent is precipitous…” and concludes with “…may convey to us”.

The question posed at the end of the stanza is if silence and solitude are/were vacancy. The first mention of either silence or solitude in this passage is when Victor Frankenstein narrates, “…one of them is particularly dangerous, as the slightest sound, such as even speaking in a loud voice, produces a concussion of air sufficient to draw destruction upon the head of the speaker” (Shelley 91). In this rearranged stanza, Percy Shelley’s first words about silence are, “..much of life and death silently there, and heap the snow with breath”. These two lines almost seem to intertwine. It is interesting however, that Frankenstein says anything but silence will cause a fatal avalanche and the poem states that life and death are both silently waiting and they heap the snow with breath. Victor Frankenstein seems to be answering the question of  whether silence is a vacancy. If silence is a vacancy, Frankenstein does not want that vacancy to be filled with death and in that sense, equates silence with life. Victor sees this peaceful silence on Mont Blanc as life, thereby filling the vacancy of silence with life.

What then about solitude? Can this rearranged stanza and the detailed scenery give us any information into what fills the vacancy of solitude? In the passage Victor states, “It is a scene terrifically desolate. In a thousand spots the traces of the winter avalanche may be perceived, where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground,” A possible parallel to this in the reorganized stanza says, “In the lone glare of day, the snows descend or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend rapid and strong, but silently! Its home which governs thought, and to the infinite dome the voiceless lightning in these solitudes keeps innocently, and like vapour broods over the snow”. Although there is no one on the mountain in the poem, there seems to be a lack of complete solitude. The thought of snows, star-beams and winds as plural entities make it seem as if there really is no solitude. This creates an odd issue however. How does Frankenstein fill in the vacancy that is in solitude?

In his narration Frankenstein states, “I looked on the valley beneath; vast mists were rising from the rivers which ran through it, and curling in thick wreaths around the opposite mountains, whose summits were hid in the uniform clouds, while rain poured from the dark sky, and added to the melancholy impression I received from the objects around me”. Much like how Percy Shelley uses objects to fill the solitude that is present on Mont Blanc, so does Victor. He turns the the objects and by “receiving” an impression from the objects, he humanizes them. This is how the vacancy of solitude is filled by Frankenstein, through making the objects around him human, he is no longer in solitude. Victor Frankenstein, on Mont Blanc, fills solitude with the humanization of objects and fills silence with life itself and in this way, Mary Shelley answers her husband’s question of if silence and solitude are vacancy by filling those vacancies.

At the surface, many facets of colonialist and psychoanalytical criticism can be compared as ways to justify similar themes of alienation, identity, confusion, and so on.  However, looking through my previous blog posts I would argue that the two are intertwined to the point of being dependent on one another to provide a richer and fuller perspective of the same argument, which is that the text promotes the futility of any binary logic in relation to society and identity.

This is an interesting way of looking at the creature’s vision of himself. The scene on page 104 where the creature sees his reflection in a transparent pool is loaded with latent tensions: “…how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.” (104) Perhaps what is so shocking about the creature’s reflection in the water is his confusion with the binary that has been presented to him through the DeLaceys. As I explored in my post “The Power of Ambiguity”, he is presented with a very strong binary in the lessons that Felix delivers to Safie, and has trouble digesting it. I would argue that this is the same type of confusion that characterizes his identification with the image in the pool, because it does not align with the “perfect forms”(104) of humanity that he sees in the DeLaceys. The colonialist perspective provides a deeper understanding of this misalignment, because when we look at how the creature reacts to the history lessons that Felix delivers to Safie, it is clear that he is, at best, confused. The way he digests the information defies the black-and-white worldview he had possessed until that point. He knows that he does not fit squarely into the definition of the colonizer nor the colonized, the powerful nor the powerless, and this causes him to question, subconsciously or consciously, the binary that he has internalized. Indeed, after he receives the lessons, he observes, “The words induced me to turn towards myself.” (109). Looking back at the scene where he observes himself in the pool, the same can be said about his reaction. He had modeled his Ideal-I after the DeLaceys, which to him represented a pure idea of humanity, and this was the foundation of his very ego. Looking at his reflection in the pool and seeing something completely outside of his ego was  necessarily devastating. Because the binary was what preserved the creature’s ego, he initially refused to let go of it. Thus when he abandons his human identity in the face of rejection by the DeLaceys, he becomes the complete opposite: a savage and a brute. It is only as the novel nears the end that the creature tries to pick up the pieces and find a compromise, by appealing to his creator and requesting a spouse. Victor, however, still holding on to his belief in the unbending power of a God over its creation, surrenders control under the illusion of control, because the binary logic simply cannot exist. The novel necessarily ends in the deaths of both creator and creation.

The colonialist discourse is one of the many ways that Shelley reveals the failure of the psychological binary, and vice versa. If the masculine colonial discourse were to be portrayed as unbending and unquestionable in the text, it would contradict all the ambiguity that the creature represents. There would be little reason to suspect the failure of any other binary, and the text would be purposeless.Thus the psychoanalytical and the colonial veins of criticism are more than parts of a critical whole: Together, they paint a greater picture that colours Shelley’s Frankenstein in a larger and more complex light.

frankie

Before reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, I thought of the Frankenstein monster in purely physical terms. In the attached image, we see the modern archetypal image of Frankenstein’s creation that I have known since childhood, a green-skinned and large-browed giant, standing triumphant over an assortment of severed limbs. The features are not present in the text, yet they are so ingrained in our minds that a disproportionate doll caricature is easily identifiable. The appearance of a person can change much thought about him, and the gradual aesthetic transformation of Shelley’s monster to its modern day archetype reflects the gradual simplification of our relationship with the creature. Not many depictions of Frankenstein’s creation retain his distinctive features from the novel, such as smooth black hair and white teeth (pg 60)*. The man was ugly in some features, yet beautiful on others, suggesting a more fluid and interpretive character. Unlike the novel, the modern myth is obviously hideous and inhuman; the outlandish green skin is easily distinguishable unlike the sickly yellow of the text, and a pronounced brow suggests a lack of intelligence. When we look at this monster, instead of being conflicted, we know what to expect.

The pile of body parts reflects how the modern myth of Frankenstein does keep the artificial man’s propensity for violence, but changes the reason along with his appearance. In the novel, the creature has a distinct revenge motive that is eruditely spelled out to his creator (pg 93). Because Frankenstein’s creation has the capacity for complex thought and emotions, he bears responsibility for his own actions, giving his rebellion moral ambiguity. In contrast, the modern myth of the monster is of a dumb creature that is violent by nature, as represented by the random and haphazard collection of limbs he stands over. Jean-Paul Sartre’s metaphor of the paper knife suggests that, unlike a knife that has the built-in purpose for cutting, man has the ability to choose his purpose after existence. When the creature is presented as hideous and inhuman by nature, he loses the agency that allows the audience to relate with his emotions because the creature is unable to make his own decisions

The simplification of the creature’s dilemma and the audience’s empathy for the creature make for a more appealing icon, one that is simple and easy to grasp. Instead of knowing Frankenstein’s heir for the vengeful relationship and loneliness he felt or the murders that he performed, we know him simply for what he was. By just accepting that the artificial person was born with all of its deficiencies and no ability for moral choice, I assumed the role of Frankenstein when he judged his creation a monster on purely physical terms, leaving it alone to become a monster of a man.

* Corresponds to the Bedford/Saint Martin’s 2nd edition of Frankenstein is being used.