Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Frankenstein

By a strange twist of fate, this year, my Halloween was all about Frankenstein.

I went to see the National Theatre Live's rebroadcast of Frankenstein shortly before Halloween, because I'm going to be teaching Mary Shelley's novel for the first two weeks of November.

A little over a decade ago, I actually published a scholarly essay about Shelley's Frankenstein.  It looks at the issue of "responsible creativity" in the context of Mary Shelley's reworking of the Prometheus myth.

Prometheus is the Greek Titan who steals fire from Zeus and gives it to human beings.  In Aeschylus' play, Prometheus Bound, Prometheus does this because he feels sorry for humans: Zeus has created them, but then left them to fend for themselves and they are suffering as a result.  Implicit in Prometheus' defiant act is the idea that, by giving humans fire, he gave them the ability to challenge the divine.  (Needless to say, Zeus is not pleased.)

Shelley's Frankenstein,  I argued, is concerned with the moral obligations that a creator entails when s/he creates life.  In particular, I examined the scenes in which Frankenstein and his Creature debate their mutual obligation--or lack of obligation--towards one another.

So this has been my first time returning to the novel after a long hiatus from teaching it.  And thinking about it.

In many ways, I think now what I thought then: that this is a surprisingly complex novel for a self-educated woman to have written in 1818--when she was only 18 years old.  Mary Shelley zeroed in on an issue that directly impacts women (giving birth) and examined the concept through the lens of science and technology--creating a dynamic conflict between Victor Frankenstein and his unsightly creature that would stand the test of time and lend itself to being told and retold.

The story of the novel is an overwhelmingly sad one: Victor and his creature mirror one another, in terms of their desires and ambitions and voices, yet few literary protagonists have ever spoken to each another at such cross-purposes.

That is what has always stood out to me about the conversations between Victor and his Creature: the extent to which they both argue themselves into positions from which they cannot compromise.  Victor admits he was wrong to create the Creature, but he cannot conceive of acting on that admission in any way other than to claim that it is his "right" to kill it.

The Creature, similarly, argues that he would have been good--that he is good at heart and always wanted to be kind and virtuous--but others have made him what he is (both literally and figuratively).  If others reject him, what option does he have but to seek destruction and revenge?

To kill and to seek revenge: these are the only two options that Victor and the Creature seem to be able to entertain with any seriousness.  Their vague attempt at a compromise--the Creature will go away and leave humans alone if Victor makes a female creature to be his companion--is entered into half-heartedly (at best) on Victor's part and seems to be little more than a last-ditch effort on the part of the Creature to carve out an existence for himself that doesn't involve desolation and revenge.

The novel is also a retelling of Milton's Paradise Lost: as the Creature himself admits, he "should be Adam," but he identifies instead with Satan--cast out, he seeks to destroy everything dear to those who have rejected him.

To some extent, the Creature can't be Adam, however, because Victor is only playing God.  Unlike the omniscient deity, he shows little or no concern for the welfare of others and he is remarkably adept at rationalization and self-justification, particularly when it feeds his overwhelming sense of pride.

In a sense, if the Creature is Satan, so too is Victor.

An element of the novel that, to my knowledge, hasn't ever been explored fully is the way in which Frankenstein, as a "modern Prometheus" is more like the brother of the Greek Titan, Epimetheus.

In Greek, "Prometheus" means "forethought."  "Epimetheus," on the other hand, means "after-thought."  According to the ancient myth, Zeus created the first human woman, Pandora, and then gave her to Epimetheus.  (Bear in mind, Prometheus had warned his brother not to accept any "gifts" from Zeus, because he suspected reprisals for his act of stealing fire.)

Pandora had a container (a kind of jar, actually, but the word pithos was translated as "box" and the image of "Pandora's box" has stayed with us).  She opened out it of curiosity, unleashing all of the evils of the world.  She shut the lid as quickly as she could, but the only thing she managed to trap inside was... Hope.

Like Epimetheus, Victor Frankenstein's actions are frequently marked by after-thought rather than fore-thought.

The question remains, however, whether Shelley's text can in any way be viewed as a hopeful one.  Victor dies, and the Creature simply disappears.  The narrator, Walton, is forced to turn back from his quest and return to home and family.  The secret of the life that Victor created--how exactly he managed to animate dead matter--dies when he does.

Or does it?  It seems to me that, if there is a kind of hope underlying Shelley's text, it lies with the reader.  Will we learn to see what Victor and his Creature do not?  We will understand that, when the forces of nature itself have been tampered with, when death is brought back to life and life itself becomes riddled with death, questions of right and wrong and justice and responsibility become insoluble problems that can only be endlessly debated, to the point of despair and destruction.

2 comments:

  1. Marvelous review, especially the insight that both Victor and the Creature argue themselves into a corner with no room for compromise.
    My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2015/02/frankenstein-or-modern-prometheus-by.html

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for the compliment, Joseph, and I'll definitely check out your review!

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