Friday, October 7, 2011


Yesterday, we learned that Tomas Tranströmer is the new Nobel Prize for Literature winner.  Because he's a poet and I know nothing about him, I will happily note it but move on.  I'm excited to be able to launch into the October reading season with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  During a blog hop several months ago, I asked you all what I should read next on my book list.  The majority of votes went to Sons and Lovers, which I dutifully read and enjoyed, and then the second highest vote was Frankenstein.   So I read it, liked it, and saved my comments for October. 

In some ways, I'm surprised it has taken me this long to read this classic.  It's one of those famous titles that absolutely everyone knows, even people who never read.  Yet in general, we have the wrong idea about the book.  In high school, I remember being surprised to learn that it was written by a woman and the character Frankenstein was actually the scientist and not the monster.  Yet because I knew these details, I considered myself to be adequately familiar with what I would expect in the text, and that was certainly not the case once I began reading.  Somehow, despite its presence in pop culture, I didn't know how the story was going to end and none of the plot twists were spoiled for me.  It's not like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, which has a twist ending that is nearly impossible to be ignorant of.  Moreover, I did not realize that the story was written in a sort of metanarrative, with at least three layers of narrator perspective. 

I don't think I would be spoiling anything to discuss this last concept.  The story is written in correspondance, as we read letters that Captain Robert Wallace wrote for his sister.  Captain Wallace is on a voyage to explore the North Pole when he discovers Frankenstein, the miserable and ailing scientist.  Wallace then relates Frankenstein's tale in his letters from Frankenstein's first-person perspective.  Thus, most of the story seems to have Frankenstein as the narrator, but the true narrator is Wallace.  However, since it is written in letters, the actual narrator is the recipient of the letters - Wallace's sister, or more profoundly, us.  Moreover, there is also a fair amount of text that is directed from the monster's first-person narration, tossing us even further down this spell of shifting perspectives.  I think this is a crucial element of the story, predating the post modern metanarrative philosophy we are experiencing now with writers like Salman Rushdie.

Because I think this is the greatest merit in her novel, I want to explain what I mean a little further.  (Plus, this also allows me to discuss the story without ruining any plot lines.)  The basic premise of the story is that Frankenstein created a living being out of nothing, left it on its own, and this creation unavoidably turned to evil.  I find this to be a pessimistic critique of human nature, saying that our most natural instincts lead us to evil, much like Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and other similar works.  In fact, I read somewhere that Shelley referred to the monster as "Adam," alluding to the original fall of man.  With the character of the monster, Shelley continuously shows us that people's perspectives subjectively shape their perception.  Even when he is trying to do good, people assume that the monster is evil because his appearance is so ghastly.  They don't allow a moment's hesitation to consider that he might have pure intentions.  Eventually, he becomes so embittered by this reception that he feels the need to fulfill their expectations of him and match the horror of his looks with the horror of his deeds.  In the end, the monster reveals that not even Frankenstein, his creator, understood him as well as he supposed.

Yet the monster is not the only misunderstood character in the novel.  There are similarly very few moments in the story when characters truly understand Frankenstein's actions.  Because he keeps his creation a secret to everyone, no one understands the source of his suffering.  To compensate, each person imagines a different cause for it and ineffectively attempts to alleviate his pain.  Following this theme, I would suggest that we probably don't understand what Frankenstein's family and friends really feel, nor do we receive a complete view of Wallace.  After all, Wallace is writing to his sister and may very well try to present himself in a fashion that least worries and disturbs her.

I think Shelley wanted to play with the dimensions of perspective and show us the ways it can be misconstrued and distorted.  Naturally, I realize she also wanted to produce a good horror story.  (According to research, she penned Frankenstein in a contest with Lord Byron and others for the best ghost story).  It's quite possible I'm over-thinking this, but I cannot read these dynamic perspectives without finding them to be essential to the meaning of the text.  Moreover, a fairly obvious theme is the way that one's appearance affects people's judgment of him or her.  I don't think it's unreasonable to push this a bit further and note that even "normal" appearances are subject to one's individual interpretation, which makes us all liable to misunderstanding.  Perhaps Shelley is suggesting that we incontrollably act to meet people's expectations.  Frankenstein may only have been a scientific genius because he was striving to meet his parents' and colleagues' view of his intellect.  In some way or another, every character is a slave to his or her perceived destiny, even Wallace in his desire to achieve famed exploration of the North Pole. 

I realize that I am getting a bit carried away here, and I hope I haven't lost you.  As I am writing this, I am uncovering more depth to this story and getting increasingly interested in what it may represent.  However, I will spare you from further ramblings and continue the musings on my own.  If you want to continue the conversation, feel free to comment below.  Happy October, everyone.


Story said...

I read this with my students a couple years ago and loved it! Like you, I thought myself familiar with it although I had not read it. . .My students and I were very sympathetic toward the "monster," and it stimulated some of the best discussion of the year!

christina said...

I read this early on in my Lit degree and couldn't believe how misinformed I was about "the monster". It's been over ten years, but I still remember how heartbreaking that scene was when he stumbled upon the people and he wanted a connection but they freaked and then all hell broke lose. So sad.