'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley (Pt. 2)

by Annie Kapur 5 months ago in book reviews

Part 2: Characterisation and the Theoretical Lenses

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley (Pt. 2)
"During this short voyage I saw the lightning playing on the summit of Mont Blanc in the most beautiful figures. The storm appeared to approach rapidly, and, on landing, I ascended a low hill, that I might observe its progress. It advanced; the heavens were clouded, and I soon felt the rain coming slowly in large drops, but its violence quickly increased… While I watched the tempest, so beautiful yet terrific, I wandered on with a hasty step."

Another aspect of his unreliability doesn't just have to do with the emotions that he cannot tame towards the subject and the sublime, but also his emotions regarding the egotism he has towards other characters. If we examine the previous quotation, Frankenstein is physically descending, he understands he must remain lower than the extravagant forces of nature and cannot, therefore, be considered as a God. His egotism towards other characters only exemplifies the fact that Victor finds himself probably not equal with nature, but definitely better than the average human being.

He first states in chapter one that he "accompanied (his parents) on their ramblings" around Europe. The word "ramblings" can only tell you what Frankenstein thought of this experience—that it was wasting his time and he'd much rather have been doing something else. Frankenstein is like this with an awful lot of characters, including the reader themselves, and the listener (Robert Walton).

Frankenstein withholds pieces of information that he must remember, the process of the trial of Justine being one of them. We notice Frankenstein's true egocentric nature here; after the trial he realises he should have said something to proclaim Justine's innocence instead of having her hang. But when it comes to the trial, all he can think about is himself and how he feels sorry for having made the Monster. He talks briefly about the trial, but most of it is very self-centred. Given the fact that a young maid with nothing to do with the death of William Frankenstein is going to hang and has been made to confess to something she didn't do is a better reason to concentrate on her rather than himself. This only accentuates the reader's want not to trust Frankenstein entirely with his retelling. He is completely controlling what we know and what we don't of the entire picture.

He does this throughout the narrative, taking bits out—such as the notes he leaves in his jacket pocket. The jacket he gives to the Monster; these notes are important as they are the first notes on the Monster's existence. The Monster takes the jacket and leaves with the notes. As soon as the Monster is able to read, he reads them to us. This is only further supporting not just the fact that Frankenstein is an unreliable narrator, but also that the Monster is Frankenstein's soul, inner secret or inner savagery.

A sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience in which Frankenstein is completely unaware that the savage is disclosing important secrets deliberately hidden from the reader. But since Frankenstein in chapters 11 through 16 is no longer in control of the narrative, he is no longer in control of what we see, when we see it and what we don't.

But what is the purpose?

What would be the purpose of making the tragedy look far worse than it actually is?

Given the fact that the tragedy itself and what happened to the other people is bad enough, but the torment on Frankenstein's mind clearly only happens afterwards, because if it happened before—we'd get a warning far earlier than we did. Frankenstein would be dishing out warnings, why? Well because he thinks he is the one to tell them, he is still egocentric even though that nature is directed the opposite way, it is the same trait.

The reason is to remain in control of the narrative even when he knows that it is Walton who is actually recording this information. And the reason for that is to not make the same mistake of leaving someone else in charge of the narrative in order to divulge secrets about Victor's life.

The fact that we know more about Victor's irrational state than rational one makes us question his mental stability as a narrator. In the novel, he frequently becomes overwhelmed, displays extreme emotions in average circumstance and, in extreme situations—he can just stand by and do nothing. Victor's conflicting and eccentric nature sometimes conflicts with the idea of the enlightenment philosopher. Let's have a look at how this happens:

First and foremost is to do with Frankenstein's geographical identity. He states he is, "by birth, a Genovese." The fact that he states "by birth" can only really mean he disassociates himself from it given the traumatic things that happened to him there alongside his guilt for the deaths of others. He overreacts to this, taking his grief to unbelievable measures, including a dream of Elizabeth who was dying in his arms. The fact that bad things happen when Frankenstein returns to Geneva is a constant blight on his personality, this is why we get the "by birth" part in the quotation.

Frankenstein's use of naturalism in order to explain his natural surroundings when he exits Geneva are always more extreme than when he returns. When he returns there are "narrow roads" and feelings of sadness and depression; when he leaves there seems to be a sublime sense of nature. Much like the school of thought Mary Shelley belonged to, it had a concentration on “exploiting the violence and drama of historical settings and their natural allure" as according to recent theorists.

Therefore, it is the aesthetic of Frankenstein's natural surroundings that give way to his feeling at that particular time, so when we feel he is unreliable in his chain of events or the situation in which he is in, we need only look at the natural surroundings to find out what he's really feeling and doing at the time. This means that the irrational side of Frankenstein is always projected on to nature, which means it can also reflect how he feels during the making of the Monster. It is a state of conflict with himself as he attempts to contain his irrationality for the sake of enlightenment philosophy.

We're now going to have a look at some theories surrounding this. The first theory we will look at is structuralism and the second is historicism, looking at the way in which Frankenstein is linked to the social world in which it is written.

Structuralism is a giant theory and within it, we're going to look at narrative binary opposition. The opposition between Frankenstein and the Monster in terms of how they are described and how they act and react in situations regarding their person and lifestyles.

As we've already established, Frankenstein's Monster represents the savagery that was repressed when declining the action upon emotion rather than the action upon scientific research. Once this was done, Frankenstein must have an outlet for all of this "steam" and so, the Monster becomes the one who kills the people in Frankenstein's way of scientific progress as the book goes on.

This is articulated quite well in the essay by Andrew Kesse entitled: The Myth of the Monster in Mary Shelley's Murder Mystery, Frankenstein. He first references the Heidegger quotation in which the distinction between being and existence is made; being is intelligible whereas existence is not. Frankenstein has being; the Monster has existence. Therefore, it should be accounted for that Frankenstein knows exactly what is going on when it comes to the Monster killing people. Possibly the most important differentiation in this is:

"One irresponsibly takes life into his own hands and abandons it; the other takes life into his hands and extinguishes it. One creates; the other destroys. One wants love; the other denies it. One gets sympathy; the other is handed hate. One is accepted by human society, the other rejected. One is allowed to be human; the other is called “monster.” One seeks to be a god, the other a human. One has a voice; the other does not." (Kesse, p.2)

This is the way in which Frankenstein's control of the narrative works as well. The words of the Monster are fed to Frankenstein, who would have a reason for slightly tweaking the words in order to make the savage as savage as physically possible as he relays this to Walton. Why? Well this is because Frankenstein is trying to convince Walton to kill it upon sight. When relaying the information to his sister in a letter, Walton has no real reason to tweak the words, showing that what Frankenstein had said was enough. This is also a portrayal of Frankenstein's control over the narrative as being not only through relaying information, but also through having relayed information. Frankenstein makes it out so hard that he is the victim through the first part of his narrative that, because of the Monster's narrative, we could never believe that he was the real victim here. Frankenstein gives up on this image by the last part of his narrative and finally, ends with a warning to Walton before he passes away.

Structuralism offers us a binary look at Frankenstein and the Monster, not individually but as part of a whole. Frankenstein loses the ability to "feel" as he suppresses these very human emotions, then the outlet for this becomes the Monster - and now as Frankenstein is filled with hatred, it becomes obvious that the Monster would go around killing people in order to find the other part to this experience of humanity. Both of them actually end up in the same place, probably suggesting that they have the same kind of brain when it comes to places to feel grief and hide from the rest of humanity.

As a result of Structuralism, we get a Monster and a Man that cannot be mutually exclusive of each other. One cannot exist without the other, which is why at the end of the novel when Frankenstein is dying, he states to Walton to kill the Monster. When the time comes, Walton leaves the creature at peace to go on as it shall please. But, the Monster goes away to kill itself by throwing itself into a funeral pyre. Thus, it shows that one cannot exist if the other does not exist. They are co-existing forces of the same conscious and therefore, they are completely dependent on the existence of the other.

It not only results in Frankenstein being in control of the entire narrative, but also shows how Frankenstein loses control of himself by becoming dependent on a creature he didn't wish to bring to life and now regrets. But, as he is dependent on the savage conscious of the creature - he cannot destroy it.

The next theory we're going to have a look at is historicism, both new and old. Just to remind ourselves, old historicism is using the social context of the novel to reconstruct theories about how the two can tie together, possibly looking for extended metaphors etc. New historicism is the use of historical primary research in order to gain further access to characters, consciousness and relativity to the modern age in the novel. We're first going to have a look at old historicism and see where these extended metaphors take us in terms of how Frankenstein control the narrative and why.

There are many theories on what the character of Frankenstein could represent. The most important and most investigated belief is that he represents the people of the French Revolution. Most importantly, it represents Robespierre's reign of Terror. This is shown as a person of normal ability who believes they are better than everyone else with a stifling abuse of individualism, they then create something that is revolutionary, and like a Monster, it backfires entirely. This is due to has to do with "its representation of virtue taken to an extreme" by the narrator. The narrator, in this case Frankenstein, is in thorough belief that what he is doing is for the good of everyone and that he will be famous for it, in the end he must hide the Monster and live in secrecy. In the case of William and Elizabeth, the only time they find out the Monster exists at all is when it kills them.

So, we've got the act of revolutionising something about life in the 18th Century, then the over-indulgence in this belief that leads to the final event. The backfiring of the entire revolution. As in the French Revolution, this also happens to Frankenstein as a result of what he has indulged in. The natural philosophy that rules his life, over the want for natural human relationships.

This would also make sense when we look at new historicism for contextual clues around Mary Shelley that would lead us to believe that certain characters represent certain things or ideas, or even other people. Victor, in this case of extended metaphor, represents the politician Maximillian Robespierre and so, everyone else is linked in ideas and character to this one central notion. Frankenstein in the second part of his narrative is Robespierre after he creates the cult of the Supreme Being and thus, the Monster would represent Robespierre's abuse of the guillotine.

This is because Mary Shelley's parents were very active during the French Revolution of 1789 to 1799. Her mother was the legendary female right's activist, Mary Wollstonecraft and her father was a politician and the incredible writer of Caleb Williams, William Godwin. Mary Shelley was therefore a "literary heiress" in terms of who she was born to. She grew up in an incredible literary household in England whilst France was under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. A lot of the ideas regarding the Enlightenment in the novel would've therefore come from the teachings from her father [as Mary never really knew her mother, she died early in Mary's life]. But, regardless of how well she knew her mother in real life, Mary Shelley was encouraged to remember her mother well and therefore, would've known the politics of the 18th Century, incorporating it, it seems, appropriately into the novel.

This shows that the comparison between Frankenstein and the French Revolution couldn't have been entirely accidental, since Mary Shelley's own life was filled so ardently and completely with all of this research and firsthand experience of 18th Century Politics.

Let's have a quick look at how it was received in the time it was published and why so. What difference did this make and what did people make of the main protagonist? In the modern day he may be called "controlling" and "evil" but, in Mary Shelley's time he may have been "tormented" and "egotistical"—ideas like we may not relate to.

In 1851, the Literary Gazette published an obituary of Mary Shelley, calling Frankenstein a "wild and wondrous tale" and notes that it "excited more attention on its appearance" - highlighting the appearances noted within the novel are probably just as exciting as the protagonist who does not actually have one. This not only tells us that the reader was thoroughly impressed by the amount of detail given to the appearance of the monster, but also the way in which this appearance is "wild and wondrous" in the tale. It's not called a recount but rather a tale, suggesting that the narrator was possibly not convincing enough. Therefore, could we assess by this standard that the narrator could've been exaggerating the appearance of the monster?

These theories we've covered and probably hundreds more are all asking the same question: exactly how much control does Victor Frankenstein have over the narrative. The answer according to most is that we must assume that he has quite a bit.

First of all, his grief over the death of Justine causes him to retell the tale of the Monster from Chapters 10-16 to Walton as a sort of recount inside a recount, as one of grief, sorrow and terror. We can't fully trust this account as it is not the Monster telling it to us —but in fact, Victor, in a state of concern, recounting the Monster's tale to Walton who has no real need to change the verse given the fact he didn't spend enough time with the Monster.

What we're going to look at now is how well the narrative is controlled in other texts around the time in which Frankenstein was written, before it was written and then afterwards, when the new eras of Modernism come around to Europe and the Americas. This will be covered in the next section on this novel.

book reviews
How does it work?
Read next: Run Necromancer
Annie Kapur

English and Writing (B.A), Film and Writing (M.A).

Musical Interests: Bob Dylan & the 1890s-1960s 

Favourite Films: I'm Not There & The Conjuring Series

Other interests: Cooking & Baking 

Instagram: @3ftmonster 

See all posts by Annie Kapur