A misunderstood monster
We all know the Frankenstein story: Mad scientist, through a special alchemy of repurposed flesh and raw electricity, invests a humanoid creature with life. The creature then proceeds to turn on his creator, and in this act of rebellion we’re meant to understand the ill-fated consequences of intellectual hubris, the dangers of playing God, the limits of science, and the folly of supposing that man can ever master nature. At least that’s the dominant reading.
And then, of course, there’s the look: Thanks to Boris Karloff’s inspired debut as the monster in the 1931 movie version of “Frankenstein” — and thanks to the relentless reproduction of this image in popular culture and on Halloween costume racks — Dr. Frankenstein’s monster has come down to us as the lumbering, greenish, bucket-headed creature of genre horror. This version of the creature is in many ways a pitiable figure, childlike in its helplessness, almost sweet, but ultimately a moron.
However, this is entirely at odds with the novel that first gave life to the creature. In Mary Shelley’s original, the creature is physically disfigured, yes, but he’s emotionally sensitive, too, and psychologically complex. And he’s smart. He’s read Plutarch, Milton. In fact, Shelley takes as the novel’s epigraph a line from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” It is the question that floods the entire novel: Why am I here? What purpose can I make of this life?
Shelley’s creature, the original monster, is able to comprehend ideas of love and family; he shows a capacity for moral reflection (not that it prevents him from committing murder, of course); but more than all else he longs for a companion, a mate, an ally so that he won’t be doomed to wander through his remaining days alone.
But Dr. Frankenstein, horrified by the grotesquery that he’s already unleashed on the world — and fearful that the two beings might mix their genitals and, in so doing, create a whole new race of monsters — denies the creature his companion, for which the creature never forgives him. The two remained locked in a desperate standoff for the rest of the novel.
And by the final chapter, the pair, each one plunged into his own private misery, have pursued one another to the literal ends of the earth — they end up at the North Pole — until, finally, Victor Frankenstein dies, and the monster, suddenly realizing that the only connection he’s ever known was with his creator, vows to kill himself. And with this the solitary figure boards a passing ice floe and drifts out of view, into the silent abyss of the Arctic. The End.
Despite its renown as the world’s first work of science fiction, “Frankenstein” is perhaps less important for what it has given to literature and more valuable for what it has lent the culture in metaphorical richness, and in its seemingly inexhaustible ability to provide every new generation a keyhole through which they can interpret their current moment.
ON TUESDAY, Dr. Susan Carlson, an English professor at Pittsburg State University, delivered a talk (“Exploring Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’”) at the Iola Public Library as part of the Iola Reads celebration. “There are some novels that are like going into the ocean,” said Carlson. “And every time you go in it there is more stuff to see. And it’s interesting to me because these horror stories — Dracula is another one — keep coming back and coming back and coming back. And every time they come back they reflect the fear of contemporary culture in some different way. Do you know what I mean?”
The remark came toward the end of Carlson’s talk, and it’s worth pointing out that if in fact the small audience that night did know what she meant, it was because they’d found in Carlson a great guide. The daughter of a New Jersey public school teacher, Carlson combines a thick Jersey accent and big-city patter with wit, deep learning, and an entrancing teaching style. Think “Dead Poets Society” meets “My Cousin Vinny.”
Carlson reminds you of your favorite teacher, and reminds you, too, that all good teachers have something of the Victor Frankenstein about them. Their talent — at least one of them, at least in this instance — is for taking a lifeless brick of bound paper scattered with little black marks and centuries-old ideas and, by breathing into it the fire of their own enthusiasm, making it live.
The Victorian practice of post-mortem photography was a feature of an era with high child mortality rates. The little girl on the far left is dead. BBC NEWS
BRING OUT YOUR DEAD
“OK, so here’s Victor Frankenstein. He wants to create a monster, sure, but what he really wants to do is stop death. What he wants to do is take something that’s dead and bring it back to life,” said Carlson. “Right?”
And the novel’s obsession with mortality makes sense. Mary Shelley was just 18 years old when she started “Frankenstein,” but already the stink of death was in her nostrils. Her mother, the proto-feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, had died while giving birth to Mary. And Mary’s own first child died just a year before she began writing the novel (she would go on to lose two more children before reaching her mid-20s). “I don’t think we can understand how obsessed people at that time were with wanting to stop death,” continued Carlson. “The loss of control was overwhelming, you know?”
Medical science during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was inexact at best. Anything at all during that era could kill you, said Carlson. Get an infection: you’re dead. Complicated childbirth: dead. Kidney stones: dead. Dropsy, malnutrition, spider bite: dead, dead, dead.
“Here, though, I want to cheer you up now,” said Carlson, directing the audience’s attention to a fresh slide in her PowerPoint presentation. “So here’s a famous picture of all your children.” The group photograph shows five small, Victorian-era children posed for the camera. Carlson pointed to the youngest sister on the end, a sleepy-looking little girl of three or four in a high-collared dress, with Goldilocks curls. “This kid is dead,” said Carlson. “They propped her up on a board and took the picture. She’s dead. Because, you know, you wanted a picture of your dead kid. And when your child died, you’d take a piece of their hair. Maybe make a bracelet. And Mary Shelley had a piece of her four-year-old’s hair who died. Her whole life she had it. … Oh, but I gotta tell you the worst one. When Mary Shelley died of brain cancer, at age 53, her son found something in her desk drawer. It was the heart of Percy Shelley” — Mary’s husband, the famous Romantic poet and political radical, who died in a sailing accident off the Italian coast. “They had burned his body on the beach, in a funeral pyre. He was 29. And she kept his heart in a desk drawer for 20 to 30 years, you know. Right next to the pencils. Isn’t that gross? Still freaks me out a bit.”
YOUR OWN PRIVATE FRANKENSTEIN
Carlson guided the group through a few of the various schools of interpretation, which have located their own individual meanings in “Frankenstein” ever since the novel’s first publication in the winter of 1818.
There’s the Marxist reading, in which Frankenstein’s ostracized monster represents the working class — their dignity disfigured by the unfeeling bourgeoisie, their bodies made ugly by the conditions of their labor, a group fated by generational poverty to remain forever outside polite society.
Or the feminist reading, in which women are consistently excluded from the halls of power and prohibited from obtaining an education. “In fact,” said Carlson, “they told you then that if you thought too hard your ovaries would dry up. All the blood would go to your brain and your ovaries would dry up.”
And then there is the theory advanced by the literary scholar Anne Mellor, which says that Shelley is mocking the steroidal male egos of her fellow Romantics. We’re talking Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, poet-philosophers who viewed themselves as solitary geniuses, men of superior feeling and sensibility, whose words — forged in the furnaces of their souls, singed by the fires of heaven — could change the entire course of Western thought. Real big-shots, said Carlson. “When Lord Byron would walk into a room, women would just crumble like a Ritz cracker in water. Oh, Byron! He had those pheromones or whatever. You know that thing where someone has sexual energy? I don’t know. I’ve seen one guy in my whole life who had it. You know what I’m talking about? He wasn’t even that good-looking. It didn’t matter. He had that thing. … According to Anne Mellor, Mary Shelley is mocking it in Victor Frankenstein; she’s saying, hey, this guy isn’t a great artist, he hasn’t made a great thing. Plus, in the novel, Victor Frankenstein is not in control of himself. He’s hysterical all the time. He passes out every five minutes. He’s not great; he’s a pain in the butt. He’s childish, narcissistic. He won’t take responsibility for what he’s done. The more you read, the more you like the creature, and the more you dislike this guy.”
YOU CAN’T GO BACK
But the most enduring analogy to grow out of the Frankenstein myth centers on the nasty consequences that may befall us if we dare to “play God,” if our ambition or curiosity leads us to release into the world a creature or a technology that has the potential to displace or ruin its human creator.
For example, what are the ethical implications of genetic engineering? Similarly, are we capable of slowing the momentum of artificial intelligence? And what about your smartphone — are you sure you’re still its master?
Then again, what of the entire enterprise of scientific progress, a domain of research that has given us anesthesia and penicillin and space flight, but which has also produced the atomic bomb, a poisonous gift that could obliterate all of mankind in a matter of hours.
“Think about [J. Robert] Oppenheimer,” said Carlson, fingering the famous father of the atom bomb, who later expressed remorse for his role in helping to create this instrument of annihilation. “Remember that? Oppenheimer says, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ Because now what do you do? Do you call Truman and say, ‘Sorry, you can’t use it. I changed my mind.’ See, once it’s out, what do you do? And if you went around today getting rid of all the smart computers, wouldn’t there be somebody in some garage in Hong Kong making another one? How do you shut it down? Do you see what I mean? It’s not an easy answer, and that’s why this book is so interesting. Shelley doesn’t give you the easy answer. It’s not a Hallmark card.”
THE CRISIS OF SELF-KNOWLEDGE
But Dr. Frankenstein, in creating his murderous monster, is not merely responsible for unleashing harm on the human world, his reckless endeavor succeeded in inflicting wounds of confusion and sadness on the creature, too.
“And so one day the creature finds his creator’s notebooks,” recounted Carlson, “and he knows how he was made, how it all came about. And this is so sad to think of someone so brilliant, right? So aware, so conscious. It’s really sad, remember, when he looks in the creek and sees his reflection and says, ‘Is this what I am?’ He’s walking death. He’s roadkill, you understand, made up of decaying parts.”
And there is nothing that can change that, Carlson continued. No amount of learning or civilization will change the revulsion with which the world views him. His will never be a normal life. “He is a knowing soul trapped in a body he can’t escape from. Nothing he can do. Nothing anyone can do. Again, once you go there, you can’t go back.”
“I want to tell you a little about Mary Shelley’s life,” said Carlson. “You know, when you read Frankenstein, you feel the sadness, don’t you? … Mary Shelley wrote this novel when she was pregnant with her second child. She’s only 18. Her first child died in infancy. As soon as that baby was born, the doctor told her, ‘It’s not going to live.’ Because if you were premature back then, you’re going to be dead. They didn’t have anything to help with lung development. And she watched that baby day and night for 11 days, watching it die. Isn’t that awful? Isn’t that a terrible story?”
A woman in the audience interrupted, and said quietly, under her breath, “It makes sense.”
“What did you say?” asked Carlson, turning toward the woman.
“I said it makes sense — you know, that Mary Shelley would want to create a character that could bring a thing back to life.”
Carlson smiled and walked toward the woman. “Yeah,” she said. “I know what you mean. You’re exactly right. In fact, Shelley said at the time, ‘I kept dreaming of that baby over and over and over again.’ You see, she never got over it. Her whole life. Do you understand?”