Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Frankenstein



By Mary Shelley


THE PROS

The story itself is fantastic. Obviously, we all know the basics. Brilliant but mad Dr. Frankenstein makes a monster out of spare parts, it goes on a murderous rampage, the doctor gets on to the drugs, cue moral lesson #17 “Be careful what you wish for...” , some parallels with Actaeon getting eaten by his own hounds and about a hundred other metaphors, life lessons and subtexts ranging from Christian sexual dysfunction to, “Oh no, I ruined my soufflé... I’m Frankenstein!”.

But my knowledge of the tale was based on the B-grade cartoons and movies of my childhood, and The Munsters, and I was pleasantly surprised that at every corner I really didn’t know what was going to happen next.

I always thought Dr. Frankenstein was an old man. Oh no, in the original, he’s a gifted young University student when he brings the monster to life. I also thought he had a dumb hunchbacked assistant. Nope. And I also thought he ran through cemeteries gathering spare parts. Wrong again. In fact, Frankenstein is very vague as to how he gathered the parts, saying only that he, “...collected bones from charnel-houses...” and, “...the dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials,”. As for the process of bringing a monster into the world, he simply announces that one day he realised that he “...possessed the capacity of bestowing animation,” and, “...having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.” That's about the sum total of information we get regarding his creation. As for the particular science of the creation, we get nothing. Nothing at all. Still, good on Mary Shelley for not boring us with complex scientific wish-wash, and in a way, the lack of science and procedure helps the story chug along (something Hollywood needs to re-learn... yeah, I’m looking at you George Lucas).

The night Frankenstein finally animates his monster, his first reaction is: “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?... Breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”

Cue memory of creations gone wrong in our own lives: In my case it was my Year 7 Woodwork assignment. I spent months creating a swan. I chiselled its wings, smoothed its face, put a little of myself into every sandpaper scrub and when I handed it in the teacher said, “What is it? A turtle? I’ll give you a C.” The next project was a tray. I failed, and started to become more bookish.

Anyway, after the monster comes to life, what does Dr. Frankenstein do? Instead of immediately putting the monster down, he runs into his bedroom and goes to sleep, leaving the monster to fend for itself. The most awesome moment of the book then takes place. The monster works its way into his bedroom.

“He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped...”

Even reading it now, and knowing what we do of the poor monster’s fate, it’s a powerful scene. What’s both tragic, and in its way quite hilarious, is that Frankenstein not only escapes, but he actually kind of just gets on with his life for a few years, only occasionally wondering what ever happened to that monster thing he created.

We discover later that the monster at that point didn’t even know what he was, or what anything was, including ‘life’, which reminds me of the great monologue by the whale, suddenly ‘invented’ and dropped from the sky in Hitchhiker’s... (I fear this reminder also exposes me as part-nerd).

“Ahhh! Woooh! What's happening? Who am I? Why am I here? What's my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I? Okay okay, calm down calm down get a grip now. Ooh, this is an interesting sensation. What is it? Its a sort of tingling in my... well I suppose I better start finding names for things. Lets call it a... tail! Yeah! Tail! And hey, what's this roaring sound, whooshing past what I'm suddenly gonna call my head? Wind! Is that a good name? It'll do. Yeah, this is really exciting. I'm dizzy with anticipation! Or is it the wind? There's an awful lot of that now isn't it? And what's this thing coming toward me very fast? So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like 'Ow', 'Ownge', 'Round', 'Ground'! That's it! Ground! Ha! I wonder if it'll be friends with me? Hello Ground!”

Heh.

But back to the horrror.

The fact the monster was smiling at his creator makes the scene all the more tormenting to me.

So anyway, a few years later, Frankenstein’s little brother gets murdered and by chance he discovers the monster was the murderer.

A confrontation occurs between Frankenstein and his monster; the monster demands a wife, otherwise there’ll be more killing. Frankenstein acquiesces, but changes his mind just before completing the bride, so he chucks the bride-parts into the ocean.

Of course the monster gets mighty pissed off and goes on his murderous rampage. The story then takes us as far as the North Pole where there’s plenty more excitement to be had.

There’s a great scene on Frankenstein’s wedding night, where instead of screwing his wife (who he’s been waiting to marry since childhood) he instead patrols the corridors of the inn, high on drugs, carrying a gun and ready to shoot the monster. I couldn’t help but detect a fear of sex in the whole scene and in fact, once I got to that bit, I realised that on just about every page of this book there’s plenty of subtext to rummage through, as well as some impeccably created mythology that we can use to both reflect and admire.

The fact that much of the imagery from this original tale still permeates our culture is testament to its many layers.

Also, published in 1818, I wonder if it's the first book to ever provide us with the oft-employed horror cliché of a lightning bolt illuminating a spine-chilling visage for an instant?

“I perceived in the gloom a figure which stole from behind a clump of trees near me; I stood fixed, gazing intently: I could not be mistaken. A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon...”

In fact, there’s a lot of horror clichés that could probably be traced back to this book and of course Stoker’s excellent ‘Dracula’, but I suppose back then when they were released they weren’t clichés at all. One imagines this book would have once been considered truly horrifying.

THE CONS

Oh, it’s all so POMPOUS. Unlike Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ , it’s ability to scare is diminished by the pompous upper-class twittery of the language Shelley writes in.

For starters, we can’t discern between characters and narrators because they all talk in exactly the same Lord Snot way as each other.

The whole Frankenstein family speak in identical Pompous Twat... and for fuck’s sake, SO DOES THE MONSTER. After going missing for a few years after his 'birth', the first time we hear words come from his mouth he sounds like he has a silver spoon rammed deep up his arse:

“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.”

Now, an eloquent monster is fair enough, but it’s a great leap of faith I’m forced to make that in only two years he has gone from ‘Ugga ugga ugga’, to learning the alphabet by eavesdropping on a family ,and then, for his first book, reading Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ (no joke, that’s how the monster got to be so well spoken in the course of a couple of years). But when Frankenstein responds with:

Abhorred monster! Fiend that thou art! The tortures of Hell are too mild a vengeance for thy crimes!”.. I began to realise that Shelley only had one style of writing, and it was coming out of the mouths of not just these two characters, but every other character as well, and the narrator(s). There doesn’t appear to be one linguistic differential between any of ‘em.

Add to that, Frankenstein is a fucking girl and it’s like Shelley grabbed a discarded Jane Austen character from the Austen family’s garbage bin, put a dick on it, called it a mad scientist and made it her central character.

Another thing that bugged me was its lack of sexual tension. The Magic Faraway Tree has more eroticism than this book, and so does Toadie from Neighbours and that tea-towel on my kitchen bench. Like, there’s none. You’d think, given that Shelley used to hang out with the likes of her libertine husband Percy and his best mate, the sister/bear-fucking Goth pinup boy Lord Byron, she’d give us a heaving bosom or a nod to someone’s virility or even a well-turned ankle, or a sweaty bicep, but no, it’s all just so chaste. In a sense, I ended up coming to the conclusion that the whole book was one giant reflection of Mary's own sexual dysfunction and/or disinterest, and I offer this un-researched and ill-informed scurrilous piece of gossip: Mary Shelley was a dud root.

Perhaps her only sexual reference was attributing these words to one of the narrators (a sea-captain who finds Dr. Frankenstein floating on a slab of ice) in a letter to his sister... “I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil... I desire the company of a man...”

So Shelley has a bit of gay fantasy, but, you know, that line was on Page 4, and that was the end of that!

I can’t help but compare it to Dracula, which was both scary and sexy. Frankenstein is neither. It’s a little creepy at times, and even sad, but never really chilling and certainly not steamy.

Aside from the monster’s demand (not desire, it was only a demand) for a wife, there is zero reference to anything even vaguely approaching sex and in that, the book lacks a certain spunk. Even death is treated in a most inartistic and mundane fashion. So analysis of our two favourite themes in art, in life, in being a human – sex and death – are absent from this book (which is the complete opposite of the Holy Bible, which, is slowly dawning on me as the greatest documentation of our human lusts and our fear of/ obsession with death... and yet the pious amongst us would claim that the very opposite is true of these two publications).

Once this lack of primal themes started to sink in with me, Shelley’s Frankenstein started to bug me. Bataille would have not got past page 3.

**

I’ll leave the conclusion to the monster himself, in perhaps his finest soliloquy. This one actually affected me strongly because it reminded me of people I have met in my life - the ones that tend to fuck things up for everyone else.

“I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. .. You hate me; but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself...”

**

I give it a C Minus.


Mary Shelley - a dud root

9 comments:

Tiger in a Tube said...

So much to love, so much to hate in this book for you eh? Really enjoyed this review.

Did you like the monster? Did you like that he was at first a tabula rasa. He was capable of acts of kindess, and also murder. There was an ambiguity in play.

When I read it, I was wrapt that it wasn't like the cartoons. Perhaps this discovery of the story again pre-disposed me to really rather liking it alot. And I just missed completely the lack of sex. The tension for me was that he was growing and changing from being an easily pigeon-holed monster (which you kill) to something that was approaching humanity in its articulateness and acts of kindness. What *was* he going to do next? was he human-like yet and if so, what kind where we going get?

For a book that clearly engaged you, I am surprised at the C-.

Perseus said...

Yeah, I loved the monster, but hated Frankenstein. And not in a 'love to hate' way... just hated him. He was a sook. He made Hamlet seem butch.

The story certainly engaged, but the pages and pages of 'letters' and the constant outpouring of his grief at letting down his 'dear Elizabeth' and all his sooking and moaning got in the way. The delivery of the story was what irked.

I wish Dostoyevsky wrote it.

I did some research today, and apparently the Hallmark mini-series version is very true to the book. I'm going to buy it on Amazon - it's been released as a four hour 'film'.

squib said...

I wish you wouldn't be mean to poor Mary. She had a terrible life

I just want to say I got an A for woodwork

But getting back to Frankenstein. The incredibly weird thing for me is I'm not sure if I've read it. I know a textbook at uni was called the gothic sublime or something and I can remember lots of things about both the book and the author but I can't actually say whether I've read it or not. Did I write a 3000 word essay on it? I DON'T KNOW!!

It's not on any of my shelves and yet I feel like I had it and... maybe someone stole it

Perseus said...

Or maybe you watched The Munsters, like me. Or that stupid Ken Russell film, 'Gothic', where our Mary was a character.

What would be cool is if you did write an essay and didn't read the book but still got an 'A'.

squib said...

:) I'm sure we've all done that before

Andy Pants said...

Apparently (this is completely true) they used to do it on Mary's mothers grave. The ultimate goth couple. Seriously, no-one else even comes close.

Perseus said...

If that's a '10' on the Goth scale, I get '5.5' points for having boozy oral sex with a 17 y.o Danish high school student (I was 23 at the time) on Kierkegaard's grave.

Melba said...

have never been interested in this book really. i think i opened it once to "just have a look" and was probably put off by that pompous language you talk of.

not into monsters, unless of the stepen king kind, in the '80s.

thanks for the review.

estelle said...

some people think mary didn't even write this book, and that percy was the actual author. they think that because all her juvenilia was really, really crap. so that would make mary a dud root, a liar, and a non-literary genius. bummer.