Sunday, June 6, 2021

Review: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein has been re-imagined and referenced so extensively in pop culture that I thought I knew all about it. Castle, bolts of lightning, a mad scientist yelling "it's alive!", protesting peasants armed with pitchforks and torches. Probably out of boredom with the tropes, I put off reading this book that otherwise thematically aligns very well with my interests - bioengineering, ethics, Regency Era literature by female authors

I was pleasantly surprised to instead find a very introspective and emotional story about two men, linked by a unique relationship. Rather than a climactic event marked by lightning occurring at some late part of the book, Frankenstein's wretch comes to being at the start of Chapter 5 during mundane meteorological conditions:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

Frankenstein waxes poetic to himself for a paragraph or two about the sacrifices he made during his two years of study and his feeling of disgust and emptiness having finally achieved his goal (not unrelatable to a graduate student), then immediately goes to bed with nary a thought for the well-being of his creation. After one brief innocuous encounter during the night, Frankenstein tries his hardest to pretend he never created a man at all, and falls into a months-long illness so deep he can't even write a letter to his family in response to their imploring.

(Frankenstein suffers lengthy illnesses on two occasions, and I wondered at the author's reasoning. Was the dramatic and interminable depression supposed to signal how emotionally wrangled Frankenstein felt? Were such languid wallows in despair so commonplace among the aristocracy that the contemporary reader would not have remarked upon them at all as unusual? Was it merely a convenient device for explaining why Frankenstein did nothing at all for a long stretch of time while she needed the Wretch elsewhere?)

Frankenstein eventually recovers enough to read a very long letter from his adopted-sister-raised-to-be-his-wife, Elizabeth, which serves mostly to extol the kind nature and excellent nursing credentials of one Justine. Justine, nanny to Frankenstein's brother, is so perfect and virtuous that reader knows she will soon die. Surprisingly, it is the brother that shuffles off this mortal coil first.

In the long-awaited dramatic flash of lightning, Frankenstein encounters the Wretch on his way home and deduces it was he who murdered his brother. Regardless, Frankenstein continues his behavior of outwardly pretending he never created the Wretch—keeping quiet even as Justine is accused of and eventually executed for his brother's murder. Inwardly, of course, Frankenstein monologues extensively about the guilt, and how no one could possibly believe him and he had no way to save Justine.

A thousand times rather would I have confessed myself guilty of the crime ascribed to Justine, but I was absent when it was committed, and such a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman and would not have exculpated her who suffered through me.

Frankenstein seems to think that deeply experiencing these feelings of guilt absolves him to some extent of the crime. I thought of Silicon Valley wringing their hands about about privacy, misinformation, addiction while continuing to change absolutely none of that. There is a lengthy scene where sister-slash-fiancée Elizabeth comforts Justine on the eve before her death, exhibiting her purity and virtuousness so extensively that the reader is sure that she too will soon die. 

To help process his feelings, Frankenstein goes on a solitary hike in the Alps, the lush descriptions of the beauty of nature serving as a foil against the horror of his creation. He encounters the Wretch, and reacts with an unreciprocated hate and fear:

“Devil,” I exclaimed, “do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!”

“I expected this reception,” said the dæmon. “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. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.”

The Wretch tells his tale of how he spent the intervening months. He is introspective, and sensitive. Teaching himself first how to survive in the forest alone, scared of the reactions of villagers to his ungainly form, he next forms a sort of parasocial relationship with a family of cottagers. By watching them from afar, he learns of companionship and society, and recognizes that the sadness in himself is loneliness. His attempt to form a real relationship with them fails, and he is driven out. He by chance encounters a drowning woman and saves her life, only to be shot by her partner. Despairing of ever finding a home in society, the Wretch resolves to ask his creator for a mate—in a monologue that is uncomfortably reminiscent of incels.

I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create. (...)

I am content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? (...) I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. (...)

What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself; the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me. It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless and free from the misery I now feel. Oh! My creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite the sympathy of some existing thing; do not deny me my request!

Frankenstein begins to make a female companion for the Wretch, but worries about the possible consequences of enabling procreation of a new race of Wretches.

[Y]et one of the first results of those sympathies for which the dæmon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?

He decides to destroy all progress he has made on the female companion, and making good on his threat, the Wretch responds by murdering Frankenstein's best friend (also noted to have excellent nursing credentials), and Frankenstein's sister-slash-wife—on their honeymoon, no less.

Frankenstein realizes the only way to end the horror is to kill his creation, and he chases the Wretch across the Arctic. The two form a sort of odd adversarial intimacy in their chase, the Wretch leaving messages and food behind for his creator to consider and consume. At the brink of death from exhaustion, Frankenstein is picked up by the self-absorbed, self-important Captain Walton, whose letters to his sister form an epistolary framing device for the novel. Frankenstein dies onboard the ship, but not before first chiding the sailors in wanting to give up and go home rather than pursue their scientific dreams, and not before making it quite clear that he felt he had done no wrong in any way since the creation of the Wretch:

In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature and was bound towards him to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty, but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature. He showed unparalleled malignity and selfishness in evil; he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom; nor do I know where this thirst for vengeance may end.

The Wretch sneaks on board the ship to gaze upon Frankenstein's corpse, then with this closure achieved, disappears into the night.

“I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.” 

He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

What I loved most about the book was its comfort in straying from realism. No explanation of the science behind Frankenstein's creation was offered. The Wretch's experience learning about humanity and society was completely implausible from a practical standpoint. And this rejection of the need to explain minutiae allowed for much more interesting introspection and exploration of themes.

However—I feel the themes were a little murky, or perhaps they just didn't ring true for me. Frankenstein is an ambitious, confident, solitary genius who views himself as the sole person who can make ethical decisions about his product despite its societal ramifications, and who views others as being incapable of understanding his advances. This archetype feels familiar in 21st century Silicon Valley. But Shelley presents Frankenstein's fatal flaw as having played with creating life in a quest for knowledge, as opposed to refusing to seek help or advice from others. This is evident in Frankenstein's insistence on his deathbed that he "did right" in his decisions. It is a darker view of scientific progress than one I espouse; I think all areas of Science can be developed, provided we carefully assess and publicly debate the social ramifications. 

Which brings us to Frankenstein's second hamartia: his inability to recognize his Wretch as a human with emotional and social needs. Relative to the Promethean theme, this one hasn't seeped as much into the popular conception of Frankenstein. This theme, too, feels very relevant today; current debates on social ramifications of technology include the dehumanization of Amazon fulfillment center workers, the insistence that gig economy companies will finally become profitable as soon as we can automate away those pesky human gig workers, and the omission of human impacts (or indeed, playful delight in adverse impacts) when optimizing social media Key Performance Indicators. However, I felt that the way this theme was explored itself ironically neglected the humanity of the Wretch. The Wretch was abused and traumatized and socially isolated, and so he had no hope but to become a murderer and then kill himself? A depressing attitude towards survivors of difficult childhoods.

I could envision a satisfying script doctoring in which Frankenstein confides in Elizabeth, and although Frankenstein dies, refusing to ever acknowledge the Wretch's humanity and potential for redemption, Elizabeth reaches out to the Wretch and together with Frankenstein Sr. supports him in his introduction to society. This ending would also provide a very welcome opportunity for a female character to do anything other than display purity and virtuousness and then die.

I enjoyed the dramatic, elaborate prose. Although at times I felt that the author believed the word count used must be proportional to the emotional turmoil described, overall I had a lot of fun with the unironic melodrama. I would love to see a Frankenstein-themed black metal album.

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