02/12/11 1. It's been four years (almost exactly, apparently) since I read Frankenstein. I think that I Noticed more things about it, this time - well,...more02/12/11 1. It's been four years (almost exactly, apparently) since I read Frankenstein. I think that I Noticed more things about it, this time - well, we sort of hope that is what would happen, since I have four extra years of reading experience and most of an English major under my belt - and so there are a number of striking elements I found in Frankenstein. Some of them made me sad, but then as I don't like the book itself very much, some of them made reading it better: when I have something to think about while reading a book, it can make it better. (And, I've noticed that, particularly for books I dislike, having questions and critical preoccupations can make it a significantly more bearable experience.) So this review is less of a proper review and more of a list of things Frankenstein made me think about.
2. You could probably treat Frankenstein as a morality tale - I want to treat it as a tragedy, but it lacks the important element of self-knowledge that tragedy "requires." Certainly, Victor Frankenstein never learns anything, here is one of the last things he says, to Walton's sailors who have decided that maybe this whole journey isn't such a great idea (emphasis mine):
"What do you mean? What do you demand of your captain? Are you then so easily turned from your design? Did you not call this a glorious expedition? And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror; because at every new incident your fortitude was to be called forth and your courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome. For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honourable undertaking. You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind. And now, behold, with the first imagination of danger, or, if you will, the first mighty and terrific trial of your courage, you shrink away, and are content to be handed down as men who had not strength enough to endure cold and peril; and so, poor souls, they were chilly and returned to their warm firesides. Why that requires not this preparation; ye need not have come thus far, and dragged your captain to the shame of a defeat, merely to prove yourselves cowards. Oh! be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes and firm as a rock. This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts may be; it is mutable and cannot withstand you if you say that it shall not. Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return as heroes who have fought and conquered, and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe."
I mean, really. Someone has failed to learn anything from his hubris! This is a man who failed in his attempts to win glory, and also failed to learn anything about himself, the world, or ambition from that failure. His failure is so enormous that it almost stretches credulity, since he also spends so much time excoriating himself for his part in the death of everyone he loves. (Possible paper topic: "The Tenth Doctor as Victor Frankenstein," haha just kidding. Not really.) Basically, Victor Frankenstein is a loser and an asshole.
3. So, of course, everyone in this book is a Romantic. (Even though, apparently, Frankenstein is supposed to be Swiss?) Walton, who develops an intensely romantic friendship with Frankenstein - it is even one-sided! there must be some queer theorists who've got hold of this somewhere - admits his romanticism quite openly:
But 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 have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother! [. . .] It is true that I have thought more, and that my day dreams are more extended and magnificent; but they want (as the painters call it) keeping; and I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavour to regulate my mind.
Frankenstein himself gets at least one romantic friendship (Clerval), and maybe two (the Monster?). After running away, the Monster learns to read from Plutarch, The Sorrows of Young Werther (!!!), and Paradise Lost (!!!) - of course, he identifies with Milton's Satan, prototype of the Byronic hero. (Except Byron had a sense of humor, something this book needs.) Frankenstein later compares himself to Lucifer, there is a great deal of swooning over landscapes . . . and swooning in general. Basically, everyone reacts to stress by collapsing into oblivion and getting ill. There are selections from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner AND from "Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey." If you had to sum up Frankenstein visually, it would be this Caspar David Friederich painting. That's not up for debate; even Mary Shelley would agree with me. I find the wholehearted Romanticism kind of adorable and cute, and probably Mary Shelley wouldn't agree with me there . . . she'd want to slap me, probably. Anyway - it's kind of a "How To Be a Romantic" guide, although you could probably debate how Shelley feels about the "people are basically good" tenet of Romanticism. Or maybe I only think that because I'm not a Romantic, and so things that look complicated to me would be simple to her.
4. Frankenstein is also interesting for its off-hand Orientalism. There's an East/West dichotomy running through the book. Clerval, Frankenstein's bourgeois BFF (and the closest thing to a foil the book offers), studies Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit, and plans to go to India to help the Brits out with their colonial schemes. (The Monster kills Clerval before he gets there. He kills him in Ireland. Come on, Mary Shelley!) Frankenstein joins in the study, finding solace from his failed/successful scientific adventures in Eastern poetry:
I . . . found not only instruction but consolation in the works of the Orientalists. . . . I read merely to understand their meaning, and they well repaid my labours. Their melancholy is soothing, and their joy elevating, to a degree I never experienced studying the authors of any country. When you read their writings, life appears to consist in a warm sun and a garden of roses, in the smiles and frowns of a fair enemy, and the fire that consumes your own heart. How different from the manly and heroical poetry of Greece and Rome!
Okay, then! I know (from a very thorough Google search for "Frankenstein + Orientalism") that some people argue Safie, the Turkish woman (who is, nevertheless, referred to throughout as "The Arabian," oh dear) who marries into the French family the Monster stalks, is supposedly the most liberated character in the novel. I'm not sure what gave the critic that impression, but I actually think Frankenstein is kind of a useless book for looking at women, and Safie hardly strikes me as particularly liberated. She belongs to the long tradition of (secretly Christian) Eastern women deserting their tyrannical (and straightforwardly Muslim) fathers for the love of (straightforwardly Christian) European men. The Merchant of Venice? Orlando Furioso? Jerusalem Delivered? Don Quixote? Yes, yes, yes, yes. Frankenstein buys into Orientalism without questioning it that much - it certainly never questions the necessity or veracity of the dichotomy.
5. The other thing that bothered me throughout was that 19th century habit of using beauty as a signification of, like, being too good for x, where x usually equals poverty. So basically, ugly people can be poor, but pretty people deserve better. This always makes me want to bang my head against a wall, and it shows up in literature a lot.
6. I should mention, though, that actually I really admire Frankenstein, despite the slight characterizations and the fact that I don't enjoy any of it. It's such an achievement, and it's had such amazing cultural resonance throughout history - it's hard not to admire it, I think. Also, it raises interesting questions, which is sometimes more important than enjoying a book, I think.
I remember being really into A Song for Arbonne the first time, but not so into it that I remembered anything that happened. But then I reread it and,...moreI remember being really into A Song for Arbonne the first time, but not so into it that I remembered anything that happened. But then I reread it and, while not actively disliking it, definitely found it a bit bland. I think I might have soured on GGK.(less)