Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mary Shelley’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Fulfilled the urge to read Frankenstein again. Pretty sure I read it in 8th grade, possibly at the suggestion of a friend. And it was not especially compelling, if by compelling I mean creepy with monsters, which I do. It wasn’t deadly, like, say, Last of the Mohicans, which I believe i tried to read about the same time (I have never successfully finished a book by Cooper). I am glad I came back to it.

Having read it twice now puts me two up on whoever wrote the screenplay for the original movie (I assume the Karloff movie was the original, but  have not performed appropriate Wikipedia research). Little in that movie pertains to the book. The book is not long but squeezing even that into 90 minutes of movie magic requires considerable cutting. Also, it requires the intention to follow the book.

Structurally, the book shows that freedom of form that early novels enjoyed. Three viewpoints are employed, that of Captain Walton (the Arctic explorer), Frankenstein, and the creature. These narratives do not overlap much but allow us different views of the characters.

Letters from Captain Walton to his sister comprise the first part of the narrative. He recounts his own history, which may not seem germane but that he too is obsessive like Frankenstein. His wants to cross the Pole to Asia. One can place that confrontation with boundaries against Frankenstein’s quest to create life.

Walton’s ship is stuck in ice when Frankenstein’s creature is observed distantly and Frankenstein himself is brought aboard. Branagh read this part of the book, tho he did not give any focus to Walton as a character.

Frankenstein proceeds to spin his tale, which is the second part of the novel. Branagh rearranged the facts whimsically, forcing Branagh to appear to be his mother’s age, and his brother about 35 years younger. Je ne comprends pas.

Frankenstein is a Byronic sort of hero, grandly obsessive yet fainting and undelivered. He’s a weird compote of energy and lassitude. One might see Percy Bysshe in the character, or possibly William Godwin. I do not offer that out of kneejerk expectation but that the familiarity with such motivations that Mary shows suggests a close portrait.

Given that the reanimation scene is central to the movies, Shelley spends little time describing the creation of the creature. And Frankenstein’s rejection of the creature seems like a snap decision. When he gets to the key point of his obsession, he loses interest more than anything. Psychologically, that is more interesting than the urge to revive the dead mother that Branagh builds his story on.

The creature’s narrative follows, as told to Frankenstein. The novel is only about 200 pages (I read the 2nd edition), short compared to the novels of the day, but Shelley manages to load it with what seems like a lot of extraneous matter. I do not really mean extraneous, the material all fits the story, but she delivers a lot of secondary material. The blind man’s family carries its own narrative that neither movie even alluded to. The creature is fascinated by the sense of family that he witnesses, envies that connection. He tells their tale in detail, which makes the sudden end of the creature’s connection with them the more poignant.

The 3rd part of the novel is the weakest. We return to Frankenstein’s narrative: guilt and lassitude. He promised to create a female companion for the creature, so we get a detailed description of his walking tour of the British Isles with his friend Henry Clerval. I assume that this is an overflow of Mary’s own excitement in her travels. Psychologically, one can take this extensive travelogue as a dodge by Frankenstein. He feels guilt for the vengeful murders that the creature committed yet he is not keen on taking direct action, and certainly not keen on creating another creature.

Shelley goes into next to no detail concerning how Frankenstein does his work. He creates another creature then destroys it, in about a paragraph. This puts the creature, or daemon, on a final tour of revenge. And then the two go globehopping as Frankenstein chases the creature, who leads him on. Thus they end up in the Arctic, where the ever-fainting Frankenstein succumbs to the final faint. The creature takes to a raft and drifts from sight. That’s a strong image.

The travels in the 3rd section seem so close to the author that one can infer that her excitement in her travels had to be expressed. Narratively, the racing around makes little sense. Clerval is charmed in his travels, exults in what he sees, while Frankenstein is all frowny face. I think Shelley was describing someone close at hand.

Review what the story of the Modern Prometheus is about. The life that he creates is not a person so much as a class. The creature is miserable and disconnected. Much of the second section of the book concerns him learning social ways, including language. He attempts to help the downtrodden family but is banished from them when they see him. Read the creature as a political mechanism, from which the family gains, but when they see what that mechanism is, they recoil. And recollect that the three books that the creature cites as having read are: The Sorrows of Young Werther, a socio-political piece by Volney, and Pair of Dice, Lost.

Really, the moral center of the book is much more about social ills than about the scifi theme of creating life. There’s no graverobbing, let alone hunchbacks, but there is a lot of out of balance reaction to the creature. Frankenstein turns away from the creature almost immediately. Everyone does.

The story, as we are told, came from a dream, and it was put forth at least in some sense competitively against whatever Percy, Byron, and poor Dr Polidori produced in their ghost story production (I think Bride of Frankenstein begins with our literary lions deciding to thus entertain themselves). The story bears a commitment, not wholly comprised by the author, to a singular vision. Clearly she was a proficient writer but in this novel she managed to open into dark, unexpected areas. In that investigation and delivery, and despite whatever awkwardness, she produced a marvel.

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