Reading Frankenstein: Chapter 5

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2, Chapters 3 & 4


In kindly plugging this series of posts on Twitter, Matt Thomas noted of Frankenstein that it was “still the scariest story ever, because it’s us.” That’s well put. It becomes more apparent as the story progresses, but Shelley persistently invites us to contemplate the monstrosity that is endemic to human nature. I’m not sure that this aspect of the story survives in most of the modern re-tellings of the story, re-tellings that continue to get churned-out at an impressive clip.

Daniel Radcliffe, who will be starring as Igor in a film version due out next October, recently suggested, to the producer’s dismay apparently, that the film should be marketed with the the following tag line, “If you loved the book, you’ll hate the movie.” This was his way of getting at the fact that this was an edgier, more modern rendering of the storyline. The Radcliffe project apparently focuses on the relationship between Igor and Frankenstein. Of course, I’m tempted to think that the edgy thing to do might be to produce a film that was, in fact, more faithful to the novel.

Relatedly, I’d like to know, if any of you could supply the answer, when the Igor character gets inserted into the Frankenstein mythos. In the cultural imagination, Igor is always a part of the story, but he is non-existent in Shelley’s novel. According to IMDB, the earliest instance of the character in film was in 1939 when he was played by Bela Lugosi in The Son of Frankenstein, which was part of the Boris Karloff Frankenstein franchise.

In any case, popular interest in Frankenstein is obviously alive and well. Along with the forthcoming film starring Radcliffe, there’s this year’s I, Frankenstein, another fanciful story in which the Monster, named Adam, becomes embroiled in an age-old battle between angels and demons. A comment on the last post also alerted me to a London stage production of Frankenstein starring the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch. It first ran in 2011 and, just a few days ago, began a third encore run.

Our monsters always tells us something about ourselves and the prevailing cultural zeitgeist. I wonder, then, what we might make of this apparent revival of the Frankenstein myth. Perhaps that’s a question we can return to after we wrap up these posts. Of course, if you have any insights on the matter, feel free to share them below. But now, back to the text, beginning with chapter five.

For all of the understandable cinematic focus on the moment of creation, it is narrated by Shelley almost in passing and in all of one small paragraph. And in the novel, lightning plays no role in the animation of the built corpse (although there was a nod to galvanism earlier in the story). All we are told is that Frankenstein gathered “the instruments of life” around himself so that he

“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.”

But rather than rejoice at the realization of his life’s ambition, Frankenstein is immediately revolted by what he has made. The “creature” quickly becomes “the wretch.” He had carefully selected parts that would render his creation beautiful–“his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness”–but these same features now served only to amplify the hideousness of the creature by contrast with his “watery eyes,” “shrivelled complexion,” and “straight black lips.”

The immediacy with which Frankenstein turns on the creature, whose creation had consumed nearly two years of fanatical effort, is stunning. It’s presented to us as a wholly visceral response, as if the grotesqueness was wholly a function of movement. When the body was inert, the hideousness was latent; once it was animated, hideousness was all that Frankenstein could perceive.

“Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created,” he remembers, “I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bedchamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.”

So much of what follows hinges on this decisive moment, and yet it is so fleeting and thoughtless, by which mean devoid of reflection, strictly visceral (at least as Frankenstein tells it). It is, from one angle, an aesthetic response. This is interesting in light of the earlier characterizations of Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry Clerval. Characterizations that led me to suggest that the three represented the aspects of the soul in ancient Greek thought–Logos, Eros, and Thumos, respectively–and that Elizabeth’s influence seemed to be definitive.

I’d written that it was as if Shelley, contra Plato, had wanted us to see Eros and not Logos as the facet of the soul that best guides moral action. But perhaps I lost sight of the narrator’s voice. It is Victor, after all, who so characterized himself and his two friends. But Shelley’s way of framing the story through Walton’s account constantly invites us to consider whether we should read Victor’s narrative sympathetically or rather against the grain of Victor’s telling. Perhaps some combination of the two is the best approach.

In any case, it would seem that, if we are to hold Victor morally responsible for his abandonment of the creature, it was his aesthetic sense that led him astray. Although, having said that, perhaps we can understand Victor’s fault in a threefold manner that corresponds to Logos, Eros, and Thumos. It’s entirely possible that I’m pushing this framework beyond reasonable measure, but here is what I’m just now thinking. Victor’s faults are, first, the unhinged pursuit of the mysteries of life and the animation of the creature; second, the abandonment of the creature; and, lastly, his dogged determination to see the creature dead. Consider how these correspond to Logos, Eros, and Thumos. The first fault is an abuse of the virtue of reason. The second is grounded in an aesthetic reaction to ugliness. The last can be read as a misguided, perhaps even immoral, but “spirited” pursuit of justice. This suggests again Shelley’s tragic vision: the very faculties that constitute our humanity also produce our inhumanity.

There is, returning to the narrative, a certain implausibility to Frankenstein’s decision simply to return to his bedroom and try to sleep off the disaster, unless, of course, we read it as the irrationality brought about by shock. When he finally does fall asleep, he is plagued by macabre dreams in which he kisses Elizabeth’s lips only to see them take on the “hue of death” and have her suddenly turn into the corpse of his dead mother. He then wakes up terrified only to see “the wretch” pulling back the curtains of the bed and staring at him. He “muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.” This is surely one of the more chilling sequences in the story.

Again, Frankenstein flees from his creation, and, again, it is due to the creature’s physical appearance: “I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”

In the morning, he comes upon his dear friend, Henry Clerval, just as he disembarks from a carriage. Henry had finally convinced his merchant father to allow him to pursue a liberal arts education and he had come to study at Ingolstadt with Victor. Frankenstein is relieved at the sight of his friend, and Henry is overjoyed. Very quickly, however, it becomes obvious to Henry that not all is well with his friend. Frankenstein approaches his living quarters in fear, but the creature, or “my enemy” is he now refers to it, is nowhere to be found.

Shortly thereafter, Victor descends into a fit of hysteria, “I jumped over chairs, clapped my hands, and laughed aloud.” Henry is taken aback. Then Victor imagines that the creature can hear him. When Henry asks him what is wrong, Victor insists, “Do not ask me […] he can tell.–Oh, save me! save me!”

This was the beginning of a period of several months during which Henry nursed his friend back to good health. In recalling this period of time, Victor marks his progress by noting that he slowly began to take note of the beauty of external objects. He notes the beauties of the season once again and felt the “sentiments of joy and affection revive” within him.

The chapter ends with Clerval asking to speak to Victor “on one subject.” This unnerves Victor; he suspects Clerval will finally ask about the creature. But the one subject turns out to be Victor’s family. Henry thinks it’s time for Victor to write to his family. Victor is relieved and more than happy to comply. Then Henry hands him a letter from Elizabeth, and with that the chapter ends.

4 thoughts on “Reading Frankenstein: Chapter 5

  1. RE: “For all of the understandable cinematic focus on the moment of creation, it is narrated by Shelley almost in passing and in all of one small paragraph.”

    Yeah, I was really struck by how anticlimactic the actual bringing to life of the monster seemed, to the point where I briefly wondered, “Wait, does he make TWO creatures? Is this one just a trial run, and then the real deal comes later?” It really did drive home your point about how much our sense of this story has been shaped by the film versions and by other cultural appropriations.

  2. This is a little late, but I think the first time an Igor-like character appeared was in the theater adaptations, though he went by a different name. I know in the 1931 film, he goes by the name of Fritz.

    I don’t hate the addition of an Igor-like character in some of the earlier stuff. I think, originally, it was an interesting idea to include a character who was, like the monster, somewhat hideous in physical form. I think that some plays and movies hint that Igor especially hates the monster because its hideousness and simpleness reminds him of his own physical and mental handicaps. More modern adaptations miss that, and portray him as a simple bumbling comic relief character.

    Anyways, I’m enjoying reading the series.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s