Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 11–13

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2, Chapters 3 & 4, Chapter 5Chapter 6, Chapters 7 & 8, 9 & 10

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I’ve been a bit delinquent with the Frankenstein posts of late, but I intend to make up some ground by covering chapters eleven through sixteen in this post and the next. These chapters are the heart of the book, structurally and thematically. In them, the Creature assumes control of the narrative, sort of. Throughout these chapters it is his voice that we hear narrating the two years between the moment of his creation and the present encounter with Frankenstein; but we should remember that the Creature’s words are still being reported by Frankenstein to Walton. It is still, in a sense, a filtered account, even though it is presented to the reader in the first person. I don’t think this should throw into question every detail of the Creature’s account, supposing that Frankenstein has necessarily misrepresented him; but it may be wise to read the Creature’s story with a certain suspicious attentiveness.

Had Shelly chosen to narrate her story from a more conventional third person perspective, we might imagine that the moral of the story would have been more straightforward, or that our sympathies would have more readily coalesced around one of the two central characters. The multiple first person perspectives complicate matters and inject a certain moral ambiguity into the story. As in our own real-world experience, hearing multiple accounts of the same sequence of events from motivated witnesses forces us to assume the responsibility of making judgments about whom to believe and to what degree. Often, we find that there is no obvious way of arriving at an “objective” account of the events and, knowingly or not, we fall back on our own proclivities and sympathies. We may also find, given our access to multiple perspectives, that the sequence of events unfolded with a kind of tragic unnecessary necessity. Things need not have transpired as they did, different decisions could have been made; but, given the limited perspective of the interested parties, it is hard to see how they could have done otherwise.

In his discussion of tragic plays, Aristotle observed that the tragic hero cannot be either wholly deserving or wholly undeserving of his fate. The emotional force of the tragedy depends on this ambivalence. If we think the hero entirely deserving of their fate, the play amounts to a comedy in which justice is served. If we think the hero entirely undeserving of their fate, then we will think the play a farce. Aristotle offers Sophocles’s Oedipus as the perfect embodiment of this tragic ambivalence of character. In my view, Shelley achieves a similar effect with both Frankenstein and the Creature, hence the emotional force of her story. And this effect she achieves principally by allowing us to hear each of them tell us their own stories. This isn’t merely a matter of emotional payoff, though; the meaning of Shelley’s story is inextricable from this tragic form. The meaning of the story, on my reading, also hinges on recognizing the Creature’s experience as a microcosm of human civilization, and that becomes apparent very early on in the Creature’s story.

In chapter eleven, the Creature describes the earliest hours and days of his existence, during which he comes to terms with the physicality of his being. Over the course of several days, his ability to perceive his surroundings is sharpened, as is his ability to navigate the world with his body. As he acclimates to having a body, the Creature also begins to express himself with “uncouth and inarticulate sounds,” the beginnings of language. While still in this state, he encounters a fire left by wandering beggars. The fire fascinates him and its usefulness is immediately apparent to him. Like a hunter-gatherer, he soon finds that he must abandon his fire in search of food. He does so and subsists on berries and nuts until he stumbles upon the abode of a shepherd where he finds bread, cheese, milk, and wine. The shepherd symbolizes a more settled life than that of the hunter-gathers, and the foods the Creature enjoys are all the product of human cultivation, none of them are naturally occurring. Finally, he moves on and enters a village. He is awed by the homes and their gardens. But, in a pattern that will recur unfailingly, this place that is at once an expression of humanity’s skill and ingenuity is also the setting for the Creature’s first encounter, apart from his initial abandonment, with “the barbarity of man.” Having innocently entered a home and frightened its inhabitants, the Creature is chased out of the town by a barrage of blows and projectiles.

The Creature then comes upon a modest cottage in the woods and he crawls into a hovel attached to one of the cottage walls. Here he is able to live unnoticed, and, through a crack in the wall of the cottage, he is able to observe the family that inhabits it. This family consists of an elderly blind father and his two grown children, Felix and Agatha. We learn later that they are exiles from France living in Switzerland. At this point, the Creature regarded them a saintly, if also melancholy, brood. Watching the sacrificial kindness Felix and Agatha display toward their father, the Creature’s emotional life is awakened. “I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature,” he recounts, “they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions.” The chapter closes with the Creature seeing the family read together before turning in for the night. At the time, however, he knew nothing of the “science of words or letters.”

Through this perhaps too-convenient plot device, Shelley will account for the Creature’s continuing education, intellectual and moral. To this point, though, we might read Shelley’s portrayal of the Creature’s life as an early nineteenth century mashup of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development, and the history of human civilization. The Creature, then, is a symbol of human civilization. Better yet, Frankenstein and the Creature together symbolize the dual and tragic nature of human civilization.

Throughout chapter twelve, the Creature continues to watch and learn from the family that he begins to affectionately refer to as his “friends.” There is an innocence to the Creature’s early observations. He is confused by a sadness that he perceives alongside their amiable and caring manner. Felix, whose name means “happy” in Latin, was “the saddest of the group.” To his simple mind, they had all that he could possibly wish for. They had a warm home, food, and their mutual companionship. But after a considerable period of time passes, he realizes that one source of their sadness is, in fact, their poverty. They were often hungry, and the Creature often witnessed Agatha and Felix go without food so that their father might eat.

Witnessing that act of self-sacrifice awakens the Creature’s conscience. He had till then been stealing from their stores in the night, but now he felt the pain that he was unwittingly causing them and learns to make do with whatever food he can gather from the surrounding woods. Moreover, he is moved to act in kindness toward his friends. Noticing that Felix spent the better part of the day gathering wood, the Creature begins to gather wood in the night and deposit it on their doorstep. He then watches their reaction with pleasure and is glad for the better use that Felix is able to make of his time.

In much of what follows, the Creature becomes increasingly aware of the “godlike science” of language, in both its spoken and then its written form. By observation and imitation, he acquired a rudimentary vocabulary, and he decides that he will not present himself to his friends until he has mastered the ability to speak with words. During this time, the Creature had also become aware, by seeing his reflection in a pool of water, of his physical deformity. An anti-Narcissus, he was convinced “that he was in reality that Monster that I am” and he was filled with feelings of “despondence and mortification.”

But he continues to imagine, foolishly by his own admission, that he might be able to help his benefactors overcome their sadness and that he might even be accepted by them despite his deformity. Reviving a theme in Frankenstein’s narrative, the Creature is also comforted and encouraged by the onset of spring and the reawakening of nature. Spring also brings a new member of the household, whose story reveals the other source of the family’s sadness.

Chapter thirteen introduces a young Arabian woman named Safie. Her arrival cheers the family, especially Felix. And in another just-so plot turn, she does not yet speak French. As she is taught to speak and read by the family, the Creature, observing her lessons from the fortuitous crack in the wall, finally learns to speak fluently and to read. He also gets a survey of human history via Volney’s Ruins of Empires, a radical critique of prevailing governments and religions written in the aftermath of the French Revolution. He learns about the ancient empires of the Middle East, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Christian Empires of the medieval age. He also learns of the discovery of America, and he “wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.” Reflecting on what he had learned, the Creature offers the following meditation that expresses the same tragic duality that he and Frankenstein embody:

“Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another, as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honor that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of the vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing.”

Not only do Frankenstein and the Creature both symbolize and embody this tragic paradox, neither of them fully realize the degree to which this tragic paradox runs through both their beings even though they both express guilt and sorrow for their actions. This blindness is their tragic flaw; it is the blindness induced by their own peculiar forms of hubris. For Frankenstein, it is a hubris born of knowledge; for the Creature, it is the hubris born of a self-righteousness that stems from victimhood. But all of this is not quite obvious yet.

Frankenstein also gets a lesson in political economy via Felix’s lectures to Safie: “I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood.” He realizes that human civilization values nothing so much as the combination of noble lineage and great wealth. One of these two will get one by in life, but, having neither, a person is ordinarily “doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few!”

All of this leads the Creature to lament his pitiable situation. He was uniquely powerless and alone: “no money, no friends, no property” and hideously deformed for good measure. Then we get a remarkably Pascalian comment:

“I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me: I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger thirst, and heat! Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock.”

Our ability to imagine ourselves other than we are is both our greatest virtue and the source of all our misery. Knowledge and desire are both a curse and a blessing. Again, a note of tragic paradox is sounded. The only escape from this condition, this thoroughly human condition, was death–a state, the Creature feared, he did not yet understand.

The more he learned through his observations of the family, a family he came to love, the more miserable he became. He became increasingly aware of all that he did not have and all he could never have. He was without friends and relations, without mother and father. He was alone and plagued by one question: “What was I?”

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