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


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?”

Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 9 and 10

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


A little over a week ago, a Virgin Galactic spaceship crashed during a test flight, leaving one pilot dead and the other badly injured. The SpaceShipTwo model craft, designed to ferry paying customers to the edge of space and back, was still in its testing phase. It appears from the latest reports that the crash was the result of pilot error.

Regardless of the cause, the crash was a tragedy, and it has elicited pointed criticism of the burgeoning private space flight industry. Writing for Time, Jeffrey Kluger’s offered some especially biting commentary:

“But it’s hard too not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable. zillionaire Jeff Bezos has his own spacecraft company—because what can better qualify a man to build machines able to travel to space than selling books, TVs and lawn furniture online? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has a space operation too because, well, spacecraft have computers and that’s sort of the same thing, right?”

Kluger’s piece in turn prompted a response from Rand Simberg at The New Atlantis. Simberg’s piece, “In Defense of Daring,” offers the counter-example of James E. Webb, another “amateur” who nonetheless directed NASA during the heady days of the Apollo program. Mr. Simberg has written a book titled Safe Is Not An Option about how an “obsession” with “getting everyone back alive” is “killing” the space program. Obviously, this is man with a high tolerance for risk. The account of the crash Simberg referenced in his piece was a blog post at Reason which included the following counsel: “Risk is part of innovation, and we should let people continue to put their lives on the line if they do so with full understanding of those risks.”

One man’s hubris is another man’s daring, it would seem. I don’t mean to be glib. In fact, I think the line between hubris and daring runs right through the heart of civilization. Both are quintessentially human qualities, and, while hubris is dangerous, a dearth of daring is not without its own set of problems. Wisdom is knowing one from the other.

I say all of that by way of getting back around to Frankenstein, a story centered on just this tension between daring and hubris. As we come to Frankenstein’s encounter with his Creature and hear the Creature’s account of how he has spent the first two years of his existence, we begin to pick up on Shelley’s tragic theory of civilization. The tragedy lies in the seemingly inextricable link between daring and hubris symbolized by the symbiotic relationship between Frankenstein and his Creature.

In chapter nine, Frankenstein describes the guilt and misery that enveloped him in the months after William’s death and Justine’s execution. Despite the force with which he expresses his sorrow and seeming depth of his regret, however, it remains difficult for the reader, at least for this reader, to take him at his word. For instance, consider the following passage:

“… I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible, and more much more (I persuaded myself), was yet behind. Yet my heart overflowed with kindness, and the love of virtue. I had begun life with benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them into practice, and make myself useful to my fellow-beings. Now all was blasted: instead of that serenity of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe.”

So, yes, “a hell of intense tortures”–but does this not all seem rather self-absorbed? There is still a certain blindness at work here. There is a fixation on the depth of his own suffering, on how the course of events have stripped him of the satisfactions of a clean conscience. Moreover, it seems as if he has not yet questioned the motives and ambitions that led him to bring the Creature into existence in the first place. Nor is there any sense of guilt about his abandonment of the Creature.

But there is fear: fear that the disaster would strike again, fear which mingled with and contaminated whatever love he felt, for that love also constituted its objects as potential targets for the Creature’s violence. And this fear yielded hate and a thirst for revenge. Here’s how Frankenstein expresses this cycle that turns love into hate:

“I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness …. There was always scope for fear, so long as any thing I loved remained behind …. When I reflected on his crimes and malice, my hatred and revenge burst all bounds of moderation.”

I can’t help but hear echoes of St. Augustine in these lines. The misery of the human condition is rooted in a profound disordering of our loves such that love is plagued by fear and even twisted into hate. And it is not hate which is love’s opposite, but rather fear. Hate is simply the form that love takes when it has been deformed by fear. But, precisely for this reason, Frankenstein cannot rightly interpret his own motives. He believes his hate is justified because it is rooted in his love for his friends and family. Hate, then, is the shape that love takes when it is threatened and vulnerable. Although this suggests that the love in view is ultimately self-love, and self-love cannot be brought to recognize it’s own failures. Consequently, guilt must be externalized or projected; it cannot be allowed to call into question one’s own motives and desires. In this case, Frankenstein’s hatred of the Creature is directly proportional to the guilt he experiences. But he and the Creature are one, so his hatred is a form of self-loathing, it is self-destructive. And, I would suggest, Shelley would have us read the relationship between Frankenstein and his creature as a microcosm of human civilization.

Elizabeth is more clear-sighted. She is blind to the existence of the Creature and to Frankenstein’s complicity in William’s and Justine’s deaths, but her perception of the world is nearer the mark. No longer are vice and injustice distant, abstract realities. “Now misery has come home,” she admits, “and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood.” There again the word monster is used to describe someone other than the Creature, in this case human society as a whole. Earlier we’d read how Justine, under pressure from her confessor, had almost come to believe herself the monster others thought her to be.

But while Victor cannot help but project the guilt that is properly his onto the Creature, Elizabeth’s nature is such that she can’t help but internalize the corruption she rightly perceives in the world. “Yet I am certainly unjust,” is how she follows up her indictment of humanity. She interprets Victor’s agitation as the lingering manifestation of his sorrow over William’s murder and his righteous indignation at the injustice of Justine’s death. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. But we are reminded of how perception is a function of love. Elizabeth’s love for Frankenstein leads her to interpret his demeanor and actions sympathetically. This contrasts sharply, of course, with Frankenstein’s loveless perception of his own Creature.

Throughout the remainder of the chapter we read about Frankenstein’s journey into the Alps in search of the peace that Nature might bring. Much of what follows is a literary representation of the natural sublime with a touch of the gothic, “ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains,” for instance. But the “kindly influence” of “maternal nature” had no effect; it failed to overturn Frankenstein’s restless misery.

The tenth chapter opens with Frankenstein on the second day of his excursion and another invocation of the natural sublime. The snow-topped mountains, the ravines, the woods–“they all gathered round me,” Frankenstein remembers, “and bade me be at peace.” But when he awoke the next morning, it was as if nature had hid herself from him. A rain storm had moved in and “thick mists hid the summits of the mountains.” Frankenstein’s response is telling: “Still I would penetrate their misty veil, and seek them in their cloudy retreats. What were rain and storm to me?” Shelley would have us see that Frankenstein is unchanged. He is still intent on peering behind the veils that nature raises around herself and ignoring her warnings.

Because he was familiar with the path, he forgoes a guide as he prepares to ascend the peak of Montanvert. Not only might we read this decision as yet another manifestation of Frankenstein’s hubris, his explanation for his decision is also telling: “the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene.” This is telling, I think, because isolation has been part of Frankenstein’s undoing all along. He isolated himself from the “regulating” influence of his friends and disaster followed. Interestingly, we are about to discover through the Creature’s own narrative, that he longs for nothing more than companionship. Frankenstein, on the other hand, pursues isolation–but he fails to find it. With “superhuman speed” he sees the Creature bounding toward him.

Their reunion is a bit, how shall we put it … tense. Frankenstein lashes out at the Creature, whom he addresses as “Devil” and “vile insect” and then threatens to kill. The Creature’s reaction, at least as I hear it, is almost humorously deadpanned: “I expected this reaction.” But immediately thereafter he launches into an eloquent statement of his case against Frankenstein:

“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.”

The Creature here makes explicit what has already been implicit: Frankenstein and the Creature are bound to one another till death. Also, Frankenstein sports thus with life because he has already done so in bringing the Creature to life. He judges himself competent to create life and to take life.

Frankenstein does not take the Creature’s entreaty kindly. In fact, he is unhinged by rage. He lunges at the Creature, but the Creature easily evades him. “Be calm!” the Creature urges. Indeed, in this exchange, it is the Creature who appears to be the more rational of the pair. He kindly reminds Frankenstein that he made the Creature larger and stronger than himself. “But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee,” he adds.

“I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, that which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

He goes on in a similar vein until finally he urges Frankenstein to hear his tale. Then, he adds, Frankenstein can decide whether or not he still wants to kill him.

It is, initially anyway, quite easy to sympathize with the Creature as he pleads his case. Indeed, his appeals are moving. “Believe me, Frankenstein,” he continues, ” I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity.” He is an unfallen Adam that is nonetheless punished; a Satan who has not rebelled and is nonetheless cast down. It is here that we begin to hear something of Frankenstein’s own voice in the Creature. Like Frankenstein, the Creature asserts his own innocence, an innocence of which he was stripped by external forces. Like Frankenstein, although with perhaps greater plausibility, he frames himself as a victim of circumstances. (We’ll see in time whether or not we can fully credit the Creature’s own account.) To Frankenstein’s accusations, the Creature retorts with biting sarcasm, “You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!”

This announces the Creature’s case against, not only Frankenstein, but the human race as a whole. Frankenstein continues to resist. He curses the day he made the Creature as well as his own responsible hands. “Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form,” he demands. In a curiously playful moment the creatures covers Frankenstein’s eyes with his hand and says, “Thus I relieve thee, my creator.” Frankenstein is not amused. He flings the Creature’s hand away from his face.

But the Creature finally prevails on Frankenstein to follow him to his cave so that he might hear his “long and strange tale.” Responding to faint stirrings of his conscience, Frankenstein agrees to follow the Creature. They sit down with a fire between them, and the Creature begins to tell his story. In the following chapter, the narration is handed over to the Creature, and we hear his account of the last two years, filtered through Frankenstein’s recollection.

Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 7 and 8

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


“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god,” Freud famously observed. But, he was quick to add, “When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.” Writing in 1968, Edmund Leach appealed to the same rhetorical trope, only with a bit more confidence and panache: “Men have become like gods. Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid. Why should this be? How might these fears be resolved?” Leach’s comments inspired the opening line of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Mary Shelley’s genius lay in vividly materializing, in the form of the Creature, the anxieties that must always attend such aims and aspirations. Whenever mortals fancy themselves gods, Frankenstein’s Creature lurks in the shadows, troubling all such fantasies.

In chapter seven, the doom that has been so frequently foreshadowed finally begins to unfold. The chapter opens with yet another letter, this one from Frankenstein’s father reporting that William, the youngest and most idealized of the Frankenstein children, has been murdered. Frankenstein is devastated, and he immediately departs for Geneva after a six year absence. As he approaches the city, he revels in the grandeur of the Swiss Alps and the surrounding lakes, but even this sublime experience of nature cannot disperse his apprehension.

When he arrives, he finds the city gates locked, so he decides to pass the night in a nearby village. Unable to sleep, he wanders through the night and is caught in a lightning storm that ominously illuminates the surrounding mountain peaks. Then one of the flashes reveals to him the outline of an unmistakeable figure, “the wretch, the filthy daemon.” It had been two years since he’d last seen it, but immediately Frankenstein is convinced that his Creature was responsible for his brother’s murder.

At this juncture, Frankenstein considers once again whether or not he ought to tell his story, but he dissuades himself. He is sure that he would not be taken seriously and would only succeed in casting himself as a raving maniac. Even if he was believed, who could succeed in capturing the creature of preternatural strength and agility (another aspect of the Creature that the films always get wrong). He had after all just witnessed the Creature scaling the “perpendicular ascent of Mont Salêve.” So he convinces himself to keep silent as he approaches his father’s home.

Upon his arrival, he is greeted by his brother Ernest who informs him that the murderer has been apprehended. Frankenstein is stunned to learn that Justine Moritz, the Frankenstein’s faithful servant and friend, has been charged with the murder and is soon to stand trial. Twice he protests that it cannot be and alludes to some knowledge of the murderer’s identity, but his claim seems not to register and, when he learns that compelling evidence has been presented against Justine, he convinces himself once more to remain silent. “My tale was not one to announce publicly,” since no one, he conveniently assures himself, would believe him. Elizabeth is the only one with the courage to insist publicly on Justine’s innocence, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

It is in the eighth chapter that we begin to perceive the depth of Frankenstein’s craven self-interest. Perhaps that is putting it too strongly, but his own deeds convict him. He sits through the trial and says not a word. Only Elizabeth takes the stand in Justine’s defense. He claims again and again to be wracked by guilt for William’s death and Justine’s plight. He even goes so far as to say to Walton (remember the framing) that he would have confessed to the murder himself rather than see Justine found guilty if only his known whereabouts in Ingolstadt had not rendered such a claim conveniently implausible. What he does not do is reveal the Creature’s existence.

If we are tempted to take his rationalizations at face value, his claim to be suffering more than Justine should convince us otherwise. “The tortures of the accused,” he insists with a straight face, “did not equal mine.” Such is the claim of a deeply self-absorbed man, one who is still suffering from blinding hubris. For the remainder of the chapter he goes on and on insufferably about his own despair and tribulation, even as he accompanies Elizabeth to visit Justine in prison on the eve of her execution.

It’s worth noting that Justine had admitted to making a false confession under pressure from her confessor. In explaining to Elizabeth why she had done so, she says that her confessor “threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was.” This is the first time monster is used in reference to someone other than Frankenstein’s Creature, and it leads us to ask who, indeed, is the true monster in this story.

While Frankenstein watches on, Elizabeth commiserates with Justine. “I wish that I were to die with you,” she declares, “I cannot live in this world of misery.” Elizabeth here sounds a note that will become ever more pronounced, particularly in the Creature’s narrative: Frankenstein is just one instantiation of the tragedy at the core of human civilization. She and Justine have been let down by the institutions of justice and by their would-be advocates, especially Frankenstein, who had it in his power to save Justine. But he does not act.

“On the morrow,” Frankenstein informs Walton, “Justine died.” A rather too convenient use of the passive voice. The chapter closes with a melodramatic prophetic soliloquy from Frankenstein delivered in the third person and addressed, in absentia, to his family.

It’s not insignificant that this portion of the story features the lives of two women undone by Frankenstein’s recklessness and self-serving cowardice. In his discussion of Frankenstein in Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, literary critic Roger Shattuck recalls the circumstances of Shelley’s life:

“[William Godwin] hardly knew how to take care of his daughter. She knew her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in childbirth, only by the stories of her dedication to feminism, revolutionary causes, and friends in need. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the stereotype of the Romantic poet, carried Mary off at seventeen to the Continent without marrying her, to live for a time in the irregular household of another Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Surrounded by illegitimate births and infant deaths, they subsisted on high ideals to remake the world through liberation and revolution. The men in the group were intent upon achieving glory through their genius; other concerns must not stand in their way.”

Further on, he adds of Frankenstein and the Creature, “The battle to which these awful adversaries commit themselves is the struggle for glory, the driving male condition that inspired Mary Shelley to write the book in horror and in protest.”

“The resolute moral stance of Frankenstein about observing our human limits can be seen now as exceptional,” Shattuck observes. In comparing Frankenstein to Goethe’s Faust, he writes, “The Romantics often did not seek harsh judgment of their scoundrel heroes. Apparently, it took a woman to inventory the destruction caused by the quest for knowledge and glory carried to excess ….”

Mary Shelley is often given credit for inventing Science Fiction with her writing of Frankenstein. I’d suggest as well that she be credited with composing the first work of tech criticism, and she does so, in part, because of her experience as one clear-sighted woman among men of genius in search of glory. It was her genius to anticipate how such a pursuit would play out not in the realm of letters, but in the increasingly potent realm of technology. Perhaps, then, we might also dub Mary Shelley the first woman in tech.

Reading Frankenstein: Chapter 6

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2, Chapters 3 & 4, Chapter 5


Last month, in the Guardian’s “My Hero” series, Neil Gaiman chose to write about Mary Shelley. His brief reflections open by recalling the circumstances that led to the writing of Frankenstein: “The cold, wet summer of 1816, a night of ghost stories and a challenge allowed a young woman to delineate the darkness, and give us a way of looking at the world.” He concludes as follows:

“The glittering promise of science, offering life and miracles, and the nameless creature in the shadows, monster and miracle all in one, back from the dead, needing knowledge and love but able, in the end, only to destroy … it was Mary Shelley’s gift to us, and we would be infinitely poorer without it.”

I like this idea of the nameless creature as Shelley’s gift to us. But what exactly is the nature of this gift? I would suggest that what Shelley has bequeathed to us is nothing less than the gift of thought. The creature is, as I see it, what some have called an object to think with, only it is an object of the imagination. It materializes, in our mind’s eye, the power conferred upon us by our knowledge, and it does so that we might think about what we can do.

At the end of her Introduction to Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Sherry Turkle writes,

“Once we see life through the cyborg prism, becoming one with a machine is reduced to a technical problem of finding the right operating system to make it (that is, us) run smoothly. When we live with implanted chips, we will be on a different footing in our relationships with computers. When we share other people’s tissue and genetic material, we will be on a different footing with the bodies of others. Our theories tell us stories about the objects of our lives. As we begin to live with objects that challenge the boundaries between the born and created and between humans and everything else, we will need to tell ourselves different stories.”

It seems to me that, given the realities Turkle anticipates, Frankenstein is exactly the story we need. It helps us think about what we make, but primarily by helping us think about ourselves. The creature in this story is nothing if not a mirror on which we might see ourselves. Of course, so too is Frankenstein.

The sixth chapter of Shelley’s novel opens with a letter from Elizabeth. It’s worth noting, briefly, the multiple layers of narration at this point in the story. Ostensibly, we are reading Elizabeth’s words to Frankenstein relayed by Frankenstein to Walton, who is in turn relaying them to his sister, Margaret. It’s easy to lose sight of this, but keeping this framework in mind, I think, is key to interpreting Frankenstein’s self-representation. It helps us sustain a healthy suspicion of Frankenstein’s framing of the events and, by extension, to also cast a critical eye on the rationalizations and justifications we offer for our own actions and motives.

Elizabeth’s letter functions chiefly to supply details that will render subsequent events more meaningful. We learn more, for instance, about the other Frankenstein siblings, the older Ernest and the younger William. We learn as well about Justine Moritz, a longstanding household servant in the Frankenstein household, who was beloved by all of the family.

There’s a curious digression in Elizabeth’s rehearsal of Justine’s history in which she notes how the nature of Swiss political culture has “produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it.” This is to assure us of Justine’s place in the family: “A servant in Geneva,” we are assured, “does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England. Justine, thus received in our family, learned the duties of a servant; a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being.”

Elizabeth goes on to speak glowingly of Ernest and, especially, of “little darling William.” All of this, of course, particularly in light of Frankenstein’s earlier claim to have lost everything, strikes us as preparation for a great tragedy.

The remainder of the chapter narrates Frankenstein’s continued recovery, which is sustained almost entirely by Henry Clerval’s loving attention. It was Clerval, Frankenstein tells us, who “called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children.” Once again, well-being is presented as a kind of equilibrium between our urge to know and to do, on the one hand, and our acceptance of the world as a gift on the other. And, once again, this equilibrium is the product of friendship. Friendship is a kind of anchor that keeps us from sinking into the maelstrom of self-absorption, a victim of virtues which, unregulated, become our vices. Clerval’s particular influence on Frankenstein was twofold: he brought Frankenstein out of himself into the world, and he brought the liberal arts to bear on a scientific imagination.

But all is not well, of course. Once released into the world, our action does not simply dissipate into nothingness, whatever we might wish. The creature is still at large, and Frankenstein’s greater sin is his failure to accept responsibility for what he has made. This refusal of responsibility is reflected in the disgust Frankenstein had now developed toward his former passion: “I had conceived a violent antipathy even to the name of natural philosophy.” Just seeing the implements of his former work induced “the agony of my nervous symptoms.” While introducing Clerval to his professors, Frankenstein would become visibly agitated when they praised his talent and skill.

Shelley paints Frankenstein as a man who is racked by guilt but also unwilling to confront it. His “violent antipathy ” toward what he had previously pursued with obsessive zeal suggests profound shame and a deep desire to burry and repress his transgression. More worrisome still is his decision to keep knowledge of the creature secret, even from Clerval. It’s more than a little ironic that the man who would rip open nature’s secrets now carefully guards his own.

Nothing good follows from Frankenstein’s refusal of responsibility, only an accumulation of disasters. The question this leaves us with is this: What would it mean for us to accept responsibility for what we make and for what we do with what is made for us? Makers and users both, it seems that we are, like Frankenstein, hell-bent on refusing responsibility for what we do with the technologies that have been furnished for us. It would seem, in fact, that the general tendency of our making is to create conditions that undermine the possibility of either thoughtfulness or responsibility. Shelley’s story, however, her gift to us, provokes our thinking and may even rekindle our sense of moral responsibility.

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.