How I Came to Love A Monster:
A Rambling Review of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein
Frankenstein has haunted and followed me around wherever I go. I remember first reading the book in high school. It must have been tenth or twelfth grade because Mrs. Lippe--the dreaded and much afeared Mrs. Lippe was the one who assigned it. I don’t really remember much about this brief introduction to Mary Shelley’s creative masterpiece. I could have hated it. I could have loathed it. I could have been bored to tears with it. I often was with classics at that time in my life. That might have been the end of our acquaintance, if it had not been for a fateful decision in the fall of 1997. I decided that fall, in the month of November, to become an English major. At the time, I was under the instruction of another dreaded and much afeared professor: Dr. Casper. I had not taken the class willingly. It had been thrust upon when a schedule conflict came up regarding another class. But the class did change my life. In a good way, I might add. Up until that point, I had been an education major. I wasn’t a firmly committed student, I wasn’t dying to be a teacher or anything. But I needed to have a major listed. But taking a literature course was new...it was exciting...it was almost thrilling. And the ‘scary’ teacher became my academic advisor. And she really wasn’t that scary if you did your work and behaved. I’m happy to say I got an A despite her first day of class warnings of how she never ever gave A’s to her students. [Now that I think about it, there were horror stories passed around about both of those teachers--my high school teacher, and that college professor. Students would speak in hushed tones and give strangers the warning: beware this teacher...]
Frankenstein came back into my life several semesters later. The person who re-introduced us was Dr. Palmer. Palmer is many things but scary is not one of them. She’s a gentle soul whose love of books is evident from the start. She speaks in almost a whisper, but she speaks with great enthusiasm about the friends she’s met in books. Some of her “friends” became my friends. But even I didn’t click with the books we were reading, I always respected and appreciated her style. The second time I read Frankenstein was for Dr. Palmer’s British novels class. I was an undergraduate. I was older. I was wiser. (And I had a very good friend in that class.) And somehow or other, I was more aware of my surroundings this time through. I remember finishing it and saying, “Hmm, that wasn’t so bad. I think I almost even enjoyed it.” And the discussions and essays instead of being a chore, weren’t too bad with this one. Again, this might have been the end of the story...we’ve met again. It wasn’t distasteful. But at this point I wasn’t using the word “love” in regards to Shelley’s book or the monster.
The third and fourth times through really, really made a believer out of me. This time, I was in graduate school. Once again majoring in English. (Don’t even begin to ask me what is practical about having a Masters of Arts degree in literature. I still don’t know. But those were fun years out of my life just the same.) One spring--probably the spring of 2001--I read Frankenstein for Dr. Palmer’s Romanticism class. It was a course that followed the lives of both Shelleys (Mary and Percy), Lord Byron, and John Keats. It was a great class. A happy class. Well, as happy as you can get reading some of their poetry--some of it can be a wee bit depressing--and they weren’t always happy guys to be around. But enough about that, the fourth time was that fall. Fall 2001. The horrible, dreadful fall of 2001 that was so overwhelmingly depressing. Yes, I was upset by 9/11. But more upsetting for me was the fact that my grandfather was dying of cancer and in hospice. I was having to go to school and work every day knowing that that day could be the day...that I could get a phone call at any minute telling me that he was gone. The hardest thing for me was to go through the motions of every day life. How could I go on like nothing had changed...when everything had changed. How could I act cheerful and ready to greet the world when I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide? How could I answer the phones with a perky “Good Morning” when all I wanted to do was stay in bed and cry. Maybe it was because of the misery though that I finally and truly fell in love with Frankenstein.
Frankenstein is all about misery. But it is also about what it means to be human. It covers it all. It addresses the “meaning-of-life” type issues in a way that I find most effective. By making a monster appear human and a human appear to be a monster, it challenges and changes everything that you thought you knew about the world. For one thing, it shows that you can’t judge someone based on appearances. You can’t see inside someone’s heart and mind. You can’t read their soul. Something hideous or something beautiful could be beneath the surface, but you don’t always know which is which until it’s too late.
Of course the novel addresses the issue of man playing God. Of man trying to rule the universe. Trying to tamper with things that he shouldn’t be tampering with. Trying to do the divine, be the divine. Not happy to be content with himself, always struggling to be more, have more, do more. Wanting more knowledge, more power, more wealth, more prestige, more honor, more whatever. Ambition can be dangerous. Deadly even, as Victor proves.
But what strikes me most about the novel, and I have reread it--I read it again the last week of July--is the fact that the monster wants what so many of us want. He wants to be loved. He wants to be accepted. He wants to be a part of something. He wants approval. He wants someone to see past the exterior and know him for who he is. And isn’t that what we all want? Someone to love us for who we are. Someone to love us unconditionally. Someone to be our friend. Someone to talk to. To share with. To love. Man was not designed to be alone, to live alone. Man has always needed companionship and love and fellowship. Man has always been a social creature. So when you take away a person’s basic needs--deny him of everything that is good and right and natural--what can you expect but to find a monster? The story of Frankenstein is how one man slowly and surely became a monster. But the ‘monster’ the man creates wasn’t born a monster. He wasn’t born evil. He wasn’t born anything. His only thoughts and feelings were those of an animal. He sought food, drink, and shelter. But he knew nothing of loss, love, pain, or joy. He had no words to speak. No way to communicate. No love. No hate. But he became a man. Surely and slowly he observed, he learned, he grew a soul of sorts. He grew in both head and heart knowledge. He knew what greatness looked like. But he was denied everything based purely on his appearance. He became a monster because that is how people treated him. They were the ones that chased him. They were the ones that tried to kill him. He observed humans behaving as monsters. While, this monster didn’t stay ‘pure’ and ‘good’ and began to act very wickedly, it is easy to understand why. Death became the only way he could communicate. The only way anyone would listen.
Imagine. Victor Frankenstein plays both a Creator role (God if you will) and a father role. He is the one who worked and slaved and labored obsessively to create this being. It was his ‘brilliant’ idea from start to finish. Yet the moment his brilliant work is finished. The moment it is a notable “success” what does he do? He fears, he rejects, he runs, he panics, he does everything a parent shouldn’t do. Imagine being “born” into the world and being rejected from the start. Not a welcome, not a hello, not instructions, not encouragement, not love, not acceptance, not a kind word.
Here is the thing that has always always puzzled me about Victor. How could you work on a creature for however many months or years and not know what it was going to look like? If the creature looked scary or spooky alive, wouldn’t you think that it would look spooky before? How could he have pieced him together and sewn him and whatnot and given him form from dead mangled bodies and not known he was hideous and ugly? Why did it take the breath of life to make “ugly” terrifying? Did he not see with open eyes day after day what the creature was? Was he so blinded that he didn’t see? Or did he think his chances of success so low that he never considered that it might just work after all? Is that why he was so shocked? So afraid? Did he expect to fail and so never considered the consequences and ramifications of his creation working? What did he expect? What did he hope to gain? What was his purpose? There certainly wasn’t a demand for ugly ill-formed freakish monsters to fill Europe and the other continents.
Here is my other pondering about Frankenstein...why did he have to piece together a human? If he had the so-called secret of regeneration that would cause dead bodies to come back to life, why didn’t he just use that knowledge, that secret, to raise a whole person, a human being. A ‘creation’ that wouldn’t be a monster in appearance? I suppose the answer could be that Shelley thought the other was more frightening... But I guess this goes back to man’s search for immortality. Man searching for ways to prolong and lengthen his life. Perhaps man searching for ways to save his loved ones. To keep his loved ones with him forever. Surely the reason he started this experimentation was to bring back lost loved ones from the dead...but I guess his ultimate lesson is that death comes to everyone great and small. And you can’t cheat death in the end. It’s the one sure thing we know about the world. There is a 100% mortality rate.
The thing about reading Frankenstein is that I learn something new each time. I grow in awareness. I notice new details. Make different connections. Have a different reaction or response. That doesn’t happen often with fiction. Usually, there aren’t that many “layers” or “levels” of depth. But with Shelley, I think it’s a masterpiece you could explore for a lifetime.
This time round, my realization was relatively simple. I had always noted the similarities between Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein. But this was the first time I noticed that he also had a bit in common with the monster as well. He was a blend of the two. So he could ‘see’ himself and ‘know’ himself as both. Anyway, I have always liked the framework of this story. How Victor’s shambled life became a parable of sorts for this man-in-need of a wake up call.
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