I’ve finished Frankenstein or A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Victor Frankenstein is, without doubt, the most self-centered, whiny and ineffectual protagonist I can remember reading about. I’m sure there are other, more annoying heroes out there in fictiondom but I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided them. Once Frankenstein has created his creature he does little else than brood over his misfortune, faint and take to his bed when faced with tragedy and then moan some more. I kept wanting to smack him. Smack him, kick him and pour cold water on his head.
I know, it’s not a modern novel. It’s written in the style of the time. It’s an allegory. It’s metaphorical. It’s a classic. I don’t care. Allegory and metaphor are pretty much lost on me. Sure, I can take apart a story and tell you what it all “means” but that’s vivisection to me. I read a story for the story not for what it all means or for the commentary on society. I read to experience something other than being me. If I want an author’s opinions I read their essays and editorials. As for classic, ask me my opinion of Shakespeare sometime.
After Dracula, Frankenstein is probably the most filmed horror novel. I’ve seen Frankenstein, the True Story; The Bride; Frankenstein Conquers the World; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; The Munsters; Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and probably a few other versions that I can’t remember at the moment. Frankenstein’s creature is a major figure in horror’s supernatural pantheon. I’ve got various versions of the creature in my sketchbook, in story ideas and even one in my gallery. I’ve read a lot more about the novel than I had about Jekyll and Hyde so I was pleased to find parts of it that hadn’t been dragged out and hung in sunshine already. The bit with Felix and the Arabian. Frankenstein’s constant self-pity (the more I read of it the more annoying and therefore funnier it got). The lack of detail of the creature’s creation.
Ah, the creature’s creation. We all know that Frankenstein made his creature by stitching together the body parts of dead men, right? Maybe. Perhaps somewhere in the 1831 revision Frankenstein says he did. Probably somewhere Shelley actually says he did. But, for my purposes, if it isn’t on the page it’s not canon. In the 1818 text Frankenstein never actually says how he constructed the creature. He says he doesn’t want anyone else to repeat his mistake. He says he made it huge, eight feet tall, because the larger size made it easier to work with. If he were simply reanimating a corpse, making it bigger; making it by matching various body parts together wouldn’t make it easier to work with. Unless there were a lot of huge corpses lying around it would actually make it harder. Frankenstein would have to graft bones together, extend muscles, veins, arteries; everything about the creation would be more work than if he were simply trying to reanimate a dead body.
Consider this –
A new species would bless me as its creator and source, many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their’s. Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in the process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.
A new species. Impossible [to] renew life. Bestow animation upon lifeless matter. This sounds more like Frankenstein were creating some sort of golem or homunculus than actually reviving the dead. Something manlike but not a man. Certainly the creature is physically dynamic. This is no mute, lumbering creature. It scales mountains and glaciers with ease; it teaches itself to speak and to read in a year; it can move silently despite its great size.
Then also consider; when Frankenstein prepares to create a mate for the creature he acquires what he needs in London while traveling with his friend Henry Clerval. He and Henry travel around England and Scotland for four months before Frankenstein insists that he has to spend a month on his own and heads off to a desolate island in the Orkneys. It’s unlikely that Frankenstein just picked up the basics in London and intended to supplement the odd arm or leg once he got to the island. The island is five miles from the mainland and has only five other inhabitants. Frankenstein must have had everything he needed with him when he left London. How does one conceal human body parts for from one’s traveling companion for four months?
Whatever the creature is, I’m thinking that it isn’t just a patchwork of corpses. Frankenstein says he frequented graveyards, charnel houses and dissecting rooms. Human bones play a part in the process. But there’s enough undescribed to imagine Frankenstein creating something that is less a hodgepodge zombie and more a fleshy Victorian android – a thing formed from the sorceries of ancient alchemists and the engineering and chemical sciences of the modern era.
Of course, you can only apply so much logic to the novel. Once Frankenstein has brought his creature to life the story is driven by coincidence followed by unlikely coincidence. Hell, it starts with the coincidence of Frankenstein finding Walton’s ship in the Arctic wastes. The creature has Frankenstein’s notes. It’s smarter than its creator and it’s certainly more driven. Why doesn’t it just create a mate for itself? (Besides the stubborn desire to have Frankenstein actually behave responsibly and think about someone other than himself for one goddam minute.) That’s okay. I don’t want to rewrite the novel. Not exactly. I read it looking for something new in an old friend. And what I found is a creature who is weirder and more interesting than the scarred and stitched together fellow I’d grown accustomed to. I’m going to have a lot of fun the next time I attempt its portrait.