Friday, September 13, 2013

"although he still evaded me, I have ever followed in his track" Stalking God in Shelley's Frankenstein

The monster reads Milton:

It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

The monster might see himself in Satan, but Shelley conflates Satan with Adam. She also conflates Satan with Prometheus, both enchained and punished after their fall, but the conflation also includes the idea of God the Creator of Man, enchained to the earth and eaten away at by his creation. Man is Satan, is Adam, is Prometheus. God is Satan, all very Blakean. The thing about the metaphysics of Frankenstein is that it is all very much earthbound and all very interlocked and confused. All of creation, including the Creator Himself, is violent and petty, wishing for love and happiness but in the end alienated and persecuted by the works of His own hand. There's a futility to Shelley's universe, an impossibility of movement forward to some greater end.

The creator dies, destroyed by the pursuit of his creation. The monster stands over the corpse of his maker and mourns, his life now utterly without purpose. Frankenstein's life was ruined as soon as he created life; the monster's life was ruined as soon as he realized that he was alone and despised. All of these characters are intended, I think, to point to God and mankind.

But what I was going to say is that Frankenstein is all about God, but the universe Shelley has created is devoid of God, of the Christian God. When Victor Frankenstein kneels in the cemetery over the graves of his murdered family, he prays not to Jehovah but to "the sacred earth on which I kneel, by the shades that wander near me, by the deep and eternal grief that I feel, I swear; and by thee, O Night, and the spirits that preside over thee." Shelley's world is a pagan world, and via her prose it's a world alive, moody and responsive to the actions of its inhabitants. And yet, at the same time, Shelley shakes an angry fist at the indifference of Heaven.

This is a novel about punishment, about guilt and repercussions. Men are forever arresting and hanging the wrong "murderers" while the true perpetrators go free to do more damage. It's impossible to say if Victor Frankenstein, the stand in for God here, was right in his refusal to build a mate for the monster. Frankenstein was horrified by what he'd wrought and spends the bulk of his narrative turn bemoaning his own fate, with each murder committed by his creature he beats his breast and complains of the torture his soul undergoes, as if he is the true victim. That's quite an indictment of the Creator. There is no divine being anywhere in this novel. There are, as I said way up above in this too-long post, gods and monsters and men all rolled into one, all devouring each other until the last one climbs onto the funeral pyre he's built for himself. A real downer, man. But a pretty good novel. Not entirely unlike the Leonardo Sciascia novel To Each His Own that I'm currently reading. Sciascia also builds a bleak world where nobody's hands are clean and nobody's motives are pure. But I was supposed to read more Chekhov after Frankenstein, wasn't I?

Wait: there's something in that comparison, of Chekhov to Shelley. Chekhov, pessimist that he was, had a deep love for humanity. I don't find that in Frankenstein, which is a dismissive story, casting all of us into the pit. But Shelley was barely 19 when she wrote her novel, and she was writing a sort of polemic while hanging out with Percy and Lord Byron. You know what they were like. I'll have to see, maybe someday, what else came from Shelley's pen when she was older.


  1. I don't think Shelly wrote very much more. Didn't she die at a very young age? 30 or so? Or am I thinking of someone else? Byron perhaps? I don't know, that whole sex-on-the-continent thing trips me out.

    And somewhere in my travels I thought I remembered reading that Shelly wrote Frankenstein as an... (what is the word, I want to say homage, but that isn't right)...homage to Bonaparte and the war. How he created these monsters to take over the world. How he thought he was a god. But perhaps I'm wrong. I can almost say I'm assuredly wrong.

    It is Friday afternoon after all, and I'm very tired having spent all day at school volunteering. Did I tell you I'm in the PTO now? As coordinator for the major fundraising program? What was I thinking? (Catholic school, what can I say. The guilt is overwhelming. I don't go to church so I have to do something. I don't want them to think I'm a heathen now, do I?)

  2. Mary Shelley lived 73 years and wrote a huge pile of stuff. Percy, her husband, died young. I think most of her children died young as well. All those romantic poets were fascinated by death and mythology. I had not heard that about Napoleon. I plowed ahead with my own critical commentary without having read any of the 200 years' worth of commentary already out there.

    Good luck with the fundraiser. I used to go door-to-door collecting funds and signatures for a consumer action group. Not the same thing, I know.