Thursday, March 17, 2016
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - A Study, by Edith Birkhead 1921
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It is indeed remarkable that so young and inexperienced a writer as Mary Shelley, who was only nineteen when she wrote Frankenstein, should betray so slight a dependence on her predecessors. It is evident from the records of her reading that the novel of terror in all its guises was familiar to her. She had beheld the majestic horror of the halls of Eblis; she had threaded her way through Mrs. Radcliffe's artfully constructed Gothic castles; she had braved the terrors of the German Ritter-, Rauber- und Schauer-Romane; she had assisted, fearful, at Lewis's midnight diablerie; she had patiently unravelled the "mystery" novels of Godwin and of Charles Brockden Brown. Yet, despite this intimate knowledge of the terrible and supernatural in fiction, Mrs. Shelley's theme and her way of handling it are completely her own. In an "acute mental vision," as real as the visions of Blake and of Shelley, she beheld her monster and the "pale student of unhallowed arts " who had created him, and then set herself to reproduce the thrill of horror inspired by her waking dream. Frankenstein has, indeed, been compared to Godwin's St. Leon, but the resemblance is so vague and superficial, and Frankenstein so immeasurably superior, that Mrs. Shelley's debt to her father is negligible. St. Leon accepts the gift of immortality, Frankenstein creates a new life, and in both novels the main interest lies in tracing the effect of the experiment on the soul of the man, who has pursued scientific inquiry beyond legitimate limits. But apart from this, there is little resemblance. Godwin chose the supernatural, because it chanced to be popular, and laboriously built up a cumbrous edifice, completing it by a sheer effort of will-power. His daughter, with an imagination naturally more attuned to the gruesome and fantastic, writes, when once she has wound her way into the heart of the story, in a mood of breathless excitement that drives the reader forward with feverish apprehension.
The name of Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein is far-famed; but the book itself, overshadowed perhaps by its literary associations, seems to have withdrawn into the vast library of famous works that are more often mentioned than read. The very fact that the name is often bestowed on the monster instead of his creator seems to suggest that many are content to accept Mrs. Shelley's "hideous phantom" on hearsay evidence rather than encounter for themselves the terrors of his presence. The story deserves a happier fate, for, if it be read in the spirit of willing surrender that a theme so impossible demands, it has still power momentarily "to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood and to quicken the beatings of the heart." The record of the composition of Frankenstein has been so often reiterated that it is probably better known than the tale itself. In the summer of 1816 — when the Shelleys were the neighbours of Byron near Lake Geneva — Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr. Polidori, after reading some volumes of ghost stories and discussing the supernatural and its manifestations, each agreed to write a ghost story. It has been asserted that an interest in spectres was stimulated by a visit from "Monk" Lewis, but we have evidence that Mrs Shelley was already writing her story in June, and that Lewis did not arrive at the Villa Diodati till August 14th. The conversation with him about ghosts took place four days later. Shelley's story, based on the experiences of his early youth, was never completed. Byron's fragment formed the basis of Dr. Polidori's Vampyre. Dr. Polidori states that his supernatural novel, Ernestus Berchtold, was begun at this time; but the skull-headed lady, alluded to by Mary Shelley as figuring in Polidori's story, is disappointingly absent. It was an argument between Byron and Shelley about Erasmus Darwin's theories that brought before Mary Shelley's sleepless eyes the vision of the monster miraculously infused by its creator with the spark of life. Frankenstein was begun immediately, completed in May, 1817, and published in 1818.
Mrs. Shelley has been censured for setting her tale in a clumsy framework, but she tells us in her preface that she began with the words: "It was on a dreary night of November." This sentence now stands at the opening of Chapter V., where the plot begins to grip our imagination; and it seems not unfair to assume that the introductory letters and the first four chapters, which contain a tedious and largely unnecessary account of Frankenstein's early life, were written in deference to Shelley's plea that the idea should be developed at greater length, and did not form part of her original plan. The uninteresting student, Robert Walton, to whom Frankenstein, discovered dying among icebergs, tells his story, is obviously an afterthought. If Mrs. Shelley had abandoned the awkward contrivance of putting the narrative into the form of a dying man's confession, reported verbatim in a series of letters, and had opened her story, as she apparently intended, at the point where Frankenstein,- after weary years of research, succeeds in creating a living being, her novel would have gained in force and intensity. From that moment it holds us fascinated. It is true that the tension relaxes from time to time, that the monster's strange education and the Godwinian precepts that fall so incongruously from his lips tend to excite our mirth, but, though we are mildly amused, we are no longer merely bored. Even the protracted descriptions of domestic life assume a new and deeper meaning, for the shadow of the monster broods over them. One by one those whom Frankenstein loves fall victims to the malice of the being he has endowed with life. Unceasingly and unrelentingly the loathsome creature dogs our imagination, more awful when he lurks unseen than when he stands actually before us. With hideous malignity he slays Frankenstein's young brother, and by a fiendish device causes Justine, an innocent girl, to be executed for the crime. Yet ere long our sympathy, which has hitherto been entirely with Frankenstein, is unexpectedly diverted to the monster who, it would seem, is wicked only because he is eternally divorced from human society. Amid the magnificent scenery of the Valley of Chamounix he appears before his creator, and tells the story of his wretched life, pleading: " Everywhere 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 describes how his physical ugliness repels human beings, who fail to realise his benevolent intentions. A father snatches from his arms the child he has rescued from death; the virtuous family, whom he admires and would fain serve, flee affrighted from his presence. To educate the monster, so that his thoughts and emotions may become articulate, and, incidentally, to accentuate
his isolation from society, Mrs. Shelley inserts a complicated story about an Arabian girl, Sofie, whose lover teaches her to read from Plutarch's Lives, Volney's Ruins of Empire, The Sorrows of Werther, and Paradise Lost. The monster overhears the lessons, and ponders on this unique library, but, as he pleads his own cause the more eloquently because he knows Satan's passionate outbursts of defiance and self-pity, who would cavil at the method by which he is made to acquire his knowledge? "The cold stars shone in mockery, and the bare trees waved their branches above me; now and then the sweet voice of a bird burst forth amidst the universal stillness. All save I were at rest or in enjoyment. I, like the arch fiend, bore a hell within me." And- later, near the close of the book: "The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone." His fate reminds us of that of Alastor, the Spirit of Solitude, who:
"Over the world wanders for ever
Lone as incarnate death."
After the long and moving recital of his woes, even the obdurate Frankenstein cannot resist the justice of his demand for a partner like himself. Yet when the student recoils with horror from his half-accomplished task and sees the creature maliciously peering through the window, our hatred leaps to life once more and burns fiercely as the monster adds to his crimes the murder of Clerval, Frankenstein's dearest friend, and of Elizabeth on her wedding night. We follow with shuddering anticipation the long pursuit of the monster, expectant of a last, fearful encounter which shall decide the fate of the demon and his maker. Amid the region of eternal ice, Frankenstein catches sight of him, but fails to reach him. At last, beside the body of his last victim — Frankenstein himself — the creature is filled with remorse at the "frightful catalogue" of his sins, and makes a final bid for our sympathy in the farewell speech to Walton, before climbing on an ice-raft to be "borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance."
Like Alastor, Frankenstein was a plea for human sympathy, and was, according to Shelley's preface, intended "to exhibit the amiableness of domestic affection and the excellence of universal virtue." The monster has the perception and desire of goodness, but, by the circumstances of his abnormal existence, is delivered over to evil. It is this dual nature that prevents him from being a mere automaton. The monster indeed is far more real than the shadowy beings whom he pursues. Frankenstein is less an individual than a type, and only interests us through the emotions which his conflict with the monster arouses. Clerval, Elizabeth and Frankenstein's relatives are passive sufferers whose psychology does not concern us. Mrs. Shelley rightly lavishes her skill on the central figure of the book, and succeeds, as effectually as Frankenstein himself, in infusing mto him the spark of life. Mrs. Shelley's aim is to "awaken thrilling horror," and, incidentally, to "exhibit the excellence of domestic virtue," and for her purpose the demon is of paramount importance. The involved, complex plot of a novel seemed to pass beyond Mrs. Shelley's control. A short tale she could handle successfully, and Shelley was unwise in inciting her to expand Frankenstein into a long narrative. So long as she is completely carried away by her subject Mrs. Shelley writes clearly, but when she pauses to regard the progress of her story dispassionately, she seems to be overwhelmed by the wealth of her resources and to have no power of selecting the relevant details. The laborious introductory letters, the meticulous record of Frankenstein's education, the story of Felix and Sofie, the description of the tour through England before the creation of the second monster is attempted, are all connected with the main theme by very frail links and serve to distract our attention in an irritating fashion from what really interests us. In the novel of mystery a tantalising delay may be singularly effective. In a novel which depends chiefly for its effect on sheer horror, delays are merely dangerous. By resting her terrors on "a pseudo-scientific basis and by placing her story in a definite locality, Mrs. Shelley waives her right to an entire suspension of disbelief. If it be reduced to its lowest terms, the plot of Frankenstein, with its bewildering confusion of the prosaic and the fantastic, sounds as crude, disjointed and inconsequent as that of a nightmare, Mrs. Shelley's timid hesitation between imagination and reality, her attempt to reconcile incompatible things and to place a creature who belongs to no earthly land in familiar surroundings, prevents Frankenstein from being a wholly satisfactory and alarming novel of terror. She loves the fantastic, but she also fears it. She is weighted down by commonsense, and so flutters instead of soaring, unwilling to trust herself far from the material world. But the fact that she was able to vivify her grotesque skeleton of a plot with some degree of success is no mean tribute to her gifts. The energy and vigour of her style, her complete and serious absorption in her subject, carry us safely over many an absurdity. It is only in the duller stretches of the narrative, when her heart is not in her work, that her language becomes vague, indeterminate and blurred, and that she muffles her thoughts in words like "ascertain," "commencement," "peruse," "diffuse," instead of using their simpler Saxon equivalents. Stirred by the excitement of the events she describes, she can write forcibly in simple, direct language. She often frames short, hurried sentences such as a man would naturally utter when breathless with terror or with recollections of terror. The final impression that Frankenstein leaves with us is not easy to define, because the book is so uneven in quality. It is obviously the shapeless work of an immature writer who has had no experience in evolving a plot. Sometimes it is genuinely moving and impressive, but it continually falls abruptly and ludicrously short of its aim. Yet when all its faults have been laid bare, the fact remains that few readers would abandon the story half-way through. Mrs. Shelley is so thoroughly engrossed in her theme that she impels her readers onward, even though they may think but meanly of her story as a work of art.
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