Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Deconstructed by John S Smyth 1887
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Deconstructed by John S Smyth 1887
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Among my intimate friends I have the name of being a "theorist," and have several times been recommended to read "Frankenstein," as a book illustrating how a fine theory may prove utterly impracticable. It is done; and I remain a theorist. For the sake of others, whom an unthinking world may condemn for going below the surface of things and studying causes and effects, and even concluding that the great egotistical Nineteenth Century has not reached the apex of human accomplish, ment, I desire to puncture the theory that "Frankenstein" is theoretical, and show how genius may err and talent may fall short of being genius through want of will, self-assertion, egotism; for it is a fact that almost every historic genius is an egotist.
A theory is a statement of the laws that govern the being of anything; the philosophic plan of a thing; a telling how and why a thing is as it is, and how and why it would be otherwise under other circumstances; and the truth or falsity of a theory depends, first, upon the theorist's ability to think correctly, and, second, upon the truth or falsity of the alleged facts he uses, and from which he reasons. A false theory is false because the theorist has not reasoned correctly, or because the alleged facts he uses are not facts, but untruths. Unless all this is true, modern science is no more reliable than ancient philosophy. The one reasoned from suppostitions and what were then accepted facts; the other reasons from what are now accepted facts, and sometimes from suppostitions. Our great scientific and mechanical discoveries were all discovered through theorising, or theory accident, and the laws that govern them cannot be stated otherwise than theoretically. It is the height of folly, and shows a want of intelligence, to condemn a theory we cannot refute.
If my theory of theories is correct, "Frankenstein" is not theoretical; for, though the method by which the "fiend" was constructed is indicated, the method by which life was transmitted to, or created in, him is not indicated. The means employed are supposed to have been chemical, but even that is not certain. The wonder of this book is that one man should create another full-grown man; but if "Frankenstein" merely followed up the experiments of Mr. Darwin, mentioned in the introduction, he transmitted to the structure of the fiend, which he had not created, but constructed, life already created; therefore he was not the creator of the fiend, as he and the fiend, the navigator, and Miss Wollstonecraft, all seem to have thought. But if he did create the life of the fiend, no theory whatever of how he did it is given and the work is not theoretical; and the theory that the book proves theories to be unreliable is a false theory, in consequence of the theorist's inability to reason, as well as the indefiniteness and uncertainty of the supposed facts and suppositions used in the process.
It would be too tedious to disprove the theory advanced in "Frankenstein," that one min can construct the physique of another man. Such a disproof would require the writing of a treatise on physiology; and as for this particular fiend, the description of him is too indefinite to refute any theory based upon him. He is said to have been deformed, but, except that he was ugly, the nature of his deformity is unknown to us. We must either conclude that all our ideas of physiology are incorrect, or that, from the immense strength of arm, leg, body, and the wonderfully quick and powerful intelligence, the fiend was remarkably well proportioned; or, better still, that Miss Wollstonecraft wrote an enormous and unreasonable lie, and some people, by using that lie in attempting to disprove the reliability of theories, indulge in the vanity-bred pastime of talking of something they do not understand. Here are a few suggestions for the amusement of physiologists and others, when reasoned to their logical conclusions. The fiend was constructed of material taken from graves and charnal houses, in the summer time, in the vicinity of a dense population; but no suspicion of what "Frankenstein" was about seems to have been aroused. Either this material just did not decay, or some preservative was used that absolutely destroyed the odors as well as preserved the material without damage to the very fine but all necessary tissues thereof. He was made about eight feet in height, because some portion of the human frame are so minute that Herr Frankenstein would experience too much difficulty in constructing them of the normal size. We should all think so. He was made to be beautiful, but turned out to be deformed and contorted. How? The deformity could scarcely have been of the bones. Was it muscular? Again and again his muscles are said to have been more supple than those ot ordinary men, and much more powerful, and he performed some remarkable muscular feats. Did Miss Wollstonecraft believe that muscular strength all depended upon the size and suppleness of the muscles without regard to their adjustment, or the nerves? His nerves were evidently all right, or he could not have performed some of the feats he did; and how could his muscles be at the same time nicely adjusted and deformed or contorted? Granting that there is any theory about "Frankenstein," it is flimsier than Locke's famous "Moon Hoax," and infinitely inferior to Edgar A. Poe's stories, or those of Jules Verne. "Frankenstein" must have "cleaned up" his premises before he finished his work, or his friend Henry would have discovered the nature of his pursuits, but he fails to mention the fact, and in mentioning the speed and anxiety with which he concluded his task gives the impression that he had neglected to do so. In one place the fiend says that when he first "awoke," he felt dazed; and the impression the author attempts to convey is that he had the intelligence, but not the knowledge, of a full-grown man; but he promptly appropriated "Frankenstein's" cloak, and put it on so well that "Frankenstein's" journal, containing an account of the "creation," and presumably a receipt for making life, did not fall out of the pocket. Now neither this cloak nor journal is mentioned until the latter is delivered to "Frankenstein" at Mer de glace; nevertheless, he is represented as suffering an agony of anxiety lest his secret should become known, and as hoping that the fiend had met his death somewhere; all this for months after the fiend had disappeared; but never once does he mention his fears lest the fiend should die in the vicinity of someone and the journal be discovered.
This is one of the remarkable faults in the construction of the story. Another one is the failure of all those stupendously intelligent people who were concerned with the execution of Justine Moritze for the murder of William Frankenstein. In the latter part of the book, the giant is said to have a "vast hand," and we should expect a man eight feet in height to have a vast hand. Justine is represented as being rather delicate, and it is said that on William's throat was the impress of a finger. Anyone who knows what a pressure of the windpipe is required to produce strangulation, even of a frightened child, will conclude the impress of the giant's vast finger was marked enough to relieve the delicate finger of Justine Moritze of all suspicion. The importance attaching to this blunder is that it seemed to me that, but for the execution of Justine, Frankenstein would have relented to the pitiful appeals of the victim of his genius at the Mer de glace interview, and the entire current of the story would have been changed, much to its improvement, for there is nothing after that scene, nothing in that filthy succession of cheap horrors, that is worthy of perusal. The absurdity of the giant's wanderings without being discovered; of his repeated passage of the North and Irish seas; of his variable intelligence and passions; of Frankenstein's attempt to chase down and kill such a monster of strength and endurance, are as severely trying upon our fancy as other parts are upon our intelligence. But neither of these was so provoking to me as the attempt to impose on my sympathies. Throughout the book there is a constant attempt to show that the Frankenstein family were remarkably amiable, and that Victor is a paragon of benevolence; but the evidence is all verbal. The circumstantial all indicates him to be one of the most selfish and too-late-thinking characters in English literature. Without argument, I will leave the reader of the story to conclude if this be true or not, merely inquiring if Frankenstein is the woman's ideal man, and to note that if he is, it accounts for the fact that selfish, dyspeptic men get such splendid wives.
All this fault-finding seems like "picking flaws," but the criticism is just, and there is a moral to this essay. It is that genius must be self-assertive and heedless of the most eminent criticism, suspicious of friendship, and as self-reliant as Pope was when he introduced the fairies into the "Rape of the Lock." My moral will show how foolish was the poet's anger at, and suspicion of, Addison; for it will show how lamentably mistaken an indubitable genius may be when he takes the role of an unimpassioned and reasoning critic.
The points in Miss Wollstonecraft's account of the origin of Frankenstein are these: Byron, Shelley, and herself were confined by bad weather to a Switzerland inn. Byron and Shelley often speculated upon the principle and mystery and nature of life. In these discussions was the idea of "Frankenstein." A volume of German ghost stories fell into their hands, from which they read aloud for amusement, and they challenged one another to write a "ghost story." Byron and Shelley began their stories, but never finished them, for the weather cleared, and the poets went sight-seeing. For many days Miss Wollstonecraft could think of no story, but when she had quite given up the thought of writing, the creation scene of "Frankenstein" came to her, and she set about writing the story, intending it to be a tale, not a long account. Had she persisted in the plan of making it a short tale, those scenes that delineate the creation of the fiend, the evolution of his intelligence, and his pitiful account of his sufferings, than which there is nothing more pathetic, natural, and yet literarily artistic, in the language, all testify what an excellent thing it would have been. But Shelley advised her to make a long story of it, and she yielded her genius to his, and did so, with the clumsy and unreasonable consequences I have shown. There was no occasion for a long story, but she determined to write one, and began the process of "filling in" with the navigator's tedious and useless letters. The account of Frankenstein's early life is unnecessarily long; his love affairs without interest, and insipid; the description of scenery, except where preparatory to a revulsion of feeling, pretty, but inappropos; and that vile succession of needless murders is destructive of the fine sympathies aroused by worthy parts of the story.
Such is one of the most popular novels of the century, one that has retained its popularity amidst all the luxuriant fiction of the past eighty years; and such is the power of a few great ideas and noble descriptions to redeem a volume of tedious folly. John S. Smyth.