“And now, with the world before me, whither should I bend my steps?” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

I am completing my third life-to-date reading of this classic, and am once again struck with the utter tragedy of the character of Frankenstein’s Monster. For me, the best – and most heartbreaking – portion of this book is the middle, where – after encountering his creation high in the Swiss mountains – Victor Frankenstein hears the story from the creature’s mouth of how he has spent the year since his creation.  Here we see, finally, some inkling from Victor that he bears some responsibility in the matter of the creation of “the monster” and its consequences. “For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were.” Of course, by this point, Victor may be poisoned beyond repair against the creature, as the latter has already committed the (at least to some degree accidental – “I grasped his throat to silence him, and in a moment he lay dead at my feet”)  murder of his younger brother.

But the saddest part is the story of the time he spent near the cottage of an old blind man and his son and daughter – and later his son’s lover.  It is by observing this family that the creature seems to be on the track to becoming human.  He even helps the family (“they suffered that evil (poverty) in a very distressing degree”) by resupplying their firewood on a nightly basis.  Upon the return of the son’s love – a beautiful “Arabian” – when the family begins teaching her the french language, the creature via his clandestine observations of the goings-on at the cottage is able to learn language right along with her.  He also has the convenient good fortune to find a bag containing three books (The Sufferings of Young Werther, Paradise Lost, and Plutarch’s lives).  He is able to learn from these books, and begins to form a plan to “introduce himself” to these people in hopes of winning their good will and “protection” from the wrath he has already found from other people he has encountered that have flown from him in horror.  He decides to approach the old blind man at the next opportunity, as he knows it is his physical appearance that sends humans into paroxysms of terror and fear.

At this point, I cannot imagine a reader not “rooting for” the creature, but yet every reader must also know this plan is doomed to failure.  When with the old blind man is by himself, the creature knocks on the door and upon admittance begins to tell him at least a toned down version of his pitiable existence and need for human succor, and is seemingly winning him over – until the younger, sighted members of the family return:

“Who can describe their horror and consternation on beholding me?  Agatha fainted, and Safie, unable to attend to her friend, rushed out of the cottage.  Felix darted forward, and with supernatural force tore me from his father, to whose knees I clung, in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently with a stick.  I could have torn him limb from limb, as the lion rends the antelope. But my heart sank within me as with bitter sickness,and I refrained.  I saw him on the point of repeating his blow, when, overcome by pain and anguish, I quitted the cottage, and in the general tumult escaped unperceived to my hovel.”

Even at this point, however, the creature still hopes there is a chance – and so does the reader.  Surely, the old man will tell his son and family  (“It was apparent that my conversation had interested the father in my behalf…”).  However, upon returning to the cottage, the creature learns that the family is going to flee the area permanently. (“‘It is utterly useless,’ relied Felix; ‘we can never again inhabit your cottage.  The life of my father is in the greatest danger, owing to the dreadful circumstance that I have related.'”)  The creature’s fate is sealed… “For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom.” It is at this point that the creature ponders the quotation that is the title of this post. The rest of the story is well known.

Reading this book has reminded me that I picked up an “unknown” (to me, anyway!) Shelley novel, The Last Man, at a used book sale about a year ago.  I am once again motivated to give that book a try as well.

What about you?  Have you read Frankenstein?  Were you as “surprised” as I initially was by the type of book it was (NOT a “monster story”)?  Can you believe Shelley began writing  this book at the tender age of nineteen?

Above: Boris Karloff’s interpretation of “the monster.” (Debuting the “sports jacket over t-shirt” fashion trend later popularized by Don Johnson on Miami Vice…)

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7 Comments

  1. Alex said,

    September 22, 2010 at 7:17 am

    I listened to the audiobook earlier this year and remember thinking that Victor must be one the most coward characters in Victorian literature. How could be abondon his creation like that?

    I agree with you on the cottage scene, it’s heart wrenching.

    Like

  2. October 1, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    I read Frankenstein in high school, and I admit that I was totally surprised. I was expecting a monster story like you said, but what I got was a wonderfully nuanced novel with one of the best tragic characters ever. The poor monster! I remember being so upset during that cottage scene. All he wanted was someone to love and understand him. I guess that’s what everybody wants really. I came out of that book hating Victor Frankenstein. How could he do that to his poor creation? It’s a wonderful book, and I am so glad I read it.

    Like

  3. October 2, 2010 at 10:01 am

    I’m very glad you found me through the hop, which gave me a chance to review your blog.

    This post seems to capture the essense of the novel… the horrible tragedy that befell the ‘monster’. The one point that I think needs to be mentioned, is that the search for knowledge can have dire consequences, and it is shown in this book. There are some things that humans should leave alone (and accept the unknown for what it is), because the results cannot be anticipated and are often irreversible.

    My semi-review here, with some good quotes at least:
    http://eclectic-indulgence.blogspot.com/2007/12/frankenstein-mary-shelley.html

    Like

  4. stentorpub said,

    October 3, 2010 at 7:02 am

    Thanks all, for the comments. I agree about the ‘cowardliness’ of Viktor Frankenstein. And EI’s comment about ‘some things that humans should leave alone’ appears to be more of a timeless theme than we would imagine.

    I have recommended this book to a lot of people over the years, most of whom needed coaxing – i.e., to assure them it’s NOT a “monster book”… I haven’t had any complaints yet!

    -Jay

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  5. October 4, 2010 at 4:19 am

    I have to say I found parts of the novel just a little ridiculous, especially where the monster receives his education, the hole in the wall school!

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  6. stentorpub said,

    October 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Ha ha, I can’t really argue with you there. That did stretch the bounds of credibility quite a bit (as did his providential finding of a knapsack full of books’ and not just ANY books either, but really good books) , BUT I guess she had to explain his intellect somehow…

    These authors get away with anything – I’m reminded of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – didn’t he find a chest floating in the bay with “everything he needed” at one point?

    Like

  7. Ellie said,

    October 4, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Dropping by to return the Hop – perhaps you saw my review of ‘Frankenstein’ this week when you visited?

    Anyway, I knew this wasn’t a MONSTER monster story when I started reading, but the Creature’s eloquence surprised me. I thought he was almost going to be a tragic mute figure – an innocent, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men. I found the cottage scene heartbreaking – that moment when all his hopes were crushed and he was cast out and beaten until he ran. I felt for Victor too, despite his self-obsession. This wasn’t exactly a ‘normal’ situation to deal with, after all! I’m just glad I didn’t read the book any earlier – I don’t think I would have appreciated it anywhere near as much a few years ago…

    Like


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