Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Frankenstein: novel of ideas

Frankenstein is about so many things I hardly know where to begin.
1/ I wrote the other day about Frankenstein's certainty in the monster's guilt based on nothing. That turns out to be more significant than I thought- the monster's story is indeed about people's horror and hostility and their refusal to give him any chance, about human beings' hasty judgement and focus on outward appearance.
2/ Mary Shelley's not necessarily against science, but Frankenstein's apparently a warning against going too far in science.
I don't count how many times these words appear in my copy (1818 text), but in the Gutenberg version, the word "ardent" appears 10 times, "ardently" 10 times and "ardour" 13 times.
3/ Regarding the monster's learning and development, Marilyn Butler sees it as "an allegorical account of the progress of mankind over aeons of time". His evolution is speeded up, "he masters in turn speech, reading, and political economy".
Funnily enough, what I had in mind while reading the narrative was quite different: I was thinking of 1st language acquisition, Chomsky and universal grammar.
4/ Frankenstein is the monster's creator and can also be seen as his God, or his parent.
In the 1st case, the novel questions the responsibility of the scientist to his works, the responsibility of the creator to his creation. Frankenstein thinks about neither his creation nor the world, and doesn't really care what the monster may do to others. He's driven less by love for science and humanity than by his egotism- he wants to see how far he can go and what he can achieve and whether he can succeed where his predecessors have failed.
In the 2nd case, the monster refers to himself as Adam, but identifies with Satan. The scene of him watching and envying Agatha and Felix is like the scene of Satan watching and envying Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. Thus the novel both warns and mocks those scientists who want to play God (e.g. trying to find the elixir of life).
In the 3rd case, Frankenstein's an irresponsible parent, an absentee parent forcing his child to survive and learn everything by himself. Connected to it is the nature vs nurture theme. Frankenstein's monster is clearly not evil by nature, but turns bad, angry and vengeful through experiences. Hatred begets hatred.
This is not refuted by the monster's description of his encounter with William, Frankenstein's little brother: "Suddenly, as I gazed on him, an idea seized me, that this little creature was unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity". The little boy however struggles violently and cries "monster! ugly wretch! you wish to eat me, and tear me to pieces- You are an ogre". 
The boy is told about ogres, and learns to fear them. This fear of anything foreign is taught.
(What does that sound like? Racism).  
5/ Ignorance is bliss. Several times the monster says that knowledge makes him more miserable.
Does that make Frankenstein an anti-intellectual book? Not necessarily. But I may have to come back to this later. 

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