the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, the 1931 film directed by James Whale, and the film score by Michael Shapiro performed by the Atlanta Opera on 10/28/2023

The last few weeks have been tough. Our group’s expansive, multifaceted experience of Frankenstein – re-reading the novel cover to cover, dipping back into my favorite bits of Paradise Lost, reveling in the weirdness of the film and enjoying the excitement of a group trip to the opera, plus our little group’s three discussions – was uncannily therapeutic for me. I love fiction best when it’s both an escape from and an immersion in the problems of life, and that’s how I experience the story of Frankenstein. So thank you for being willing to spend so much time with me on this story.

I’m going to record just a few of the key questions and points we discussed. I know I’m leaving a lot out, so please add more points, follow-up points, corrections or elaborations.

We talked a lot about the parallel-but-unshared loneliness of Victor and the creature, their craving for companionship, the fact that Victor seems much more intimately connected with Clerval, Walton and even his creature than with Elizabeth. One of you pointed out that Victor’s making of the creature is a kind of ‘procreation gone bad’ – something Victor does by himself, driven by a desire for fame and glory, instead of taking the familiar accepted route of marriage, babies and an ordinary life.

I thought Frankenstein would be a good chance to re-introduce a question one of you asked at the beginning of the semester: “Why do we tell stories?” We looked at the structure of the novel and asked this question of each ‘layer’ – Why did Mary Shelley write this book? Why does Walton write his letters to his sister? Why does Victor tell his story to Walton? Why does the creature tell his story to Victor? And why is Safie’s story necessary to the creature’s story?

With at least some of these layers, we found ourselves growing suspicious of the storyteller’s purported motives. Victor says he needs to tell his story as a warning to Walton: “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!” (Letter 4, Aug. 13). But by the end of the book, he’s really waffling: “Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.”

Does Victor really think he’s done anything wrong? Do we? What about the creature – do we condemn the creature, and if so, for what? I keep coming back to these questions, even as I recognize how boring it can be to look for moral lessons in literature. But I can’t help seeing Frankenstein as a text that asks big, essential, moral questions about the human condition: How do we cope with the fact that we’re capable of doing ‘bad’ things, that we sometimes want to do bad things, that we sometimes can’t even see how they’re all that bad?

Frankenstein’s creature said Paradise Lost was the most influential of the texts he read (ch 15). We looked at the passage from Paradise Lost that often appears on the title page of Frankenstein (“Adam’s adolescent tantrum”): “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man? did I solicit thee/ From darkness to promote me…?” (Canto X)

Later in that same Canto X is another passage I that I described to you, where Eve is talking to Adam about how to cope with God’s punishment. She suggests that they destroy themselves, or refuse to procreate, in order to save an entire future human race from pain and misery and death: “so Death/ Shall be deceived his glut, and with us two/ Be forced to satisfy his ravenous maw…” And then Adam talks her down, by trying to make God’s punishment seem like no big deal at all:

we expected
Immediate dissolution, which we thought
Was meant by death that day; when lo! to thee
Pains only in child-bearing were foretold,
And bringing forth; soon recompensed with joy,
Fruit of thy womb: On me the curse aslope
Glanced on the ground; with labour I must earn
My bread; what harm? Idleness had been worse;
My labour will sustain me…

In other words: Yes, we’ll have pain and drudgery and then we’ll die, but we’ll also have joy and interests and independence and other rewards.

This speech is a really beautiful demonstration, I think, of what a difference a companion can make. In addition to talking Eve down, Adam is talking himself down here – just a while back he was having his big adolescent tantrum at God; now that he’s faced with Eve’s despair, he’s able to rein in the drama and find some courage to deal with what they’ve been handed. Is this what Frankenstein’s creature had in mind when he asked for a companion?

It’s a very strangely written canto, and it’s not clear to me that Milton really believed in Adam’s pep talk. I kind of like that ambiguity though. The answer to these big moral questions isn’t simple; it’s one we have to keep asking, and I think Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s way of asking them again and again and again.

See also George Saunders’ essay ‘Writing in Hard Times,’ which was published on the day of our last discussion.

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