‘The Colossus’, by Francisco de Goya ~ monster on the loose
Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned? ~ the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Monsters get a bad rap. They are recoiled from in horror. They are often marginalised and voiceless in texts that privilege the hero, the ‘goodie’, the protagonist. There are, however, texts that challenge the hero narrative. And those, like the 2013 zombie film Warm Bodies, that attempt to give voice to the monstrous.
Recently, Naomi Barnes has me thinking about monsters and about what being mindful of the monstrous might teach us. As well as her blog posts on monstrous identities and monstrous research method, we are working on co-authoring academic papers that play with assemblages, messiness and monstrosity.
So I’ve been mentally revisiting Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, a novel close to my literary heart. Today, Halloween, seems like an appropriate day to write down some of my musings about what Frankenstein might offer us.
Over the weekend I watched the 2015 film Victor Frankenstein, which, while breathing some life into aspects of the original story, manages to mostly butcher it. One of the most disappointing aspects for me, a common feature of film and popular adaptations of Shelley’s novel, is the grotesque and unsympathetic way that Frankenstein’s creature is portrayed. The creation is coldly portrayed as violent, scary, hideous and inhuman. Unlike its long journey in the novel, in the 2015 film the creature comes to a swift and ugly end.
In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein’s creature does indeed look hideous. Its appearance is the reason that almost everyone it comes across is afraid of it at first sight. But we see in the creature’s scenes with the blind man De Lacey how human, gentle and thoughtful he is. After his unnatural birth at the hands of Victor, he initially acts with kindness and curiosity, secretly helping De Lacey’s peasant family and showing a great deal of empathy and benevolence.
The novel gives the creature a voice and we see its potential for good and for love. But he never really has a chance. He is the product of unchecked scientific ambition, an assemblage of body parts dug up from graves, and the brutal force of lightning that seems to provide his “spark of being”. He is living dead. As soon as he comes to life, Victor says that “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” So the creature’s own creator immediately rejects him. Victor describes his own creation as “wretch”, “demon”, “villain” and “fiend”. While the creature is eloquent, he comes across virtually no one who will stick around long enough to hear him out. His existence, and the visceral human reactions to him, are a clear lesson in human prejudices. In the end, it is his rejection by everyone, including his creator, which leads him from childlike curiosity and kindness, to vengeance and death.
On the flipside, Victor, while described by others in the novel as “noble,” eloquent and “godlike,” shows many monstrous qualities. He is ego-maniacal, obsessive and unlikeably self-absorbed. He calls the creature “my own spirit let loose from the grave,” revealing his own internal monstrousness. Like his creation, Victor gnashes his teeth and is blinded by rage and vengeance. Like Prometheus of the novel’s subtitle, Victor is punished for seeking and creating forbidden knowledge.
Frankenstein and his creation are dual co-existing beings, doubles to one another. They are both human and monstrous. They mirror each other throughout the novel, highlighting the monstrous in the human and the human in the monstrous. The light in the darkness and the darkness in the light (à la Star Wars). Their duality is clear when the creature says to Victor, “you are my creator, but I am your master.”
Nature, natural creation and birth are presented positively by Shelley in her novel, while the unnatural is constructed as destructive. The reader of Frankenstein is constantly warned that “dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” Victor’s ambition to distinguish himself through his science is what creates his downfall, while his creature becomes more and more desperate the more he knows. Knowledge is despair.
So this Halloween, as an English and Literature teacher, a researcher, a teacher, and a human in the world, I’m wondering what this tale of the dangers of science, the prejudices of people and the monstrous and human in us all, might have to offer.
I’m sitting quietly with my thoughts of monsters on this All Saints’ Eve. Re-membering. Dis-membering. En-visioning.