Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mary Shelley

January, 2013: Andy brought home Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) because he knows I am a big fan of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of Vindication on the Rights of Woman (1792).  Poor Mary senior died a few days after giving birth to Mary junior.  A Cowra heatwave seemed an appropriate time to read a dark, snow-bound tale like Frankenstein.  

Shelley was only twenty-one when she wrote this; I have to remind myself to cut her some slack.  I was disappointed by the story-telling, which was very basic: first, there's the narrative told in letters from young Walton to his sister, then he begins to makes notes of a narrative as told him by a man his boat picked up in peculiar circumstances, and then this narrator (Frankenstein, who is not the monster but the scientist), passes the narrative baton over to the very well-spoken monster for a while, then the baton goes back to Frankenstein, and finally ends up where it began, with Walton.  Narrators are surprisingly difficult to manage; when they're retailing a story someone has told them, the question is: how much of the narrator's own story does the reader need to know, i.e. how interesting does the narrator need to be?  Too interesting, and the reader wants to know about the narrator's story, not the one he or she is narrating; not interesting enough, and we lose faith in the narrator's worthiness to guide us through the story.  Joseph Conrad is the master of narrators.  He makes his narrators mysterious, enigmatic, and occasionally opens them out as real, active characters at the end.

My main problem with Shelley's tale is that our main character, Frankenstein, remained pig-headed and unchanged from beginning to end.  What I wanted was - to use the modern parlance - for him to take responsibility for what he did.  This is what his monster wants as well.  But Frankenstein's emotional development goes from thirsting for knowledge, in the first few chapters, to regretting, for the rest of the book, this thirst for knowledge.  He takes the lid off the can of worms, then tries (in vain) to stuff the worms back in the tin.  It's not very interesting.  Much more interesting, and helpful, is seeing characters deal with unwanted knowledge, because that's what we all have to do.  Every time the monster pleads with Frankenstein to help him - seeing as he created him - Frankenstein ends with, "Begone, you daemon!"  I kept waiting for some sign that the author knew how annoyed I was getting with stupid old Frankenstein, but it never came.  I suppose we simply have to view Frankenstein's sorry end as the author's disapproval of what he did.  But some change of heart towards the end would have been a great climax.

I wanted Frankenstein to be kind to his monster, and introduce him to his family, and help him make friends and find a place in society.  That would have been interesting.  But Shelley set out to write a horror story, not a human-interest story.

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