To Glut the Maw of Death: On Reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
I have often wondered to what degree my childhood experiences with literature shaped my current relationship with reading and writing. Unlike many adults who enjoy reading, I did not engage in reading as a pleasure activity in my youth. In fact, I only came to literature as an extension of my rebellious teen years, through my unquenchable thirst for hallucinogenic drugs and my obsession with Jim Morrison (the lead singer of The Doors), who – despite what you may think about him – was a voracious reader and closet intellectual. I read Dante’s Inferno because Jim Morrison read it. Likewise with Aldous Huxley, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Kerouac, etc. Were it not for drugs and Jim Morrison, I would never have gotten interested in literature. When I was a boy, I only read books I had to read for school — and even then, I did a pretty good job of not reading and pretending that I had. So while other kids were reading books like Frankenstein (for either an assignment or for fun), I was busy playing Atari or running around outside make-believing I was Indiana Jones, or, later, dropping tabs or snarfing shrooms till the trees began to speak.
I share this bit of bio for the purpose of illustrating how I come to literature in general – not as someone with a lifelong love of it – and specifically how it informs my reading of a text that I assume many people read in their youth. Only two short months away from turning 32, I have just now read Frankenstein for the first time.
Not only was this my first exposure to Mary Shelley’s novel, it was actually my first encounter with the story of Frankenstein: I’ve never seen any of the movies, cartoons, or any other versions. Thus, I was wholly unaware of even the basic storyline.
As a self-identifying aesthete (someone who tends to read for the pleasure of language, structure, and form, rather than plot, character, setting, or theme), I must confess that I typically find those latter elements irrelevant and even distracting – which, again, may have something to do with the development of my relationship to literature back in my formative years(?). But, and this is, for me, a huge but, I found myself extremely engaged in the plot and characters of this novel. It was a very strange (but pleasant) experience. Whereas I typically try to remain disinterested in the content of a novel, I continually felt a compulsion to scream at Dr. Frankenstein for being so cruel, and felt a sympathy (empathy?) with his creation. I began to question the merits of humanity in a conceptual manner I seldom attribute to the study of literature. It was weird, but cool.
Anyway, aside from my simple reader response to the text, I found much to consider. What follows are my notes on the text (scattered thoughts, reactions, questions, etc.) – with special attention paid to this idea of “the posthuman,” which occasions my reading of the book.
It seems that Dr. Frankenstein’s creation exhibits many of the characteristics and attributes one might identify as criteria for what constitutes a human: the use of tools, the use of grammar, the faculty of self-awareness, the display of emotions commonly attributed to humans, the awareness of right and wrong, the ability to discern beauty, rationalization, contemplation, and so on.
In fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation as anything other than human.
The cynical (and provocative) part of me wants to argue that Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is more human (whatever that means) than the “actual” humans – that the “actual” humans are the real monsters/demons. Where he shows kindness and compassion (helping to fetch wood for Felix, saving the little girl from drowning, etc) the actual humans are repeatedly cruel to him. If I am not mistaken, there is not a single instance in the entire novel of a human being showing kindness to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Not one person attempts to listen to him, understand him – but yet they should expect him to be something other than a murderous fiend?
Especially interesting is the fact that what seems to distinguish Dr. Frankenstein’s creation from the rest of humanity is the way he looks: that he’s ugly. But if being ugly were the criteria for making someone human or not, I’d venture to say there would be more non-humans than humans in the world.
This makes me also think about Judith Butler and the whole idea of bodies – deformed, disabled, etc. The body as performance. The “right” bodies and the “wrong” bodies. “Privileged” bodies and “subaltern” bodies.
Makes me also think about the distinctions previous generations made between civilized and savage, the exoticised Other and all that. The argument that there are people and then there are animals – Schopenhauer famously regarded women as less than human (as did a slew of idiots in our past) – wasn’t one of the main arguments for slavery this idea that Africans weren’t people, were less than human?
I guess that’s one spot where I’m stuck right now vis-à-vis the posthuman. If human is considered the teleological apex, then whatever is “other than human” would necessarily be worse than or less than – right? The notion that something other than human could be better than or more than human seems…I don’t know…hard to comprehend.
Of course, thinking of human as the apex of existence is only one (hierarchical) way of thinking. Perhaps this is one of the strengths created by the study of the posthuman – allowing us to consider nonhierarchical understandings of different species. ???
One of my favorite passages is this one where Dr. Frankenstein’s creation addresses him:
All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.
In terms of the structure of the novel – I noticed the movement as follows: the narrative begins in the epistolary form, moves to Dr. Frankenstein’s narrative, then to the narrative of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, then back to Dr. Frankenstein, then back to the epistolary form. All of the narrators are men.
Also interesting to note the overwhelming absence of women in the novel. And the women that do appear are passive receptors of information (i.e. Walton’s sister), rather than active creators of it.
Love is portrayed in a strange manner. Romantic love is (almost) completely absent – even when Dr. Frankenstein marries Elizabeth it seems to be for pragmatic rather than romantic reasons. Love in this book seems conveyed most often between family members – be it Walton to his sister in the letters, between Dr. Frankenstein’s family, between the family Dr. Frankenstein’s creation observes, etc. And when the idea of romantic love comes up (when Dr. Frankenstein’s creation requests an Eve) that creation is violently destroyed — just as Dr. Frankenstein’s wife is destroyed on the night of their marriage. So the fact that familial love is foregrounded, adds to the sorrow of the tale because of the fact that Dr. Frankenstein’s creation has no family.
Which brings me to the most resounding sadness of the text, which hit me hardest at the end when Dr. Frankenstein’s creation says something about how he is even lower than the Devil because at least the devil had companions, whereas he was totally alone. The isolation of being the other. The solitude of being different. Coupled with the desire to communicate, the desire to connect, the desire to be like those with whom you are certainly akin, was heartbreaking. I hate to be a sap, but it was. It was heartbreaking.