When I first picked up this novel by Many Shelley, I expected the ‘horror and the macabre’, as described by The Guardian. However, my experience was the complete opposite. I found it to be a most tender reading. Admittedly, it is grotesque in a number of ways. Joining different body parts from different human beings can hardly be described as a pleasant reading. The murder of a child especially to a parent is revolting. Nonetheless, beneath this creative license to astound, are the themes that pins the novel’s appeal. These are the pursuit of knowledge, acceptance or the need for friendship and the therapeutic effect of the great outdoors.
The Pursuit of knowledge
The novel is commenced through four letters (isn’t that what makes for a tender read?), written by Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Saville. Therein, he states his purpose and we see the pursuit of knowledge and raw human ambition at play.
‘I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements…’
This pursuit of human knowledge is later on seen when Frankenstein enters the scene.
I was capable of…intense application and was…deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge…The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.
To find out the end result of this ‘curiosity’ you might just need to pick up the book as well.
Acceptance/Need for Friendship
As Robert sets about to leave his mark in the annals of human history, he has a deep seated desire that is best described in his own words
‘I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil, I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend.’
It is in Robert’s journey northwards, that he encounters Frankenstein, in a frail condition and on the brink of death.
Robert takes him in and his desire for a friend is realized.
I said in one of my letters, my dear Margaret, that I should find no friend on the wide ocean; yet I have found a man who, before his spirit had been broken by misery, I should have been happy to have possessed as the brother of my heart.
Nonetheless, it is in the ‘monster’ own words, that the desperate need for companionship forcefully breaks through.
‘Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
He hid from men, and while doing so observed a family of three and studied their ways, as an anthropologist would do.
‘When I slept or was absent, the forms of the venerable blind father, the gentle Agatha, and the excellent Felix flitted before me. I looked upon them as superior beings who would be the arbiters of my future destiny. I formed in my imagination a thousand pictures of presenting myself to them, and their reception of me. I imagined that they would be disgusted, until, by my gentle demeanour and conciliating words, I should first win their favour and afterwards their love’
As he narrates his ordeals, one cannot help but ask who the monster here is. Man or him?
‘To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing.’
I must confess I found the monster’s narration to be the most moving portion of the novel.
The Great outdoors
I have written before on the soothing effect nature has often afforded me. I occasionally get bouts of depression that not even my dear wife can help in alleviating. I can always tell when that black cloud is about to descend. I feel it in my bones. Before I met the LORD, I would drown it in alcohol and dissipation. It seemed to work but only for a while. In the LORD, I found a cure. I found it in his creation-landscapes and wildlife. Perhaps this is why Frankenstein greatly appealed to me. To read of another soul being healed by the beauty of nature is absolutely wonderful. And I can only ask of you, dear reader, as Walton asked of his sister, ‘do you understand this feeling?’
Here are snippets from the novel showing what I mean.
‘I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling?’
‘Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions seem still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth.
The weight upon my spirit was sensibly lightened as I plunged yet deeper in the ravine of Arve. The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side, the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence — and I ceased to fear or to bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements, here displayed in their most terrific guise…he very winds whispered in soothing accents, and maternal Nature bade me weep no more…I remained at the window watching the pallid lightnings that played above Mont Blanc and listening to the rushing of the Arve, which pursued its noisy way beneath. The same lulling sounds acted as a lullaby to my too keen sensations; when I placed my head upon my pillow, sleep crept over me; I felt it as it came and blessed the giver of oblivion.’
‘They congregated round me; the unstained snowy mountaintop, the glittering pinnacle, the pine woods, and ragged bare ravine, the eagle, soaring amidst the clouds — they all gathered round me and bade me be at peace.’
Ah, Mary Shelley, barely at nineteen years of age, you bequeathed future generations with deep insights into the human nature. While many may read Frankenstein and shrink with horror, I will always read it teary-eyed, with that golden commandment ringing true in mine heart…
‘Love your neighbour as you would love yourself’