Round Peg in a Square Hole

A repository of reference material on a variety of subjects

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Creating Monsters

Have been listening to some old classic literature this year that I had never gotten around to before. It's interesting, in a lot of ways, but I'm also having some strong reactions.

First, I've found that I have to be in just the right mood to listen to them, because the old fashioned language and usage is somewhat opaque, and requires that I work harder to understand it and get into the story. Second, as a child of the 60's, who grew up on the 30-second commercial, I find that they are quite slow-paced for my taste, which can be good or bad, depending again on my mood. Thirdly, I'm hampered by having my first exposure to some of these stories be Hollywood's interpretation, and so have some difficulty in appreciating the original text. For example, Dracula, the book, is very different from the bits of Dracula movies I've seen over the years. And I had no idea that Robinson Crusoe was set in Elizabethan times; I had somehow got the idea that it was Victorian, or Regency at the very earliest.

But, I've really gotten torqued listening to Frankenstein. Again, the Hollywood interpretation had the monster be inarticulate and crude, unable to control his violence, at best, of evil intent, at worst. But that is totally at odds with what is presented in the book. First of all, Frankenstein creates the body, instead of stealing a dead one, so his horror of what the creature looks like when it is animated makes no sense. If he's so freakin' ugly, wouldn't Frankenstein have noticed that, before bringing him to life? And then, he just abandons the creature he has made, simply for the failing of being ugly. In fact, until halfway through the book, that is the monster's sole crime--to be ugly. My husband says that this is a function of the time the story was written in, that at that time, it was assumed that the beautiful were good and the ugly were evil, end of story. Not sure about that, but I do know that, if this was a representation of the ethics or morals of the scientists of the time, it's no wonder we got such a bad rep.

Let's get back to that abandoning thang. If Frankenstein had, indeed, decided that his creation did not deserve to live, then, by gum, he should have killed the monster himself, right at the beginning. Heinlein's quote is something along the lines of, "If it becomes necessary, a man shoots his dog himself." It's an issue of responsibility. I know, I know, Frankenstein falls ill right after the final experiment, but he had at least a day in which he could have done it. And why didn't he confine the creature in the first place? Again, irresponsible science.

So, it is not until after the creature manages to find a hiding place, learn language, learn ethics and caring (once he sees how hard the family has to work, he stops taking their food, and starts providing firewood, sweeping paths, etc.), all this after he has been run out of a village by being stoned, that he starts to become destructive. After he tries, and fails, to connect with the family he has been watching, and they run away, the creature burns their house down. But even at this point, he hasn't injured anyone. And the first death could arguably be an accident; it isn't clear that he meant to kill the boy, and he has remorse afterwards. His framing of Justine is a little out of place, and I don't think it flows naturally from the story; it feels somewhat contrived. And the creature has deep remorse at the end; granted, too late for all the dead bodies in his wake, but it is clear that he is not unremittingly evil.

Frankenstein, on the other hand, takes no responsibility for his actions. Yes, he wallows in guilt, but he does nothing to rectify the situation, until the very end, and is not successful in his aims before he dies. I guess I have to admit that, by not creating the partner the creature wants, he is taking some responsibility, but I feel that is too little, too late. And don't get me started on his inability to see that the creature will not kill him, Frankenstein, but those Frankenstein loves; maybe I'm being unfair to a character who did not grow up watching horror films and TV shows (EVERYONE knows you shouldn't go into the barn at night.....), but I find it hard to believe that that kind of sadistic twist was invented so recently. To my mind, the doctor was the monster, and monster was the victim, but I don't think that that was what the author was trying to convey.

It's possible I'm being unfair to Mary Shelley, in the same way I had trouble reading E.E.Doc Smith's Lensmen books. I kept feeling that they were trite and derivative, and had to keep reminding myself that all those books and movies I had seen with the same storylines had been copied from these books, not the other way around. So, maybe I'm not giving Ms. Shelley sufficient credit for, some would say, inventing the genre of speculative fiction, even if her effort still had a few rough edges. And maybe I'm wrong and she did mean for Frankenstein to come off as the bad guy, instead of the suffering hero. It just doesn't feel that way from the text.

UPDATE: I am reliably informed that she did, in fact, mean to convey this poor opinion of scientists. Huh.


  • At August 22, 2007 2:29 PM, Blogger Chris said…

    You pretty much sum up my thoughts on reading Frankenstein. Frankenstein (not "doctor" I think - I don't recall him actually graduating) creates life, is appalled by it, and spends most of the rest of the book moping. This isn't really speculative fiction, it's more gothic angst. The monster is far more the sympathetic character.

    I'm not sure the monster is bad because it's ugly more than it's ugly and bad because it's a crime against nature - man should not be creating life, etc, etc.

    (BTW, I've found your blog, and boy are there a lot of hoops to jump through to comment!)


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