Assignment

Frankenstein

 

Examine critically the title page of Frankenstein and its thematic relationship with the text.

 

Frankenstein is a gothic novel by Mary Shelley that was first published in 1818. It is an epistolary novel in which a sailor, namely Richard Walton, sailing to the North Pole, is writing an account in a letter to his sister, of meeting Victor Frankenstein- a scientist of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry whose experiments led to the creation of a monster. Gothic was a genre of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. A rejoinder to the Realist novels, the gothic novels brought out the dark side of the human mind with emphasis on the fantastic flight of imagination. Gothic was also a genre of transgression and subversion; these elements evoked horror in the readers’ minds. Frankenstein is a novel of transgression and fantasy in the realm of human nature and science, a product of which is the Monster in the novel. The title page of the novel opens a certain horizon of expectation for the readers by referring to the two texts of Western mythology- Ovids’ Metamorphoses and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

 

Mary Shelley subtitled her novel with the words “the Modern Prometheus”. According to the Greek epic, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Prometheus was the Titan overreacher in the Greek mythology who created a living being out of clay in the image of God. He was condemned by Zeus by which his liver was to be devoured upon by an eagle everyday while the liver re-grew itself in the night, to be eaten up again the next morning. In another version in Hesiod’s Theogony, Prometheus stole Fire from gods and gave it to man for man’s survival on the planet. It is interesting to note that Romantics- close contemporaries and appreciators of Gothic writings for their imagination- had a very sympathetic vision of Prometheus. For them, he was the benefactor of humanity who was unjustly punished by a tyrannical Zeus; he was the “creator” and the “rebel”. This sympathetic view was reflected in Mary Shelley’s husband P.B. Shelley’s poem Prometheus Unbound (1819). In the light of the aforementioned argument, it is seen that the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was reminiscent of the theme of Faustian overreaching and creation.

 

The subtitle of Frankenstein, hint at the recurring theme of overreaching and destructive ambition in the novel. At the beginning, it is Richard Walton who seems to the overreacher; he passionately desired to sail across the North Pole for whose success he had endangered the lives of all the crewmembers. Within a few pages, Walton is displaced by the companion of his loneliness whom he meets in the ice covered sea, Victor Frankenstein. Victor’s story in all its horror, depict the transgressive impulses that he exhibited in creating a monster out if his knowledge of natural science. As Ellen Moers points out, “He defies mortality not by living forever but by giving birth”1. the way Prometheus had done it. Frankenstein not only pushes the scientific boundaries to the extremes, so that it becomes unbelievable, but also the socio-sexual limitations according to which by definition of being a Man he could never ‘give birth’. It is interesting to note that unlike the Promethean story, in which it was Pandora who had unleashed all kinds of woe upon mankind by opening up of the box given to her by Zeus, Frankenstein himself wreaks havoc on himself and in turn his family by the creation of the creature/monster. As Geroge Levine observes- “The family is an aspect of the self and self cannot survive bereft of its family.”2. Prometheus is cursed by Zeus that his liver will be eaten up by an eagle every day, while Frankenstein’s family and near family members are devoured by the creature; with all the members of his family, including his father, dead, Frankenstein self is lost. He becomes lonely and embarks on a journey of vengeance.

 

The fact that Frankenstein is a ‘Modern Prometheus’, Mary Shelley creates his character with a twist. He is not the benefactor of humanity who used fire (here, lightning) for the purpose of human survival but to quench his own insatiable ambitions. On the success or rather failure of his enterprise, with the birth of an ugly and horrible creature, he abandons it and runs away in a fit of desperate anxiety. It is this abandonment that turns an innocent being with possibly civil capabilities to become violent and vengeful against the whole mankind. The idea of ambition becomes “a central pre-occupation” in the novel with the juxtaposition of Frankenstein’s tale with Walton’s position. As George Levine notes,

“Walton is an incipient Frankenstein, in his lesser way precisely in Frankenstein’s position: ambitious for glory…putting others to risk for his work, isolated from the rest of the mankind…and desperately lonely.”

Pushing the above argument further, one can say that in a novel with multi-layered concentric narratives, Walton becomes another Modern Prometheus (in the sense of the transgressor) whom Frankenstein like the Ancient Mariner (from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner) keeps away “from his own fate”.2.

 

The second aspect of the title page of Frankenstein is the epigraph from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?——

These lines were said by the Post-Lapsarian Adam to God before leaving Eden, in Paradise Lost. These lines when juxtaposed with the Prometheus myth in the context of Frankenstein’s story complete the theme of the novel. Frankenstein’s desire to create a living being was an act of transgression by which he assumed the role of the Christian God. He gives up his responsibility towards the creature that he creates without a past and without an identity. Moreover, he abandons the abhorrent creature of ugly physiognomy to survive the hostile world on his own, teaching himself language, geography and the ways of the world. It is thus, that the creature questions his own creation by his creator, Frankenstein; in turn he also question Victor’s desire for glory, however failed, at whose altar he was sacrificed as an experiment that to a failed one. The creature’s words to Victor- “I remembered Adam’s supplication to his own creator; but where was mine?” come to a full circle in their intentions with the epigraph at the beginning of the novel.

 

Throughout the novel, Victor and the creature constantly play roles of God and Adam, and God and Satan. The birth of the creature with the help of lightning is almost like the birth of Adam in Eden when God said “Let there be light!/ And there was light.” The creature leads a life of innocence and ignorance trying to survive alone in the unfriendly social, physical and climactic conditions: he is driven away by the humans where he goes and lives on gathering his own food in the woods. It is with the knowledge that he acquires gradually during his hiding outside the De Lacey’s house that his transition from Adam to Satan is brought about. He becomes the Arch-enemy who realises his status as an “outcast…hiding in a shepherd’s hut”3.and jealously looking at the happiness and warm intimacy flowing among the DeLacey, of what he is only a mute and distant, unrecognised spectator but a recipient. As the creature tells Victor in Volume II, Chapter viii of the novel-

All, save I, were at rest or in enjoyment: I, like the arch fiend, bore a hell within me.

Just before this, the former admits-

Like Adam, I was created apparently untied by no link to any other being in existence…. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often like him when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

 

The title of Frankenstein opens up various entry points to its narrative and its themes. While the subtitle of “Modern Prometheus” reminds the reader of the Pagan myth of creation of mankind, the epigraph to the novel prepares the readers to see Paradise Lost as more than just an item “on the monster’s reading list”.3.

 

References:

 

  1. Moers, Ellen: “Female Gothic: The Monster” (1976)
  2. Levine, George: “Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism” (1973)
  3. Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan: “Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve” (1979)

 

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