The English department of my university sent a suggested summer reading list. I’m going to write my thoughts about each one so I don’t forget them. First up is Frankenstein. What is this book about? Here’s what I think:
When Frankenstein was a child, he threw himself into the study of chemistry, which was pretty much alchemy in his time. You may remember that alchemists were those medieval scientists who tried to turn common metals into gold, claimed they could raise the dead, and/or searched for the philosopher’s stone. These early scientists were hungry for notoriety, riches, God-like power, and they expected that these would naturally come as reward for their toils in the alchemy arts.
One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.
You can imagine it was a passionate business. The philosophies of alchemy were grand and unbound by the limitations of nature. Frankenstein was wrapped up in and enchanted by the study of this as a youth. It did not help that Frankenstein was a little conceited. “So much has been done…more, far more will I achieve…I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” Events ensued that made Frankenstein’s tale a cautionary one. If he had not attempted to give life to a human unnaturally, his little brother, house servant, best friend, wife, and father would still be alive, and Frankenstein would not have been as emotionally and physically anguished as he was for much of his life. Maybe this book is about the perils of misguided ambition.
Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.
Or maybe it is a story about how having knowledge makes an individual feel responsible for making use of it, and how that can be dangerous.
…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
In Frankenstein’s case, he used his knowledge to play God. We know how that turned out. In the case of the monster, he was happier and more benevolent when all he knew of the world was himself and the cottagers who lived near him. But when he learned of the world focused on class differences and wealth and connections, he began to question his place in it. He asked himself, “Who am I? What am I?” This self-awareness proved dangerous.
The monster had learned how to make a fire by accident, but even this accidentally acquired knowledge was so destructive that it later engulfed what was the monster’s home and school for more than a year. Knowledge disillusioned him and made him miserable. His misery made him murderous; the monster said so himself.
Frankenstein could be about companionship; more specifically, without equal companionship, one is predisposed to be miserable. Walton, in the beginning of the book, is in great need of a friend who would appreciate his ambitions but will temper them. He found this friend in Frankenstein. The monster was miserable because he was alone. He observed the cottagers for over a year. He loved them like family, and he has hoped that when he revealed himself to them, they would treat him as such after, of course, getting over the shock of his appearance. The very opposite happened, and this was the incident that preceded the first murder in the book. The monster eventually begged Frankenstein to make him an equal.
If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion; the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes.
Companionship equals emotional well-being is a major theme.
1. In psychology, we learn that behaviors inform our attitudes. There is a good example of this in the book. The monster had been fighting against what seemed to be an evil nature with human remorse and human despair, but when he kept committing monstrous acts, the monster gave himself up to what seemed to be his nature. He reconciled his evil urges with his appearance.
I had cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish, to riot in the excess of my despair. Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen.
This is the moment he really became a monster.
2. After Frankenstein’s closest family and friends are dead, he swears revenge on the monster. The monster lets Frankenstein chase him. The monster says that being forced to live in his present state of woe would be greater revenge than being killed. Maybe, by initiating the chase, the monster was helping Frankenstein carry out his vengeance.
3. In the end of the book, the chase takes its toll on Frankenstein and he asks Walton to kill the monster for him. Frankenstein dies, the monster appears at his side, remorseful. That remorse is confusing to me. He had spent the better part of the book making the man miserable, cursing him, but now he seems upset over his death. He suddenly has no passion for being evil, only a desire to end his own suffering.
When the monster framed the girl for his first murder, he thought “the murder I have committed because I am forever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone.” I think this logic has something to do with his change of heart after Frankenstein’s death. The monster was angry with humankind for treating him with contempt, for being afraid, for hating him. His victims had to suffer for causing his suffering; the murders were the victims’ own faults. Now Frankenstein, his last victim, is dead. He has no one left to blame for his deeds, so he feels the full force of his wretchedness. Maybe the monster had not been sad over the death of Frankenstein, per se, but what the death meant for the monster. It means an emotional and philosophical transition. He’s no longer fueled by hatred, only remorse for his evil. He resolves to kill himself.
4. You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense is a book of poetry by Charles Bukowski.