Saturday 31 October 2015

The Birth of the Frankenstein Myth: Happy Halloween from the Secret Victorianist

Few works have been so continuously adapted as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818), and few have led to so much confusion about the tale and the actors in it, down to the very names of student Victor Frankenstein and his un-christened monster.

To celebrate this Halloween, I thought I’d write a blog post, looking back at the ‘birth’ of the Frankenstein myth and the moment the scientist gives life to his monster.

Boris Karloff who played the monster in three films between 1931 and 1939
Shelley writes:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

The night-time setting of this moment of animation has been preserved in many versions of the story, but, if you’ve not read the novel before, you may be surprised to find certain details ‘missing’. Frankenstein’s power to grant life to a body crafted from cadavers is left deliberately vague. The scientist will not share this secret with Captain Walton to whom he tells his strange tale, and, in Shelley’s version, there are no lightening bolts or sparks of electricity.

Charles Ogle as the monster in 1910
With the tunnel vision that a first person voice can provide in fiction, Shelley directs us to telling details. We know the monster is alive because he ‘breathed’ but Shelley also hints that his life is not purely physical. The first thing Frankenstein notices is the opening of the creature’s eye, suggesting to us that this monster has an inner life, and its own perspective, from the moment of its birth.

Frankenstein’s monster is also better looking than we might have thought him. ‘Lustrous black’ hair and ‘pearly white’ teeth are not exactly the attributes we have come to associate with this Halloween favourite. While some of the reasons for Frankenstein’s disgust are rooted in the appearance of the monster (not many people, it’s true, can pull off black lips or look good with watery eyes!), much of the horror he feels could indeed be a manifestation of his own guilt at taking on the role of a creator.

His observation, in particular, that the monster’s ‘yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath’ could just be the skewed perspective of the maker who has worked to connect these arteries and muscles. One reason this paragraph is frightening for the reader is because it reminds us that our own bones and sinews don’t lie that far below our skin.

Iconic literary moments can often come to surpass the words they were first written in, but there’s always something to be gained from going back to the beginning and analysing the language that made them so powerful.

Are you doing anything inspired by the nineteenth century this Halloween? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

1 comment:

  1. Sure, the book concerns the pitfalls of creating new life; however, it is REALLY about free love, atheism, morality, religion, and the suicide option all stirred up inside a teenager's head who probably spent way too much time with Byron (brooding malcontent) and Percy (free love, baby). I also believe the doctor represents Mary, and the monster her relationship with Percy and the destruction that relationship unleashed upon their lives. What a novel!