While in the midst of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, and discussing bits of it on Twitter, I mentioned to Frances and Thomas that the first time I read Frankenstein I was much more sympathetic to the monster. Now, at this rereading, I seem to have lost my patience with him. For it is not just the monster who endures terrible suffering due to a lack of human connection.
From the very beginning, Captain Walton expresses in a letter to his sister “one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy…”: that of a friend.
You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans.
This longing for connection, and the suffering that ensues from the lack thereof, dwells in all of the main characters: Captain Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and especially the daemon himself.
“Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me…Shall I not then hate them who abhor me?
Does being hurt, being an outcast, being angry at one’s creator, warrant hate or consequent murder?
The monster tries to explain his position:
“My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and when wrenched to misery by vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of change, without torture such as you cannot even imagine.”
The violence of change. Changing from innocence to knowledge, from love to hate, from man to monster. Surely change has been an unsettling constant for centuries.
Mary Shelley includes a few lines from her husband’s poem in this novel, without giving him credit, yet these lines bring an insight into the concepts she is trying to express about the power of change; about our lack of control:
We rest.—A dream has power to poison sleep;
- We rise.—One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
- Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:
It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
- The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
- Nought may endure but mutability!
~Percy Bysshe Shelley
But, the insight which I like best of all is how Henry Clerval reminds his friend Victor Frankenstein, “Those maxims of the Stoics, that death was no evil, and that the mind of man ought to be superior to despair on the eternal absence of a beloved object, ought not to be urged. Even Cato wept over the dead body of his brother.”
And what might Cato himself say to the suffering monster? Perhaps this couplet would have offered a piece of important wisdom:
If you can, even remember to help people you don’t know.
More precious than a kingdom it is to gain friends by kindness.
(From the publisher: “A towering masterpiece of Gothic fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein birthed the horror and science-fiction genres and spawned countless cultural offspring. In fact, its cultural progeny is so pervasive that we forget how radical, insightful – and, yes, terrifying- it is. In our Restless Classics edition, award-winning novelist and critic Francine Prose breathes new life into the book with a brilliant new introduction, Mexican artist Eko offers twenty-six harrowing full-page illustrations, and University of Pennsylvania English professor Wendy Steiner presents insightful online videos. Find out more about the series here.”)