Today we discussed whether Walton and Victor actually learn anything from the tale Victor tells. This approach led to a discussion of unreliable narrators and how Shelley's structure (the frame narrative) adds a great deal of complexity to the events of the story, since we cannot help but question the motives behind any given narrator's version of events. As Meg Lowry suggested, frame-narrative structure automatically underlines such questions as transmission, audience reception, and unconscious motivation. The predominant issue could therefore be said to be psychology (both that of the speaker and his/her audience, hence the issue of doppelgängers). We might recall, regarding this issue, the unreliability of Odysseus' narrations in the Odyssey, Books IX-XII. This unreliability is especially the case when a reader hears the stories told by Victor and the monster, since each is invested in defending his own actions. We examined, for example, those instances where a reader might question Victor's decisions, particularly his inability to see that the monster's threat--"I will be with you on your wedding-night"--was directed at Elizabeth not himself. Victor's final speech to Walton's crew--"Be men, or be more than men!" (239)--also suggests that he himself has not learned the dangers of allowing one's desires for glory overshadow the concerns of others (one's family, for example, or one's crew). We spent a good deal of time analyzing Victor's conflicted speech on p. 241:
I feel myself justified in desiring the death of my adversary. During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature.
As students pointed out, Victor thus damns himself since it is clear he did not fulfill his "duty" insofar as he abandoned his then-innocent creature immediately after creating him.
One could say that Mary Shelley is offering the reader an "alternative Romanticism" that is embodied perhaps in the figures of Clerval and Elizabeth, specifically a love of poetry, a dedication to one's family, an acceptance of one's responsibilities, and compassion for all creatures. We could also read Clerval's preference for pastoral landscapes over the sublime landscapes of his homeland (pp. 182-182) as an implicit critique of the sublime and the Romantic values that are associated with it (particularly what is figured by Kant and Burke as the masculine desire to reach some truth beyond the veil of everyday existence). We also spent some time discussing Mary Shelley's oblique critique of the Romantic hero's narcissism, selfishness, egotism, elitism and even misogyny. (Thanks in particular to Meg Lowry, Melissa Young-Spillers, and Beth Dick for leading us in this fascinating discussion.) Lane Sanders, Melissa, and Maria Weir also discussed the ways in which issues of education (especially the education of women) is being foregrounded in Mary Shelley's novel, thus tying the work to historical changes in Shelley's time (the rise of the novel, the rise of the middle class, the formation of a mass market, rising literacy rates among women, and the debate to extend university education to the middle and even lower classes). It may not be a coincidence that the monster learns to read while looking over the shoulder of Safie during her education in the De Lacey domestic idyll.
We also spent a good part of the class discussing parallels between Frankenstein and Paradise Lost. We began by reading the section where the creature describes the books he found to read. As one student brilliantly suggested, we have here the very movement we've been discussing in class from the external actions of a shame culture in Plutarch's Lives to the increasing internalization of values that proceeds through Milton's Paradise Lost and reaches an apogée in the Romantic hero of Goethe's Werter. The following chart pinpoints some of the connections we came up with between Frankenstein and Paradise Lost:
Parallels Between Frankenstein and Paradise Lost
creator of monsters/ rebel against patriarchy?
a female other/ a motherless orphan (Intro. p. 11)
creator of an innovative epic tale?
author/ desire to be a poet (51)
a rebel against authority/ satanically ambitious?
chooses personal glory over the safety of others; desire for knowledge (about the North)
author of an innovative epic tale?
Creator of a race of beings (82); also, author (he edits Walton's text, p. 234)
tormented over-reacher/ carries a hell within himself (116, 227)
innocent child until eats of the tree (see p. 214); knowledge brings sorrow
gives birth, usurps the role of women
justifies the ways of Victor to man (example: 216)
Victor's master (194)
spurned by creator (128, 134, 157, 158, 245, etc.); chooses evil (195, 244); hubris (235); bears a hell within (163). In this case, as Melissa suggested, the creation does manage to defeat his God (Victor), a sort of wish-fulfillment, given the Romantic re-reading of Paradise Lost.
primordial innocent (159); Victor's Adam (128, 159, 193); from knowledge comes grief (148, 158)
breeds death; he is a marginalized "other"; is compared to Eve (142); woman is a monster according to the Prometheus myth Lane offered that the monster resembles Sin (both beautiful and ugly, a result of Victor's pride).
justifies the ways of the monster to Walton (245), as Michelle Beauchane suggested.
We finished by discussing some of the reasons why each character can be paired up with so many possibilities in Paradise Lost. As Luke Jacoby suggested, perhaps this is a further example of the internalization of epic form. As in Wordsoworth's "Prospectus," we no longer need to exteriorize good and evil or the angels and demons. Like Wordsworth, Mary Shelley can pass these "unalarmed" ("Prospectus," line 35) since one can say that the psyche of any individual includes both good and evil, and the struggles that result. As Wordsworth states, nothing
can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man. (38-41)
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