A few posts ago, I mentioned a new project I’m working on that involves a whole stack of gothic fiction I want to read or re-read, picking up on certain tricks and wordplay to increase that eerie atmosphere. Unlike most of the biggest gothic fiction out there, mine leans more towards fantasy than horror, but learning from the greats is never the wrong way to go.
Based on no particular order, I chose Frankenstein first, and as I was reading about Mary Shelley’s life, it made me realise that this reading project might make for a fun blog project as well. In no way will these posts be meant as comprehensive – I left my critical analysis and essay-writing days behind me in University – but I figure I’ll share my thoughts on what I pulled out of it, if only as motivation to read it as closely as I intend to.
She had an interesting life. At sixteen years old, she ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley and her step-sister, nicknamed Claire. He was still married to his first wife, Harriet, at the time, although they were estranged. It seems to be that the three lived a somewhat open relationship, with evidence that Shelley romanced both Mary and Claire, although it was Mary he finally wed in 1816, two years later, when Harriet committed suicide.
For the next six years, Mary watched Shelley have a string of affairs — which reportedly didn’t bother her as they believed in free and open love; however, when Shelley encouraged her to have an affair of her own, she turned down a family friend, preferring to remain a close friend and nothing more.
At the end of those six years, with one living son, Mary suffered Shelley’s loss when he died at sea. On her death — brain cancer — they mixed her ashes with the remains of Shelley’s heart that they found in her desk drawer.
With a life like that, is it any wonder she’s the author of one of history’s most loved horror novels? Frankenstein was conceived while in Geneva. Her, Shelley, and Byron, while watching the elements of the scene around them, losing themselves in German ghost stories around the fire, dared each other to write their own horror tales. Then Shelley and Byron went travelling, and Mary was the only one to complete the task.
I first read this novel a few years ago, and, while I remember enjoying it at the time, I much preferred it the second time around. It’s a fascinating perspective on human nature. In many ways, the sins Frankenstein accuses his monster of having are the same from which he suffers. If he had taken the time on the monster’s awakening to teach him, maybe the monster might never have entered in on his murder streak. She looks at the danger of losing oneself to passion, to excess; the dangers of witholding compassion, and trying to run from mistakes without dealing with them. Lots of great themes to mull over and appreciate.
From a “gothic” standpoint, she uses the weather a great deal to set the tone, which is an accepted trope. Pathetic fallacy, to return to my university days. The intro and conclusion is the oppressive setting of the Arctic sea, pressed in by ice and cold, which are trouble for the human race, but don’t affect the monster. Storms, rough seas – they all make an appearance. She also uses the juxtaposition of beautiful weather to offset Frankenstein’s misery. Elevating it to something as beautiful as the mountains around his home.
Her language is a wonderful touch as well. I even picked up some gnashing of teeth. Her descriptions of moonlight – there’s one paragraph, spoken by the monster, that uses three different expressions to refer to the moon: “a radiant form [rising] from among the trees”, “the bright moon”, and “the orb of night.” I like the transformation in the descriptions. The first reference is before he has any idea what it is, just awakening to life around him and after that it changes into a deeper appreciation, because the night keeps him out of sight.
She focuses on Frankenstein’s lapse into madness and despair, and describes the transition beautifully. Do I want to smack the man a number of times throughout the story? Yes, yes I do. In many ways, Frankenstein is NOT a likeable character. If he had spoken up to anyone about his project, if he’d warned his family, not turned his back on his creation, showed some compassion — but hate and disgust, of himself and his creation, kept him silent. And a certain degree of arrogance in the beginning, as well. Just as he has a hard time feeling pity for his creature, I have trouble feeling sorry for him. I’d rather feel sorry for his family. But that’s only as I read it this time around. When I come back to it in another ten years, I might look back at this post and laugh at myself for being so silly and naive. I wish I knew what I thought the first time I read it.
Have you read Frankenstein? What are your thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment below – I’m open to discussion to break apart the mysteries of Shelley’s novel in order to put together a creature of my own 😉