Frankenstein: I Have Suffered Great and Unparalleled Misfortunes

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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.”)

Mathilda by Mary Shelley

I was shocked when I read Lolita. It was the first time I encountered a relationship between father and daughter which was anything but parental. Mary Shelley’s Mathilda explores the subject in another way; while Mathilda’s father admits his love for her, it is never consummated. Instead, it lies an emotional abyss which neither can cross until the day each dies.
Mathilda’s father wrote these words in a letter to her before he fled their home, “With every effort to cast it off, this love clings closer, this guilty love more unnatural than hate, that withers your hopes and destroys me forever…My child, if after this life I am permitted to see you again, if pain can purify the heart, mine will be pure: if remorse may expiate guilt, I shall be guiltless.”
What an awful position for Mathilda to endure. Her mother died in childbirth. She is raised in the loveless home of her aunt, while her father travels. When he returns, their happiness together is brief. After he admits his love for her, he leaves her once again.
Mathilda’s life is not one which knows love. Her only friend, Woodville, has suffered similarly in that he’s lost his love, Elinor. Mathilda proposes suicide to him, suggesting that death may be preferable to suffering. His answer is the most redeeming passage in this book of tragedy and loss.
“We know not what all this wide world means; its strange mixture of good and evil. But we have been placed here and bid live and hope. I know not what we are to hope; but there is some good beyond us that we must seek; and that is our earthly task. If misfortune come against us we must fight with her; we must cast her aside, and still go on to find out that which it is our nature to desire. Whether this prospect of future good be the preparation for another existence I know not; or whether that it is merely that we, as workmen in God’s vineyard, must lend a hand to smooth the way for posterity. If it indeed be that; if the efforts of the virtuous now, are to make the future inhabitants of this fair world more happy; if the labours of those who cast aside selfishness, and try to know the truth of things, are to free the men of ages, now far distant but which will one day come, from the burden under which those who now live groan, and like you weep bitterly; if they free them but from one of what are now the necessary evils of life, truly I will not fail but will with my whole soul aid the work. From my youth I have said, I will be virtuous; I will dedicate my life for the good of others; I will do my best to extirpate evil and if the spirit who protects ill should so influence circumstances that I should suffer through my endeavour, yet while there is hope and hope there ever must be, of success, cheerfully do I gird myself to my task.”
What wonderful words of hope! They encourage me in the purpose of man, perhaps as Shelley meant to do when she wrote of the monster-ish side of humanity both in Frankenstein and Mathilda.
Find Eva’s thoughts on this novella, which we both read for Frances’ Art of The Novella Challenge, at A Striped Armchair.