Thursday, January 12, 2012

Frankenstein Prompt #1

Julia Carpey

Professor Adam Johns

Narrative and Technology

12 January 2012

The role of a parent, specifically a mother, is one of the most glaring themes in Frankenstein. More specifically, the theory surrounding the loss of a parent’s presence tends to run thick throughout the novel as the reader observes the multiple characters’ struggle with the absence of a parent. This is first seen in Elizabeth as her mother dies first in child birth and her father’s somewhat mysterious absence (whether it’s from death or devotion to other areas of his life is never specified) is made a key part of her story. Her adoption into the Frankenstein family from the poverty stricken “foster home” she previously inhabited quickly allowed Elizabeth to establish her own role in the family. First as the dutiful daughter and sister, but with the death of her adoptive mother and Victor’s biological mother, she took on the role of the primary maternal figure in the house. The passage below displays just that:

“She indeed veiled her grief, and strove to act the comforter to us all. She looked steadily on life, and assumed its duties with courage and zeal. She devoted herself to those whom she had been taught to call her uncle and cousins. Never was she so enchanting as at this time when she recalled the sunshine of her smiles and spent them upon us. She never forgot even her own regret in her endeavours to make us forget.” (Shelley p. 37)

Much like a mother puts her children first, Elizabeth did so when grieving the loss of Caroline by doting on her family to guide them through their mourning before outwardly indulging in her own mourning process.

Later on in the novel, the reader can see that Victor Frankenstein subconsciously attempts to fill the void left when his mother passed by attempting to play that role himself. Many people believe that Frankenstein tries to cheat science or equalize himself with G-d by attempting to create life on his own. However, when looking at the bigger picture, one will recognize that Victor is simply trying to use his role as the creator to make up for the absence of his creator in the most basic sense.

“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.” (Shelley, p. 53) This seen is leading up to the ultimate birth of the monster. Victor knows that this is the moment of truth when all of his work over the past few years will prove to be either a success or failure. The anxiety and agony that he feels is akin to the anxiety, nerves and agony the mother literally physically feels as she enters childbirth. The instruments of life around him which he collects to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing” can be directly correlated to those instruments which a doctor uses to assist the mother in child birth. As the paragraph continues we feel a sudden yet temporary serenity and excitement as the monster takes its first few breaths, matching that which is described in the delivery room:

“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!” (Shelley, p. 53)

The half-burnt candle and “half-extinguished light” describes the final exhausted defeat Frankenstein felt as his creation was just coming to life. He watched the creature open its eyes, take its first few breaths, watch the limbs quake and took in his accomplishment. Frankenstein was initially filled with such heavy amounts of pride that he only saw the beauty in his work before he was then repulsed. The sense of astonishment and pride in something physical and animated is a feeling which nearly all mothers feel, and which matches Frankenstein’s feelings at the creature’s first few moments of life.

As the novel progresses, the creature is perpetually seeking its creator for psychological nourishment, comfort and acceptance, a subconscious desire for all children. When the creature realizes that its creator has essentially disowned him, he then seeks for those positive reinforcements from others surrounding him, another common action in children who do not receive the appropriate attention from their parents.

The novel can be looked at as a theory for the absence of a parent, particularly a mother for a majority of the primary characters. This can directly comment on Shelley’s lack of a maternal figure in her life given the fact that her mother died early in her life. This, in turn, can serve as a subtle commentary on the vital role women play in society despite popular belief during the time which this was written.


Dana Edmunds said...

You do a good job parallelling the creation of the monster to childbirth, but I'm more fascinated by this argument through the lens of gender, which you do focus on, over the theme of the abandoned child. The weakest part of your essay is the discussion of the death of Elizabeth's biological parents, which I would argue didn't have a very strong affect on her character. Your discuss of Elizabeth's emotional strength during Caroline's death is interesting in comparison to Victor's lack of emotional control throughout the novel, but I don't think there's enough textual evidence to support that Elizabeth or the other female characters had any real agency, despite their female sensibilities. I think you should focus this essay instead on the idea of gender reversal, which you discuss when you talk about Victor as a failed mother who attempts to "birth" a child, not necessarily to fill the void of his mother, but instead because he sees his "love interest" as a mother, and rejects the natural right of female conception. Why does Victor fail as a mother and what is Shelley trying to say about the role of males and females? You delve into this at the end of the essay when you discuss the monster as an abandoned child.

Adam said...

I'm in agreement with Dana on everything. Rather than repeating, let me expand instead. As Dana establishes, and as you clearly understand, Elizabeth is herself an abandoned child, who is welcomed into another home, but finds herself with heavy (and particular) obligations within that home. Yet, mysteriously, even though Elizabeth is the one who is expected to fill the mother's shoes, Victor mysteriously does so, but does so almost in reverse, but creating and then abandoning the child.

"Why does Victor fail as a mother?", Dana asks. It's a good question. One might suggest that Victor is a failed mother - or one might argue that his attempt to displace or end motherhood as a whole (by eliminating even its theoretical necessity?) is the real failure.

At the risk of creating a mere blizzard of questions, then, here are some more.

1) What is Elizabeth's role in the family, and how is that role enforced or created by gender as understood with the family?
2) Same question for Victor.
3) Same question for the mother.
4) Is Victor rebelling against or enforcing gender norms, by creating the monster?
5) What gender role(s) does the monster fill?
6) What is the relationship between Elizabeth's apparent slavish fulfillment of gender expectations, and Victor's bizarre rebellion?

Maybe that's too much. My point, following on Dana, is that while pointing out that there is a theory of childhood and of abandoned children here, you seem to really be more interested in questions of gender. Maybe you should be addressing questions of childhood (and abandonment) through gender, or vice versa, but you need to find some way of bringing all the threads of this essay together.