Thursday, January 17, 2013

“The Positive Mirror: Henry Clerval In Frankenstein” – Taylor Hochuli: Blog Essay #1, Prompt #2

               Throughout the grim tale of Victor Frankenstein and his ambition gone wrong, there is one light that only makes the miseries of Frankenstein more apparent. This character that shows the more righteous, correct path is Frankenstein’s childhood friend Henry Clerval. While Frankenstein sinks deeper and deeper into depression, the reader of Frankenstein sees Henry flourish and grow even happier. It creates a distinct contrast that shows a counter character to the confused scientist. Henry represents something more when analyzing why he continues to remain happy while Frankenstein descends into woe. Through the lens of Henry Clerval, an observant reader can see the opposite of Frankenstein to emphasize the effects of over ambition and the benefits the better ideals.

                Both Henry Clerval and Frankenstein have ambition to be the best in their field, but their differences emphasize the wrongdoings of Frankenstein. At the beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to Henry Clerval as a chivalrous being who reads and loves stories of knights and grand adventures. In the words of Frankenstein, Henry, “occupied himself, so to speak, with the moral relations of things,” and that he had, “made doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition.” (pg 19-20, Shelly 1994) He is worldlier and his dreams are plausible in real life. His dream also demands good character and leadership, making him work on his personality more than the secluded, anti-social Frankenstein. Henry has the dream to, “become one among those whose names are recorded in story, as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species.” (pg 19, Shelly 1994) His ambitions are specifically to benefit mankind and help others rather than himself. In a way, he does achieve his dreams becoming recorded in Frankenstein’s narrative as being a perfect individual by Robert Walton. Henry’s ambitions lead him to become a better person rather than defy nature and show the misguided ambitions of Frankenstein. The mad scientist has many, “enquiries (that) were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.” (pg 19, Shelly 1994) Frankenstein is obsessed with the non-worldly and wishes to defy nature instead of improving it. He wishes to see the secrets behind the universe for no other reason but to find them. Frankenstein’s goals have no particular benefit to himself or society unlike the giving Clerval. All Clerval does during the novel is attempt to better himself and help Frankenstein, essentially nursing him back to life after the grief of the monster makes Frankenstein bed ridden. The morally just ambitions of Clerval bring him happiness and make him a better person, compared with the other-worldly ambitions of Frankenstein that lead to a life of torment.

Along with this difference in ambitions, their course of pursuing their differences rewards Clerval while the reader witnesses the horror of Frankenstein’s impatience. Frankenstein does not have respect for nature and attempts to defy it as quickly as he attains the knowledge. Frankenstein moves along in his work so quickly that there is not enough time to think about the moral consequences of his actions. Frankenstein directly says, “Idleness had ever been irksome to me,” right before he creates the monster that plagues him for the rest of his life. Henry on the other hand, represents the best way to go about pursuing ambition. He is held back from going to college by his father who, “was a narrow-minded trader, and saw idleness and ruin in the aspirations and ambition of his son.” (pg 24, Shelly 1994) This fear is exactly what happened to Frankenstein as he finds ruin while pursuing his aspirations in science. Holding back Clerval from such education teaches him not to find a similar kind of ruin by relentlessly going after his passion. He leads up to his goals rather than jumping straight to the end. Instead of learning a language and running off to India in search of adventure, he learns the trades of his father and then goes to, “the university with the design of making himself a complete master of the Oriental languages,” before, “[pursuing] no inglorious career.” (pg 44, Shelly 1994) Clerval limits his ambitions and works up to his goals rather than demanding immediate satisfaction and travelling to the Far East.

The payoffs of subduing ambition and working on one’s moral character are seen by the success of Clerval and his enjoyment of life while Frankenstein continues to wallow in his own misery. After hearing the monster’s tale, Frankenstein joins Clerval to go to London. On the journey, all that Clerval can discuss is how wonderful the landscape and the sky are. Instead of this, Frankenstein, “shut up every avenue to enjoyment,” and continued to be, “occupied by gloomy thoughts.” (pg 112, Shelly 1994) After such a long absence of Clerval in the novel, he returns happier than ever while Frankenstein is even more depressed. The moral choice of Clerval is rewarded with his ability to appreciate nature with “ardour” rather than just the admirations of others. (pg 113, Shelly 1994) While Frankenstein goes from a hopeful, happy childhood to toil and depression, Clerval sees the opposite effect. He goes from being repressed by his father to gaining freedom and enjoying wilderness. Although he certainly is hampered by the poor state of his best friend Frankenstein, Clerval still sees his condition improve as he moves toward his dreams of adventure. Even Frankenstein notes this when he says, “Alas, how great was the contrast between us!” and, “in Clerval I saw the image of my former self; he was inquisitive, and anxious to gain experience and instruction.” (pg 112,115, Shelly 1994) Having such an innocent person continue to benefit, the author shows the bias toward Henry Clerval’s line of thinking. Watching the events through Henry’s lens and watching his development express this fact. By keeping his ambitions in check and allowing himself to remain worldly, Clerval allows himself to increase his happiness in the novel while the author sends the overambitious Frankenstein into a spiral of despair.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1994. Print.


Roger Sepich said...

I think this is a well-written and detailed essay that gives good information about the contrasting personalities and ambitions of Clerval and Frankenstein and how that affects their actions and emotions throughout the novel.

But after re-reading the prompt and then going through the essay again, my only real grievance was that there possibly could've been a stronger argument. I like the passages you've cited, but I didn't get a good sense of your argument until the final paragraph. If you emphasize your belief that the author intended for readers to realize that positive people such as Clerval live more fulfilling lives than overly ambitious people such as Frankenstein (and possibly state this thesis more clearly in the introduction), then I think your essay would be much more rounded and convincing.

Hope that helps!

Adam said...

The first paragraph reads well; the argument, however, seems a little vague. Clerval provides a contrast, certainly - a contrast, minimally, in mood, as you point out. You shift from mood (which is somewhat obvious, although still worth mentioning) to ambition, though - that Clerval is unambitious is far less obvious, and requires close attention to who his character is developed in the text.

"Both Henry Clerval and Frankenstein have ambition to be the best in their field, but their differences emphasize the wrongdoings of Frankenstein." - this is good, and observant, but emphasizes the point that you don't (yet) have a clear argument. I actually think the whole of the second paragraph is excellent and detailed. One caveat: you seem to simply accept, rather than thinking about, Victor's claim that Clerval's ambitions are moral. For both us (I assume) and Shelley (as is quite clear) the sort of imperialism he is interested in are problematic.

The argument that Clerval's father and his beliefs give the kind of restraining influence that Victor needs is really very interesting. It *could* be your main focus - maybe this could be an essay about *why* Victor lacks restraint and Clerval is restrained (note: Clerval is associated with the middle class, Victor with the upper class - is that important to their difference?)

Overall: This is an intereresting and thoughtful first draft. The paragraph structure is a little clumsy (long and unfocused) and while you have an excellent handle on the details of Clerval's character, I don't think you are really yet backing up your belief that he is morally different than Frankenstein. The raw materials may be there, but your analysis, which gets tangled up in irrelevant details to some extent, doesn't really present a detailed argument about moral difference. I think that's what you want to do, and I think you're close to doing it - your argument just needs to become a little more precise and your evidence on it more focused.

Note that Roger, too, found the main argument underdeveloped...