Thursday, January 16, 2014

Frankenstein Through the Lens of Henry Clerval

Victor Frankenstein is a character of emotion and reason. As we hear his tale throughout the first half of the book, we the readers sympathize with him and his passions. We know his motives in creating the monster, and understand his fears once his goal is realized. If we take the view of Henry Clerval, we only see Frankenstein’s extremes. Clerval sees his dear friend who has been driven crazy by his studies, and by an unknown experience. Seeing the novel through the eyes of Clerval makes us see Frankenstein as more of an emotional man than a logical one.
Clerval is static throughout the novel, while Frankenstein is dynamic. Clerval is nothing but a kind-hearted, optimistic, and supporting man. Frankenstein is extremely happy and hopeful when he leaves for Ingolstadt, but when he meets Clerval again, he is depressed and manic. Clerval is unclear about what made his dear friend so upset, but when he tries to ask, “My dear Victor! What, for God’s sake, is the matter?... How ill you are! What is the cause of all this?” he is only met with an incomprehensible response from Frankenstein (Shelly 58). Nevertheless, he nurses Frankenstein’s emotional health back to normal. Clerval never doubts Frankenstein; he gives no hints to thinking that Frankenstein has gone mad. He trusts that his friend has good reason for his actions. As the reader taking his perspective though, it is difficult not to think Frankenstein has lost his mind.
Since their childhood friendship, Clerval has had an interest in human nature. He was intrigued by, “The busy stages of life, the virtues of heroes, and the actions of men” (Shelly 29). As he grows older, he takes these interests and decides to apply them to the study of language. Even though his father disapproves of study (Shelly 37), he pushes and finally succeeds in joining Frankenstein at Ingolstadt. Seeing that Frankenstein has become ill from something he did while at school, he only defers his studies. Once Frankenstein has been revived, Clerval continues with years of schooling afterwards. It is strange that he is not deterred by Frankenstein’s sudden illness. He knows that something at the school did this to him, and a very influential figure in his life has expressed dislike towards studying in general. He must be a very self-driven character to desire to continue, despite the circumstances. In addition, Frankenstein joins him in his studies for lack of other things to do to keep his mind busy (Shelly 68). Yet Clerval never questioned when Frankenstein studied with him. He may have understood Frankenstein’s needs, but did not find it insulting that it is what Frankenstein chose to do. This was Clerval’s passion, and Frankenstein was merely studying for a pass time. He also may have thought that Frankenstein was being kind by partaking in a subject that he enjoyed; giving it a chance after his studies in science had seemed to fail him. Both of these events could have easily driven Clerval away from study, but he instead stayed. We see from Clerval that study can be either good or bad, depending on how it is used. Frankenstein’s knowledge turned evil, but Clerval’s was used for peace and would help him later in his endeavors. Frankenstein let his emotions and desires lead him to using his learnings to create a monster.
Once Frankenstein has recovered from the terror of his creation, a tragedy calls for him back at home. This is an understandable reason for Frankenstein to become emotional, but is worth some attention. Right before receiving the letter disclosing William’s death, Frankenstein describes himself as happy saying, “My own spirits were high, and I bounded along with great ingenuity” (Shelly 70). This feeling is an extreme difference from his long depression a few months earlier. Again, Clerval sees Frankenstein only at his emotional peaks. His joyous state, rocketing right back into a confused depression, must be hard for Clerval to grasp and support him through. He is understanding, and says a few words before he sends Frankenstein off to Geneva, but they focus on William and not Frankenstein. Although, he does end his monologue with “He [William] can no longer be a subject for pity; we must reserve that for his miserable survivors” (Shelly 74). Clerval does not only demonstrate sympathy for Frankenstein, but for everyone William has left behind, including himself. He remains the supportive friend through Frankenstein’s sadness.

In Robert Walton’s second letter, he expresses a need for “a friend who would have sense enough to not despise me as a romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavor to regulate my mind.” (Shelly 6) This is exactly what Clerval is to Frankenstein. Through his consistent friendship, we can more easily see the emotional changes that Frankenstein is experiencing. The reasons for his highs and lows are more clear and sensible to the readers, but the same cannot be said about Clerval. Even though he may not understand, he is supportive and a good friend.


Kristen Welsh said...

I found your analysis of Clerval and his relationship to Frankenstein very well thought-out and analyzed. I particularly liked that you compared Frankenstein’s relationship with Clerval to his relationship with Watson. Intellectual people seem to find the need to be with someone else who can understand their wildest dreams. Your extensive use of quotations to support your analysis strengthened your essay, and you used them very effectively in trying to prove your point. On a side note, I just want to point out that your focus is remarkable – you lead every point back to how Clerval makes us see Frankenstein as a more emotional man. If you are looking to expand your essay, I think it would prove worthwhile if you examine why it is that Clerval and Frankenstein grow up to be two very different individuals, since they grew up in the same environment, and with each other no less. Do you believe that Clerval has made an impact on Frankenstein’s life at all? While the overall tone of the essay was excellent, I think it would benefit your essay if you were to use a more active voice. For instance, you write that “he must be a very self-driven character to desire to continue”, but I think that your essay and argument would be stronger if you were to change “must be” to “is”. Overall, I was very impressed with your essay!

Adam said...

Your thesis is clever and clearly stated.

One thing I'd like to see in the 2nd paragraph is a sense of what Clerval is giving up to nurse Frankenstein - he's giving up the beginning of the university studies for which he has striven so hard.

One difficulty in the third paragraph is that you're not thinking very hard about the nature of Clerval's studies. It's not as obvious to a contemporary reader, but if you reread it carefully I'm sure you'll follow it. Clerval studies "oriental languages" in order to aid the process of European colonization of India and the middle east. Understanding that will help you to understand the nature of his determination, the practical aspect of his studies, its relationship to his childhood fascination with tales of chivalry (search for chivalry in an electronic text of the novel), and its relationship to Frankenstein's differenty-yet-similar obsession with knowledge and power. I know none of this is really *easy* to get from the text for a modern reader - I'm just pointing out that Clerval and Frankenstein are not quite as different as they might appear from a surface reading. I think you could have done better by focusing more on the text in depth, rather than summarizing/speculating, which you do a little too freely here.

I like how you connect back to Walton again, and his desire to be regulated by a friend. You've taken on a pretty complicated subject, and the fact that you miss some of what's going on with Clerval damages your reading, but I still think you're on to something here, and it would be interesting to see a revision. If you revise, you'd need to deal with the aspects of Clerval that you struggle with here, as well as including their relationship through the end of the novel (Clerval and Victor travel to England together).