Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lies, All Lies

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley, Read by Tom Casaletto, Brilliance Audio, Inc., 1993

This is the story of a fraud. You’ve probably all been told and taught and repeat that it’s the tale of how man shouldn’t mess with what is clearly the realm of god, how brazen scientists who will stop at nothing will be destroyed by their own hubris, and how the tale stands as a Promethean allegory for our time as we pursue knowledge at any cost.

Nothing doing.

From beginning to end, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one complete lie, fabrication, and alibi. The entirety of Victor Frankenstein’s researches and experiments are a fantasy, a most implausible attempt to throw off his (and possibly another’s) guilt and to accuse a most conveniently unreachable suspect.

To reread the novel with this idea in your mind is to suddenly stumble over one glaring inconsistency after another that suggests the vaguest outline of truth. It probably doesn’t bear going into the plot of Shelley’s novel, its contours so famously well-known by this stage (mostly through films, some classics, some just plain awful, some middling), though if it’s been some time since you’ve read the book, a few elements of my analysis might be obscure.

First, we must discuss Shelley’s structure. The classic old-style tale within a tale, we have three narrative threads running through the book, each new one fully contained within the preceding. The novel opens with letters written by Robert Walton, a polar explorer, to his sister back in England. While up north, he encounters Victor Frankenstein (supposedly pursuing the monster), who relates to him the story of his life up to that point. In the midst of Victor’s story, he relates the tale he says his monstrous creation told him.

Each successive layer of this particular onion is less trustworthy than its containing narrative. Victor’s hearsay account of the monster’s activities are related to us as the hearsay contents of Walton’s letters. A virtual hearsay squared.

Primarily, there is one simple fact we can take away from all three narratives — outside of Victor, only one other person claims to have seen this monster, Walton himself. According to Victor’s narrative, which is the bulk of the novel, all other people who see the monster die at his hands. Convenient doesn’t begin to describe this state of affairs. For all we know, Victor kills Walton and writes his letters to his sister, planning a disappearance under a new name after the polar expedition.

The part of Victor’s story that has always bothered me, from my very first reading of the novel back in junior high school, involved Victor’s attempts to create a female companion monster for his original. He mostly completes his labors then suddenly fears that the male and female monsters will reproduce leading to a race of super monsters.

Now, we are expected to believe that a man who is so well-versed in anatomy that he can stitch together various bits and pieces from diverse bodies, a man who can craft a monster of superior strength, speed, and size when compared to normal humans, a man who can then animate this cobbled together creature with life-giving electricity lacks the sense to build his female monster sans womb. It beggars the imagination. It isn’t as though wombs were some obscure organ like the pineal gland in those days. It has been well understood since at least Biblical times what part of the anatomy babies come from. If Victor is as good as he says he is, surely there’s nothing stopping him from leaving out anything vital.

But to back up, we learn from Victor’s tale of the first creation that he and he alone put this monster together, in his apartment in a house, that somehow he obtained large body parts that over several weeks he kept fresh and lively, and that he stitched them together in this residence without a single other tenant raising a fuss about the stink. Fans of eighteenth and nineteenth century novels will appreciate how impossible it would be to keep anything of the kind from the other tenants, indeed how impossible it was in those times to keep practically anything a secret from your fellow borders.

This same monkey business is repeated in the later scenes of Victor’s composition of the female companion monster. He tells us he rented a small cottage on a mostly deserted smaller Orkney island off the coast north eastern Scotland and began construction. How are we supposed to imagine he kept these body parts fresh? And where on such a deserted locale did he obtain the corpses necessary to provide vital organs and limbs? As electricity wasn’t a regular going concern in the early 1800s, even in Ingolstadt where the first monster was built, with what means precisely did Victor expect to juice up this new body with the spark of life?

(Fans of Kenneth Branagh see that he at least tried some novel explanations in his film adaptation, at one point including a scene involving a tank full of electric eels.)

Setting aside these clear problems with composition for one moment, let us then turn to Victor’s convenient history of mental illness. Upon several occasions in the novel, Victor is suddenly struck sick with various fevers, nervous exhaustions, and other semi-comatose states. The first comes after he allegedly builds the monster, conveniently allowing the creature to escape, a singular occurrence that around dawn a nearly eight foot tall, sallow, yellow-skinned presumably naked being could dash off through the town and not attract any attention at all. Other blacked out periods of Victor’s life not so coincidentally fall around the times of the few murders that punctuate the book.

And just as in most cases the police will tell you the first suspect is someone who knows the victims, we find that first Victor’s younger brother, then his best friend, and finally his wife all meet their ends at the hands of this monster he claims to have created. It’s all pretty slick for him. Any feelings of guilt he might betray, any nervousness, any part of his story can be explained by pointing to the invisible monster seen by no one but Victor and his victims.

But for me, one of the most damning inconsistencies in Victor’s story takes us back to the Orkney Islands. Not even considering the above mentioned difficulties in completing his work on such a remote locale, let us turn to what happens after Victor decides against completing the female monster. Destroying the body, he fills a basket with the parts “determined to throw them into the sea” and goes from there.

“Between two and three in the morning,” he claims, he “sailed out about four miles from the shore.” Under cover of darkness, Victor dumps the basket overboard, then lies down and takes a nap. He awakes to find “the sun had already mounted considerably.” A north-east wind had arisen which “must have driven me far from the coast.” Driving before the wind, “[s]ome hours passed thus, but by degrees, as the sun declined towards the horizon, the wind died away into a gentle breeze, and the sea became free from breakers…when suddenly I saw a line of high land towards the south.” Without a sail, Victor makes one “with a part of my dress.”

And where, pray tell, does he land? Ireland. Where he is accused of the recent murder of his friend Henry Clerval who he had left waiting for his return in the Scottish town of Perth. Now, if we accept Victor’s “The Monster did it, the Monster did it,” line of defense, we have to swallow several rather large improbabilities at this specific point.

Number one: somehow in the course of one day in a small skiff, mostly without benefit of sail, Victor claims to have piloted his craft from the Orkney Islands in north eastern Scotland all the way to Ireland, a distance of several hundred kilometers. Recent correspondence with an Orkney Island ferry boat company (as well as common sense) informs me that this is frankly impossible. Look at this map (that little squiggle at the top is the Orkneys). We are supposed to believe that Victor sailed all this distance, never once caught sight of any other land, passed by the Hebrides without incident, and made it down to Ireland in one single day? Hardly.

Point number two: In chapter two of volume three of Frankenstein, we are told that Henry Clerval and Victor parted in Perth. Like the Orkney Islands, this is more toward Scotland’s easterly side. In the course of this self-same day in which Victor disposes of the body parts and sails to Ireland, the monster, having left the night before, manages to leave the Orkneys, travel the hundreds of kilometers back to Perth, find Henry, kidnap him, travel the couple hundred kilometers to the Scottish coast, steal or rent a boat, sail to Ireland himself, then strangle Henry and deposit his body on the shore.

Point number three: despite Victor’s sailing about as the prisoner of the random forces of a storm at sea, the monster is not only able to locate his creator, but to estimate his time and location of arrival in Ireland, and to get there before Victor and leave the body of his friend in time for it to be discovered by the villagers, thus framing Victor for the crime.

Now, I ask you, does any of this seem even remotely plausible? And before one goes about suggesting that Shelley didn’t mean the Orkney Islands or wasn’t familiar with the terrain and made some mistakes, she was just a slip of a lass of nineteen at the time and so on, let us consider her own words, from the author’s introduction: “I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable time in Scotland. I made occasional visits to the more picturesque parts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee.”

Now, in part the above holes I’ve picked in the Frankenstein story are part of a larger piece of fiction I am writing, but at the same time, having researched several scholarly works on Shelley’s novel, I’m stunned to note that only one book to my knowledge actively suggests that Victor’s tale might be considerably less than trustworthy. Arthur Belefant’s insightful and brief Frankenstein, The Man and the Monster makes some of the same points and suggests certain motivations for Victor’s behavior. His work is a rather fascinating glimpse at just how much incest obsessed Shelley (and her husband as well) and proposes an aversion to this as being behind Victor’s murders.

I make no similar suggestions at this point as I’m not entirely certain the context of Shelley’s novel would completely support Victor being so horrified by the notion of marrying Elizabeth (his first cousin in the 1818 version of the novel; an unrelated waif taken in by the Frankenstein family in the revised 1831 edition) that he might kill in order to prevent consummation. The marriage of first cousins or even those who’ve lived under the same roof was far more common in the nineteenth century and it was neither looked down upon by law or custom in those days.

In fact, I mention Belefant’s book solely to point out how few scholars or readers have suggested Victor’s tale being chock full of lies, obvious and easy to prove lies and inconsistencies, the most glaring ones pointed out above. What’s more remarkable in all this is that even Belefant, hot on the trail of Shelley’s possibly deliberate holes in Victor’s story, manages to miss the sheer impossibility of Victor’s voyage from Orkney to Ireland, the single most unrealizable thing in the novel once we get past the reanimation of dead matter. If we were to try to find a hook on which to hang the idea that Shelley wishes us to read Victor’s story as obvious lies, this one seems singularly well-suited.

Of course, in the end, there is a kind of corroboration for Victor’s story in Walton’s final pages to his sister wherein he enters Victor’s cabin only to find the monster hovering over his creator’s body. The monster delivers a small speech to Walton that in part confirms what Victor had said previously. I hold this to be mere fabrication, as much as Victor’s story of the monster is. Perhaps Walton has, by this point, likewise seen through Victor’s story. He is after all, sailing north and would note the impossibility of Victor’s Orkeny-Ireland journey. Perhaps, having realized a madman was his guest, Walton then killed Victor and himself blamed the monster. This would be a delightful irony and a suitable end for such a tall tale.

Reader Tom Casaletto delivers his rendition with a slightly accented turn of phrase lending it a touch of the Germanic for the scientist. His various voices often display what feel like unlikely accents lifted from geography and dropped into the story, though this is reserved for minor characters who have little more than a line or two. His deep purring growl for the monster's voice is the best feature of the book, though it is apparently difficult to keep up as it slides into softer, gentler tones during the monster's monologue. Elsewhere, his sonorous tones have a pleasing quality as well as manage to deliver a decent shudder when he reaches moments of horror.


Anonymous said...

I was just recently directed to your web page and your analysis of Frankenstein. I appreciate your mention of my book. Of course I agree with your analyses, except for the reason Walton has a conversation with the Monster. As I point out in my book, that last part of Frankenstein was written by Percy Shelley, not Mary. Not only do I hold that position but several other critics also do.
I am indebted to you for a more detailed analysis of why Victor could not have sailed from the Orkney Islands to northern Ireland than I state in my book. Although I visited the Orkney Island in my research on my book, I am not a sailor and relied only on maps for my analysis, not winds and tides. Thank you. I am now revising my book for distribution this fall. In that revision, I have a picture of Victor’s hut on Auskerry in the Orkney Islands.

Arthur Belefant.

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theoldtree said...

Great stuff. I might add that another amazing improbability is that the Monster, purportedly abandoned near Ingolstadt, manages to learn French (and find French books) at an obscure cottage in Germany. The monster also implies in its narrative that Frankenstein's notes (which he discovers in the cloak that he adventitiously procured on his semi-conscious journey out of the apartment) include records of the repulsion and horror F. felt at the original creation. Impossible. Frankenstein doesn't stop to record his reaction, and he doesn't return to the apartment until the monster is gone.

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