Why is all in Frankenstein amiss?

One thing I noted throughout my reading of Frankenstein was the difficulty of assigning blame. Yes, Victor created the monster, and then abandoned him, but the monster is not exactly an angel. We have the monster’s account of why he went bad: because he was isolated and alone, and had been rejected by humanity even when he only wished to do good. But this is only the monster’s account, and besides, even if he is isolated, he not only strangled a little boy but then purposely framed a young woman for the murder. The monster’s framing of Justine, in fact, was very troubling for me. At that point I was feeling very sympathetic with him and was ready to condemn Victor outright. But to slip the picture into Justine’s pocket? That was malicious, and almost seemed out of character for the monster—according to his own account of himself, that is.

How guilty is Victor? He does blame himself, at least on some level, and condemns ambition.

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no allow can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.

Victor is certainly guilty of violating this precept, but is it one we believe? Even Victor is not convinced, as Lawrence Lipking points out in his essay “Frankenstein, the True Story; or, Rousseau Judges Jean-Jacques,” when he says on his death bed:

Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.

I am not ready to condemn all ambition myself, and while I fault Frankenstein for many things I could not completely exculpate the monster. So I was relieved to find Lipking’s essay, after a sea of feminist and postcolonial criticism, admit that while Frankenstein has been interpreted to mean many, many things (it is a book where “students can be instructed in the infinite varieties of criticism and fledgling critics can cut their teeth on amazing new readings”), these many readings still form a consensus. The real consensus here is not for but against certain readings.

During the past few years, I have heard lectures on Frankenstein by several of the leading Romanticists of our time, whose approaches could hardly have been further apart. Yet when they referred to the novel, what they did and did not talk about proved to be remarkably similar. Here are a few examples, freely adapted from their general drift as well as that of other critics. Item: Frankenstein is the degenerate offspring of a dysfunctional family; Not Worth Mentioning: every character in the book loves and admires him. Item: Walton and Frankenstein are unreliable narrators; Not Worth Mentioning: the Creature is an unreliable narrator [yes!] (his narrative appears only within Walton’s account of Frankenstein’s account). Item: it is impossible to believe Frankenstein’s story of how he discovered the secret; Not Worth Mentioning: it is impossible to believe the Creature’s story of how he acquired language…. Etc., etc.

So while many contemporary readings are possible, a few are disallowed, based on the almost-universal tendency among critics today to view the monster unequivocally as a victim. But Lipking’s students, as well as the students of the other critics (according to the critics themselves), are as torn as I was about assigning blame to one or the other character. Apparently “ordinary readers…accept frustration, or keep on changing their minds.” Which was pretty much my experience. Lipking thinks this wise, as the basic questions raised by the novel “never receive a satisfactory answer or, rather, receive strong answers that directly contradict one another.” He traces this self-contradiction ultimately to Rousseau (well, ultimately to the world, but, you know).

Rousseau may be the expert on “what is Life?” but his final answer usually comes round to a version of “why is all here amiss?” Frankenstein ends on the same hanging note. It shows us that everything has gone wrong, and leaves us to search for reasons.

That is where it left me. That is probably why I enjoyed it so much; it pushes and pulls you and then just leaves you with everything amiss.

2 comments to Why is all in Frankenstein amiss?

  • The novel’s theory of language acquisition, and it’s use of Goethe, always strikes me as bizarre, and hilarious. Does the monster adopt Werther’s blue waistcoat and yellow pants? I don’t remember.

  • In fact the monster’s clothing was one of the things I found most hilarious—not on account of Goethe, though now I can’t help envisioning that, but because directly upon entering the woods he just happens to lay his hand on a cloak. People leave a lot of things lying around in the woods near Ingolstadt.

    I’m somewhat interested in what a person like Mary Shelley would have thought of language acquisition at that time. I have a feeling she would have honestly believed the monster’s education natural. I saw some interesting discussion of the scientists whose theories of life she would have been familiar with and, obviously, a lot on what she read and thought of pedagogy, but nothing on language acquisition (which I fear would have simply fallen into the latter category).

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