I came to a literary epiphany yesterday. I’m attending this year’s Readercon, which deals with science fiction and fantasy. There are panels and discussions about the genre, looking at it from an academic and analytical perspective. Now I love literature and particularly love analyzing it and seeing why it works the way it does. It’s one of the reasons I love being an English teacher, and would love to be a professor someday. In a sense, Readercon feels like a weekend of classes just on the literature I love. Yesterday I went to a panel about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life in a love/hate relationship with the novel.
I love the book; the story is interesting, the structure of the frame narrative is well-done, and the themes and motifs are timeless. Shelley’s discussion of pushing scientific boundaries and the ethical issues that then arise are as pertinent today as they were in 1818, if not more so. But I realized a few years back that I hate the characters with a fiery, burning passion. This dichotomy of feeling doesn’t confuse or trouble me at all; I find it really interesting and a tad amusing that I can love a story so much, but hate its characters equally much. I usually tend toward stories (in books, games, and movies alike) that are driven by characters. Most of the characters who drive stories, I find I like. But Frankenstein is driven by characters whom I intensely and profoundly dislike, which is why I think I enjoy the story so much.
But I’ve never quite understood exactly why I have such strong feelings of hatred for Shelley’s characters. Because I don’t just dislike them, I hate them. I’ve taught the novel in my British Lit class for the last eight years and I usually preface my unit on it by telling my students that I hate the characters. Part of it is me drawing them in: a teacher admitting they don’t like something about what they’re teaching? Nice! And another part is me being honest. I can’t in good conscience say I like the characters. Of course they always ask me why I hate them, and I’ve never had a truly good answer until yesterday.
The panel about Frankenstein was largely about the encouragement to expand our knowledge. Much of the discussion centered on her points about the ethics of pushing scientific boundaries. Anyone familiar with the novel will know that Victor Frankenstein’s most egregious breach of ethics is abandoning his creature the moment it comes to life. Of course everything just goes downhill from there.
I don’t hate Victor because he made a breach of ethics. I hate him for how he handles it. He runs away, he whines, he endangers his family and friends to the point of death. Even when his younger brother is killed by the Creature and Justine, the family maid is on trial for it, Victor remains silent. Justine is convicted and executed, despite the best efforts of the Frankenstein family to save her. And then Victor feels so guilty he wants to kill himself. Later on, the Creature asks for Victor to make him a suitable female companion, and Victor begins the task, only to decide he doesn’t want to, by projecting his fears onto his creation. This results in Henry Clerval, his best friend, being murdered. Then Elizabeth, his fiancee, is killed and Victor’s father dies of grief. So Victor’s actions have resulted in all these deaths, and he wallows in the grief he brought upon himself, only to vow vengeance.
Victor can’t cope with anything, and he spends the novel blaming the Creature rather than looking inward and realizing his abandonment has driven the Creature’s need for revenge. It drives me crazy that he just won’t take any responsibility for any of it. Yes, it’s a hard thing to do, but as more people begin suffering as a result of what he’s wrought, Victor needs to get over it and confess.
But why do I hate everyone else, especially when most of them end up dead and therefore worthy of pity?
Because they let him get away with it.
- Victor’s father is a loving man who provides for and creates a comfortable, safe home life for his family. That Victor’s creation ruins all that can be seen as a betrayal by readers. But early on Victor spends more than a year on his work, so absorbed he doesn’t write or communicate with his family at all. Victor’s father only gently reprimands him in a letter (which Victor never replies to). He never comes out and calls him out on all of it.
- Henry Clerval is little more than a golden retriever trapped in a human’s body SQUIRREL! Um, sorry. Anyway, Henry is left behind when Victor goes to Ingolstadt; Victor ignores his friend as much as he does his family. Henry is never upset by this; in fact, when Victor finishes his creature then runs away and wanders the streets, he runs into Henry, who joyfully informs him he’s now at the university. Victor falls into a feverish state, and then Henry cares for him rather than focusing on his education. And Victor never thanks him or shows appreciation. And when Victor decides to go make the female creature, Henry tags along SQUIRREL! Drat it! Sigh. He tags along never wondering what’s going on, or asking Victor to confide in him. He just lets Victor lead him to his death. He’d have been better off with the squirrels.
- Elizabeth. Where do I start? She’s extremely passive, which is odd coming from a female writer, and especially from a female writer whose mother penned “The Vindication of the Rights of Women”. We could get into a whole thing about Shelley writing in the early 19th century and female writers etc., but the bottom line is Elizabeth’s passive and Victor would get as much out of a cardboard cut out as he would her. The two are pretty much soul mates, except for the fact she has no soul (and not in a bad way). He is secretive, moody, and selfish; he keeps their engagement drawn out because of the Creature. He endangers her life. The Creature says “I will be with you on your wedding night!” And Victor thinks it’s all about him. He worries what Elizabeth will do without him; how will she survive? Ad nauseam. Elizabeth sees all of this, experiences it all, but never calls Victor out on it. He has secrets that make him run off for extended periods, and she never wonders what’s going on. He stretches out their impending marriage and she just smiles and says, “Whatever you want, dear.” He is essentially having a relationship with his creating and she never moves on, never decides enough is enough, never talks to him about it. He says, “I’ll tell you everything after we’re married.” Her answer? “Okay!” This isn’t a good basis for a relationship, and yet she never calls him out on any of it, and moreover, tacitly approves of it.
And there’s the rub. Everyone tacitly approves of what he does (or doesn’t do). The only one who calls Victor out on anything is the Creature, and because of his preconceptions about the Creature, Victor doesn’t listen to it, and in fact feels completely justified in making all of his choices. How would the novel be different if Victor’s father sat him down after William’s murder and said, “We need to have a talk, because your behavior isn’t acceptable”? How would Victor change if Elizabeth said, “Screw you, I’m going to find a man who appreciates me and doesn’t take me for granted”? And moreover, would he change? Or is he so set in his pattern of selfishness that he can’t?
It’s hard to say on any of these. And I wonder that if there could be change, and if the characters did step up and let him have it, if I would still love the book the way I do. I think the fact that I hate the characters is what makes me love the book. They evoke such a visceral reaction in me that I love to read it. But understanding why I hate them was a big step for me, and a big literary epiphany. After fifteen years of Frankenstein, nearly half my life, I finally understand something more about it on a whole new level.
And that is why literature is awesome.