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July 26, 2013

Telling It Like It Is: FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley

Welcome back, readers! Does anyone else feel like there’s no escape from all the Royal Baby Hype? Like, the kid’s more famous after a day than any of us will ever be? Bitter some? Nahhh. All respect to the Duke and Duchess and little prince baby George Alexander Louis, but this week we’re going to get down and dirty with some scary good themes and tell Mary Shelley’s notorious monster of a novel, FRANKENSTEIN --- a book that’s pretty much the exact opposite of the royal baby. Or kind of the same. Depends which literary theorist you subscribe to, you know? So let’s dive right in to this ambiguously characterized bad boy.

FRANKENSTEIN is written in epistolary form, which means it’s a series of letters from Captain Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville (idk if anyone needs a reminder, but letters are kind of like old-school emails, except written on this thing people used to use called paper). Walton, a failed writer (is there any other kind? Zing!), is exploring the North Pole in pursuit of some grand scientific discovery that he can get loads of fame for. Now, this may sound a bit old-fashioned to you, but people used to have to actually do stuff to get famous, unlike *cough* whatshisname, that royal baby. Anyway, on his way up there, he sees this huge monster man on a dog sled, and shortly after his crew rescues a decidedly smaller and less monstrous man who is this close to being frozen to death (he, unfortunately did not have the Cool Runnings team watching his icy back). Walton nurses him back to health, and it turns out this guy, Victor Frankenstein (I know, I know, Frankenstein is actually the man, not the monster --- or is he both? spoooky) is a fellow scientist! Vic recognizes in Walton an eerily familiar and ruthless ambition, so he gets busy yapping about his own miserable failures in an attempt to talk the captain out of the game. Herein ends our frame story, and begins the story-within-a-story of Victor Frankenstein, the son, the lover, the dreamer and, most importantly, the man who inspired this scene, thus giving my father one good joke to make for the rest of his life.

So Frankenstein starts with his life story, and you’re just like: BOR-ing! Let’s get to the monster already! Basically he grew up in a wealthy family (the kind of 19th century wealthy family that likes to take in an attractive orphan girl and raise her as their own in hopes that one day when she’s grown --- to, like, the ripe old age of 12 --- she will marry their sickly eldest son or something) and was obsessed with the science of natural wonders (basically, playing God). Also he’s in love with his family’s orphan, Elizabeth, in a creepy, slightly co-dependent way. His mother dies right before he goes off to college, which is clever psycho-realism by Shelley because every shrink ever would tell you that that’s reason enough for Vic’s fanatical desire to bring an inanimate body back to life. So props, Mary S., props --- I bet Captain Walton couldn’t come up with anything half so clever!

The wild thing --- and this is where we suspend our disbelief --- is that Frankenstein succeeds. Because of logistical difficulties, the monster-man is eight feet tall and hideous, not the beautiful, emo-zombie Nicholas Hoult Frankenstein had imagined. Thoroughly wigged out by the monster’s hideousness, Frankenstein bails, leaving the monster feeling more rejected and abandoned than Jennifer Aniston circa 2005 (when they got divorced, GUYS --- it was a watershed cultural moment when we realized that love cannot, in fact, conquer all). The monster disappears, but Frankenstein is haunted by it anyway and gets feverishly sick. His cheerful childhood buddy, Henry Clerval, nurses him back to health. When Vic gets word that his youngest brother, William, has been murdered, he catches the first express boat home to join his grieving family. Back home, he spots the monster at the site of William’s hanging and is convinced that it’s responsible for his brother’s death. Which means, obviously, that he’s guilty by association --- or by non-association, in this case. Justine, another sweet orphan type and also William’s nanny, is charged with the boy’s murder and hanged. Distraught, Vic runs away to the mountains to find some peace (this was before you could just watch mind-numbing reality TV to escape from your problems).

But instead of peace, Frankenstein finds his monster! The monster --- who, for the sake of political correctness, we should probably start referring to as The Creature --- opens up to his creator all about his feelings of loneliness and rejection, all because his physical hideousness repulses people and causes them to treat him unkindly. He’s like the phantom of the opera, but without the lovely singing voice --- or the sweet mask, for that matter. How did the monster The Creature even learn how to communicate? By stalking a local family and kind of growing to love them, of course! The Creature didn’t even know how physically terrifying he was until he saw his own reflection in a pond one day and realized something wasn’t quite right (see: How I Feel Every Sunday Morning). When he finally worked up the nerve to approach the family, they were totally freaked by him and moved away immediately, leaving The Creature, once again, heartbroken and feeling completely rejected by society --- a recipe for arson, it seems.

Anyway, the point The Creature is trying to impress on Frankenstein is that he needs a mate. He argues that as a living thing, he has a right to happiness --- frankly, I think if he read more xoJane he’d know that a relationship ≠ happiness, but whatever. Frankenstein is horrified, but reluctantly agrees to make The Creature a girlfriend (“I prefer blondes, btw,” said The Creature, without a trace of irony jkjkjk) when The Creature promises that they will disappear forever together --- see guys, he’s just a big ol’ softie when you get to the disgusting resuscitated heart of the matter. So Frankenstein goes off to some remote island to work on a creaturette in solitude. He has this weird feeling the whole time that he’s being watched --- BECAUSE HE IS. He’s just about done with his new lady monster when he realizes that he’s giving The Creature an opportunity to procreate (something about the birds and the bees and the flowers and the HORRIBLE HUGE MURDEROUS MONSTERS), and immediately destroys her. The Creature, because he’s a snoop and snooping is never a good idea, sees this and, in a fit of rage, threatens Frankenstein and vows to “be with him on his upcoming wedding night,” which sounds a little sitcom-ish if you ask me, but hey, this is Shelley’s story, not mine.

The Creature --- who has now decided to act utterly monstrous --- murders Henry Clerval, sort of a wrong place, wrong time kind of thing. Because apparently the justice system sucked in 19th century Europe, Frankenstein is blamed and thrown in prison, where he has a nervous breakdown. Eventually, he’s acquitted, and he returns home to marry Elizabeth, the family orphan. On his wedding night he’s prepared to fight The Creature and sends Elizabeth to hang in her room alone while he goes to fight “the fiend” --- seemingly heroic, but I’m thinking it had a lot to do with wedding night jitters, if you feel me. But The Creature’s one step ahead of Vic, and murders the poor bride, leaving the corpse in her bed to taunt his callous creator. These two are worse than the Odd Couple with their irreconcilable differences --- a little empathy could’ve gone a very long way, amirite? Frankenstein vows to spend the rest of his life hunting The Creature down, which is exactly how Walton found him in the first place! Full circle, huh?

Walton closes the narrative with another letter (if you already forgot what this is --- and I don't even know with you kids anymore with your video games and your sports drinks and your A.D.D. --- see above) to his sister. He tells her that Frankenstein eventually died, and he found The Creature weeping over the body. The Creature then opened up to him about all the pain of living a lonely, hateful life, and how killing didn’t solve his problems the way he’d thought it would, and wa wa wa, and went off to kill himself so no one else would have to share his suffering. There are so many lessons to learn from this guys: First of all, resist all your urges to play God. It never works out well. Especially not for the family orphan. Also, don’t judge books by their covers (unless you want to risk rousing said metaphorical book’s MURDEROUS RAGE). Lastly, start writing more letters to your sisters --- they miss you and want to hear from you (JILLY). 

And that’s a wrap this week, full of monsters (real and perceived) and extra avocado. Now let’s satirize together and enjoy this little ditty with similar --- although slightly more Jewish --- themes. And congrats I guess for real to William and Kate and baby George, who can also write to me if they feel like it.