5. Frankenstein: Storm of Words

By and (c) Abigail LarsonThe glorious drawing to my left is by the brilliant illustrator Abigail Larson, and depicts – as if you didn’t know – Mary Shelley with her creation, ‘Frankenstein’s Monster.’ Last month I wrote a lengthy piece for the Guardian about Shelley’s Frankenstein: the genesis of the work, the life of its maker, and its latest revival in a new stage version for the National Theatre. (I also blogged at my regular site here.) I’m pleased to say that on March 15 2011 I’ll now have the chance to revisit these themes live on stage at the National, seated amid distinguished company. I am the allotted chairperson for a platform discussion entitled ‘Frankenstein’s Creator: Mary Shelley’, the speakers being Claire Tomalin (biographer of, inter alia, Mary Wollstonecraft) and Daisy Hay, author of Young Romantics, celebrating the idealistic circle whose starriest members were present by Lake Geneva in 1816 at the symposium that brought Frankenstein forth.
Doctor Forrest contains a homage of sorts to Frankenstein, just inasmuch as there is a passage of the novel wherein Forrest finds himself in such an unholy predicament that he is reduced to ‘a miserable life in the woods’, ‘fearful of encountering the visage of a human being’ – akin, maybe, to the lot of the human creature made from grave-robbed bones and then cast out into the wild by Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein.
In the Guardian piece I wrote the following:
‘After nurturing their adaptation through discussions over two decades – says Nick Dear – he and Danny Boyle decided that ‘what we had never seen done was the story told from the creature’s point of view.’ Such a focus was overdue since, for a likely majority of Shelley’s readers, the emotional core of Frankenstein is the six-chapter section at its centre wherein the Creature confronts Victor with all that he has suffered by his maker’s rejection – how the outcast was forced to survive alone in the wild, his inchoate delight in Nature dashed by his bitter meetings with Man’s hostility. The creature has learned language and syntax from a discarded edition of Paradise Lost, and his pain at all he has been denied is rendered in the fiery tones of Milton’s ‘fallen angel’ Satan. ‘Hideous’ Mary’s creature may be, but in literary terms his erudite author fashioned him from the very finest materials.’
Without doubt this is the core of Frankenstein’s appeal in my eyes – the plight of the creature, his terrible eloquence, and the damnable state of his creator. The strange Gothic pathos of Shelley’s novel resides for me partly in its sense of dread and confessional horror, but above all in the disputations – storms of words – between Victor and the creature, those passionate and violent outpourings of conflicted feeling for one another. (Karl Miller – in Doubles, his brilliant study of duality in nineteenth-century literature – offers a useful précis of Frankenstein’s double-dealing: ‘Shelley’s hero is an orphan who orphans the creature he has made, a creature who is then pitied as a monster capable of attacking his maker’s bride…’)
One can indeed hear the cadences of Paradise Lost in the creature’s tirades and laments. Like Satan he carries within him something sublime, most evident in his regard for the natural world (also fully of a piece with the Romantic worship of nature.) In Milton, Satan sings plaintively of the Eden from which he is excluded: ‘If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange / Of hill, and valley, rivers, woods, and plains, / Now land, now sea and shores with forest crowned, / Rocks, dens, and caves!’ Shelley’s creature feels the same stirring in his breast, but he, too, has no home in the world, and his fallen state causes him to be consumed by hate, to desire in malevolence to mar the creation of the ‘Almighty styled.’ Satan understands he has no pleasure ‘[s]ave what is in destroying; other joy / To me is lost.’ It is in much the same vein that Frankenstein’s monster, spurned the length of the Earth, vows ‘eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.’
I don’t think that any dramatic adaptation of Shelley can hope to convey truly the eloquence owned by the creature on the page – films need to move more swiftly, and the soliloquy rather belongs to a different epoch of theatre, whereas the pace of a novel is essentially in the hands of the reader. I do feel, though, that Robert De Niro’s performance in the unfairly-maligned Kenneth Branagh film of Shelley does as much as any to express that eloquence, albeit in an idiom once removed – and particularly so in this sequence: the great and terrible demand that Victor ‘create a female’…

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