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Backtalk (on George Saunders)

The Frankenstein monster spoke French. Despite what we may have read in Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature did not begin his famous diatribe by saying “All men hate the wretched,” and asking the doctor “have I not suffered enough?”* Instead, he would have said something to the effect of “Tous les hommes haïssent les misérables” and “n’ai-je pas assez souffert?” Likewise, the creature never declared that “mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery,” but more likely said “Mon sort ne sera pas celui de asservissement misérable.” As for the threats he made against the doctor and his loved ones (“I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear”), he probably said something like: “Je me vengerai du tort qu’on m’a fait; si je ne puis inspirer l’amour, je provoquerai l’effroi.” And the creature’s most ominous warning must have been: “Je serai avec vous votre nuit de noces.”

This linguistic premise is of course built into the novel’s basic plot; the doctor hails from a French-speaking Swiss family, and in his choice of tongue the monster takes after his creator. But Shelley’s narrative gambit requires that the reader imagine everything the creature says as voiced otherwise than we see on the page. Moreover, we can suppose that the creature’s verbal mannerisms must have been quite different, too, as his speech is reported second hand by Frankenstein, his nemesis, and relayed third-hand by the doctor’s friend, captain Walton. Like his anatomy, then, the creature’s words in Frankenstein are fundamentally and irretrievably deformed.

Even putting aside the doctor’s unarguable malice toward his creature, the text’s infidelity to the monster’s words leads to an ethical conundrum. A sympathetic reader may claim to understand the monster’s motives, but we cannot claim to ever “hear” him. And a sympathetic ear is precisely what the monster requests of us. “I intreat you to hear me” (145), he says. “Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me” (146). The creature insists on this listening no less than six times. “Listen to me, Frankenstein,” he implores the doctor. And as if turning aside to the reader, he drops the surname to repeat, “listen to me.”

Ecoutez-moi, Frankenstein. Ecoutez-moi.

We have to suspend our disbelief to accept Shelley’s fictional premise that a creature only one year old could speak such eloquent lines. The author goes to some lengths to render this idea plausible and makes the monster’s awakening to conscience an allegory of enlightenment reason and the romantic imagination. A blank slate of confused sensory impressions, the newly-created monster stumbles upon a humble cottage in the German countryside and takes refuge in its adjoining “kennel,” as he calls it (mon chenil(?)). From his hiding-place he is able to observe the cottagers through a chink in a boarded-up window, eventually learning to speak good French, for, as it happens, the residents are exiled Parisians of high breeding who have fallen on dark times. He listens and watches closely as the young man in the family reads historical tomes aloud to his lover and in this way he learns to read books himself, including, not so shabby, Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Fox 8 cover (detail). Illustration by Chelsea Cardinal

This educational premise of Shelley’s is taken up by George Saunders in his short story “Fox 8,” which was recently republished as a hardbound volume with illustrations. The fox who narrates the story is an inquisitive dreamer who one day hears “the most amazing sound” coming through a window, and he is inspired to learn human speech by returning to the house every night and listening in on the bedtime stories a mother reads to her children.** Soon enough our protagonist is disconcerted to learn that foxes are maligned in human stories — a bitter discovery that presages many disappointments to come. Like Frankenstein, Saunders’ tale is the righteous vindication of a hunted, misunderstood outcast and an indictment of humanity’s reckless domination of nature. Appearing as it did at the end of 2018, Fox 8 is a fitting addition to the year’s bicentennial celebrations of Shelley’s novel; Frankenstein was released on January 1, 1818. Why, then, has no-one noticed the parallels?

The oversight is striking given that Fox 8 deftly targets the ethical conundrum of Frankenstein‘s linguistic infidelity, its implicit silencing of the monster’s own speech. Saunders, in contrast to Shelley, turns the distinctive inarticulateness of his narrator into a major premise of the tale. Whereas in Frankenstein we can only imagine and fatally misrepresent the words of the creature, Saunders foregrounds his creature’s own words and in so doing makes the experience of reading into a strangely pleasurable challenge. Like Fox 8 himself, the reader must learn to speak a new language.

One day, walking neer one of your Yuman houses, smelling all the interest with snout, I herd, from inside, the most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds. They sounded grate! They sounded like prety music! I listened to those music werds until the sun went down, when all of a suden I woslike: Fox 8, crazy nut, when sun goes down, werld goes dark, skedaddle home, or else there can be danjer!

Fox 8 at his “Story window.” Illustration by C. Cardinal

This apparent demotion of English is deceptively simple. Fox 8’s misfirings hit surprising targets (“I herd”; “They sounded grate!”) and his solecisms (“woslike”) seem perfectly warranted by the idiomatic speech they adopt as their own. Even the limping grammar, closely based as well on current vernacular, is highly suggestive (“what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice”): doesn’t the phrase is, was condense the essential gambit of narrative art, the storyteller’s near-magical wielding of narrative presents and present pasts? It seems not so farfetched to make this claim, as Saunders’ tale plumbs the primordial source of “storys” and enchants us like the children Fox 8 eavesdrops on from outside the window (4).

This is very much a story about storytelling; Fox 8’s innocent sincerity allows Saunders to foreground narration and metafiction, as when the protagonist charmingly but clumsily refers to conventions of suspense, to a venerable quote from Dickens, or chides other “buks” for being “fawlse” in various ways. Most importantly, Fox 8 learns that narrative is a way of teaching empathy: he finds out early on that Storys and luv always go together (4). For this reason, too, “a gud riter will make the reeder feel as bad as the Yuman does in there Story” (12), a bid for righteous sympathy that takes on Byronic dimensions, as when Fox 8 says, “I woslike: Why did the Curator do it so rong, making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?” (37-8). Surely not a rhetorical question?

Saunders is hardly the first to raise lofty existential questions in childlike narrative. But the writer’s unique gifts can be seen in Fox 8‘s sudden shifts of affect and the subtle turns and shadings of empathetic feeling. This is a signature of Saunders’ work — its specific “curativity,” as Fox 8 might say. But the distinct aesthetic challenge and unlikely triumph of this little book lies in the jarring and disorienting way that Saunders can make silliness convey heartbreak and tragedy. Against all odds Fox 8’s goofy malapropisms and zany daydreams rise to the level of the Frankenstein monster’s stentorian flak. But that impressive monologue was badly deformed, we’re guessing, by Shelley’s romantic English. Saunders, in contrast, shows us that we can hear and empathize with people and other beings who do not speak like us, who we perhaps can’t understand at all. But we fail to do so, why? Fox 8 would like to know.

In Frankenstein, the monster’s first words to the scornful doctor are sulky and resentful: “I expected this reception” (“Je m’attendais à cet accueil”). Fox 8, only somewhat more hopeful, concludes his letter to us “Yumans” with a challenging offer: “I awate your answer.”

 


*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 1985), 145.

**George Saunders, Fox 8 (New York: Random House, 2018), 3.

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200 Years of Frankenstein

She was born in 1797, toward the end of the Little Ice Age. Wolves had been extirpated from the country, but not so long ago that one could forget. Now man’s only predator in the British Isles was a mental throwback. Does the shadow of extinction fall on the children of perpetrators? What strange gap is left in the mind of men suddenly raised from the humble status of prey?

In the winter of her sixteenth year, the river Thames froze in London for the last time. The final “Frost Fair,” a tradition dating back centuries, was held February 1814 on the river’s hard surface.

The following year, a volcano in present-day Indonesia erupted. It was the most powerful and destructive event of its kind in recorded history. Fallout caused a “volcanic winter” across the Northern Hemisphere. In 1816 – “the year without a summer” – she was in Switzerland, where she began writing her first novel, Frankenstein, published 200 years ago today — on January 1st, 1818.

During her adult years the global climate gradually warmed. Glaciers stopped advancing. But it wasn’t until the year of her death, 1851, that they began their retreat.

*

Frankenstein is a work deeply embedded not only in history but in the climate and geology of its era. The novel’s dramatic opening and conclusion, and, notably, the entire personal account of the “monster” himself, take place in frozen locales. These settings of ice and snow are more than themes and symbols; they constitute the scientific matter of the novel, as much, if not more than, the story’s overt topics of chemistry, biology and physical reanimation. And as with those topics, Shelley’s fantastic imaginings of the Earth’s frozen latitudes are proving remarkable prescient.

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The novel’s opening pages relate Captain Walton’s passionate wish to be the first explorer to reach the North Pole. In the Captain’s first letter to his sister, his excitement leads him to describe the Arctic’s frozen wastes as a place of sunshine, beauty and delight. He goes so far as to say that in the North Pole of his imagination, “snow and frost are banished” – as if the curiosity he calls “fervent” and “ardent” were literally a heat-producing force of transformation.*

One measure of a classic text is that it discloses new meanings to different eras. Walton’s aim of “discovering a passage near the pole” may sound strangely familiar to a reader today. In the summer of 2016, the first luxury cruise liner traversed the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route that had long been impassible, and, as recently as a decade ago, navigable only by icebreakers. Likewise for Russia’s northern sea route; last summer, a tanker made the first transit from Europe to Asia via the Arctic Ocean.

Climate change, in other words, is turning Walton’s fervid dreams of an overheated Arctic into reality. Ironically, global warming is occurring fastest in the polar regions; scientists now expect the North Pole to be ice-free within a few decades. Shelley could hardly have anticipated these outcomes, though the connection she makes is far from coincidental. Captain Walton’s adventurous spirit is no doubt symbolic of a Goethian Romantic ziel, but the man also embodies the period’s abrupt leap forward in science and the technologies of transportation. As such, Walton and his scientific ambitions personify a force whose environmental costs are now coming due. That earth-altering force is the European Industrial Revolution, whose opening act, variously dated from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, overlapped with the end of the most recent ice age.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Das_Eismeer_-_Hamburger_Kunsthalle_-_02

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice (1823–1824)

Shelley clearly dramatizes the destructive force of Frankenstein’s scientific work in the young doctor’s blind ambition, his reckless experimentation, his familial neglect, and his heedless irresponsibility to the creature of his making. What was merely allegorical in Shelley’s time has now become our sorry reality, however. Examples of Frankensteinian science abound; to cite only one recent instance, an investigative article by Reuters exposes the “horror movie” character of the commercial trade in body parts. But the everyday banalization of Shelley’s horror theme should not obscure the contemporary relevance of her cautionary tale, whose moral implications can be seen most clearly in the man-made predicament of climate change: a crime against nature that may warrant the name of “sin”; the unleashing of an unstoppable destructive agency in inhuman form; and, in what the World Economic Forum blithely calls the “upside” of catastrophe, a melted North Pole that will yield new profits for commercial transport.

Captain Walton sees in Victor Frankenstein a kindred spirit, and Shelley reinforces the symmetry of their burning passions when, at the end of the novel, Victor relates the “fervour” of his pursuit as the “monster” leads him northward and into the Arctic.

I resolved not to fail in my purpose,” says Victor, “and calling on heaven to support me, I continued with unabated fervour to traverse immense deserts, until the ocean appeared at a distance.… Covered with ice, it was only to be distinguished from land by its superior wildness and ruggedness.

As Victor considers the rigors of an arctic journey, he becomes a man entirely consumed by destructive rage. “At the idea that the fiend should live and be triumphant,” Victor says, “my rage and vengeance returned, and like a mighty tide, overwhelmed every other feeling.” As with Walton, Shelley insists on the burning force that drives Victor on.

I have endured misery which nothing but the eternal sentiment of a just retribution burning within my heart could have enabled me to support. Immense and rugged mountains of ice often barred up my passage, and I often heard the thunder of the ground sea, which threatened my destruction. But again the frost came and made the paths of the sea secure.

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Caspar David Friedrich, study for The Sea of Ice (1821)

 

Frankenstein’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, links Victor to the Greek deity who created man and stole fire to give it to humanity. In light of this fiery theme, it is significant that Victor’s voyage ends with the break-up of the sea ice, as if, like Walton, his burning passion can melt the frozen landscape. Accordingly, Victor’s last vision of the Arctic is not one of frozen desolation but of water and melting ice. The doctor ends his journey north on a drifting ice floe, like a stranded polar bear — a ubiquitous metonym in the press and social media for the polar environmental crisis. If, then, the last words of Victor’s narrative might seem overwrought today in their romantic excess, one might instead imagine them as capturing the desperate anguish of an apex predator threatened with extinction. Shelley’s “fervid” rhetoric points ahead to dangers beyond man, beyond language, and thus beyond all hyperbole:

A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished; in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice that was continually lessening and thus preparing for me a hideous death.


*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818).

 

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Frankenstein on site

Maybe … there is always another story / better unsaid, grim or flat or  predatory.

Ann Sexton

In 2011, a team of American researchers used astronomical data to solve a literary-historical puzzle: the date when Mary Shelley came up with the idea for her gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.* Cross-checking journals and autobiography against the historical phases of the Moon, the scholars were able to pinpoint not only the day but the exact hour at which the novel’s plot was hatched, 200 years ago, in the month of June, 1816.

Frankenstein is a tale of obsession, creation and responsibility, which is why the author’s introduction gives a detailed account of how it was first conceived. The story she tells has become part of the novel’s mythology: while staying in a rented house on the outskirts of Geneva, the Shelleys were regular guests of Lord Byron at Villa Diodati, in nearby Cologny. One evening Byron proposed to his guests that each of them write a ghost story. Mary cast about for a plot until an idea finally came to her in a “waking dream” following a late-night discussion at Byron’s villa some days later. Crucially, the author describes her bedroom at the moment she opened her eyes in alarm.

The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still: the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond.**

Given the phases of the Moon during the week in question, and factoring in the 15° incline of the hillside at Montalègre, the site of the Shelley house, the authors of “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein” conclude that Mary could only have seen the moonlight she describes on June 16th, 1816, between the hours of 2 and 3 in the morning.

*

Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary is inspiring events and commemorations of all kinds, from the latest cinematic rehash Victor Frankenstein (“You know this story,” says the voice-over), to last May’s grandiose Royal Ballet production, to various academic conferences, including the symposium “Frankenstein’s Shadow” held in Geneva this June. As for myself, I wondered what kind of commemorations were in store for the bicentennial hour of the novel’s inspiration, at the very place and time of its creation?

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Villa Diodati, 6/16/2016, 1:36 am

On  June 15th, 2016, I boarded a plane for Geneva. My friend Géraldine met me at the airport and was keen to join in on the excursion. Late that evening storm cells moved into Geneva from the southwest, and by midnight there was lightning when we set out for Cologny. At 1 am the rain was coming down hard. Next to Villa Diodati, where a hillside park lends fine views of the city, the lake, and the Jura mountains, the usual tourists and groups of teenagers were missing. A single lighted window could be seen at the Villa, but the surrounding area was deserted.

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Rue Byron 6/16/2016, 1:45 am

Cologny today is one of the world’s most exclusive addresses, but fields and vineyards still recall its old village character. We were surprised by cows among the trees as we headed down the hill to the site of the Shelley house. A lone window was lit at the property next door. Only the lower level of the Shelley house still remains; Mary’s former bedroom would be located within the dark void described by the building’s rectangular footprint, a space in tumult now, raked by sheets of rain and buffeting wind.

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Montalègre 6/16/2016, 1:55 am

We stayed until the historic hour, intent on the returning occasion, but feeling the familiar sense of a commemoration’s fastidious uselessness. This one was more elusive than most. After all, we were marking the moment of a passing fancy that might have come to nothing; the author’s first response to her idea, she says, was to try to put it out of her mind. And yet, that moment of inspiration — including the will to erase it — was significant enough that Mary incorporated it into the novel, when Victor, strangely enough, takes a nap immediately after his creature first opens its eyes and begins to stir. This somewhat implausible sequence of events seems dictated by the author’s need to restage the scene of her inspiration at Montalègre, including the Moon at the window.

I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds… (106).

The author’s memory of “the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through” becomes in this scene a light that “forced its way through the window shutters.” Even the creature’s own account of his coming to consciousness in the amazing Chapter 11 includes descriptions of a violent, piercing light:

By degrees, I remember, a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. Darkness then came over me and troubled me, but hardly had I felt this when, by opening my eyes, as I now suppose, the light poured in upon me again (148).

Few stories have had to endure as many faithless and inept adaptations as Mary Shelley’s philosophical tale. And yet, the scene of the author’s inspiration suggests that Mary herself was the first to repeat, adapt and retranslate her story, “rehashing” it, so to speak. But what story would that be?

**

In the case study of one of his most famous patients, the Wolf Man, Freud narrows in on a crucial transformative event in the patient’s life. “The date of this transformation can be stated with certainty,” Freud says, “… But the event which makes this division possible was not an external trauma, but a dream.” Citing this passage, Jean Laplanche exclaims, “What a strange history of events, in which one of the turning-points is a purely internal event!”*** Without discounting that “moments in time, situated and dated, constitute essential reference points” in a person’s life story, Laplanche’s exclamation emphasizes how mental events, understood psychoanalytically, constitute an object of inquiry quite distinct from that of historical research. “What he is aiming at,” Laplanche says of Freud’s work, “is a kind of history of the unconscious, or rather of its genesis; a history with discontinuities, in which the moments of burial and resurgence are the most important of all; a history, it might be said, of repression.”

Such a “history of repression” breaks radically with literal-minded attempts to reconstruct life-events in that the defining occurrences in a patient’s psychological history are always caught up in a dynamic process of interpretation. What the patient is compelled to interpret, or “translate,” in Laplanche’s terminology, are the formative experiences of their early life in which he or she was the receiver of strange, unbidden messages from an adult caregiver: messages that were traumatic because enigmatic, and enigmatic because sexual and deriving from the adult’s unconscious. There need not be physical abuse for such events to be traumatic, though the subject’s affective impression can be one of unwanted seduction or forced entry; as Laplanche says, the subject’s compulsive rememoration “has its origin in the forcible entry of the other and in the need to bind this forcible entry: the other (der Andere) of the enigmatic message in infancy, and then that internal ‘other thing’ (das Andere) that is the unconscious” (166).

Biographers have plenty of material in Mary Shelley’s biography with which to interpret the haunting and traumatic features of her Frankenstein. But limiting ourselves to the story’s inception, one notes an insistence on themes of violent intrusion suggestive of Laplanche’s general theory of seduction. The Moon seems to serve as metaphorical displacement of this violence, “struggling through” the shutters in Mary’s bedroom, and in the analogous scene from the novel, “forc[ing] its way through the window shutters.” The authors of “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein” are alert to these parallels but they do not notice that Shelley’s descriptions here combine the mental tableau of the monster’s creation with the attempt to erase that frightful picture; as she said of the moment of inspiration, she “wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around.” Those “realities” are the specific details of the moonlit room at Montalègre which persist as if immune to time: many years later, the author says, “I see them still.”

To adopt a formula of John Fletcher’s, Shelley’s moonlit room is “a scene played out with all the immediacy of a present event.”**** As a “scene,” however, it is far from static; rather, following Laplanche, it includes both “genesis” and “burial,” “resurgence” and “repression,” composed as it is of troubling signs in conflict, and translated as best as the dreamer can, such as the “inarticulate sounds” muttered by the creature at Victor’s bedside, or the enigmatic meaning of his monstrous countenance as “a grin wrinkled his cheeks” (106).

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Villa Diodati 6/16/2016, 1:47 am

Frankenstein’s countless adaptations testify to the story’s rich allegorical suggestiveness and its almost unique status as touchstone of our cultural modernity. But narrative adaptations no doubt tap into what was already “translated” by the author at the outset. What drives the need to commemorate, adapt and “rehash” the story may be a compulsion to retranslate that which remains opaque in Shelley’s most stirring passages and so to return to the original place and time of her patchwork creation.


* Donald W. Olson et al., “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein,” Sky and Telescope, November 2011: 69-74.

** Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 1985), 59.

*** Jean Laplanche, “Interpretation between Determinism and Hermeneutics,” in Essays on Otherness, John Fletcher, trans. (London: Routledge, 1999), 150.

**** John Fletcher, Freud and the Scene of Trauma (New York: Fordham, 2013).

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Cliffs Notes to Frankenstein

challenger-cliffs-notes

There is no creature or thing, no monster or monument, no happening or sight in nature, history, fable, or dream whose image the predisposed eye cannot read in the markings, patterns, and outlines found in stones.

–Roger Caillois*

Frankenstein at a glance:

Title: Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus

Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Published: 1818

Summary: Frankenstein concerns the doings of fictional human agents in terrestrial settings (ocean; pack ice; mountainous landforms of the northern hemisphere). The text opens with a frame-tale situated in the Arctic, while the main story unfolds in Switzerland and the Alps, with brief episodes occurringWP_20150902_15_23_43_Pro elsewhere on the Eurasian continent (e.g., the Orkneys; Ireland; Tartary; the Black Sea).

Themes and symbols: As a work of narrative prose fiction, Frankenstein dramatizes the contrasting states of animation and stasis, love and loss, life and death. The novel’s chief interest lies in the premise of reanimating dead matter, of giving life to inanimate nature, whose unforeseen consequences drive the plot (e.g., Victor creates a “monster”).

Dominant motifs: The author’s vivid descriptions of nature — often cast as violent and inhospitable — lend the story a gothic atmosphere of uncanniness and gloom. In spite of this close attention to landscape and topography, the novel employs the word cliff only once, in the phrase “the white cliffs of Britain.”** It is worth noting, moreover, that “cliffs” in this case serves not as a separate noun but merely as a constituant of a noun phrase — a phrase that is itself only a stock expression without real topographic specificity (the chalk cliffs of Britain’s southeastern coastline extend for 10 miles north and south of Dover from 51°06′N 1°14′E to 51°12′N 1°24′E). Frankenstein’s paltry reference contrasts with the high incidence of other landscape terminology in the novel:

__________

27_27_04-prajna-paramita_v2

Guy Laramée, Prajna Paramita (2011)

Mountain  44

Ice  31

Lake  24

Shore  17

River  16

Stream  12

Hill  11

Rock  11

Summit  10

Valley  9

Field  7

Cave  6

Glacier  6

Stone  6

Peak  3

Ravine  2 __________

While the word cliff is practically absent from Frankenstein, vertical rocks and other geological formations are found throughout the text, though distorted by inaccuracies, equivocations and circumlocutions. The reader will note, for instance, such evasive expressions as a “tall rock” (p.106), a “rock” with “high sides” (p.123) and a “bare perpendicular rock” (p.202), all of which could be replaced with the word cliff.

Textual analysis: In chapter 6, as Victor Frankenstein revisits the spot where his young brother William was killed, a flash of lightning lets him catch sight of his spurned creation hiding in the dark. Descriptions of the cliff-face up which the monster makes his escape betray peculiar inaccuracies:

He was the murderer! I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact. I thought of pursuing the devil; but it would have been in vain, for another flash discovered him to me hanging among the rocks of the nearly perpendicular ascent of Mont Salêve, a hill that bounds Plainpalais on the south. He soon reached the summit, and disappeared (p.148).

Curiously, Victor refers to the Salève as a “hill,” whereas it is a mountain 1,379 meters high, and he calls its face “nearly perpendicular” rather than a “cliff.” These inaccuracies are compounded by the improbable notion that Victor could see his creature climbing the mountain from a viewpoint in Plainpalais. After all, were Victor located near the city walls of Geneva, the face of the Salève would be some seven kilometers away, and even assuming that he were standing at the extreme southern point of the former commune of Plainpalais, the Salève would still be at least three kilometers distant (but at this spot, enclosed within a sharp bend in the river Arve, the present site of Champel, his view of the Salève would have been blocked by the riparian cliffs (high eroded embankments of clay, sandstone, gravel and glacial till).

Guy Laramee

Guy Laramée, Meyers Lexicon (Geislerspitzen), 2014.

Moreover, close analysis of the passage shows that the protagonist’s judgments are rash and prejudiced. In a phrase that runs fully counter to scientific method, the doctor asserts that “the mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof” (148), and he goes so far as to say that “no sooner did that idea cross my imagination than I became convinced of its truth” (147). This suggests that all of Victor’s judgments, whether concerning his spurned creature or the topographical features of the natural environment, can be considered dubious, partial and inherently flawed.

Such flaws are exemplified by the term “perpendicular” by which Frankenstein often describes high vertical landforms. Presumably, a “perpendicular rock” (p.202) is judged to be so from a human perspective located on a plane A – B at 90° from Earth’s line of gravity (line M – N): the rock, in other words, is “perpendicular” to the ground on which the character or presumed human subject stands. If this is so, however, then the rock in question is perpendicular in exactly the same way and to precisely the same degree (90) as is a live standing body subject to the planet’s center of gravity. In this light, it would be more appropriate, no doubt, to speak of a cliff being “parallel” to the observing body, a body that is itself generally “perpendicular” unless dead, sleeping, or otherwise unconscious. Interestingly, perpendicular-line-definitionat times the text seems to imply such a parallelism between the human observer and the cliffs he observes, as when Victor says “the opposite mountain is a bare perpendicular rock” and that “from the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite” (202). The spatial kinship subtly extended to the cliffs here is ambiguous at best, however, as the word “opposite” denotes not only symmetry but contrast too, and so inevitably reinforces the novel’s Manichean themes of rivalry between Victor and his so-called monster, and more broadly, mankind and the ontology of the natural world. It is significant, particularly in the light of our conclusions below, that the bare cliffs directly facing Victor provide the setting for a key encounter with his creature, as if the monster’s approaching form were the solid incarnation of Victor’s own words echoing from the rock walls.***

Further, perpendicularity in Frankenstein often conveys not strict verticality but an upward extension somewhat in excess of 90 degrees. A cliff thereby overhangs the human subject. We (Cliffs) note the following examples: “immense mountains and precipices overhanging us on every side” (193); and “we passed the bridge … and we began to ascend the mountain San_Marino_cliff_c1855_2that overhangs it” (194). In the scene describing the Salève, cliffs that are called “nearly perpendicular” are subsequently said to have “overhanging sides” (p.151), as if the textual portrait were submitting to the verbal equivalent of geological upthrust. Such renditions of protruding cliffs can result in the alarming image of human structures jutting out over precipices that are themselves presumably overhanging the valley floor below, as in the precarious descriptions of “castles hanging on the precipices” (193), including one “which overhangs yon precipice” (p.105) — symbols, we assume, of the vanity of human works, but also, no doubt inadvertently, of the book Frankenstein itself.

Cliffs in Frankenstein thus foster the pervasive sense of a tall looming threat. Similarly, Frankenstein’s monster is insistently described as gigantic and overhanging. In the scene of the Salève, the monster is described as “hanging among the rocks” (148), an image that underscores the creature’s affinity with Frankenstein (stein is German for rock) but also, and more significantly, with the “overhanging” cliff. Indeed, descriptions of the monster’s “gigantic stature” (pp. 22, 88, 147, 267) repeatedly suggest something akin to a mountain face. These images of overhanging enormity finally culminate in the scene where the monster visits Frankenstein’s body lying in his coffin:

“Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe; gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions. As he hung over the coffin, his face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair; but one vast hand was extended…” (267) (our emphasis).

Conclusions: Two dominant aspects of Frankenstein persistently elude nomination. Victor’s unfortunate creature has no proper name, but is variously branded a “daemon,” a “devil,” an “insect,” and a “monster.” Likewise, vertical features of the landscape are identified only by circumlocution or misattribution, as if burdened by a similar human curse. Cliffs and the attentive reader can restore these subjects to their proper place in Frankenstein, a key work, errors notwithstanding, in the annals of human geography.

challenger-cliffs-notes


* Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 11.

* Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (London: G. and W.B. Whittaker, 1823), 108.

*** See John Culbert, “Echos [sic]” in The Manchester Review, vol.8 (2012).

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