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This essay is the second in a five-part series, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Part one can be found here, part three can be found here.
Part II: Creator
Frankenstein’s ambitions are large, but they are also impatient. He might, he tells us, have experimented with creatures “of simpler organization.” Instead, he will jump right into creating what he variously describes as a “human being” and a “new species” that presumably resembles human beings. What’s important is that the creature be beautiful, with a “happy and excellent” nature, and thankful: “No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.” Sadly, the scale of these ambitions is not matched by Frankenstein’s abilities. He ignores the many clues that he does not yet have the materials and technical skill to create a beautiful human being. And his impatience leads to corner cutting: for instance, making the creature gigantic because he didn’t want to be slowed down by the more intricate workmanship required to assemble a body of regular size. Given an “astonishing power,” the ability to confer life, he is going to botch the implementation out of mere haste.
This impatience is more compulsive and manic than artistic, more like “any other unwholesome trade than an artist occupied by his favorite employment.” A “resistless and almost frantic impulse” requires Frankenstein to ignore the sharp differences between the ugliness of his means and the glory of his fantasized result. His work is disgusting and unpleasant: there are intimations of robbing graves and morgues, and he labors in a “workshop of filthy creation” where he disturbs “with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.” He increasingly loathes his work, even as his obsession for it increases. He stops going outside, and forgets about his love of nature. And he stops communicating with his friends and family—putting on hold such “domestic affections” until he can be done with his great endeavor.
This is the unseemly way in which the sausage of greatness is produced. Or is it? One might imagine here Shelley working frantically on her novel, perhaps trying to match or surpass her talented husband. Her work is after all ultimately her creature—her Frankenstein and her monster. Her Frankenstein. This, despite a series of framing narratives that provide several layers of comfortable distance between author and ultimate creature: the monster’s tale told to Frankenstein, told in turn to Walton, and then to Walton’s sister, whom we might think of as Shelly’s invisible and absent persona. This persona is bashful in its authorship: it merely discloses to us a sheath of letters, hands over the concentric narratives of others. In each of these frames, we have a creature—a created—speaking through (and in some cases to) his creator. The final frame is we the audience, who, of course, do not literally create Shelley but must be present in order for her to accomplish her self-creation as author: we are in this loose sense co-creators of both author and novel. Similarly, while Walton was not literally Frankenstein’s creator, he saved his life and “restored him to animation,” the next best thing. Walton, meanwhile, speaks to Shelley in the sense in which an inspired creation speaks to and through its medium. Moving through the frames from inner to outer, the speakers have progressively less plaintive and more constructive goals: Where the monster’s tale is at once an indictment and a petition, Frankenstein’s is cathartic and therapeutic; Walton’s a way of staying in touch with someone he loves, even as he pursues his own reckless and overweening ambition; and Shelley’s ideally a way of producing something beautiful, fascinating, and pleasing to her audience. The nested narrative frames begin to look something like Shelley’s containment system, a way of avoiding the irradiation of the creative process by its grandiose nuclear core—the “great power,” in this case, literary talent—that fuels it.
If this is true, then we can say why Shelly’s writing about Frankenstein’s filthy work does not make her own work filthy. And this speaks as well to the ways in which writers and artists cope with the anxiety of doing bad work. In the case of writing, there are many bad sentences standing between the writer and a finished product. The writer must possess what Frankenstein does not, the patience to deal with “minuteness of parts,” and the willingness to revise until the form of the artistic product—foetally monstrous in its early stages—is relatively complete. The inability to face the horror of these intermediate phases—naturally deformed by their incompleteness—keeps many would-be writers from writing at all.
Perfectionism can doom the creative process to failure, whether the work in progress is oneself or something else.
If Frankenstein were better at growing up, he might have been better at parenting. He might have been able to focus some of his energies on the growing up of another. This might have meant being more careful in the crafting of the creature’s body. Or sticking around, despite the creature’s birth defects, to be a true father to someone who turns out to have an exquisitely sensitive, educable, and—before the resentments of abandonment—beautiful soul. Instead, after his irresponsible bit of plastico-surgical dark art, he runs away. He abandons the creature in the way that many parents abandon children, averse to the monstrousness of the dependency that faces them, horrified by the prospect of being stuck in the filthy workshop of parenthood, with its relentless flow of feces and urine and mucus. Who really wants to assemble a human being? He abandons his creature in the way that some abandon a sexual liaison, with something similar to post-coital disgust, the feeling of being mired in the memory of a lover’s physicality once the transformative power of lust has faded. He abandons also in the way that some would-be artists leave off their work before it is complete—either failing to finish, failing to produce at all, or pretending (and sometimes succeeding in convincing others) that their derivative and careless monstrosities are worthy of admiration.
Finally, Frankenstein abandons his role as parent in the same way that overweening ambition actually evades the work of self-creation, because the distance between the fantasy of greatness and one’s real self is too painfully great. Perfectionism can doom the creative process to failure, whether the work in progress is oneself or something else. The overweening self-creator abandons not only their own upbringing, for the sake of a distorted fantasy of maturity, but the upbringing of their creative objects. It is the process of growing up, in general, that they cannot stand. Real creative work is full of the kind of imperfection and growing pains and loss that the fantasy of perfection is meant to deny. This is an alternative means of managing desire to Shelley’s containment system: instead of containing, it transcends.
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Jennifer Tejada says
Wow – geez. Yeah.
I just listened to Combat and Classics – really randomly because I have never listened before. Your reading of this story is very meaningful to me. Things like, “Who really wants to grow a human.” and “If Frankenstein were better at growing up, he might have been better at parenting.” really strike a chord with me. I think perhaps Victor needed better parenting himself so that he could grow up. I wonder about the good childhood. The one with lots of praise and attention and no real limits. One in which he could receive Elizabeth Lavenza as a present. No discord. Generally when one doesn’t encounter boundaries and they believe it’s because they didn’t need any – something else is going on, no? Every being needs to find their outer edges – experience who they are by opposing forces. The inability to come into contact with his own limitations keeps him stuck in the id. And producing something in the way he does really catapults him out of the id in a way. He really cannot truly avoid what it means to test one’s own reality and figure out who you are and what you can and cannot do. The monster is so ugly or more importantly so NOT what he expected or fantasized about that he can either allow it to be a growth experience or he can believe that it really has nothing to do with him and abandon it. Seems he chose the latter. This part of the story, this relationship I find interesting because I can relate. If Victor could see his role in Frankenstein’s being and move through the discomfort that comes from that reality, it would ultimately be healing for both of them. Victor would grow as a human being, folding his childish deeds into his self awareness and facing what he didn’t receive as a child – grieving that. In turn, his monster could receive the acceptance and love that all living beings need and would also thrive.
I have two little monsters of my own and this has been my experience. This is my only justification for my logic here. Anyway – I enjoyed what you wrote and got a lot out of it. Looking forward to reading more.
Jennifer Tejada says
Pardon – I just read part three. I didn’t see it the first go round.