Munzenrider Response

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein


In light of the contemporary charges of immorality levelled at _Frankenstein_, it seems fitting to begin by asking where we would locate its moral center--and how this morality fits in with that of the other works we've read this semester. I doubt that any of us is tempted to read it as a- or immoral, lumping it in with _The Monk_ or _Liaisons Dangereuses_ (if in fact we agree that those works are immoral). Likewise, it seems difficult to reconcile the author of this book with the diffident Mary Shelley we find in the extra-literary quotations Helen has provided. For, in the end, _Frankenstein_ is as pointed a critique of masculine enterprise--and more specifically of Romantic individualism, as any we've seen, and we could almost group it with Austen's novels in this regard. Far from being immoral, then, it almost runs the counter-risk of appearing overly didactic, and in any case tends more to conservatism than subversiveness.

But perhaps the two aren't mutually exclusive: _Frankenstein_ is a difficult book to "read" in that any structural position we might wish to assign to any character is eventually undermined. Paul Cantor points this out in his _Creature and Creator_ in regards to the subtitle: who is "the modern prometheus"? Frankenstein himself, who "wants to be the benefactor of mankind, rebels against the divinely established order, steals, as it were, the spark of life from heaven," seems to fit the part, yet the monster does so as well: "It is the monster who literally discovers fire, and in a sense steals it, [and who] tantalizes Frankenstein with a mysterious secret concerning what will happen on his wedding night" (103-4). This last aspect aligns Frank. with Zeus, and more directly with Jupiter (in _Prometheus Unbound_). These overdeterminations do lead to an ambiguity that does perhaps implicate the novel as amoral. (Cantor demonstrates this further by showing how Shelley collapses the 3 Miltonic characters, God, Satan, and Adam, into only Frankenstein and the monster, thus complicating the moral structure of the work--but this is Ami's territory. . . .)

Which leads to another "nightmare of romantic idealism" (the title of Cantor's chapter), which Anne Mellor examines in her _English Romantic Irony_ (and which, incidentally, our own Mr. McGann dismantles in his _Romantic Ideology_): Coleridge's _Rime of the Ancient Mariner_. This poem surfaces again and again in this novel: first, when Walton reassures his sister, "Do not be alarmed [that] I should come back to you as worn and woeful as the Ancient Mariner'. . . . I have often attributed my attachment to, my passionate enthusiasm for, the dangerous mysteries of ocean to that production of the most imaginative of poets"; next when Frankenstein himself quotes a passage a few pages later. There is, of course, a great irony in the fact that these men, who themselves exemplify Romantic idealism gone awry, should look to Coleridge for their inspiration; Coleridge, the most tentative of the Romantics, who is paralyzed by his anxiety and turns back on that paralysis to provide fodder for his poetry. Walton might well return as the Mariner, though he fits better the role of the wedding guest (there's that wedding again), transfixed by the narrative of transgression. (N.B. It might be fruitful to compare the 2 versions of the Rime, which Mellor explores in some fascinating ways, with the 2 editions of _Frankenstein_--I'm curious what parallels we might find.)

Let me suggest, at least, that the moral structure of the novel is muddied by Frankenstein's failure in his will to power: that he is weak in ways in which he doesn't _need_ to be--though he does in order for the narrative to follow the course that it does--and we might ask in what way these (authorially intentioned) weaknesses complicate the critique Shelley offers. Indeed, frankenstein's tragic career is a series of blunders, of failures at crucial moments: he creates his monster to be grotesquely large and powerful; he fails in his commitment to nurture his creation; he even fails to destroy him at any one of the moments in which he has the opportunity (he could easily, for example, have armed himself much earlier in the novel). Shelley to some extent distances herself from these narrative quirks by, as Helen notes, invoking fate.

_Frankenstein_ is generally clumped in with other Gothic fictions, and in fact its probably the first novel many readers bring to mind when they think of the Gothic. I want for us to question this categorization, though in order to do so we must come to some consensus on what it means to be "Gothic." If we follow Sedgwick's characterization (which I outline in my Monk report), that the Gothic is found in its extreme application of certain predictable conventions, I'm not sure than we can find in _Frankenstein_ more than a residue of the high Gothic. The castles, live burials, incest, and above all Catholicism linger on, but in a most attenuated form. The Church, in fact, arises in only one (significant) moment: when Justine Moritz has "confessed" to the murder of William. Her "confession," it turns out, is a religious one, made to her confessor, who collapses the religious/legal distinction by transforming it into a legally binding confession.

I'm more tempted to define the Gothic through its extension of the cycle of secrecy and revelation that, one might argue, is at the heart of novelistic narrative itself, similar to the disruption of norms that Miller calls the "narratable." Like Godwin's _Caleb Williams_ (which I haven't read recently--anyone want to explain the connections more fully?), another Gothic-inflected text, _Frankenstein_ revolves around the ongoing and mutual pursuit of its two main characters, the creator and his created. The two are intimately identified with each other; each hunts the other and is in turn hunted; each holds a "secret" that irrevocably severs him from the bulk of humanity; while the narrative itself holds forth the promise of revelation, releasing the burden under which each labors (hmm...) during his life.

I'll close with a common-sense quotation from Robert Kiely (which I steal from Cantor): "Stripped of rhetoric and ideological decoration, the situation presented is that of a handsome young scientist, engaged to a beautiful woman, who goes off to the mountains alone to create a new human life. When he confesses to walton that he has "worked hard for nearly two years" to achieve his aim, we may wonder why he does not marry Elizabeth, and, with her cooperation, finish the job more quickly and pleasurably."