Frankenstein: Gods and Monsters

This essay discusses Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818). There are spoilers.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel, originated many horror tropes that we now take for granted: the obsessive mad scientist, resurrection of the dead, the misunderstood monster, and the ultimate folly of playing god. Originally published in 1818, Frankenstein — along with Dracula, published in 1897 — bracketed the nineteenth century with iconic works that established the modern horror genre. 

Mary Shelley

I have previously written about Frankenstein’s origins during a cold summer Mary Shelley spent with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Each was challenged to come up with a ghost story, and that is where Mary first conceived Frankenstein’s monster. She published the first edition anonymously. A second edition, this time bearing Mary Shelley’s name, along with an introduction by her husband, was published in 1823. Following the death of Percy Shelley, Mary revised the text and released it as a third edition, published in 1831.

Mary Shelley wrote about the first edition of her book:

‘If there were ever to be another edition of this book, I should re-write these first two chapters. The incidents are tame and ill arranged – the language sometimes childish. – They are unworthy of the rest of the narration.’

For the third edition, she fulfilled that intention. However, despite her claim in the 1831 Introduction that she had “changed no portion of the story nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances,” she made other changes that impacted the overall theme of the story. The third edition places more emphasis on the now overused warning against man playing God. The original story, though, with less emphasis on religion, might also be read as an indictment of bad fathers and  men who try to take women’s place in the role of reproduction.

original_264909_0sB5IeSiKzP7Tjr3Gu1kks6o3Victor Frankenstein, one of the most dislikable characters in literature, is a full-on narcissist in any version. He takes on the challenge of creating new life out of an obsessive need to prove himself as a scientist, but he refuses to take responsibility for his creation. He abandons the monster he made and runs away home. The monster follows and, maddened by his isolation and disillusionment with humanity, seeks revenge by murdering those closest to Frankenstein. For Frankenstein, the murders are horrifying only in how they impact him, not for the loss of innocent life. Even when the monster tells him, “I will be with you on your wedding night,” it never occurs to Frankenstein that the monster means to come after Elizabeth, supposedly the great love of his life but really only another mirror in which he can admire himself. Instead, he assumes that the monster means to attack him.

Compared to Frankenstein, the monster is a more admirable, and more understandable, character. His story, at the center of the book, is one of awakening, learning, rejection, and isolation. It parallels a loss of faith in God. When he is created, the monster is a blank slate. “Who am I?” he asks, repeatedly. As he goes out into the world — alone, remember, because his “parent” has abandoned him — the world rejects him solely based on his appearance. Because he looks like a monster, everyone who sees him assumes he is a monster. He becomes entirely alone.

9780143122333It didn’t have to be that way. The cottagers he spies on model for him how to be loving, kind, and compassionate. But when he reveals himself to them, they reject him. He is shot, beaten, and chased away. He believes he has no self worth. Even after declaring his hatred for the human species, the monster saves a young girl, but he is punished for his good deeds. Is it any wonder that he develops feelings of hatred and bitterness, that he cannot control his rage? The monster is made, not born, by his experiences. Monsters — human monsters — are made in this way every day.

The monster is denied his humanity. Even the one who gave him life doesn’t care for him and cannot answer his fundamental question: “Why am I here?” This drives him to madness and echoes the human condition. We are all in this same boat. If we can’t answer that question for ourselves, we too might go mad.

The horror of Frankenstein’s monster lies not in his monstrousness, but in his thwarted humanity. The same capacity for monstrousness lurks in us all. 

“Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone?”


We Have Always Lived in the Castle: An Inside-Out Fairy Tale

Books discussed in this essay: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson; 1962). Spoilers galore.

Penguin Deluxe Classics edition.
Penguin Deluxe Classics edition.

We don’t usually think about how things got they way they are in the fairy tales and ghost stories we are most familiar with. The witches have always lived in their gingerbread houses deep in the woods. The restless spirits have always haunted their ruined castles. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson tells us about the time before the fairy tale begins. She takes us into the haunted castle before it becomes a ruin, before children dare each other to go up on the vine-covered porch and possibly disturb the ghosts inside.

Still, even this story starts with a legend. Six years before the story begins, the Blackwood family sat down to dinner. By dessert, most of them were dead of arsenic poisoning. The arsenic had been put in the sugar bowl. Only the eldest daughter, Constance, her younger sister, Mary Katherine (or Merricat), and their uncle Julian survived. Julian, however, was crippled and suffered ever after from dementia and an obsession with that “last night.” Constance was accused of the crime, but acquitted due to insufficient evidence. She returned home to take care of her sister and uncle, and the three of them kept the house unchanged, stopped in time, stuffed with the remnants of the dead.

The local villagers–and there always is some unnamed village in these stories–had convicted Constance of the crime in their hearts. Indeed, the locals always hated the Blackwoods, who were wealthy and aloof and strange. Merricat in particular suffered their taunts and ostracization whenever she went into the village for food and library books. The children had even made up a rhyme to torment her.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle exists in the unreal world of the fairy tale. The Blackwood sisters live on the edge of a wood. The path through it is barred to the villagers by locked gates. Like witches, the girls keep a familiar, a black cat. They know the names and uses of all the wild herbs and mushrooms, especially the poisonous ones. Constance is constantly in her kitchen, baking gingerbread, stirring a bubbling cauldron of soup.

Detail from Popular Library cover.
Detail from Popular Library cover.

While there are no supernatural elements in the story, it is suffused with an atmosphere of magic. Merricat speaks words of power, nails talismans to trees, and buries significant items to ward off evil–meaning the outside world. Perhaps her magic really works. By the end of the story, her barriers successfully keep she and her sister safe in their isolated house, where no one can reach them.

But before that end, a change must come, one that Merricat senses even before it arrives, forewarned by bad omens. That change is the arrival of their cousin, Charles. Merricat sees Charles as a ghost or demon, a grotesque caricature of their dead father returned to life. In reality, he is nothing more than an ordinary man, boorish and greedy, and like many men, he gets offended when everyone does not fall in line with his notions of how the world should be. The witches are not the monstrous ones in this inside-out fairy tale–the normal people are.

Back detail of Penguin Deluxe Classics cover.
Back detail of Penguin Deluxe Classics cover.

Jackson channels some of Frankenstein as well, when Charles’s arrival sets in motion a chain of events climaxing in an enraged mob of villagers attacking the Blackwood house and driving the two girls into the woods. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the Blackwood sisters embrace their differences and their consequent isolation from the world. They come to call the people outside “strangers”; the monsters are outside the walls, not in.

This is a ghost story told from the inside out. By the end, the Blackwood sisters, still alive, are nonetheless haunting their ruined house: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Parents tell their children stories about the sister-spectres, how they capture and eat naughty children. Offerings are left as baskets of food, a la “Red Riding Hood,” to appease the spirits.

We readers know that the two sisters have not always lived in the castle, that indeed the castle was once just a house. But by the end, we come to believe they will always live there, just like the old fairy tales and ghost stories live on in retelling after retelling.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short, tight novel, not a word of its 130 pages wasted. It was Jackson’s final novel, and many believe that it was her masterpiece. While it echoes those old stories we know by heart, this is a story we’ve never heard before, at least not told in this way.

moon_color_flat-8971Is there an attraction in the “happily ever after” ending, the idea of walling oneself up away from the world? Surely there must have been for Jackson, who toward the end of her life became an agoraphobe and didn’t leave her bedroom for several months. Sometimes there is for me as well, when I am confronted in my morning newspaper with the banal evil that human beings are capable of. No wonder Constance and Merricat are happy. How nice it must be to live in the fairy tale, to be the ghosts in the story, to have found the way to the moon.

Further reading: “The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson” by Joyce Carol Oates; “Shirley Jackson: Delight in What I Fear” at DarkEcho