Vol. LXII, No. 44
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
— from Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein
A column on Frankenstein for Halloween seemed like a no-brainer —
Oh-oh! Stop! Hold that line!
Such is the power of the perpetual, Hollywood-driven pop culture sideshow loosely based on Mary Shelley’s novel that even contemporary slang like “no brainer” has unintended resonance. It’s the kind of corny pun Mel Brooks might have used in Young Frankenstein when Marty Feldman’s Igor raids the local “brain depository” and makes off with the one labeled, “Do Not Use This Brain! Abnormal.”
The idea of a brain up for grabs also suggests one of the major differences between the literary miracle created by an 18-year-old British girl who was “living in sin” at the time of its conception and the 1931 movie classic brilliantly directed by James Whale and cleverly packaged by Universal studios. While the brain implanted in Boris Karloff’s monster belonged to a murderer, the brain residing in the head of Shelley’s creature is brand-new, a tabula rasa in a body brought to life not by a series of cinematically brilliant, if hokey, special effects, but by an act of sheer authorial presumption; no sutures, no studs and stitches, no bolts of lightning, and no going into detail to make so fantastical an accomplishment credible. After a few pages tracing young Victor Frankenstein’s studies in chemistry, anatomy, and “natural philosophy,” presto, “a sudden light” breaks upon him that makes him “dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated” and “after days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue,” he becomes “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”
Coleridge Casts a Spell
Among the parents or progenitors of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published anonymously in 1818, were Ovid, Milton, Swift, and the author’s own mother and father, Mary Wollstonecraft (who died of septic poisoning giving birth to her) and William Godwin, “two persons of distinguished literary celebrity,” as she puts it in the 1831 introduction. Looming above that formidable company was another “literary celebrity” who paid a memorable visit to the Godwin household one dark and stormy night when Mary was nine. Okay, maybe the night wasn’t dark and stormy, but the visitor in question, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was by all accounts a dark and stormy man born ten days short of Halloween. If anyone on the planet in 1806 could have created life out of dead matter or discovered the philosopher’s stone (you can’t say he didn’t try) or levitated or communed with ghosts or matched wits while sipping laudanum with Mephistopheles, it was Coleridge. Reading his notebooks, with all their botanical studies, perambulations over hill and dale, occult divinations, religious musings, documented alchemical adventures, and recorded hallucinations, you may find yourself wondering why he didn’t come up with the Frankenstein concept himself. Even so, he made a profound impression on the nine-year-old author-to-be, who included a reference to him among her additions to the 1831 Frankenstein, the first to bear her name. Aware that the Arctic wilderness at the beginning and end of her tale are haunted by the Mariner’s still more vividly expressed “land of mist and snow,” a line directly quoted in Frankenstein, she has her ship’s captain, Robert Walton, allude in a letter to the possibility that he might come back from his voyage “as worn and woful as the ‘Ancient Mariner’” and then go on to admit that his “attachment to” and “passionate enthusiasm for, the dangerous mysteries of ocean” stem from “that production of the most imaginative of modern poets.” A more suggestive channeling of the Rime comes as Victor Frankenstein flees from “the demoniacal corpse” to which he had “so miserably given life.”
Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn’d round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
According to the notes in Susan J. Wolfson’s edition of Frankenstein (Pearson Longman 2007), Percy Shelley is said to have “fainted on hearing these lines recited.” If a grown man could be so overwhelmed by a mere passage from the poem, imagine the impact of the whole production on a little girl up past her bedtime, hiding under a parlor sofa to hear lines like these intoned by none other than the poet himself. Imagine being discovered by your stepmother, dragged out from under the sofa, and banished to bed. Then imagine the poet demanding that the child be allowed to stay and hear the poem through. Imagine how those words, “frightful fiend,” might adhere to the prodigiously active and haunted imagination of Mary Godwin. Imagine looking up at a man chanting one of the great wild poems of the language who had, by his own account, a “carcass of a face,” whose forehead, according to William Hazlitt, “was broad and high, light as if built of ivory, with large projecting eyebrows, his eyes rolling beneath them like a sea with darkened lustre,” whose “eye” to Dorothy Wordsworth was “large and full” and “speaks every emotion of his animated mind” with “more of ‘the poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling’” than she “ever witnessed,” not to mention “fine dark eyebrows, and an overhanging forehead” and a “wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth”; or, to Hazlitt, a mouth “gross, voluptuous, open, eloquent.” According to Coleridge himself, he couldn’t breathe through his nose, so that his mouth, “with sensual thick lips” was “almost always open.”
To a child of nine, Coleridge must have seemed both a god and a monster that night, or at the least, a monstrously fascinating presence, who, when he was reading, as Hazlitt reports, did so with “a certain chant which acts as a spell upon the hearer” and with a physical sound of such force “that it was like seeing a fist that had just struck fire from your Eye.” Others who heard him read speak of “everlasting music,” a “musical hum,” “the most expressive voice in the world,” or, better yet, “the voice of a river when half crusted over with ice” due to a “burr and a lisp and a strange huskiness” that still somehow produces “a melodious effect.” In-person accounts of Coleridge also invariably portray him in terms of his own creation, he himself the haunted Mariner telling his horrific tale, with his “glittering eye.” Imagine him on the night in question chanting lines like “Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head/The glorious sun uprist”; “the very deep did rot”; the water “like witch’s oils,/Burnt green, and blue and white.” Imagine little Mary hearing that voice declaim ”Her skin was as white as leprosy,/The night-mare Life-in-Death was she, /Who thicks man’s blood with cold.”
And yet when the performance ended, after 625 lines, Mary went off to bed having been held in thrall with the Wedding Guest (who “listens like a three years’ child”) and who will wake the next morning, “A sadder and a wiser man.”
No wonder, then, that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a Mariner’s tale, compiled in letter form by a ship’s captain named Walton, with two narrators, first Victor Frankenstein, then his creation, the so-called monster, who actually has more in common with Coleridge, that “most imaginative of modern poets,” than with Boris Karloff’s brute.
A Sensitive Being
It’s amusing to imagine fans of the Frankenstein movies going eagerly to the book in expectation of a page-turner only to run into an articulate, emotional “monster” who only wants to “make nice” with humanity and whose prose is as tame as the Mariner’s is wild; for instance when he suggests that “To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honor that can befall a sensitive being” and that “To be base and vicious as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing.”
It’s hard to read the creature’s narrative without occasionally wondering what Mel Brooks would do to it or without hearing Gene Wilder’s dulcet Young Frankenstein delivery, or without imagining the travesty had the real-life framework of the story been given full play (with perhaps Charles Laughton brought in to do Coleridge). You get a hint of the black-comedy potential in the prologue to the Universal’s first sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), wherein Gavin Gordon plays an insufferably gloating, posturing Lord Byron. The one bright spot in an otherwise squirm-inducing scene is Elsa Lanchester, who does a charming Mary and goes on to create one of the all-time great movie moments as the awakened Bride.
Speaking of movie moments, I think one of the only scenes in Frankenstein that Mary Shelley might appreciate is when the monster and his playmate, an unfrightened little girl, set flowers afloat on a lake. In that one scene, which ignites the film’s breathtakingly filmed conclusion, the poetry in the original conception comes into play.
The Longman Cultural Edition of Frankenstein (2007) edited by Princeton University English professor Susan Wolfson was particularly helpful here, as were several online sources and Leonard Wolf’s The Annotated Frankenstein, which contains a facsimile of the 1818 edition.
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