Is “Don’t play God” the theme of Frankenstein?

So, what is the theme of Frankenstein? High school logic says it’s “Don’t play God.” This moral goes back to the Greek tragedies, with which Shelley would have been familiar.

But I read the book a different way, I guess. For me, one part struck me more than others–right after the monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein abandons it. He decides that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the monster and runs away. He just leaves it.

For me, the danger wasn’t in the technology, but in the fact that he didn’t take responsibility for it. The monster needed him to teach it how to deal with the world (and possibly integrate into society?), but the doctor left it alone. He takes one look at it, decides it’s ugly and runs away.

For me, the theme was, “Take responsibility for what you create.” Which if you think about it, is a pretty female theme–did the monster need a father?

Shelley wrote the novel between 1816 and 1818 (during the Regency era, not Victorian times). There were a lot of unemployed men hanging around, having just come back from the Napoleonic wars. Manufacturing was just starting to be automated, taking away possible jobs for them. This created a lot of social dissonance, you can imagine, unemployment and crime.

Gin Lane by Hogarth, 1751. It depicts the social dissonance caused by the availability of cheap gin. (He believed in beer, though...)

Gin Lane by Hogarth, 1751. It depicts the social dissonance caused by the availability of cheap gin. (He believed in beer, though...)

A big contributing factor to crime was a) the lack of a modern police force and b) people drank gin because the water wasn’t safe. You could get “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence” (a sign hung above many tavern doors). Counting for inflation and currency exchange, that would be about forty/eighty cents.

In Shelley’s world, she saw machines taking people’s jobs and the social problems this caused. Did she write the novel to encourage people to take responsibility for the effects their machines had?

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Was Frankenstein’s creature a revenant?

The 1931 Boris Karloff film showed us a Dr. Victor Frankenstein who robbed graves to sew together a creature and brought it to life with a bolt of lightning, and that’s the way most of us think of Frankenstein now. A revenant made of reassembled corpses.

But was it true to Mary Shelley’s story?

First off, you have to know that the structure of Shelley’s book is an ‘epistolary novel.’ The “Epistolary” part mean that it’s written as a document itself–in this case, as a series of letters. (Bram Stoker would later incorporate this same structure into Dracula.) This wasn’t anything revolutionary at the time–and it isn’t now, either. Think Bridget Jones’ Diary.

But we end up with two narrators, Robert Walton, who writes letters to his sister telling her the tale as it is told to him by Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

In answering the question of if the creature was a revenant–a dead body that rises from the grave–or not, we end up looking at the method Frankenstein used to create it. But the doctor is quiet on the subject, telling Walton, “I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be.”

Which only means we have to look a little deeper for clues…

So where did the idea of the doctor using corpses for his experiment come from? If we look in the book, Frankenstein becomes interested in researching the line between life and death: “Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses.”

Dr. Victor Frankenstein studied the decay of dead bodies. Absolutely. He “saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain.”

“Who shall conceive the horrors,” Frankenstein says, “of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?

He “collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame[…] The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials.”

What about the bolt of lightning? Earlier in the book, Dr. Frankenstein talks about his interests while at school. “Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity. On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me.” So he knew about electricity and galvanism–which is the word for applying an electrical current to a dead muscle. (A modern experiment in galvanism involving a frog and a webserver.)

So is the creature made up of dead bodies, brought to life by electricity?

No. It can’t be. In Frankenstein’s own words, (the bolding is mine), “Pursuing these reflections, I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”

In the brackets, Frankenstein himself says he found it impossible restore a dead body to life. We can guess that the work he was doing with corpses and animal bodies was to figure out the secrets of how a body works.

Okay, you can maybe make an argument saying that he thought he could renew life–if death hadn’t corrupted the body. BUT Frankenstein says “A new species would bless me as its creator and source.” A new species–not the human species. He’s not reanimating a human here. He’s creating a new thing.

So what was his method? Dr. Frankenstein doesn’t tell us. He specifically doesn’t want us to know. What we do know is that he found the small scale of the human body frustrating to him. He had to work on a larger being. “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large.”

If Frankenstein was sewing together existing nerves and sinews, why would the creature be huge? There would be no reason for a creature made of previously existing human body parts to be larger than a human body.

No, Frankenstein was working with something like human body parts, only bigger.

I can only come up with two theories:
a) He was working with mechanical things.
b) He was growing body parts in a vat and assembling them.

For me, I’m going to guess at option b. It’s a total guess. But the reason I’m picking it is that the creature has this desire to integrate into human society, and to me, that’s biological. It observes, it learns, and it wants things. Dr. Frankenstein takes one look at it when it rises alive, and he runs away. And this hurts the creature’s feelings. The rest of the book is about the creature’s hurt feelings.

But either way you go, the answer to the question of if Frankenstein’s creature was a revenant, risen from the dead… Our answer has to be no.

Frankenstein on film

When most of us think of Frankenstein, we think of the 1931 Boris Karloff movie that introduced us to a mute monster with a bolt in his neck. Unlike the book, the creature was violent evil from conception, as a result of having the brain of a criminal. This version, with its portrayal of grave-robbing to create the creature and the creature being unable to reason or speak, would become the standard vision of the book.

But twenty-one years before, Thomas Edison produced a silent film portraying the story. 1910. Check it out.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley Week: The First Female Science Fiction Author?

Notice

This blog in no way wishes to imply that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was a demon.

Thank you,
The Management

Mary Shelley

Since I’m a writer myself–check out www.teresawilde.com for info on my books–early female writers impress the crap out of me. Way up there is Mary Shelley.

Mary, a little later, around 1840

Mary, a little later, around 1840

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley wrote one of the first science fiction novels, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In fact, some people claim that Frankenstein was THE first science fiction novel–but considering that people can’t even agree on a definition for science fiction… We can’t say for sure. Other people claim it was Gulliver’s Travels (which seems more fantasy to me).

(Sagan and Asimov say it was Kepler’s Somnium in 1630, in which a student of Tycho Brahe visits the moon.)

Yep, a woman. One of the first science fiction authors. And we’re almost sure (oxymoron!) that she was the first female science fiction author (in English at least). Okay, but before you cite that as a reference in your doctoral thesis, let me say I could be wrong about that. Even today, many female sci fi authors use male pseudonyms, so someone we thought was a man could very well have lacked an Y chromozome.

Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818, when Mary was 19. Nineteen. Her name was first attached to it in the 1831 edition. For the story of how she started writing it, check out my Saturday post.

Mary was the daughter of two famous writers–a feminist and an anarchist. Her mom was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the 1792 tract “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects,” in which she argued *gasp* that women have the right to a rational education. She argued that because women are the first teachers of children, not educating women degrades society. Mary Wollstonecraft, quite a scandalous person in her day, as she had the uppityness to have love affairs (and even a daughter) before her marriage, died ten days after Mary was born.

At the age of seventeen, Mary ran away to Europe with the Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, (you might know him from the favorite of high school teachers everywhere “Ozymandias“) who was married at the time. Percy believed in free love, and in principle so did Mary… but there’s no evidence she ever loved anyone else. Her step sister Claire Clairemont went with them.

Mary was hit hard when she had a baby girl, premature by two months, who died. This was right after Shelley’s estranged wife gave birth to his legitimate son. Shelley was over the moon about his son. After the girl died, he left Mary alone and went off with her sister for a while. This was before Mary wrote Frankenstein.

Hmm. So, basically, Shelley helped bring something into the world, then pretty much abandoned it, taking no responsibility. Hmm. And he published some poems under the pen name “Victor.”

Hmm.

Coming up on DotW

Tomorrow, I’ll give you a look at the Frankenstein movie. (Nope, not that one.)

Thursday, we’ll answer the question “Was Frankenstein’s creature a revenant?”

Friday, I’ll talk about the other genre of literature that Mary Shelley invented.

John Polidori’s The Vampyre

As a writer, I have a special loathing for what Google Books does to published authors, believing that it violates copyright and that if any other company had done what Google did, they would have been sued into bankruptcy several times over. Don’t get me started on the settlement. If you don’t know about this, the settlement BINDS copyright holders who DON’T agree to it. If you don’t opt out, that means you’re in. I’m not sure how that’s legal. (Could I pick a hot guy, put an ad in the paper to let him know I’m marrying him and if he doesn’t show up, that means he agrees?)

However, for out of copyright books, it’s beyond awesome. I can use it for research, and it’s great for books so old that the copyright has expired and they are hard to get.

Like John Polidori’s The Vampyre, that I talked about yesterday. Here it is.

Vampires we know and love #4: The first English Vampire

Think vampires are all the same? Think again! Vampires come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins ice cream. So, this special DotW feature, Vampires we know and love, spotlights different kinds of bloodsucking fiends from around the world.

The first English Vampire

Or should I say “vampyre?”

The most famous ghost story-telling session in the history of the world happened in June 1816, in a rented house, Maison Chappius, at Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

Present were poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; the author he would soon marry, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; her half-sister Claire Clairmont (whose parents had obviously been drunk when they named her); the poet Lord Byron; and Dr. John Polidori, Byron’s doctor and traveling companion.

the players

Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley
MaryShelley
Mary Shelley
Claire_Clairmont
Claire Clairmont (She later bore Byron a daughter, Allegra.)
Byron2
George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron
Polidori
John Polidori

It was rainy and the whole company was bored. They turned to reading a book of ghost stories out loud, “Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d’Histoires d’Apparitions de Spectres, Revenans, Fantomes.” That means “Fanstamagoriana, or Collection of Stories of Apparitions of Spectres, Revenants, Phantoms.”

After reading this, Byron–or someone else–suggested that they all write ghost stories themselves and tell them to the group.

By the way, the lot of them were drunk/wasted most of the time.

According to Mary Shelley’s diary, Polidori’s story was pretty bad. But Byron told a story with vampiric elements that wasn’t.

Byron got sick of Polidori and fired him soon after.

A couple of years later, a vampire story appeared in New Monthly Magazine. It had Bryon’s name attached to it, but it was written by Polidori, ‘inspired by’ the notes he had taken on Byron’s ghost story from Geneva. Whether Polidori meant for it to published or not is up in the air. It was titled The Vampyre.

Also, Byron was listed as the author.

Byron was mad, mad, mad. Especially since the vampire villain seemed to have a lot in common with him. Goethe said it was the best thing Byron had ever written (except he didn’t write it).
Byron denied the story and wrote his own vampire tale “Fragment of a Story.”

But it would never change the fact that “The Vampyre” was the first English vampire story and “Fragment of a Story” was the second.

Polidori killed himself. Eventually someone wrote a story in which Byron is a vampire.

But the moral of the story should be this:
While Byron abandoned his tale, forever giving up the chance to write the first ever vampire story and Polidori had to borrow someone else’s name to get published… Mary Shelley kept working on her own story. She stuck to it and worked her arse off.

Eventually, hers was the only novel to come out of that story-telling session, and while The Vampyre and Fragment of a Novel became kinda famous, hers lives on to this day.

It’s a little something called Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

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Adventures in Demon Hunting 2, or An Account of Creatures Strange and Wondrous: Sedna

The second of the amazing creatures encountered by intrepid Demon Hunters Teresa and Jolaine on what became known to history as The Great Demon Hunting Expedition of 2009 was an intensely ugly, but enormously powerful, Inuit goddess by the name of Sedna.

Sedna was once a human woman, living in the frozen Canadian North with her father, the creator god Anguta. Different versions of what happened between her and her father exist. In one, the ugly Sedna took a dog for her husband, enraging her father. In another, Sedna was so beautiful that an evil bird spirit fell in love with her and abducted her, leading her father rescue her. However, the spirit was too powerful, creating a terrible storm that threatened the lives of the people, leading her father to make a sacrifice of her.

Both versions of the story agree on the ending part: Sedna got into a canoe with her dad. Dad threw her overboard. When she tried to hang on, he cut off her fingers.

Good ending, through… Sedna’s fingers became seals, walrus, and whales–the big creatures of the Northern sea. Sedna herself became the powerful goddess of the sea on whom the Inuit depend for survival. Hunters especially worshipped her for good luck on their hunts.

Behold, Sedna!

Sedna

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedna_(mythology)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. A review. A complaint. A preview.

Okay, so Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

p&p&zbookPride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! (Paperback)
By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I was really excited about this book before it came out. And then I was really excited about it for about 2/3 of the book. The reader on the audiobook got it JUST right. The stiff Brit accent for the Austen stuff, then she read the ultra-violent action with the relish of a blood-thirsty vampire.

And then I got less excited. For me, it started to fail around about the time of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. Which was social ruin for an entirely different reason than it was in the original, though it took me until the very end of the book to figure that out. <SPOILER ALERT> Basically, everyone was embarrassed for Lydia because they thought she’d been abducted and defeated, an affront to her ‘warrior honor’ but since not everyone in the society were warriors, it didn’t really gibe. I only figured out that was supposed to be the real problem when in the final section, it talks about Mary taking tons of lovers.

Plus there were some things that were just not consistent, like the Bennets training in China (which was cute, really, but where did they get the money?), and the muskets being able to fire more than once without reloading, and the assumption that the problem of the Bennet estate being entailed away from the female line would be solved by <SPOILER ALERT>killing off Mr. Collins. The estate would just to the next closest male relative.. Honestly, if you’re going to muck with Miss Jane Austen, you should get the research right.

I listened to the audiobook, so I haven’t seen all the illustrations from the book. The five I did see were very poorly researched, showing Elizabeth Bennet and her posse in Victorian clothes, not Regency. Guys, this is not a hard thing to get right. I personally own three 200-year-old Regency-era fashion plates that I bought in London (in the street that inspired Diagon Alley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books). But there’s tons of stuff on the internet if they’d bothered to spend five minutes on Google. It would have been easy to get this right, and they missed the mark.

Okay, but here’s my big disappointment. (Listen, I KNOW this was meant to be fluff. I DO. I really, really, do.)

The zombies (and not the fact that they were called ‘unmentionables’ in many parts of the book, and then mentioned in the rest of the book) were never explained. They were a ‘strange plague.’ You could become one by being bitten… but also somehow old corpses just randomly became zombies. Like, after they’d been buried for a while.

I’ll say it again: I KNOW THIS WAS MEANT TO BE FLUFFY…

But I take my zombies very seriously. And let’s remember where zombies come from–voodoo. How did voodoo start in the Caribbean? Slaves invented it. Why were there slaves in the Caribbean?

The Slave Trade, in which the British had a huge hand. (Though you have to acknowledge they were also the first to abolish it.) Ta-dah, instant motivation for otherwise unmotivated villains.

I KNOW I’m demanding too much of this book. I KNOW IT. I KNOW THIS BOOK WAS NEVER MEANT FOR SOCIAL COMMENTARY. But I think a huge opportunity was missed. Jane Austen was all about the social commentary. And that’s another thing that kind of irritated me: Because zombies were roaming the countryside and the Bennet sisters had jobs–zombie hunting for the government–it minimized the original problems of the novel. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters face a bleak future of poverty and social ruin, something that’s hard for us to understand today, when women can go out and get jobs and take care of themselves. One of the reasons Jane Austen’s work is culturally important is because she gave a voice to these issues. Women had few options in those days, and if Jane and Elizabeth hadn’t pulled the family’s butt out of the fire, they could have ended up in the streets (More likely living as dependents of their lawyer uncle, though).

But that seems unimportant when the undead roam the countryside.

Okay, there. I’m done being unreasonable.

I enjoyed many, many parts of this book, including the fact that the best zombie hunter in the land was Lady Catherine deBourgh, that the Bennet sisters got attacked by zombies pretty much every time they left the house, Mr. Darcy eating sushi, London being divided into sectors… I’m glad I read it because of these things. They were cool. Buy the book. Enjoy the book. Then re-read the original.

I’ll share my thoughts on why zombies are tapped into the zeitgeist of our modern society sometime soon–every age has its monster, and zombies are an appropriate symbol of our current underlying fears. For now, go watch this preview of the next book by the publishers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I have to say I’m so uninterested. And now I sort of feel that they’re picking on Austen. (Plus, why Sense and Sensibility? Half the cast of Persuasion was in the navy. It would have been a way better fit. I guess they wanted to use the ‘and’ joke again. And also because so many people have read Jane Austen. But maybe a Tale of Two Werewolf Cities might have been in order. How about Huckleberry Finn vs. the Pod People?)

I hope the stuff about Willoughby’s being a sensible man not easily swayed by emotion was meant to be ironic. Because that would mean that they mistook both the character of Willoughby and the definition of the word ‘sensibility’ as Miss Jane Austen meant it. Sensibility refers to a romantic sensibility–Marianne’s nature (and also Willoughby’s, and to some extent, Colonel Brandon’s). Sense refers to being logical–Elena’s actions, and Mr. Ferrars’.


s&s&smSense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters
p&p&zdeluxePride and Prejudice and Zombies Deluxe Edition
By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
The deluxe edition has extra text written by Grahame-Smith, and a couple more illustrations in color (they look like they actually fit the time period).

Remember

Live-action demon-hunting on Wednesday!

Vampires we know and love #3: Nachzehrer

Think vampires are all the same? Think again! Vampires come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins ice cream. So, this special DotW feature, Vampires we know and love, spotlights different kinds of bloodsucking fiends from around the world.

Nachzehrer

Like the krsnik/kudlak, the German Nachzehrer starts out as a cute little baby born still in his amniotic sac. And like the kudlak, that kid is doomed to become a vampire after death, a Nachzehrer.

I did my best to figure out the German (mine is a little rusty) and the best I could do was ‘after devourer.’ If anyone out there has any more info, I’d appreciate the help.

While in its grave, the Nachzehrer keeps its left eye open and holds one thumb in the other hand.

The Nachzehrer has an interesting diet… even more interesting than your usual vampire fare. Before starting out of the grave to drink the blood of its family, the Nachzehrer needs a little snack, some fiber. The Nachzehrer eats its own graveclothes before it can rise. And as if that’s not enough, it also takes a bite out of… itself. A little nosh here and there gives it the strength it needs to get up and go.

Once it has finished on the kinfolk, the Nachzehrer climbs the nearest church belfry and rings the bell. Anyone who hears it will die.

Use garlic against the Nachzehrer, and put a pair of scissors under your pillow, with the points toward the head of your bed. This will protect you, but you’ll still need to do an exorcism ritual to get rid of it completely.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, come back for the next thrilling installment of live-action demon hunting!

Sources

  • Rosemary Ellen Guiley,The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters
  • Jonathan Maberry, Vampire Universe: The Dark World of Supernatural Beings That Haunt Us, Hunt Us, and Hunger for Us, Citadel, 2006
  • Matthew Bunson, The Vampire Encyclopedia, Random House, 2000
  • Breaking demonic news: Corpse-eating robot in development (No, I’m not making this up)

    The EATR robot snacks on corpses.

    The EATR snacks on corpses. Robot or ghoul?

    Yesterday, Fox News reported that Robotic Technology Inc, a company out of Maryland, is developing a battlefield robot that fuels itself by ‘eating’ organic matter. Like insects. Grass. AND THE DEAD.

    People are calling it the zombie robot, but that is totally wrong. As dedicated DotW readers will know, undead (undead, robotic, whatever) creatures that consume corpses fall under the category of ‘ghoul.’ Not zombie. Ghoul.

    Let’s get it right, people.

    For now the platform is experimental, but things the company is thinking of developing include some kind of gun platform. So, basically, we’re creating something that eats corpses, then giving it the ability to turn us all into corpses. It’s fully automatic, and can roam for months at a time.

    Okay, so besides being completely offensive to religious cultures that require proper burial procedures for their dead to enter the afterlife, is this a good idea? How does a robot distinguish between living and dead organic matter? Should we develop Grey Goo to help us fight this threat? Would vampire robots be a better plan, and if so, what would their capes look like?

    Your thoughts, please, DoTW readers…