Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was basic first-year stuff for lit majors in our program. We used it less as a piece of fiction to be enjoyed and more as a springboard into different strains of literary critique (psychoanalysis, feminist, etc.), as evidenced by the edition we were asked to purchase. As useful as this method was to illustrate the applications of literary theory, it also reduced the book to a piece of meat. There’s something meta in that if you think on it long enough.
At any rate, I picked up this book again in my chronological fiction reading quest and was absolutely spellbound. I kid you not. “What changed?!” said I to Jack. “You did,” said he. Ah, wise husband.
This time, I eschewed reading cover to cover, ignoring even the introduction and preface, and dived straight into the story. That Shelley began this novel at the age of 19 astounds me (okay, I caught a few pages of the introduction). I am struck by how relevant Frankenstein’s emotions are in all his ordeals, and the great tension Shelley induces in me as I read, wavering between empathy and anger alternatingly for Frankenstein and the monster.
“Alas! why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us.
We rest; a dream has power to poison sleep.
We rise; one wand’ring thought pollutes the day…” (p. 92).Shelley, M. (1818). Frankenstein. Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Without a doubt, I have just about everything that I need to be happy. And yet how this resonated, that a stray thought can have so much power so as to ruin an hour, a noon, or even a day. This verse arose in response to the seemingly uncontrollable desolation of Frankenstein.
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.2 Corinthians 10:5. NIV.
I know this sounds like common sense (that not every thought we have is rational, true, or even right), but to put it into practice is less straightforward. Choosing which thoughts we dwell on requires in the first place an active attention on which thoughts we allow to remain in us. Paul writes of spiritual struggle, and taking thoughts captive, rather than submitting to every thought that pops into our head. As much as Frankenstein’s feelings of doom and gloom are understandable (and quite justified), I also wonder if a person in his place would have made better choices by not allowing thoughts of doom and gloom to rule their perspective. Had Frankenstein sat back for a breather, could he not have summoned some compassion? sympathy? pity? for his creation? Any one of these feelings might have justified a happier ending.
Of course, wondering what a fictitious being could have done is a bit doomed in itself; the character is as the author writes. (And of course, perhaps Shelley was bent on making some other point that I’m missing entirely in this post). Setting that thought aside, though, Frankenstein asks whether there a case to be made for succumbing wholly to our emotions. If not at all, then the question might turn to determining where we draw the line to prevent our feelings from wreaking havoc into our future reality.