Sunday, January 15, 2012

Frankenstein and Procedural Anxiety

Frankenstein is a novel primarily concerned with theories of communication, process, and anxiety towards the inevitability of the isolation that is inherent in intensive study. The book itself relies heavily upon letters, the dominant form of long-distance communication in the historical period in which Frankenstein was written. We mustn’t forget the actual form of the book: the beginning sections (pre-chapter 1) are letters themselves and provide a framework for which the entire narrative rests upon. Furthermore, beginning at Chapter 1, the story is, apparently, the ramblings of Dr. Frankenstein, recorded by Robert Walton ostensibly written down to send to his sister. The entire novel, then, exists entirely and recursively within letters written within Frankenstein’s diegesis/world.  Sir Walton fears that he will not be able to communicate with his sister as he continues on his voyage towards the North Pole (which, given the time of Frankenstein’s publication, was indeed a great adventure: the first (purported) success with reaching the North Pole wasn’t until the early 20th century.) Indeed, considering that the latter several letters which Robert Walton writes to his sister are written whilst he is on the ship itself, and therefore they cannot, by their very nature, be delivered in any sort of meaningful way to their intended recipient; they serve instead, a more archival than communicative purpose (essential for the novel’s form). Yet, Robert Walton is bothered by concepts of communication himself: he makes it clear that he has isolated himself via his studies and travels. He desires to find a companion while on the open sea. And when he does, in Dr. Frankenstein, Walton is deeply troubled by Dr. Frankenstein’s initial ineptitude with communication and completely overjoyed (to the point where he records their communication seemingly verbatim) when Dr. Frankenstein initiates communication. Walton views communication as necessary for a meaningful bond between human beings, highlighting the difference between Dr. Frankenstein’s relationship with him and with the sailors whom “are all interested in him, although they have had very little communication with him. For my own part, I begin to love him as a brother…” (pg. 15-16). 

Dr. Frankenstein parallels Walton in this exact way: he feels increasingly isolated by his scientific pursuits and his isolation, it can be argued, is why he creates the monster in the first place. He views the completion of the monster as an antidote for his isolation: “I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed” (pg 51). Here, Shelly’s voice comes through; she uses the completion of the monster metaphorically to comment upon the isolation that serious, dedicated writing requires. The strain with which she perhaps suffered from while attempting to complete her novel is manifest in Dr. Frankenstein’s description, highly ironic as it is, of his view of work ethics: “[I]f no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Cesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed” (pg. 51). The irony here is apparent, as many would argue this small list of things as generally favorable or positive. Perhaps the most fascinating and apparent point of Shelly’s use of the creation of the monster as metaphor for the process of writing is in the very next sentence in which the entire narrative flow switches, the reader (or perhaps the recorder, Walton) is actually addressed and the diegesis is momentarily shattered: “But I forget that I am moralizing in the most interesting part of my tale; and your looks remind me to proceed” (pg 51). This level of self-awareness, however subtle, is highly prescient of more postmodern works and is rare among novels of the time (one other that perhaps is a bit more immediate with its self-awareness is Melville’s The Confidence Man, although it wasn’t published until nearly 50 years after Frankenstein.) This is an important and distinctive moment in the novel, both as restricted to this particular text and for its evolution of form in general. Here, and nowhere else in the book (um, the first 134 pages at least), we see Shelly participating in what nearly all of her characters struggle with: a want for genuine communication (albeit through the employment of irony) within an isolative immersion of Academic work or study. 

We find that the monster itself going through a similar crisis: he (it?) becomes isolated from nearly all communication in order to study. Although this is of course, a touch more complex, as what he is studying (language) is the very knowledge that allows for communication. Living vicariously through a family he watches voyeuristically through a peephole, the monster learns how to speak and shares the same view as Dr. Frankenstein and Mary Shelly do, which goes something along the lines of ‘I’m aware that I am isolating myself to a potentially unhealthy degree through my studies, however the fruit of my efforts will allow for greater communication than I could ever have hoped to achieve.’ This is clear for each: Dr. Frankenstein’s important scientific findings would ostensibly launch him into Academia and systematic fame, the monster will have a new tool for conversation, and Mary Shelly will have completed a novel (which what, exactly, is the purpose of a novel if not to communicate?). 

What is important are the doubts that Shelly expresses with regards to this view. Dr. Frankenstein clearly did not do something ‘good’ by his creation and if the monster believes that the ability to speak (quite loquaciously, as it turns out) will preclude the utter terror that his yellow-skinned, 8-foot death frame provokes in the townspeople, he is sadly mistaken as well. The work Shelly is doing with her novel is in ways commentary on the inherently isolative process of writing. Even in the preface to the novel, she writes that her friends, whom had entered into the lets-each-write-a-scary-book pact with her, had dropped the project to go play in the Alps. Surely this abandonment, coupled with her fanatic desire to finish, to complete the project, alas all will be better (and it was), directly influenced the way in which Frankenstein took its shape.

Shelly, Mary. Frankenstein. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc. 1934.

1 comment:

  1. Your premise here is a lot of fun, and quite interesting. The novel is deeply concerned with issues surrounding communication and separation. While this claim at least borders on the obvious, you take it in worthy directions. The "postmodern" interest that Shelley has in the composition process itself, and the monstrous/isolating characteristics of it is one (incidentally, while I like the connection you make with *The Confidence Man*, the modern novel originates in obsessive concern with the process of composing a modern novel - I'm talking about *Don Quixote*, which is also deeply concerned with the isolating effects, not so much of writing but of *reading*: as a reader, Don Quixote is permanently trapped in his own world. That objection aside, the idea of the novel as unfolding a metaphor of its own composition is both worthy and fun. I like the name of "procedural anxiety" for the phenomenon.

    Here's my primary objection to the essay as currently presented. If there is a theory of communication (or of communication and isolation, or of communication, isolation and composition) presented here, what is that theory? You circle around that question with some adeptness, but you don't actually answer it. Thus, you are left with thoroughly interesting material which is much less focused than it might initially appear to be.