Thursday, February 16, 2012

Homeric Legend within Frankenstein

              For a modern reader of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the idea of the “evil” character as a hero or anti-hero is not a new concept.  Often times the most interesting and compelling heroes are not the just and uncorrupt but the flawed and often times dangerous ones.  Modern fiction has borrowed heavily from the heroic ideals of Homeric legend, the full title of Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus reflects this very intention.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines hero as, “a name given (as in Homer) to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; at a later time regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal.  A man distinguished by extraordinary valor and martial achievements.”  This provides a framework for understanding the Creature as the true hero of the text.  In his introduction to Paradise Lost, John Milton writes of his attempts to take poetic writing away from the “rhyme…of some famous modern poets, carried away by custom” (Milton 2).  Milton presents the point of his epic poem as an effort that he “may assert Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to men” (Milton 4).  For Milton the hero of the text was always intended to be God and to a lesser extent Adam, the fall of Satan, the fall of Adam and Eve, all demonstrate the glory and intentions of God.  Over time the true intention of Milton has been lost within the desires of the reader, God or Adam no longer represents the heroes to a modern reader but the new hero is Satan himself.  While this is a clear misinterpretation of the text on a very fundamental level, it is not necessarily an incorrect one in the modern sense.  Where any exchange between God and Adam/Eve is very rigid and dry in its structure and tone, the elements of the Devil and his fall from grace or the planning of vengeance against God presents a more vivid and fully realized character.  Strange that the Creature of Frankenstein latches onto this particular piece of writing over all others, perhaps the greatest and oldest struggle between Creator and Creation.  If Satan becomes the hero to a modern audience then the Creature bears the marks of a modern hero.
            When constructing the creature as a hero within Homeric understanding we must look to the most obvious expression of heroic ability, strength.  The first meeting of Frankenstein and his monster after the brief moment during his “birth” begins as Frankenstein, “beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed.  He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution” (Shelley 105).  Much later in the text after the monster had rescued a small girl from drowning, her father came up and took the child from the monster and, “hastened towards the deeper parts of the wood.  I followed speedily, I hardly knew why; but when the man saw me draw near, he aimed a gun, which he carried, at my body, and fired” (Shelley 158).  Much like Achilles’ martial prowess during the sacking of Troy or Odysseus’ ability to string his own bow and murder those who wished to take his wife and land, the Creature has proven himself every bit as capable.  The Satan of Paradise Lost presents his own strengths as a leader amongst the fallen, he works to enter and corrupt Paradise and Man, to remove them from the favor of God just as he had lost his own.  The Creature, much like Satan, wishes to deny his Creator the same happiness he is unable to experience leading the Creature to murder those closest to Frankenstein.
            As the Creature reads Paradise Lost it “excited different and far deeper emotions” about understanding himself and his relation to the world and existence he has found himself in (Shelley 144).  At first, he understood himself as Adam, he had “no link to any other being in existence but unlike Adam he was no allowed to “converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature; but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.  Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition” (Shelley 144).  The Creature has been forced into the role of the modern hero within the understanding of a modern interpretation to Milton, like Satan, he is not the loyal subject of his Creator but rather something that responds and reacts in direct confrontation to that Creator.  The Creature is not the docile Adam dolling at names to the creatures of Eden, living in an almost moronic state of bliss but a being of understanding and conviction.  In the very modern sense of heroic ideals the Creature defines a character that goes against the traditional structure of the Milton Genesis epic.  Unlike the foolish idealization of God for Adam, the Creature learns the nature of his existence and the abandonment by his Creator.
The Creature is not without sin like the Adam he so desperately wishes to be but being a hero and doing heroic deeds does not imply a lack of bodies.  Like the classic Homeric heroes before him the monster kills but death is merely a consequence of heroic actions.  Achilles defeated many men in combat, won many victories for his army and was a hero to his people.  Odysseus fought in the Trojan wars and spent his journey fighting for his life against all manner of mythological beings and Gods.  OED defines revenge as “The action of hurting, harming, or otherwise obtaining satisfaction from someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at his or her hand,” which brings another parallel between the Creature and Satan as heroic.  Satan wages war on Heaven and is cast down into the pits of hell at the apparent betrayal of God for having created man.  As the first creations of God, Satan felt that angels were deserving of God’s affection.  And like Satan, the Creature felt that he was deserving of Frankenstein’s and felt betrayed by the one person that should have been there to guide his growth.  So where Satan waged war, the Creature kills those closest to Frankenstein.  But these murders are not done by some heartless human being that took any great pleasure with these acts, like any crime of passion there is a range of conflicting emotions.  In his article Frankenstein, “Paradise Lost,” and “The Majesty of Goodness,” Tang Soo Ping argues that the creature was not a heartless killer but a “victim” to the crimes as much as Frankenstein.  Ping writes “even his relentless killing of innocent victims never really obscures his Edenic qualities of loving and caring” (Ping 257).  He argues the emotional conflict of sadness and loss that the Creature feels after Frankenstein are, “proof of the tenderness that he still bears towards his maker” (Ping 257).  The heroics of the Creature does not imply a moral high ground, conflicting emotions are the mark of a hero, not their moral high ground.
Despite modern misinterpretation of Milton’s intentions within Paradise Lost, by classic Homeric definition of hero Satan emerges as the true hero.  Milton had proposed to “justify the ways of God to man,” he wished to return to the style of Homer forgoing modern takes on poetic form and in pursuing that he inadvertently created perhaps the strongest hero of the strongest evil known to the Western world.  Mary Shelley may not have intended for the Creature to become the hero of the text, perhaps Frankenstein was meant to fill that role.  But she grounded her Creature in the reality of Milton’s work, for the Creature this was how he identified himself.  He was the fallen son of a “god,” the outsider looking in a world that had rejected and would never accept him.  If Shelley read Milton and his depiction of Satan not as the ultimate evil but a character that was at once heroic for his actions and sympathetic because of his plight she has placed those same ideals within her Creature.  The Creature has become the Homeric  hero of the modern novel.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Dover, 2009.

Milton, John, and Gordon Teskey. Paradise Lost, An Authoritative Text, Sources And Backgrounds, Criticism. W W Norton & Co Inc, 2005.

Frankenstein, "Paradise Lost," and "The Majesty of Goodness". Tang Soo Ping. College Literature , Vol. 16, No. 3 (Fall, 1989), pp. 255-260.

1 comment:

  1. I am interested in the Homeric reading of Frankenstein, and I'm interested in the Miltonian reading (although that one has been done to death). I'm also interested in how you might relate the two - which is where the initial big problem is. I have no idea whatsoever of what you're trying to do with Milton and Homer *together*.

    You briefly discuss the monster's strength, etc. While this is one surface-level way to connect the monster with Homer's heroes, I'd be much more interested in hearing about how we might relate the monster to the wrath of Achilles, to his love for Patroclus, for his choice of fame over a long life - and similarly, how we might relate him to the cunning of Odysseus, or Odysseus prioritization of home above all else, no matter what else he does or experiences. In other words - I don't see much that's Homeric in this Homeric reading of Frankenstein.

    Then you turn again, mysteriously, to Milton. Your discussion of Frankenstein in relationship with a modern reading of Milton is fine, but perhaps somewhat generic - and it remains unclear what you're trying to do with Milton and Homer together!

    Overall: You are arguing, basically, that we should see the Monster as Homeric because he is like a modern (which you connect with Homeric) understanding of Milton's Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. That's a little tortured - it would work much better if you did something *with Homer* to justify your reading of Satan as true hero in Paradise Lost. Doing that in detail (bringing Homer, Shelley, and Milton coherently together) is what you needed. What you actually have is a very familiar reading of Frankenstein, with a Homeric twist that you don't actually do - you just gesture at it, rather than arguing it.