In Her Shell
Friday, March 21, 2008
  The Man Or The Monster

When I started teaching Frankenstein five years ago I thought I could tell the sensitive kids by who sympathized more with the creature. I couldn't stand Victor Frankenstein--he was spoiled, coddled, self-involved and self-aggrandizing--he made poor choices and then justified them by pointing to the maliciousness of his creation. But the creature wasn't malicious, not at first--he wanted love and acceptance, was gentle and sought to help others, and was rewarded by beatings, anger, fear, stones, and gunshots. The vengeance he sought on his creator was only a function of his total rejection by society. He was alone, never had a chance, and therefore less to blame for the horrible things he eventually did.

When students sided more with Victor I thought they were shallow. He had everything, then had it taken away from him, they said. He lost his friends, family, and wife, as a result of something he created. He had to live with the guilt for the rest of his life. Yes, he made bad decisions, but he didn't kill anyone! They were smug in their dismissal of the creature. A bad childhood doesn't excuse someone from moral responsibility, they insisted.

The interesting thing about Frankenstein is this dilemma: who do you root for? The book is certainly not terribly well-written; it's riddled with digressions and overblown language, plot threads picked up to be conveniently dropped and forgotten about, long wordy descriptions of the mountains in winter that can only be explained by the Romantic period and the fact that the author was only 18 at the time.

This year, suddenly, I can see Victor's side. He does make some stupid mistakes, boy, starting with running away from his creation as soon as it is given life, and blindly hoping that it will just die somewhere and he can forget all about it. He blunders along, wracked by guilt, but never asking anyone for help until the very end, when he's already lost everyone he wanted to save. He's blinded by his emotions, easily manipulated, single-minded, and has a tendency to fall into fevers. He has everything the creature longs for, but destroys it to serve his own ambition.

He's so incredibly flawed, but he's the title character--the one we're supposed to look at and think, holy crap, this could be me. He makes mistake after mistake. He lashes out at the wrong people. He mopes, he's weak, he tries and fails. Even his deathbed advice is riddled with contradictions. He's human.
oh're an English teacher.
The thing I like best about teaching the same novel over the course of several years is how my feelings about it change, and how the kids constantly give me new insights into the characters.
He was 18 when he wrote it? There's something new for me. Who was more human I wonder, the man or the monster?
Dale--SHE was 18.
Oops, sorry, She was 18?! Nothing smarts like the reproach of a teacher and I should know.
JAG: I'll go ahead and take that as a compliment.

Lu: It's true... and a relief to get out of the rut I've been in. (And thanks for doing the chastising for me.) :)

Dale: It was the result of a nightmare she had and also of a ghost story telling contest with some other luminaries of the age, while they were on vacation together. She originally published it under a pen name and called it "my hideous progeny."

I think it (the writing of the novel) was also the output of her fears of childbirth (though I don't think she was pregnant at the time)--a scary prospect for both sexes, though women are usually less visibly squeamish on the subject.

Shit, this sounds a lot like my career. Now I have to go back to bed.
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