The Man is Father of the Monster

Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell…

When I saw the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, I thought there were two somewhat cliché ideas that were lent additional depth in this staging. Previously, I wrote about Frankenstein learning humanity from his possibly inhuman monster, but there was also an interesting use of a trope as the creature learned to be a man.

When the creature confronts Frankenstein’s wife near the end of the show, she marvels at his humanity and his sophistication, but when he lists what Frankenstein has taught him, he quickly moves past language and motor control to list cruelty, shame, and lies. If man is a fallen imagio dei, the creature is a degraded imagio homo. He takes our faults and our sins as the most uniquely human thing about us, and this is the model he chooses to pattern himself on.

I’ve seen this kind of pessimism before. The new creation is a noble savage and contact with poor fallen us inevitably ruins everything. I don’t think the production lends itself to this kind of hackneyed despair. The problem isn’t that the creature met humans, but how. In the early parts of the play, he has only two kinds of human contact: he is beaten and despised by every person he meets save one, a blind man who teaches him to read and to speak.

So, he spends sustained time with one person in the flesh, and thousands in stories. When the family of the blind man rejects him, he isn’t sure what to do, but he reflects on the Roman histories he has read, and decides the appropriate response is revenge, and he burns the house with them inside. His education has a sampling problem; we don’t write about people living quiet lives (of desperation or otherwise). From stories and histories, you learn about titanic acts. The creature may have been made a monster by the romance of extremes.

My college debate group once stole a topic from Plato’s Republic and debated “Resolved: Throw the Poets out of the City” and I’ve been thinking a lot about which stories we choose to tell since I reviewed Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm for Fare Forward (coming out in the next issue).  The task of curating literature for a creature like Frankenstein or a child-like AI might be a fun short story idea (I’ll stick in the same category as the timetraveling to save epistemology inspired by Bishop Berkeley one).  What are the most important omissions from recorded human experience?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • leahlibresco

    Compelled to add, from Richard III:

    And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
    To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
    I am determined to prove a villain
    And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

    This is only a dichotomy in fiction.

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  • Disk Elemental

    Hey Leah,
    Sorry for the off topic post, (couldn’t find any other way to contact you) but a few people (myself included) are having a debate over the meaning of one of your older posts (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2011/07/lets-talk-about-privilege.html). Would you be willing to take a minute to answer a few question about it?

    • leahlibresco

      What’s the question?

      • Disk Elemental

        Thank you for a prompt response,
        we’ve pretty much agreed on the main issues, now we’re just squabbling over how far, in your opinion, ideas should extend.

        1. “And because it’s oversensitive or aggressive or man-hating to talk about these precautions openly or to take them in an attention-drawing way, what we’re actually expected to do is to take the appropriate precautions subtly so that we don’t offend the sensibilities of people around us. That’s crazy, oppressive, and unacceptable in any circumstance.”

        What specific part of the previous sentence is oppressive? Is it that the burden of taking the precautions falls on women, or is it the fact they have to use subtlety in doing so?

        2. Why did you make the reference to Kogo and Mehta?

        3/4. “And the idea that I shouldn’t bring my woman-problems into neutral-space–where ordinary people don’t worry about rape–is exactly what it sounds like when privilege is talking”

        Was the phrase “woman-problems” specifically talking about sexual harassment (and dangerous issues), or was it talking about feminist issues in general?
        and
        By saying “ordinary people” were you making a distinction between “feminists” and “not-feminists?”

        Thanks in advance!

        • leahlibresco

          1. What’s oppressive is needing to quietly work around sexist/misogynistic behavior, instead of expecting people to behave better.
          2. I was responding to Kogo and Mehta specifically, because they had asked why this conversation was worth spending time on.
          3(a). Feminist issues in general
          3(b). Distinction between male experience-as-default and the experiences of women

  • Random

    Isn’t it possible, depending on what he was made of, that the impulse for violence was there already in the monster, and the Roman histories just gave him an excuse to act on what he was already feeling?
    In some versions of the story, he’s made of re-animated corpses stitched together, and so his brain would be basically a human brain, with all the instincts that contains. So he throws a tantrum like a toddler, except that he’s big enough to do real harm.
    Maybe if he’d been taught to deal with anger differently, he’d react more kindly, but then the book would not have been a horror story and might not be so famous now.

  • Emily

    I don’t really think people living quiet lives is an omission of literature and history, considering counterexamples from writings of medieval saints to early modern novels that focus precisely on everyday lives. It’s not a sampling problem based on using literature, it’s a sampling problem based on, well, bad sampling within literature.

    It’s an interesting creative experiment you bring up of curating a character though. I wonder if it’s already been done in some sense, since the feeling of being shaped by literature is very familiar to me and probably many others who were bookish kids, even if people held much more weight, and turning it into fiction is just one step further.

  • Grok87

    What are the most important omissions from recorded human experience?”
    Hmm… Good question. I think it’s too big a question for me though, at least to attack directly, I need a side-door or a back-way in. Let me narrow the question a bit…what are the most important omissions in our record of the stories about Jesus? For me, one answer is humor. Jesus gets angry in the gospels (he drives the money changers out of the temple court), he gets sad (he weeps over Jerusalem), and he shows other emotions such as love and happiness, but there seems to be little record of him laughing or telling jokes. Yet we know from the gospel accounts that he knew how to have a good time (to party!) because it is one of the criticisms about him that the evangelists record ( ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’) So he must have told jokes or humorous sayings. Perhaps though, we just need to step down a little from our modern adult perspective on what a “joke” is and think more simply and visually, like a child does:
    “Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake?”
    I can see my 7 year old cracking up at that one- ah yes the old fish, snake switcheroo, sounds like something she would pull on her brothers!
    Cheers,
    Grok

  • deiseach

    Interesting that in this production he burns the house down with the family inside; in the novel, the family flee and he burns the house out of pique as much as anything.

    Mary Shelley’s novel is about friendship as an emollient; the framing story of Walton on a polar expedition finding Frankenstein shows how Walton and Victor establish a friendship; Clerval and Victor’s friendship is arguably the most important relationship in Victor’s life and had Clerval been permitted to attend university with Victor, we are given to infer that he would have kept Victor from doing his crazy experiments; the monster yearns for a mate because she, being a creation like him, will understand him and they can support one another.

    I don’t see the monster in the novel presented as “a noble savage and contact with poor fallen us inevitably ruins everything”; he knows, intellectually, that his appearance in the cottage without prior preparation meant that the family would react badly to him and he later laments about how he should have handled it, but knowing and doing are two different things. He knows that the people had reasons for acting as they did which were not out of malice alone, but he still reacts from instinct, which is to destroy and he takes the tack that “If I’m a monster, then I’ll be a monster!” which leads to two murders of complete innocents who had not harmed him at all and which are vindictive and vicious acts of malice on his part.

    I think the message – at least from the book – is not about the goodness of unsullied human nature, but that you can’t be good on your own. You need help; you need society (at least in the form of a friend) to check your worst impulses and you need socialisation to overcome instinct – and the monster learned different lessons from his Roman histories in the novel:

    “Other lessons were impressed upon me even more deeply. I heard of the difference of sexes; and the birth and growth of children; how the father doated on the smiles of the infant, and the lively sallies of the older child; how all the life and cares of the mother were wrapped up in the precious charge; how the mind of youth expanded and gained knowledge; of brother, sister, and all the various relationships which bind one human being to another in mutual bonds.

    “But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing. From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? The question again recurred, to be answered only with groans.

    …The volume of “Plutarch’s Lives” which I possessed, contained the histories of the first founders of the ancient republics. This book had a far different effect upon me from the “Sorrows of Werter”. I learned from Werter’s imaginations despondency and gloom: but Plutarch taught me high thoughts; he elevated me above the wretched sphere of my own reflections to admire and love the heroes of past ages. Many things I read surpassed my understanding and experience. I had a very confused knowledge of kingdoms, wide extents of country, mighty rivers, and boundless seas. But I was perfectly unacquainted with towns, and large assemblages of men. The cottage of my protectors had been the only school in which I had studied human nature; but this book developed new and mightier scenes of action. I read of men concerned in public affairs, governing or massacring their species. I felt the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the signification of those terms, relative as they were, as I applied them, to pleasure and pain alone. Induced by these feelings, I was of course led to admire peaceable lawgivers, Numa, Solon, and Lycurgus, in preference to Romulus and Theseus. The patriarchal lives of my protectors caused these impressions to take a firm hold on my mind; perhaps, if my first introduction to humanity had been made by a young soldier, burning for glory and slaughter, I should have been imbued with different sensations. “

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      I think the message – at least from the book – is not about the goodness of unsullied human nature, but that you can’t be good on your own.

      Interesting take on it. My interpretation has always been that the monster is angry that he was deprived of the love and society that most people take for granted, and created in such a form that he will most likely never be able to earn it for himself. For me the message is not that you can’t be good on your own, but that if someone is shown the possibility of love (or even of just being a contributing member of society) and then denied it, they’ll be (justifiably, I think!) very angry indeed. At bottom, it’s about someone wanting something so badly that the knowledge they can never have it nearly drives them mad.

    • grok

      @deiseach,
      “Interesting that in this production he burns the house down with the family inside; in the novel, the family flee and he burns the house out of pique as much as anything.”

      Interesting. That’s quite a liberty on the playwright’s part, to make him more evil than in the book. Seems ill-advised to me…

  • http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com MrsDarwin

    Apropos of absolutely nothing, Benedict Cumberbatch looks like a young Patrick Stewart.


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