Thursday, February 16, 2012

Of Frankenstein and his Monster

As a youth, I had very definite feelings about Frankenstein, both in book form and in film. These feelings were those of a lonely child who felt a kinship with outcasts, who thought being a weird kid meant she was on the same level as a creature stitched together from cadavers, and whose first published writing (thank you, Teen Ink!) was an essay on the fundamental sadness of the classic monster movie plot. Hell, I even got into college on the strength of a different essay about the relationship between monster movies and Greek Tragedy, and on the exhaustive earful I gave the phone interviewer who asked me the follow-up questions. (After listening to my explanation of the American racial politics that allowed Frankenstein's creature to be portrayed more sympathetically than Fu Manchu, the interviewer's reply was something to the extent of "You must give movies a lot of thought!")

So imagine my surprise when I re-watched the films and reread the book this past year and finally noticed how many children my beloved monster murdered.

Let's back up a little here. For those lacking familiarity with the book and movies, Frankenstein tells the story of a scientist who revives a creature made of dead bodies and brains. The book has him immediately abandon his creature when it jolts to life and he sees how ugly it is, the movies have him pressured by his colleagues to destroy his creation after they realize he mistakenly gave it the damaged brain of a madman. In both cases, the creature escapes and wreaks havoc, especially when the doctor refuses to create a mate for him. In the book, he is a rational and sensitive being, well aware of how cruel his rejection is, taking a very deliberate revenge on a society that has no place for him. The movies have him as an unspeaking (except for a few lines in the second movie) brute whose primal loneliness turns to bestial rage when he finds nobody can look at him without fear. Bride of Frankenstein has the doctor finally cave to him (and a flamboyant fellow mad scientist a little too interested in the mating habits of monsters) and build a wife; this wife takes one look at her husband and screeches, leaving him even more abandoned than before.

How cruel the doctor was, I thought as a girl. How could a man build a child and then not love him? How wicked the townspeople were, rejecting him because of his looks! How heartless the bride was for doing the same! And how tragic was my poor monster, who could have been so much more.

And now a few facts from these same media: in the book, the monster knowingly murders Frankenstein's brother and wife for the crime of being connected to him, and may have framed an innocent woman for the former crime. In the films, he has probably the highest bodycount of all the Universal monsters (or not- I haven't seen all the Wolfman movies, so let's say the jury's still out.) Some are accidents, some are clearly not. And the Bride's first moments of life are to look around and have strange men pushing her to the arms of large, hulking man with desire in his eyes.

I still feel sorry for the creature, who was given no chance. And I still feel that Frankenstein himself was monstrously (haha) irresponsible towards the fate of his creation. But things are no longer quite as black and white as they once were.

Rereading the book, I felt a great deal of pity for the doctor, clearly brilliant but consumed by impulsivity and obsession that tip into madness (if he were real, I might label him as a sufferer of severe bipolar disorder.) What a waste his genius went to! If only someone could have told him he was heading in the wrong direction in his search for immortality and artificial life. "Nanotechnology, dear boy! That's the way to go!" He'd have to invent the Difference Engine first, but what a story that would make...

Furthermore, he had good reason not to build the poor creature a mate. She rejects him in the film, and can I really blame her? What would this creation think, forced to mate with a beast, knowing her own ugliness and inability to join society? What would she do, bound by a bargain she had no part of? Would she really be a loving and faithful companion to her husband's travels, or would she strike out at him as he did at his creator, blaming him for her miserable existence?

The monster is a pitiable figure (and as long as I'm handing out armchair diagnoses, probably suffers from PTSD or Borderline Personality Disorder caused by childhood abandonment.) His troubles make his villainy understandable and relatable, but they don't make it excusable. In a kind society, he would be given counselors and rehabilitation, but perhaps not exoneration. If he's a morally complex character, it's because he plays the aggressor in addition to the victim.

I'm not sure what we can take from all of this. Maybe it's that moral ambiguity is better understood when one is older, or a good book or movie can give you different things each time you come back to it. Or maybe the only lesson is that romantic ladies and gentlemen of all ages like to overthink our monster stories.

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