Victoria Jelinek


Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

frankenstein-book-pageThe concept of Frankenstein has invaded popular culture to the extent that even those that have never read the book have a vague sense of what it’s about – “a mad scientist who creates a monster!” This is essentially true, and given the multitudes of adaptations to film and TV, I, too, previously defined it thus. But it’s so much more. Frankenstein is about love, loss, identity, anger, betrayal, beauty, and ugliness. It is also very sad. There was a point when I thought I couldn’t continue reading it, but because it’s so beautifully written and so subtle in its complexity, I continued.

The novel begins with explorer Robert Walton searching for a new passage from Russia to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. After some time at sea, with their boat stuck in ice, the crew and Walton find Victor Frankenstein floating on an ice flow very near to death, and bring him aboard. Walton re tells the tragic story of Victor Frankenstein through a series of letters to his sister in England. Victor was a precocious child who grew up on the shores of Geneva in a wealthy and loving family. He leaves home for university, where he studies physical science and greatly impresses his fellow students and professors by his genius. Spurred on by ambition, Victor uses a combination of chemistry, alchemy, and electricity to create and re animate a dead body. Once the creature comes to life, Victor is overcome by guilt and runs away in fear and disgust. The monster wanders the countryside, repudiated and despised by all who see him. He eventually teaches himself to read and to understand language. One day, he discovers a notebook and letters that were lost by Victor. From these notes, the monster learns of his creation and decides to take revenge on his creator as a salve for the injury and sorrow that he has endured in isolation. His vengeance is horrible. Yet through a conversation with Victor in which the monster relates how his life has been and in which he appeals to him to make him a mate (which Victor refuses), one almost forgives the sorrow that he causes.

As the daughter of philosophers and advocates for women’s rights, Mary Shelley would have been exposed to sociological discussion throughout her life. When she wrote Frankenstein, the French Revolution had just ended and Europe was afraid that its ideas of liberty and equality might spread. Industrialization was just beginning, which would bring an end to the landed class and see a rise of the middle class. Alchemy and superstition had been discredited in favor of hard sciences. Shelley manifests these cultural events through the themes and motifs of Frankenstein: she is concerned with the invasion of technology into modern life; how knowledge and science is used for good or for evil purposes; the overwhelming power of nature, as well as its curative power; and the treatment of the poor or uneducated. At its heart, Shelley asks the reader to consider how we can control the knowledge we have so that it’s for the benefit of all of mankind. How far should advances in science and technology push the individual in terms of personal and spiritual growth? When does man become a slave to his machines? What constitutes a “good” life? Who is responsible for the most vulnerable in society? Provocative questions about the human condition posed almost 200 years ago that remain relevant today.

http://www.biography.com/people/mary-shelley-9481497

 

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre book coverFor Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d write about one of my favorite romantic novels, which I just happened to re read recently. It’s good that I re read it, too, because when I had to read it in high school, I was not impressed – I found it decorative, stilted, and, well, boring. This time, decades letter, I realize how much I didn’t understand in the first reading (as well as how badly my English teacher taught the book!). Jane and Rochester’s relationship is ‘saucy’ and risqué, with motifs of masochism. Moreover, Jane is not the dull woman I initially thought she was, but a spirited and thoughtful feminist who challenges the status quo of society.

Set in nineteenth-century England, the novel begins with the story of young Jane, an orphan who lives with an aunt who dislikes her and doesn’t show her any kindness or affection. When she’s ten, Jane is sent to Lowood, a charity school; despite the cruelty of its headmaster, Jane develops physical, intellectual, and emotional strength. She leaves Lowood School to become a governess for Adèle, the ward of Edward Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Jane and Rochester fall in love despite the difference in their ages and social positions. Mystery surrounds Rochester, however; strange sounds and occurrences abound in his manor. Jane leaves Rochester after the revelation that he is married and his wife, who is insane, is being held captive in the attic at Thornfield. After much suffering, Jane becomes the mistress of a village school. She later discovers that she has living relatives and inherits a fortune, which enables her to return eventually to Rochester as an independent woman.

Jane’s life unfolds as a dramatic adventure within an atmosphere of psychological dread and the constant threat of ruination, typical of Gothic novels. Even as there is mystery, suspense, and horror, which define the genre, the novel addresses social issues of the day. Throughout the narrative, Charlotte Bronte raises questions about the limited education provided in church schools, the expectations and opportunities for women, the value of family connections, and the importance of romantic love even when it conflicts with personal principles or the strict values of Victorian society. As a biographical note, which I think enhances one’s understanding of the book, Brontë incorporated into the narrative several elements from her own life. After Brontë’s mother died, an aunt assisted in caring for the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Maria, Elizabeth, and Emily). The sisters were sent to Cowan Bridge, a school for clergymen’s children. The cruel and hypocritical fervor of the headmaster in Jane Eyre is based upon the evangelical minister who ran Cowan Bridge. Jane’s loss of her dearest friend at Lowood School to tuberculosis recalls the deaths of Brontë’s two sisters who died of tuberculosis at Cowan Bridge. Like Charlotte Brontë, Jane becomes a governess, which was often the only professional option for an educated woman at the time. The role of governess provided a good vantage point for Brontë to observe and write about the oppressive social practices of nineteenth-century Victorian society. Reflecting Brontë’s early feminist ideals, Jane is rebellious at a time when women were expected to be docile and obedient. Through Jane Eyre, Brontë challenges Victorian mores by suggesting a woman’s merits demand the same respect as a man’s; moreover, she challenges the conventions of Victorian literature by creating a well-developed heroine with a rich inner life.

But even as Jane questions gender expectations, societal conventions, religious practices, and the importance of love in marriage, this is not a didactic or dogmatic book. It is, ultimately, a passionate and seemingly impossible love story set within a spooky atmosphere, whose central tenet is the individual’s quest for an independent identity (still very relevant today), which is why it’s one of the most widely read novels all time.