Victoria Jelinek


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

indexThe 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.

 



The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage

Book of DustMany years ago, I remember working at a film school and talking to a colleague about the wonderful J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. My then-colleague said, “You’ve not read Philip Pullman, then, have you?” I hadn’t. Later that day, I found my way to a bookstore and bought the His Dark Materials trilogy (written by Pullman) and gulped them down. Once read, I realized there was no comparison: His Dark Materials is, in my opinion (as well as my respected colleague’s), the better series. It’s complex and imaginative as it combines magical creatures and alternative worlds in an uncompromising story about religion, authority, and individual freedom. Topical themes in any age, really.

It has been nearly two decades since Philip Pullman completed his renowned trilogy. In its first installment, The Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass, depending on where you’re geographically located in the world), he introduces readers to Lyra Belacqua, a girl from a parallel world, who sets off on an epic mission to rescue a missing friend. In the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman depicts a world ruled by an oppressive church, known as the Magisterium, that dictates the rules and mores of society. The worlds created in both His Dark Materials and his latest series, The Book of Dust, are almost like our own world, but just slightly changed. A primary difference is that every human is linked to their own daemon, an animal-shaped manifestation of their soul. (I love this idea!).

In Pullman’s long-awaited follow up, The Book of Dust, and its first volume, La Belle Sauvage, we’re introduced to the prequel (to the original trilogy) set ten years before the first adventure, when Lyra is just an infant in need of protection from the burgeoning powers of the Magisterium. In Lyra’s place as ‘hero’ is Malcolm Polstead. He’s a bright, curious, and capable eleven-year-old who helps his parents at their Oxford pub and also spends a lot of time helping out the nuns at a local priory. In his free time, he’s out on the river in his canoe, which he named “La Belle Sauvage.” One day at the pub, he overhears the news that the local nuns have taken in an infant – Lyra – who is the daughter of two powerful figures — a man named Lord Asriel and a woman named Marisa Coulter. At around the same time, he sees a man arrested by agents of the Magisterium, and later discovers that the man has mysteriously drowned in the river. Going over the area where he first saw the now-deceased man, he finds an item that the man lost — a brass acorn with a hidden message inside. He discovers that the acorn is used as a means to covertly deliver messages to a local scholar who belongs to a secret anti-Magisterium society, and who has access to an alethiometer, which is a truth-divining tool that figured prominently in Pullman’s original trilogy. When a massive flood overtakes Oxford, Malcolm and a teenager, Alice, spirit Lyra away in Malcolm’s canoe in order to avoid a murderous scientist and agents of the Magisterium who are keenly interested in kidnapping the infant.

As this is a prequel to the original trilogy, the Magisterium has not yet established its oppressive control on society, but it’s well on its way to this kind of power. In The Book of Dust-La Belle Sauvage, Pullman illustrates how the Magisterium is infiltrating the very core of society and tightening its grip on every aspect of daily life. Its security force assassinates, assaults, and makes dissidents vanish, while it introduces a youth-oriented group to Malcolm’s school that encourages his classmates to report to the Magisterium the “heretical actions” of their peers, teachers, and parents. Teachers who object are reprimanded or fired. Tension and suspicion escalate. This League and its fascistic movements are similar to the Inquisitorial Squad in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but the anxiety and fear that Pullman creates with the onset and actions of this League, believably conveys the insidious and hypocritical rot fascist tendencies have on democracy.

In the interest of being judicious, there are a couple of storylines presented and dropped, and the concept of “dust” is really underdeveloped. However, the character of Malcolm holds the narrative together. He’s different from Lyra as the central hero, but he’s vibrant and compelling in his own right. Throughout the course of the novel, he transforms from a quiet, stout child to a hero willing to take radical steps to keep Lyra safe in the name of justice.

Ultimately, Pullman is a master storyteller, and La Belle Sauvage is worth the 17-year wait. Moreover, a tale about battling a rising tide of fascism as authoritarian ‘strongmen’ claim political power and alt-right groups spring up across the world, is timely. This is a tense, thrilling, and magical book that feels like a natural part of the saga that began with His Dark Materials.

 



Covid-19, April 14, 2020

The following came to me, a teacher, from my mother, who is a retired teacher, and she received it from another teacher. It’s not written very well, but the concept is wonderful!

Just maybe this could happen because of our crisis…

Education and the worldWHAT IF

If they cancel the rest of the school year, students would miss 2.5 months of education. Many people are concerned about students falling behind because of this. Yes, they may fall behind when it comes to classroom education…

But what if…

What if instead of falling “behind,” this group of kids are AHEAD because of this? 

What if they have more empathy, perspective, enjoy family connection, can be more creative and entertain themselves, love to read, love to express themselves in writing? 

What if they enjoy the simple things, like their own backyard and sitting near a window in the quiet?

What if they notice the birds and the different flowers emerge, and the calming renewal of a gentle rain shower? 

What if this generation is the one to learn to cook, organize their space, do their laundry, and keep a well-run home? 

What if they learn to stretch a dollar and to live with less? 

What if they learn the value of eating together as a family and finding the good to share in the small delights of the everyday? 

What if they are the ones to place great value on our teachers and educational professionals, librarians, public servants and the previously invisible essential support workers like truck drivers, grocers, cashiers, custodians, logistics, and health care workers and their supporting staff, just to name a few of the millions taking care of us right now while we are sheltered in place? 

What if among these children, a great leader emerges who had the benefit of a slower pace and a simpler life to truly learn what really matters in this life?

What if they are…”AHEAD?”

*image courtesy of UNICAF.ORG