Frankenstein‘s Prodigiously Mixed Style Represents Failure of Sympathy

face of a prisoner

Frankenstein has a prodigiously mixed style. The “figure of a man” that approaches Victor atop the mountain has a lofty style of speech. Victor first perceives from its size and its abhorred figure — a face of “unearthly ugliness” — that this is “the wretch whom I had created.” The creature responds to Victor’s fierce greeting with a long speech that includes a heroic, blood-honor proposition:

Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you in peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.^

Victor rejects this proposition in similar lofty style. Then, like an enraged peasant-brawler, Victor “sprang on him.” In the same low style, Victor reports simply, “He easily eluded me, and said,….” What the creature says is a long speech, mixing the heroic and the pathetic, using the archaic forms “thou,” “thy,” and “thine,” and deploying allusions to Genesis and Paradise Lost. The creature who just earlier proposed an agreement to be sealed with his threat of slaughter also presents himself as weak, subordinate, and desperately in need of affection:

Have I not suffered enough, that you seek to increase my misery?… I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform they part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.^

Victor, persisting in rejecting the creature, declares, “Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form.” The creature responds with an intimate, tactile gesture:

“Thus I relieve thee, my creator,” he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes, which I flung from me with violence; “thus I take from thee a sight which you abhor. Still thou canst listen to me, and grant me thy compassion. By the virtues that I once possessed, I demand this from you. Hear my tale; it is long and strange, and the temperature of this place is not fitting to your fine sensations; come to the hut upon the mountain.”^

The series of lofty set speeches (rhesis) ends with the creature and Victor sitting by a fire in the rustic hut while outside the weather is described as cold and rainy. With this introduction of extraordinarily mixed style, the creature’s tale begins.

Early reviews of Frankenstein perceived its mixed style of representation, but not that style’s intentional, artistic significance. Early in 1818, Walter Scott, a leading literary figure of the time, wrote a review of Frankenstein in the leading literary journal Edinburgh Magazine. Scott began his review with a long, learned discussion of genre. This beginning suggests a struggle to understand the style of Frankenstein. As was typical for reviews of the time, Scott then provided a detailed summary of the plot as well as some long quotations. One detailed judgment interrupts the plot summary: Scott complains that the account of the creature learning language while living in a pigsty is too minutely described and makes the reader too familiar with the creature. Thus the creature loses “some part of the mysterious sublimity annexed to his first appearance.” Scott notes that Frankenstein displays “uncommon powers of poetic imagination” and that “his {the author’s} descriptions of landscapes have in them the choice requisites of truth, freshness, precision, and beauty.” These are abstract terms of high poetic style. Scott concludes by praising the author’s contribution to the “fascinating enjoyment” of reading new novels. He also suggests that the author should aspire to “paullo majorica” – more artistically important matters.^

Other reviewers were more horrified, less by the creature than by the style of the work. One reviewer noted “what a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity this work presents.” The tissue is textual and linguistic: “nonsense decked out with circumstances and clothed in language highly terrific”; “there is something tremendous in the unmeaning hollowness of its sound”; “the style which he {the author of Frankenstein} has adopted in the present publication merely tends to defeat his own purpose.”^ Another reviewer began by describing recent history as exceeding even the mixed style of Shakespeare:

Even {Shakespeare} would scarcely have dared to have raised, in one act, a private adventurer to the greatest of European thrones, — to have conducted him, in the next, victorious over the necks of emperors and kings, and then, in a third, to have shewn him an exile, in a remote speck of an island, some thousands of miles from the scene of his triumphs; and the chariot which bore him along covered with glory, quietly exhibited to a gaping mechanical rabble under the roof of one of the beautiful buildings on the North Bridge of Edinburgh {describing Napoleon and his chariot} ^

The reviewer linked this pattern of events to literary interest in stories, like Frankenstein, “disjointed and irregular.” Frankenstein, the reviewer declared, included scenic “grandeur,” “much power and beauty, both of thought and expression,” and a “very interesting and beautiful” depiction of domestic life. At the same time, the reviewer complained that Frankenstein produced a “bewildered state of mind” and shock to “some of our highest and most reverential feelings,” especially with “the expression ‘Creator,’ applied to a mere human being.”^ Yet another reviewer connected horror, laughter, grotesque, and the sublime to characterize Frankenstein’s disjointed, undisciplined style:

the horror which abounds in them {the volumes of Frankenstein} is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime, and when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright; and yet we suspect, that the diseased and wandering imagination, which has stepped out of all legitimate bounds, to frame these disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures, might be disciplined into something better.^

Shelley greatly admired Greek drama and had an acute appreciation for the discipline of meter and genre.^ Edmund Burke’s best-selling pamphlet, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), had described the French Revolution as presenting a “monstrous tragicomic scene”:

The most wonderful things are brought about, in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous, in the most ridiculous modes, and apparently by the most contemptible instruments. Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragicomic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed and sometimes mix with each other in the mind: alternate contempt and indignation, alternate laughter and tears, alternate scorn and horror.^

The creature in Frankenstein can be read as an allegory for the French Revolution. The horribly mixed style of Frankenstein makes most sense as a deliberate poetic choice. Frankenstein reviewers tended to associate Prometheus with Victor Frankenstein. For Shelley, the modern Prometheus was more abstractly class divisions and failures of sympathy in society.

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