Thursday, February 14, 2008 2 Comments
Originally submitted for a 19th century British fiction class on February 14, 2008.
Mary Shelley composed and published the first edition of Frankenstein during the height of the Romantic period, and its influences upon her work noticeably display themselves. Her text includes numerous quotations from key figures of the movement, including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as her late husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The impact of Romanticism on her work extends deeper than the poetic excerpts present in the language of the novel, however. It permeates the very heart of the tale, exercising its inspirational authority in the form of one Henry Clerval, close companion to Victor Frankenstein. The author describes Clerval as “a poet…his mind was filled with the imagery and sublime sentiments of the masters of that art” (Shelley 39), and throughout the story, she fleshes out the habits and characteristics that solidify his embodiment of the role of the Romantic poet. Despite his feelings toward the care of his childhood companion and his ability to bolster the spirits of Frankenstein with his poetic outlook, the pursuit of natural philosophy by the latter ultimately destroys Clerval. Shelley demonstrates the virtues of Romanticism through the character of Henry Clerval; through his interaction with Frankenstein and the monster throughout the book, she posits that in hard science lies the doom of the flowering poetic movement.
Upon introducing Clerval, the narrator immediately identifies him as someone “of singular talent and fancy” (30). At nine years of age, Frankenstein boasts of fairy tales and plays that the young writer composed for the amusement of his childhood playmates. Victor also relates that he was “never completely happy when Clerval was absent” (32). Even at this early stage of life and friendship, the narrator conveys his reliance on the developing personality of his companion. As the two mature and Frankenstein prepares to depart for the beginning of his education at Ingolstadt, he expresses his disappointment that the father of his steadfast cohort has barred him from attending university. Readers receive a greater understanding into the soul of the nascent poet in contrast with the values of his trader father:
…he turned with disgust from the details of ordinary life. His own ((soul)) mind was all the possession that he prized, beautiful & majestic thoughts the only wealth he coveted—daring as the eagle and as free, common laws could not be applied to him; and while you gazed on him you felt his soul’s spark was more divine—more truly stolen from Apollo’s sacred fire, than the glimmering ember that animates other men. (39)
The description of Henry contains vivid natural imagery, referencing the noble attributes of the eagle and the “divine spark” of his soul. These emphasize the Romantic tenets of reliance upon the wisdom of nature and natural intuition, as Clerval emulates the attitude of the eagle and values utmost the guidance of “his own mind,” which originally read “soul”—a significant indication toward the belief in the reason instilled within humanity prior to obstruction by empirical knowledge. From these initial descriptions of Clerval, the reader can gather his potential for growth in the field of poetry and the deep attachment of the teenaged Frankenstein to his schoolfellow.
Up to this point in the novel, the educational advancement of Frankenstein has begun to occupy a place of noticeable importance—and the reading audience must note the fact that Clerval has remained removed from these academic endeavors. When discussing his obsession with the outdated works of Cornelius Agrippa and others, Victor relates them in such a way that we assume they hold interest only for himself. Rather than dispelling his unrealistic fancies about the topics of alchemy and animation, his father and M. Waldman allow him to enhance his inclination toward them by arming him with greater knowledge of the current advances of natural philosophy, particularly chemistry. His thirst for information becomes nigh unquenchable, and without Clerval to clear his head with his poetic ability and Romantic ideology, the title character races furiously down the path of unintentional self-destruction. While he slaves in his laboratory, attempting to recreate life, his physical form wastes away:
My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement…One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labors while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places. (49)
His wasting, then, appears rooted in the avid pursuit of empirical fact. While Clerval as a youth holds nature and its wisdom in high regard, Frankenstein appears the opposite—he defies his inherent bond to his fellow men, seeking and guarding purely exclusive information for selfish purposes. He blatantly states his disruption of the delicate secrets of nature in attempts to reveal its sagacity. He violates nature to force it to relay the information it bestows upon no man, which displays the desperate need of hard science to gather the benefits of natural intuition hastily and without regard to the potential destruction of the natural world itself.
Directly after Victor creates his abomination and realizes his own horror at his accomplishment, Henry Clerval re-enters the story, rushing to the rescue of his friend. The poet has at last persuaded his father to allow his attendance at Ingolstadt, and as Frankenstein sees the embodiment of Romanticism, he narrates, “I felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy” (55). The fever sown by knowledge, which has consumed him both mentally and physically, breaks with the arrival of Clerval. Henry remarks almost instantly on the wasted appearance of Frankenstein, horrified at the changes the pursuit of hard science has wreaked upon his frame and mind. The poet then commences a nursing regimen of his ill friend for several months. If we consider the symbolic character of Clerval as a generic representative of Romanticism, we witness the constancy and affectionateness embedded in the genre, which serves to rehabilitate those devastated by the parasitic qualities of empirical data and its pursuit. Where science gouges at its host, Romanticism acts as a soothing balm, bringing calm composure back to Frankenstein. As he begins to come out of his sorry state, it seems no coincidence then that the first memory he discusses relates to nature.
I remember the first time I became capable of observing outward objects with any kind of pleasure, I perceived that the fallen leaves had disappeared, and that the young buds were shooting forth from the trees that shaded my window. It was a divine spring; and the season contributed greatly to my convalescence. I felt also sentiments of joy and affection revive in my bosom; my gloom disappeared, and in a short time I became as cheerful as before I was attacked by the fatal passion. (57)
The Romantic therapy of Clerval restores the senses of Victor, awakening him once again to the pleasure and healing of the natural world without striving to violently probe its depths for information.
Unfortunately for the two young men, the demon of empirical knowledge refuses to surrender its victims so easily. The monster, the fruit of acquisition of scientific fact, haunts the depths of the mind of Frankenstein, torturing him with the murders of those dear to him and charging him with the manufacture of a second creature. The murderous offspring of the research Victor completed depicts the hold in which empirical reasoning still keeps him locked, disturbing the efforts Clerval makes on their numerous journeys to restore him to health. We see the deadlock between science and Romanticism on the two extensive trips Henry and Victor embark on together. The first, which involves the homecoming of the youths to Geneva, helps to denote the blossoming of Henry as a maturing Romantic mind. Henry, being “no natural philosopher” (64), instead studies languages at the university, including Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. The last four could serve to provide Clerval with a more worldly understanding of texts and poetry—classical plays such as those emulated by Percy Shelley would have consisted of Greek and Latin texts, while both Persian and Arabic boast poetic masterpieces, including the works of Rumi. Frankenstein also speaks of how Henry “did…endeavor to elevate my mind” (65) with the wisdom of Romanticism, reminiscent of Wordsworth impressing the idea of the mind as a mansion near the close of “Tintern Abbey.” The spirit of Romanticism contained within Clerval draws his companion back to the power of the natural, and Frankenstein reminisces, “…happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensations. A serene sky and verdant fields filled me with ecstasy” (65).
Though interactions with the monster mar the complete recovery of Frankenstein, he does recognize the differences between his condition and that of Clerval. Romanticism and its ideas, not reasoning proven by experiment, animate Henry, and we become certain of his full evolution into the symbol of the Romantic poet during the second excursion the two men take. During the pre-marriage European tour upon which the friends set out, Frankenstein provides the reader with one of his most lengthy and vivid descriptions of his surroundings in the entire novel. During his rendering of the environs through which they traverse, the narrator weaves comments on the interplay between Clerval and nature. At last, he says of his long-time fellow,
He was a being formed in the ‘very poetry of nature.’ His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the worldly-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination. (154)
Despite the inescapable grip of formal education on Frankenstein at this moment in the story (using the pleasure tour as an excuse to complete the task with which the monster has charged him), the peak of poetic maturity that Clerval has reached still maintains a healing influence. The ability Clerval possesses to exude the Romantic attitudes of the time forces even Frankenstein to remark, “Even I, depressed in mind, and my spirits continually agitated by gloomy feelings, even I was pleased…as I gazed on the cloudless blue sky, I seemed to drink in a tranquility to which I had long been a stranger” (152-153).
But the latent fever of scientific fact rears its head to claim Frankenstein once more. He separates himself from the companionship of Clerval and the urgency of his appointed task destroys his physiological and psychological well-being, ravenously devouring the peace of mind the influence of Romanticism has bestowed upon him. As before, he toils without end toward the fulfillment of his task. This time, though, doubt creeps into his heart. At last, he resolves to halt any further demand of empirical knowledge on him, tearing the second monster to bits before the very eyes of his taskmaster. The monster represents his original burning passion for information, attempting to cow him into subservience to its desire for more cold, hard facts removed from the motherly, beneficent guidance of nature. And, as Frankenstein impresses upon Walton earlier in the tale, “Learn from me…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge” (48). The roaring beast that his appetite for artificial knowledge as become repulses his endeavor to deny it. Once Victor has engaged the desire for empirical data, he cannot destroy it, and it succeeds in gaining control over his actions and potential for happiness in life. The power of Clerval as the figure of the Romantic poet cannot stand against the child of natural philosophy, who proceeds to take revenge on the singular figure with any capability to deter its hold on Frankenstein. It bears significance that, upon seeing the form of his friend, Victor exclaims, “Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry, of life?” (174) The narrator thus acknowledges through the use of the term “machinations” the unnatural, mechanical creature that both motivates him, and which he has become.
The development of Clerval as a figure representative of Romanticism parallel to the infection of Frankenstein with the disease of scientific knowledge attributes meaning to both. Through their contrast, we see a strongly positive presentation of the ideas of the Romantic movement, held in high esteem by writers and poets during the time in which Shelley composed Frankenstein. We can also view Romanticism as a cure for the empirical, an alternative to the drive toward hard science as a field that betters the human experience. Unfortunately, we also find it possible to interpret through the success of the monster that artificial, experimentally-based reasoning boasts the strength to quash the still-blossoming poetic genre. Shelly potentially represents this devastating end to the Romantic period as inevitable by her expression of the murder of the young Clerval, though whether she completely believes this as truth remains unclear. We can be certain, however, that this work, despite its publication date, depicts a battle that still rages—the intuitive versus the empirical, the natural soul versus the artificial machine—and one that will continue for years to come.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text. Ed. James Rieger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.