In Elisa Gabbert’s column Mess with a Classic, she revisits canonical works of literature and addresses the anxiety of confronting the art of the past (and the past in general).
In her short nonfiction book Ongoingness—a single long, fragmentary essay—Sarah Manguso writes a meditative exegesis on her own diary, a document nearing a million words that she has added to daily, obsessively, for twenty-five years. This practice felt like a necessity, a hedge against potential failures of memory, and a way to process the onslaught of time: “I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.” It started when she was a teenager. She went to an art opening with a dear friend, drank wine from a plastic cup, looked at paintings—“It was all too much,” the moment was “too full.” She wouldn’t have time to “recover” from the beauty of the day, she realized, since tomorrow would offer only more experience: “There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.” (I’ve often thought there should be a little buffer between months: a monthend.)
When Manguso became a mother, this anxious relationship to time changed:
In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.
I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against.
Manguso stopped worrying so much about “lost memories”—being pregnant makes you forgetful, and when you have a small baby, most days feel the same. But aging also changes us; we’ve moved farther to the right on the timeline of our lives (that’s how I picture it, like a side-scrolling video game), a line whose end point is death. At some point you can assume there’s more time behind than ahead. Manguso mentions reading an essay by a ninety-year-old writer, the last thing he ever published, that issued a “terrible warning.” She paraphrases the warning and does not name the writer, so I googled a few vague words and was surprised to find the essay right away: “Nearing 90,” by William Maxwell. “I am not—I think I am not—afraid of dying,” Maxwell writes;
When I was 17 I worked on a farm in southern Wisconsin … The farm had come down in that family through several generations, to a woman who was so alive that everything and everybody seemed to revolve around her personality. She lived well into her 90’s and then one day told her oldest daughter that she didn’t want to live anymore, that she was tired.
This remark, he writes, “reconciled me to my own inevitable extinction.” He has few regrets, and many happy memories, but if he wanders too deep into nostalgic reveries, they can keep him up all night. This is the warning Manguso refers to: the past can act as a kind of trap. Maxwell adds, “I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living”—a thought I find beautiful and comforting. With so little to look forward to—he died at ninety-one—Maxwell took solace in looking back. Manguso, for her part, is finally able to take solace in forgetting: as time piles up, she loses access to specific moments, but begins to accept that life is ongoing, not discrete but continuous. It’s more and more and more until it’s over.
Because I had just read Ongoingness, when I started reading Frankenstein I was thinking about time. (Well, I am always thinking about time.) Time is weird in Frankenstein, in part because of the nested narratives. First there’s the epistolary framing narrative, the letters that Captain Walton writes to his sister on his voyage toward the North Pole. He and his crew rescue a man at sea, a man who turns out to be Victor Frankenstein. Victor then takes over the narrative, basically telling his life story, starting from birth (to the captain, but also to us). We get to the monster part in chapter 5. After many months of self-seclusion, subsumed in his studies of “natural philosophy,” chemistry, and other dark arts, “on a dreary night in November” Frankenstein brings his gruesome humanoid to life. His fascination with this project instantly dissolves: “The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” He runs from his creation to his bedroom and, unbelievably, tries to go to sleep, and, unbelievably, succeeds, only to be woken by the monster peeking in through his bed curtains, like the Ghost of Christmas Past. Again Victor runs away, this time out into the courtyard. By morning, the monster is gone. Then something like two years go by with no monster in sight; he’s on Frankenstein’s mind, but he’s not in the story.
We meet the monster again in chapter 10. Frankenstein’s young brother has been murdered, and their beloved servant girl executed for the crime. Victor is sure, though, that his creation is to blame. The doctor has been been wandering around gazing at the Alps—the “glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature,” these “sublime and magnificent scenes” providing modest consolation to his suffering. And suddenly there is the monster, “the wretch.” Victor goes off: “Do you dare approach me? … Begone, vile insect!” The “daemon” responds quite calmly, and in high formal register: “I expected this reception … all men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!”
Then another embedded narrative begins; the “abhorred devil” takes Frankenstein back to his “hut upon the mountain” and tells his own tale. We learn, in the monster’s words, what he’s been doing all this time—taking shelter in a hovel behind a cottage, and observing the family inside through cracks in the walls. From this poor, compassionate family—the father is blind—he learns something of humanity, and language; he learns even more from a “leathern portmanteau” he finds that contains some books, among them Paradise Lost and “Sorrows of Werter”! (Never mind how he learns to read; we don’t even know why he’s alive.) Like Napoleon and half of Europe in the late eighteenth century, Frankenstein’s monster gets a touch of Werther Fever: “I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character contained no pretension, but it sunk deep.” Werther’s suicide causes him to weep, “without precisely understanding it.”
Because of this nonlinear storytelling, we’re left to puzzle out just what Victor was up to during his monster’s intellectual coming of age. It’s tricky in part because the emotional texture of their experiences was different. The monster’s years feel richer, thus longer, to the reader; they held more joy. But from inside the experience, Victor’s years full of fear and regret would surely have felt longer than the monster’s happy ones; pain elongates time. On the other (other) hand, these were the first two years of the monster’s existence; time is elongated in childhood in part because each day accounts for such a large proportion of one’s lifetime so far. (There’s also a theory that because children’s hearts beat faster, “their body clocks ‘cover’ more time within the space of 24 hours than ours do as adults.” Would this apply to Frankenstein’s monster? Maybe, if his love for the cottagers quickened his pulse.) Can there be true simultaneity in fiction? In what sense do narratives that unspool at different times “happen” at the same time? Some of Shakespeare’s plays seem to operate on two contradictory time scales, a phenomenon critics have dubbed “double time.” But then, there’s no true simultaneity in the real world, either. Here’s Wikipedia’s enchanting ur-voice on the relativity of simultaneity: “According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, it is impossible to say in an absolute sense that two distinct events occur at the same time if those events are separated in space.” (At one point, the monster quotes from Percy Shelley’s poem “Mutability,” which makes no sense at all, since the narrative takes place before the poem was written.)
The novel’s chronology is further complicated by the fact that Mary Shelley wrote the first version before her husband Percy’s death by drowning in 1822, but the version we commonly read now is a revision first published in 1831. Mary’s mother, the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died ten days after her daughter was born. When the author of Frankenstein was sixteen, she met Percy Shelley, who was already married, but they ran away together anyway, which earned her the same bad sexual reputation that her mother had had. In her biographical introduction to a critical edition of the novel, Johanna M. Smith writes that Mary (Shelley) “never entirely escaped the social effects of her early indiscretion,” “even though she married Percy in 1816, within a month of his wife Harriet’s suicide”—as if this latter move were the epitome of discretion. Mary and Percy weren’t destined for happiness—three of their four children died very young, and in 1822 she had a miscarriage. Then, on July 8, Percy died in a shipwreck. Famously, when his body washed up onshore, his face unrecognizable, he had a book of poems by Keats in his breast pocket. His clothes must have been very close fitting.
In the final paragraph of her introduction to the 1831 edition, Shelley claims to have changed very little:
I will add but one word as to the alterations I have made. They are principally those of style. I have changed no portion of the story, nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances. I have mended the language where it was so bald as to interfere with the interest of the narrative; and these changes occur almost exclusively in the beginning of the first volume. Throughout they are entirely confined to such parts as are mere adjuncts to the story, leaving the core and substance of it untouched.
I have not read the original 1818 version, but according to Anne K. Mellor’s biography of Mary Shelley, the two are quite different, because Shelley’s worldview had changed. Her layers of grief—their dear friend Lord Byron died two years after Percy from what was likely septic fever—combined with her “financially straightened circumstances and her guilt-ridden and unshakeable despair” to convince her “that human events are decided not by personal choice or free will but by material forces beyond our control.” Shelley’s “new vision of nature’s relationship to humanity is registered in the novel itself,” Mellor writes. The characters become pawns of fate; they can’t quite be blamed for destroying their own lives: “In 1818 Victor Frankenstein possessed free will or the capacity for meaningful moral choice … In 1831 such choice is denied to him.”
I wondered whether Shelley’s misfortunes in the 1820s were also responsible for the novel’s obsession with loneliness. Everyone in the story, in particular the three men who take control of the narrative in turn—if the monster can be called a man—longs desperately for companionship. Walton writes, in his second letter posted from Archangel, a Russian port on the White Sea: “I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil, I have no friend, Margaret … You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend.” He does not expect to find one on the ocean, but he does, in Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein left his lifelong friends behind to attend university; it may be his isolation that leads him astray. The monster’s loneliness is especially keen. He calls the poor cottagers, who are ignorant of his existence, his friends: “When they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathized in their joys. I saw few human beings besides them, and if any other happened to enter the cottage, their harsh manners and rude gait only enhanced to me the superior accomplishments of my friends.” When he works up the courage to approach them, they cower in fear and chase him off. The monster realizes he is doomed to solitude, people will never accept him; so he demands that his creator provide a companion for him, a girl-fiend, like Adam asking God for Eve. At first, moved, Victor agrees, but then decides in good conscience he can’t and reneges. The monster gets revenge by killing all of Victor’s friends, so the doctor, too, must suffer alone.
Could Shelley have woven these themes into her revision, to force her characters to suffer alone as she suffered? It doesn’t appear so. The word friend appears 134 times in the 1831 version, and 131 times in the original. So mourning and loss were always part of the horror in her horror story. It had come to her, as she describes in the introduction she wrote in October 1831, like a transmission, and kept her awake: “When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reveries.” I think of her lying there (“the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through”) like William Maxwell in a parallel insomnia, lost in his past. In the morning, she transcribes “the grim terrors” of her “waking dream.” She envisions it as “a short tale,” but Percy pushes her to “develop the idea at greater length.” It becomes the story of her life. Frankenstein, her “hideous progeny,” was “the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart.” It’s as though she had a premonition of her bleak future.
Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author, most recently, of The Word Pretty (Black Ocean).