Frankenstein: A Tale of Monsters and Mutability
It is not hard to find meaning in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; in fact, it is arguable that the hardest part could be trying to find the single most prevalent idea or concept that ties the novel together. However, the sagacious reader will notice Shelley’s careful use of intertext to further her own ideas about what kind of message this novel is meant to convey. Among the references to biblical verse and Greek mythology is a portion of a poem that seems out of place – “Mutability,” which was written by Shelley’s own husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Considering that the poem is placed at a non-climactic juncture, and is only used in part, it seems at first to act as merely an enhancement, an ornamental addition to the text. It is only when one looks deep into Shelley’s definition and into the poem itself that the words gain relevance to both the story and human nature as a whole.
Shelley’s usage of the poem “Mutability” is interesting in that she only includes the final two stanzas. What she does include provides a poetic interpretation of many of the key ideas present in the novel. We rest – a dream has power to poison sleep. Victor may have good intentions in endeavoring to animate lifeless matter, but his all-encompassing thirst for power poisons and ultimately destroys everything he cherishes in life until he has lost not only his loved ones, but also his entire will to live. By the end of the narrative Victor has no ambition and no hope. Because of what was once his dream, he will never rest or find peace again. This is not only a result of the forces of mutability; it is essentially mutability exemplified – what he has created causes his destruction. We rise – one wandering thought pollutes the day. Victor’s creation began as nothing more than a sudden inspiration – a “wandering thought.” It was only when the dream gained power and became reality that he realized the immensity of the mistake he had made, and by then it was too late to intervene. Victor’s creation of body and soul went on to destroy him, both in body and in soul. Indeed, the battle between two forces – the creator and his creation – endures from the moment the monster is created until Victor finally dies. Even after Victor’s death, the monster faces an internal struggle between the desire to live a life of goodness and the overpowering urge to destroy. This never-ending struggle defines the monster’s short life and is never conquered, not even by his death.
Although it is easy to see how the stanzas included in the novel relate to what is going on, there are subtler references to a “bigger picture” present in the novel, parallels to which can be found in the poetic stanzas that Shelley chose not to include. While the second half of the poem gives insight into the large impact that one thought can have on the entire scope of a lifetime, the first half puts humans on a much smaller scale, comparing them to “clouds that veil the midnight moon” that float through the sky and soon “are lost forever.” Percy Shelley compares humans to a musical instrument “whose fragile frame no second motion brings one mood or modulation like the last.” What Mary Shelley is communicating – through her husband’s words, no less – is that human life is a volatile and fleeting thing. Here it is fitting to pause and analyze the context of this poem’s placement within the events of the novel. Victor Frankenstein has just scaled a massive, desolate mountain and is contemplating man’s susceptibility to impulses and flighty desires. He essentially concludes that with the higher intelligence of mankind there is a great danger, and this danger stems from our uniquely human ability to “feel, conceive, or reason; laugh or weep; embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away.” Both Victor’s conclusion and the poem are a meditation on the flightiness and triviality of human lives and, by contrast, the extent to which these lives can be impacted through seemingly harmless decisions. The two halves of this poem are two conflicting views on a topic of immense depth, which is quite fitting for a poem entitled “Mutability.” While most readers will only experience the part of the poem found in the novel, it is important that one understands the significance that can be found by reading the entire text.
Interestingly enough, the poem found in the novel isn’t all Percy Shelley wrote regarding the concept of mutability. Another one of his works, also entitled “Mutability,” strengthens the ideas of the poem and of the novel even further. Here Percy Shelley compares the people and things humans cherish in life to flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow – the “world’s delight, lightning that mocks the night, brief even as bright.” Once again he reinforces the idea that all things in life are fleeting and subject to constant change. The third stanza even reflects perfectly Victor’s despair at the end of the novel:
Whilst yet the calm hours creep,
Dream thou—and from thy sleep
Then wake to weep.
The tragedies that befall Victor push him to the very brink of sanity – in fact, he comes to regard the light of day as a nightmare, and every dream as a reality, for it is only in dreams that he can once again be with Elizabeth, Henry, and his family. It is a testament to Mary Shelley’s gift of nuances and intricacies that she is able to describe Victor’s utter loss of hope using terms taken almost directly from a poem so relevant to the novel’s subject matter.
By researching and understanding Mary Shelley’s references to other works, one will find even more meaning in the novel than what is already present. Surely it is possible to read Frankenstein without looking closer at Shelley’s intertextual meaning, but only by taking that next step can a reader truly gain insight into what she herself meant by writing the book. What looks on the surface like a horror novel takes on not only larger implications but a perspective on the very fallibility of human nature itself, and uses Victor Frankenstein’s sad life to prove once and for all that no matter what we may do to impact our time on Earth, nought may endure but mutability.
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Self-Reflection: I think that I am focusing a lot on the importance of understanding and analyzing the entire poem “Mutability” rather than solely what is included in the text. I’d like to have added more regarding Shelley’s other poem entitled “Mutability” and perhaps some ways it affected other areas of the novel rather than just the passage I focused on. I found this subject matter highly intriguing and very well may return to it in the future.