Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The old monsters



As part of the SF and fantasy course I mentioned in my last post,  the last few weeks I have been reading Dracula, Frankenstein and some stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe. It is difficult to say if I am enjoying these reads. Dracula was interesting, but having read that story a few times, the last part seemed like a dull load. Frankenstein was unappetizing from the very beginning - the romanticism of the writing, the flowery language, the grandiose descriptions - they all seemed like monsters of their own.
I could not help thinking how uni-dimensional the characters in these books were - take Dracula for example. The black and white characters in it are clearly marked. Except for the mad-man, everyone is singularly good or evil. The story seemed like a preaching sometimes, extolling Victorian virtues.  Here is the little essay I wrote for the reading
The atmospheric work from Bram Stroker reads like a Biblical tale in a modern setting. With use of modern symbols and interesting art forms (journals, multiple narratives, mystery), Stroker attempts to deliver key themes of Christanity to a modern audience who might feel disconnected from the ancient stories.
The strongest Biblical symbol is Dracula, shown as a metaphor for Satan and described both as tempter and deceiver who uses people's weakness in order to deflect them from the path of good. This can be seen in how he entices Renfield by falsely promising him eternal life, convincing him to let him enter the hospital. He (with other vampires) fosters sinful desires: Jonathan Harker is tempted by the three women in Dracula's castle, while Lucy calls out to Arthur in a voluptuous voice to kiss her, before her fall.
Like in the Bible, Bram Stroker illustrates that Dracula's temptations can be resisted by being alert, by prayer and by relying on God's faithfulness. In the story, characters struggle to stay awake; many a tragedies occur while they are asleep or in trance. Dr Van Helsing strongly advocates keeping a crucifix on person when in proximity of Dracula. This crucifix, a symbol of God, saves the party from harm. Mina constantly resorts to prayer, never wavers in her faith, and is thus saved from the influence of Satan.
Stroker's technique is very similar to the technique of Biblical story-telling in modern theatre - perhaps an influence from his theatre background. He tries to internalize the story for his audience by keeping the script simple, breaking up the story into scenes or chapters, keeping fixed locations (the castle, Whitby, hospital), and tracking the emotional journey of the characters. This keeps the reader interested and imprints the Biblical teaching of virtue over desire very vividly in his mind.
Reading Frankenstein was even more difficult, but there was a singular anxiety that is reflected in that writing - the anxiety of being alone. Perhaps it stemmed from the isolated environment Mary Shelly was when she first wrote the story. My somewhat formed thoughts on this which I presented as an essay:
Alienation appears as a dominant theme in Mary Shelly's novel. The three narrators- Walton, Frankenstein and the monster, are all disconnected from the society around them and experience angst on account of this alienation. This alienation mirrors the feelings of the 19th century European society which was witnessing rapid industrialization.
Before Industrialization, people produced for self-subsistence and therefore had a direct relationship to their labour's fruit. However, in Industrial era, because the product would belong to capitalists, workers felt alienated from their work and therefore not in control of their lives. Frankenstein's labour, though frenzied, is still dissociated from its final outcome (He never thinks about the life he is creating). Upon completion, he runs away from it. Mary Shelly has captured the worker's estrangement with his work very succinctly through this analogy. Frankenstein, like Walton and like the modern man, spends a lot of time away from his family and natural surroundings to pursue secondary relationships with his work. They all work in alien environments (a cottage, aboard a ship, a factory). Their isolation causes them anxiety and dissatisfaction with life.
The monster's alienation is of a different nature, but still relates to the working man. He feels powerless to do what he would like to do: find friends and lead a peaceful life. He finds "human senses as insurmountable barriers" to achieving his natural state. He struggles against this powerlessness and seeks revenge. The working man similarly feels powerless to determine his fate, which is increasingly dependent on the decisions of the capitalist. He either submits to this power and feels unhappy, or adopts unlawful means (robbery, thieving, murder) to protest and regain his lost power.
With her theme, Mary Shelly seems to endorse the Romantic view that Science, Modernization and Industrialization have created antagonism in human nature.

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