If you only know Frankenstein’s creature from the movies, you’d think he talked like Tarzan. “Alone, bad! Friend, good!” Except, of course, Tarzan in the books didn’t say things like that and neither does the monster. He quotes Plutarch. He knows Paradise Lost almost verbatim. Victor calls him “fiend”, “demon”, “monster”, “vile insect”. The visionary genius is reduced almost to incoherence by his hatred for the thing he's made, but we rarely see the creature in a blind rage. By the time he meets his maker for the second time, he has left the innocent brute behind. Now he has become a civilized killer.
Also because of the movies, most people think Frankenstein is a story about a mad baron who sticks a criminal brain into a corpse and brings it to life in his castle laboratory during a thunderstorm, with the help of his hunchbacked assistant, only to be thwarted by rampaging villagers with pitchforks.
In fact none of those things is in the novel. I created my digital interactive retelling of the story, in part to rescue Mary Shelley’s classic from the neglect into which it has fallen. It’s a great story, but one bogged down by swathes of unlovely prose. My aim in making it interactive has been to turn it up to eleven, to reach out and drag the modern reader right into the text. That opening scene of the creature’s birth gave me the clue for one way to do that – a way to show his awakening consciousness using all of the senses. And that led me towards music as the vanishing point where his raw sense of hearing converges with his aspirations to join the communality of art and culture that unites the rest of humankind.
Because of the way the story has mutated its way through popular culture, a common image has Victor Frankenstein sewing his creature together out of dead bodies: the world’s most monstrous rag doll. In my version of the story, as in Mary Shelley’s original novel, it might be more accurate to think of the creature constructed, golem-like, a swollen homunculus of flesh. I describe his skin being grown on needlework frames, his tissues cultured from simple cells. This creature is not an old thing patched up; he’s a whole new being.
On “a dreary night of November”, with rain pattering dismally against the panes, the creature draws his first breath. Everything is a blank slate. His senses are one confused storm of inputs and feelings. Sounds have colour. Shapes have taste. Gradually he makes sense of the world, marvelling at the mystery of birdsong and the immense round mountain that rolls across the sky at night.
Spurned by his maker and rejected violently by everyone he meets, the creature takes shelter in an outbuilding adjoining the chateau of an aristocratic family, the de Lacys. And here’s where Mary Shelley came up with an inspired story device: a crack in the wall through which he is able to spy on them. He observes the de Lacys at the dinner table, or gathered around the elderly, blind pater familias as he plays the harpsichord. When a Turkish girl comes to stay, the son of the family starts to teach her French and, eye pressed to the crack, that’s how the creature gets his education too.
It’s at this point in the novel that we start to perceive, buried in its grosser body tissue, the outlines of another familiar story: the former ingénue who, as he acquires education and culture, becomes increasingly dismissive of those who remind him of his former ignorance. “Her grasp of French is almost as good as mine,” remarks the creature of Safiye, the Turkish girl, in a backhanded compliment. When an official of the Revolutionary government shows up to evict the family, the detail that causes the creature greatest outrage is that the man cannot read.
Finally the creature feels that his efforts at self-education have earned him a place by the hearth. He is ready to creep out of his ruined hovel and go round to the house. Dressed in stolen clothes, he waits till the others are out to present himself to old Monsieur de Lacy, whom he expects to be the most sympathetic to his plight – and who, being blind, is not going to panic the moment he appears at the door:
Alone in the cottage, the old man sits at his keyboard playing the opening contrapunctus of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. It is a sweet sad air, mournful and yet gloriously so. Though Bach intended this piece of music as just an exercise, everything human is contained there. We live and will die. Nothing has meaning except what we give it. And yet the tiny equations of mortal perception contain everything that is beautiful and true.
Now, Mary Shelley doesn’t do a whole lot of showing. “He played several mournful but sweet airs,” is how she renders this scene, “more mournful and sweet than I had ever heard him play before.” But I wanted the reader to see how the creature has changed over these months – from a thing whose senses run together in a synaesthetic whirlpool to a man who can quote Plutarch and Milton. And that piece by Bach, played here by Margaret Fabrizio, seems to me the epitome of humanity in its melding of simplicity and beauty, logic and almost spiritual emotion.
But it’s not enough to show your character has become almost a gentleman, you must remind the reader where he came from. A few minutes later, talking to M de Lacy, he invites him to play something:
Turning back to the harpsichord, he lets his fingers find the keys and then bursts into a performance of Rameau’s Tambourin. It is of a very different mood from the Bach he was playing before I came in: a fast-paced work full of gusto and melodramatic flourishes. A mere entertainment. How disappointing that he doesn’t recognize a kindred spirit.The creature’s scornful reaction to what is, after all, a jaunty bit of 18th century pop (played here with great gusto by Julian Frey) is more than just resentment at being thought unsophisticated. It shows us his fatal flaw. Sheltered in his hovel beside the chateau, all that he has seen through the crack is the best and most serious side of mankind. The aristocratic M de Lacy is wise enough to appreciate that there is room in life for both the transcendent brilliance of Bach and the heel-kicking silliness of Rameau. The creature fails to understand that. His morality is as pure and absolute as an adolescent’s, as furious as one of those French revolutionary fanatic’s. And in the gap between these two pieces of music, he will experience his downfall.
This is a longer version of a guest post I originally wrote for The Undercover Soundtrack, a website about how music inspires writers.