Stitching Mary Shelley’s Text Into A New Body of Literature
A review of Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (HarperCollins, 2011).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Since Mary Shelley’s publication of Frankenstein, Dr. Victor Frankenstein has shaped the public imagination of the “mad scientist”. He is portrayed as an ambitious, driven man who is willing to do and to sacrifice anything to achieve his goals no matter what the consequences. He is willing to push the boundaries of scientific imagination… and also push the boundaries of morality. But how did his life shape who he became? What transformed him into that driven doctor who was willing to challenge even that great boundary – between life and death?
Kenneth Oppel’s “This Dark Endeavour” winds back the clock on Victor Frankenstein’s life, imagining an early life for the inventor. Oppel’s Frankenstein is an atheist who believes that all of the questions in the universe can be answered by science but that science has not yet achieved its potential and has set its vision too simply. His desire to discover forbidden secrets drives him toward medical science, but also toward alchemy and the dark secrets that it promises, allowing him to push the scientific imagination.
Victor Frankenstein’s ambitions are wrapped around the life of his twin brother, who he has always seen as better at everything than he is. His brother Konrad doesn’t have to work as hard at things, he’s more athletic, and he is better loved by those around them. Victor has structured his life around competition with his brother, but, when Konrad becomes ill, Victor feels a need to save him. This need is partially based out of love, but also out of a desire to finally win at something in his brother’s life – to have control over whether his brother lives or dies and to prove himself a hero.
This Dark Endeavour carries through some of Mary Shelley’s themes, examining ideas of power, competition between men (and the danger that this toxic masculinity can cause), critiques of sexist, patriarchal culture, the idea of the body as something fragmented, and a questioning of the limits of medical science, but it also bring in some new ideas, exploring ideas of biohacking when Victor begins augmenting his own body, ideas of consent, and a distrust for medical doctors.
Oppel’s obscures the boundaries between book and body, creating a narrative of books that shape bodies and books that are made from body parts.
To discover more about This Dark Endeavour, visit http://www.harpercollins.ca/9781554683406/this-dark-endeavour
To find out more about Kenneth Oppel, visit http://www.kennethoppel.ca