Frankenstein’s Daughter

A review of Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of The Alchemist’s Daughter (Saga Press, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is Theodora Goss’ conversation across time with creators of enduring literature that explored things like what it means to be human through the figure of the outsider, the monster. But, more prominently, it is Goss’ conversation with Mary Shelley – a sharing of ideas and perspectives and an opening of dialogue about scientific exploitation of bodies, hegemonic control, the outsider, and the restrictive nature of the category “human”.

Goss resurrects literary monsters of the past by creating a narrative about their daughters, weaving narratives of the abjection of bodily difference with the oppression of women. Like monsters, the women in her narrative resist easy categorization, standing up against subjugation, typification, or any kind of restraint. They speak back to the social pressures and literary tropes that have historically sought to limit them.

Goss draws characters from works by Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Louis Stevenson into an adventure mystery novel that is primarily about the way that people come together in unique ways and draw strength from difference. She brings together the daughters/creations of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Rappaccini to bring attention to the potential danger of depersonalization in medical sciences, the oppression of bodies that don’t conform, the profound isolation that comes with difference, and the power of found family to create a sense of belonging.

As much as this is a brilliant and exciting tale in itself, it is also a discourse on storytelling and Goss’ characters regularly interrupt their own story in order to interject critiques of the writing process, give details left out, and add insights that expand on the perspective given. The characters briefly interrupt the story to say things like “Now you really do sound like a penny dreadful!” These women want to tell their own narratives, tired of being silenced by literary tropes or having their stories told by others. They are active participants in constructing their own narratives, literary partners with their writer, Theodora Goss, who offers them a space to speak.

Goss interweaves Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein throughout her narrative, resurrecting characters from Shelley’s tale, but also having characters critique Shelley’s 1818 narrative, challenging the limitations it places on the characters and expanding upon the potential of Shelley’s tale. But she also plays with thoughts that Shelley began to explore in Frankenstein like the meaning of “monster” and the interplay with the sympathetic outsider. She complicates the notion of the monster just as Shelley does, engaging the reader in a process of remapping the potential boundaries of the human.

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Monstrous Minds – Psychoanalysis of Frankenstein’s Monster

Monstrous Minds
A review of Michael Bishop’s “The Creature on the Couch” in The Ultimate Frankenstein (Simon & Shuster, 1991)

By Derek Newman-Stille

There has been a history, particularly in films, of silencing Frankenstein’s monster, but, of course, Mary Shelley’s creation spoke with incredible eloquence and self awareness, interrogating its own motivations, feelings, and impulses. Michael Bishop’s “The Creature on the Couch” puts Mary Shelley’s monster into the modern era, having him psychoanalyzed. The monster illustrates his ability to be self aware in his interviews with the psychologist, able to speak back to the questions and even, at times, to interrogate the psychologist about his own motivations, thoughts, and behaviours. This is not a silent or passive monster, but a creature who creates his own narratives. 

Bishop’s monster is one who knows about his impulses and the psychological factors that motivate him, but is still unable to resist his actions and choices, compelled to act out of violence, particularly when he encounters feelings of abandonment. The creature’s central, shaping moment was his abandonment by his creator, which continued to shape his fear of loss and rapid change.

The psychologist in this narrative has to face his own biases and assumptions about the monster as well, particularly his assumption that the monster is a man who is experiencing a psychotic episode and believes himself to be the monster, rather than embracing the potential that the monster could exist. The monster hand him Mary Shelley’s text as a way of introducing his complex background and history, adding in the needed details, but still acknowledging Shelley’s narrative as his shaping story, as an accurate portrayal of himself and his motivations. The monster is shaped by the stories told about him.

“The Creature on the Couch” reveals the complexity of the monster’s feelings, impulses and behaviours, allowing him to be more fleshed out than most explorations of Shelley’s creature have been.

Of Humps and Monsters

Of Humps and Monsters
A review of Young Frankenstein (1974) dir. Mel Brooks. Distributed by 20th Century Fox

By Derek Newman-Stille

Humour has an important role in social critique. People generally don’t consider humour threatening to their values, but humour relies on its ability to upend social mores, twist audience assumptions, and invert the expected. Young Frankenstein presents itself as a nostalgic play with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein text, inserting sexual puns and body humour into a story that is already so much about the body. But, it is also a commentary on medicine and the power of doctors.

Frederick, a descendant of Victor Frankenstein wants to break out from his ancestor’s shadow to distinguish himself as a medical researcher who has nothing in common with the other Frankenstein. He even pronounces his name Fronkensteen to differentiate himself from his family legacy. But, his history haunts him and I would suggest that it is not his family legacy that draws him into conducting the same experiments as his ancestor, but rather his medical legacy. He feels drawn to greater and greater medical pursuits, no longer just interested in neuroscience, but instead in biological conquest – controlling the barrier between life and death. Medicine becomes his obsession.

Where Mary Shelley’s text focusses on the morals around creating life and ideas of paternity, Young Frankenstein focusses on the figure of the brain, bringing attention to the brain as a central idea at the start of the film by making Frederick a neuroscientist who is lecturing to students about how the brain is an unconquerable question. This focus on the brain is later augmented when Frederick is given the wrong brain for his monster by Igor. Igor observes that the brain was from Abby something… Abby Normal. By inserting an abnormal brain into the body of his monster, Frederick ends up with a monster who is inarticulate, controlled by emotion, and prone to violence. Rather than a single neuro-atypicality, the monster is given a constellation of different neuro-atypical behaviours, illustrating the simple divide between normal and abnormal as a social fixture that is not given to further exploration. As is characteristic of a lot of films that feature disability, the monster is immediately subject to a search for a cure by the doctor, who is interested in illustrating that his monster can be “civilized” (read here normalized). The doctor even gives part of himself to the monster in a transference procedure (for which he gains some of the monster’s genital girth) to make the monster more like himself. Despite this, neither monster nor doctor fully conform to social expectations of normalcy, subtly critiquing the idea that there can BE a ‘normal’. The film even tries to display the monster in a state of domestic normalcy, talking to his wife about various parties they need to go to, and even this element of normalcy is constantly disrupted by the monster’s body and his wife’s evocation of the classic Universal Studios Bride of Frankenstein hair. 

But by far the strongest resistance to normalcy and the medical imposition of a normal body is Igor, who Frederick immediately notices has a hump on his back and offers to “fix” it, citing his credentials as a medical doctor. Igor displays absolute comfort with his hump by being entirely unaware of what the doctor is suggesting he will fix, illustrating that he doesn’t consider his hump to be something in need of repair or change. He resists the homogenizing of the body by medical science simply by disregarding any difference between himself and any other bodies.

Young Frankenstein shows its fascination with the body and ideas of normalcy through its focus on the idea of the body fragmented, but also through the ability for the body to be sexualized. In denying bodily normalcy, Young Frankenstein also questions normative sexualities and invites ideas of unbridled passion.

Torn

Torn
A review of Lakeshore Entertainment‘s I, Frankenstein (2014), dir. Stuart Beattie.
By Derek Newman-Stille

I, Frankenstein takes Mary Shelley’s monstrous creation and plunges him into a battle between demons and gargoyles, mythologizing him and positioning him between two opposing forces – evil and good.

I, Frankenstein follows a history of narratives that try to position the monster in a redemption narrative, exploring the idea of the monster as a being without a soul, separated from humanity because of his artificial manufacture, but also containing a seed of potential to develop a soul. This is a tale about the division of soul and body and the question of what the soul means.

I, Frankenstein explores ideas of the authenticity of humanity and positions science as a threat to authenticity, portraying demons as capable of replicating Victor Frankenstein’s research and creating an army of soulless monsters.

Set in the present, this Frankensteinian story sets the monster in the present day, urban setting, mixing gothic sensibilities with modern complexities.

Like Shelley’s creation, the monster from I, Frankenstein is formed from anguish, loneliness, and a feeling of loss as much as he is formed from knitted together flesh.