By Jon Spelman
In this excerpt, Jon Spelman uses Mary Shelley’s elevated language as he moves from the Narrator’s to the Creature’s perspective to help us think about the ways we treat and classify each other. What are our basic responsibilities to one another?
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The Strange System of Human Society-Creature Tells His Tale
- Creature is instantly abandoned by his creator. What does it mean to be responsible for our creations (people, ideas, objects, attitudes, actions)?
- What people have you observed that seem like Creature — lonely, abandoned, rejected, poor, rootless, rejected, uneducated, misunderstood, feared?
- On what occasions have you felt a bit like Creature?
- Do you think that everyone at one time or another feels like an outsider?
- What can you/we do to help people feel that they belong?
- Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
- Mary Shelley: The Dover Reader by Mary Shelley
- Crossing Cultures
- European Americans/Whites
Hello, I’m John Spelman and this is an excerpt from my version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The main story that I’m interested in, in that 200 year old novel, is the story of Frankenstein’s unnamed creature. Abandoned, helpless, hopeless, homeless, abused, physically different and cut off from most contact with other beings. In the years I’ve been working on this story it’s become obvious to me how I sometimes have some of those feelings and I’ve become more acutely aware about how so many of us have feelings like that sometimes more than one at the same time, sometimes continuously.
[Begins the story]
When medical student Victor Frankenstein first saw the accomplishments of his two years of toil, he was instantly filled with breathless horror and disgust and unable even to look at the being he’d created. He rushed out of the room fell down in a fit and did not recover his senses for a long, long time.
Creature, less than one hour old, had to somehow sit up, stand up, move. He even went downstairs. He exited. He walked until the effort wearied him and he sought refuge. This was a forest near the laboratory and here he lay resting from his fatigue. He drank some water which he found in a tiny stream. He ate some berries and then he spent time sorting out his senses. He saw first and felt and smelt all at the same time.
After some days he discovered that the water had dried up, the berries were gone, and so I traveled. Until at great length, I saw a strange sight. This was a small hut. I’d never seen one before and approaching it and by mistake touching a door, the door fell open and I entered… there sat a human being on a stool. When he saw me, he gasped, jumped up, backed out of the hut and ran across the fields with a speed of which his slight form hardly appeared capable.
But I was enchanted by the hut. No snow had penetrated it. The ground was brown and dry, and it presented to me then as exquisite and divine a retreat as pandemonium appeared to the fallen angels in Paradise Lost by John Milton.
The next day, I recommenced my travels in the direction the human had departed and at sunset I arrived at a village. Miraculous huts, cottages, a stately home by turns engaged my admiration; milk and cheeses that I smelled inside a dwelling, allured my appetite.
I entered a structure. Children shrieked. A woman ran outside screaming. The whole village was aroused, and it attacked me until grievously wounded by stones and other missiles, I escaped unseen into the open country and at dusk fearfully took refuge in a low hovel quite bare.
And here I hid myself, happy to have a shelter from the inclemency of the season. But even more from the barbarity of humanity. At first light creature discovered that that hovel was actually against the back wall of a small cottage surrounded on its other three sides by an empty pigsty and a pool of frozen water. And he decided to stay there.
Later that same day he noticed directly in the back wall of the cottage, a chink, a crevice through which he could see the inside of the cottage. And there lived an old man, a young man and a young woman. And for many days for most of the time, he watched them he observed to them, he heard them making sounds. I made a discovery of very great moment, I found that human people possess a method of communicating their ideas experiences and feelings to one another by means of articulated sounds and that the sounds they make produce pleasure, pain, smiles or sadness in the countenance of their hearers.
Oh, here was a godlike science that I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. And though I was for a long time baffled in every attempt I made for this purpose. Finally by great application over several months, I learned words that were applied to familiar objects. I understood and could pronounced fire, bread, wood.
…In the weeks and months that followed, I learned dozens of words hundreds of thousands of words and names.
And for most of two winters the young man, Felix read seemingly almost continuously to Father and Sister, Agatha. I remember that he read Paradise Lost by John Milton, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, a sweet romantic love story called The Sorrows of Young Werther. And my favorite book Elements of History by a man named… I can’t remember. I still have a copy of that book, but I can’t remember… Volnay!
And Volnay’s wonderful narrations inspired me with a knowledge of the strange system of human society and of the powers then existing in the world. I learned that human beings are powerful, virtuous and magnificent and at the same time vicious and base. I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls. Humans are both high and mighty and proper and powerful, but also rich and slimy and bad! And when my mind heard details of vice and bloodshed it turned away in disgust and loathing because you must see. You must see that I am not an animal. I know the world. Wonder after wonder was opened up to me. I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent and blue blood. I learned that the qualities most esteemed by human people are a beautiful person, a light color, a high position and riches and without them a person is considered a vagabond and a slave.
I was induced to turn toward myself. What was I? Of my creation and creator I was then absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no property or position and I was besides endowed with a figure deformed and loathsome. Apparently quite loathsome. I was not even of the same nature as human beings; even the colors of my skin were indeterminate.
Other lessons impressed me even more deeply. I heard about fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers. All those elements which bind one human being to another. All of those experiences hurtful, though they were terminated in additional love and reverence for my people. For so I loved in an innocent half painful self-deceit to call the cottagers, my people. I so much loved them. I so much wanted to be one among them.