Tragedy

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Ours

Review

The Novel

Frankenstein Or The Modern Prometheus speaks to you directly, showing you with its wintery-cold hands the myth through the lens called life.

Call it a myth, an experiment, a mistake, it retells, at the same time approaching the same unknown vision, the story of Victor Frankenstein – a man who humbly tries to be god.

The novel retells, and is still retelling like a folktale in the air, how Victor Frankenstein’s passion for alchemy, chemistry and natural philosophy acted as a catalyst for his many experiments on lifeless frames he gathered from cemeteries.

Long, maddening but exact and taciturn, expeditions, not to a far off land (not as of now), but inside the laboratory, expedition to the depths of knowing the dead and undead, to the threshold of unruly desire and undue greed, greed to dominate.

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?

Chapter 5, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

The creator fled away from his creation forgetting that the two are now tied to each other by a thread – a thread stronger than creator’s own shadow, voice and thoughts. Victor created a monster, not on that ‘dreary night of November‘, but over a period of time. Absolute neglect and abhorrence left the monster no choice but to be one.

Even when he learns the ways of the world – living in a hovel, grasping in silence what a family life means, secretly helping people around, picking their language and deciphering meaning in what he could read – he faces rigid rejection to whomsoever he turns to.

Shunned, he questions his existence and finds the winter weather leaping away after answering him with a static silence.

Fear fosters fear and with such weakness and anger the monster acts, brutally he acts, making sure that his master hears all about it. The monster kills Victor’s younger brother William and thus begins the downfall of both the creator and the monster.

Darkness and gloom overpower Victor and with the deaths of his best friend, fiancé and his old father, he becomes as lonely as the monster.

The pure white snow at the North Pole, that appeared to be engulfing the earth and the sky alike, could not make the monster anything less than what he had become – he was a curse, told Victor to his new friend, Robert Walton, an explorer and closed his eyes forever, hoping that in death he may find victory over his loathsome creation.

And this once Victor was right, the monster decides to put an end to his grotesque life too.

A little bit of gleaming sunshine, valley fresh flowers and joy too may feel subdued in this novel by the inky rainy nights and foggy, grey skies, but that is because it stays true to its core – a tragedy, but a modern one where the hero nurtures his flaw, unaware yet certain at first, lamenting and regretting later, truly owning it as a dead man.

Victor Frankenstein borne the brunt of such a curse that no one may ever dare to face, even in the advanced world, maybe only by mistake, but not as a determined goal and even if one did, in the times to come, such a creation will know what happened to Frankenstein’s monster and will know it only too well.

Until then, Frankenstein will continue to live, in our memory, for the sake of the curse and so will his monster.


The Author

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

Author’s introduction, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, London 15th October 1831

At 18, when she began writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley had thought of it to be a tale no longer than a few pages, at 20, the novel, after initial rejections, got published anonymously – customary for most female writers of the period – with a preface by her husband, P.B Shelley.

Some thought P.B Shelley or his father-in-law, the philosopher writer William Godwin, to be the author of this phantasmagoria and Mary Shelley surely was influenced by both, but her close encounters with death that tortured her, but kept her alive, very much like the Titan god of fire, Prometheus, made her who she was.

Mary Shelley wrote in her diary – “Dream that my little baby came to life again – that it had only been cold and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived – I awake and find no baby – I think about the little thing all day.”

Mary got her name from her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist writer, who died soon after giving birth to her. Even though deprived of this pious golden bond, Mary Shelley nurtured it solitarily, just like Frankenstein’s creation.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s world became her world when she, at 16, fled with him, well aware that the journey ahead will be more perilous than it ever was. Percy, then 20, was already married, penniless and somewhat on the run from his creditors. After his first wife’s death, the couple got married and just for a few shy years they happily lived together.

Too strong a wave, was Mary’s beloved, for he rose to meet the light on a stormy night on the sea and drowned unabashedly. Mary Shelley kept the remains of his heart as keepsake and continued to edit and publish his poems posthumously.

Patience of deep sea grew in Mary Shelley and she decided to live – for her only son and her pen. She wrote novels, short stories, travelogues and biographies both to earn a living and stay close to the phantasmagorical world of stories.

The idea of Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley in a half-waking nightmare in the summer of 1816. She had been staying with her husband and Lord Byron on the shore of Lake Geneva when at Byron’s suggestion they were all challenged to make up a ghost story.

– Frankenstein (Penguin Popular Classics)

The summer of 1816 later came to be known as ‘the year without a summer’ because of the eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia that sent clouds of volcanic ash throughout Europe, North America and Asia.

Torrential rain and grey gloominess filled the sky, it must have, when Mary Shelley sat down to write Frankenstein. And this only favoured her, even if she didn’t realise it, as she managed to breach the measurements of time in presenting a vision, hideous and terrifying, but intact and alive.

And so, it walked, with our desires and knowledge meeting, it walked – Frankenstein’s monster walked.

But what’s he up to now?


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La Strada And The Round-Faced Clown

Film Analysis

La Strada (1954). [Source – IMDB]

On the road you travel with the familiar and the unfamiliar together. Familiar landscape, known route, desired destination, accompanied by your loved ones and yet with an unfamiliar feeling, a comfortable anxiety, a strange pleasantness, a quiet freedom and a quiet fear. It fluctuates, this feeling, it dances.

Maybe it is ‘change’, for the road takes you on a journey and before you realise it, it changes you.

On the road with just the familiar is a routine and on the road with just the unfamiliar is an adventure, for Gelsomina it was the latter.

Federico Fellini, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, co-wrote and directed La Strada, Italian for ‘the road’, a 1954 film that also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (first of Fellini’s total four wins in this category, the most for any director till date).

[Though spoilers cannot ever mar the magic of a Fellini film, still let me alert you that this article will analyse the story of La Strada. So go watch it first if you have not already.]

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The vagabonds, the circus, a fatal incomplete relationship, and the seashore – Fellini’s favourite elements to weave a story – all merge harmoniously to create a tragedy that stays with us in the form of Gelsomina’s round clown face and her innocent eyes, a sketch of whom, Fellini said, acted as the germ of a story for this film.

The excellent Italian actress Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife, played the role of Gelsomina. [Source – The Guardian]

Story

Gelsomina is not like other girls, she is a little bit strange says her old mother who has already taken 10,000 lire from Zampano and is begging her to replace her late sister Rosa as Zampano’s wife.

Crying her eyes out, the old mother cannot let go of her simpleton daughter, but has to do so as then she will have ‘one hungry soul less to feed’.

Gelsomina, her old mother and younger sister. [Source – IndieWire]

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The superb Anthony Quinn as Zampano. [Source – Media Life Crisis]

Gelsomina is confused but excited at the same time as she would get to visit new places and learn to sing and dance.

But when the neighbour enquires about her return, Gelsomina becomes quiet, she goes and sits in Zampano’s motorbike cart (a cart covered with tarpaulin, attached to the motorbike) and leaves crying and waving at her mother, her six younger siblings who run behind the bike-cart, shouting out her name and waving back.

Zampano’s motorbike cart. [Source – Classic Film Aficionados]

And so, in this sudden, brusque manner Gelsomina joins Zampano, a travelling performer, donning two hats, one as his clown assistant and one as his wife.

A tall, well-built, rough and rogue looking Zampano’s famous street act is to break a 0.5-centimeter thick iron chain bound tightly across his chest; Gelsomina’s role is to first build the tension by playing the tambour, wait for Zampano to show off his strength, and then to go around collecting money in her hat.

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Donning two hats. [Source – Wonders in the Dark]
Zampano in the middle of his act. [Source – IMDB]

Sometimes they perform spoofs where Zampano becomes the hunter, aiming with his rifle at Gelsomina the duck and sometimes Gelsomina the clown dances and Zampano plays the tambour.

While she stays dressed as the clown the whole time, Zampano alters his look from macho strongman to a silly giant, now breaking the iron chain, now playing a simpering buffoon.

And the journey continues, with performing for the audience being the highs for Gelsomina and spending money on liquor and women the highs for Zampano.

“I go away… back to my village… it is not because of the work… I like this work, I like being an artist… but I don’t like you”, says a troubled Gelsomina to a drunk and sleepy Zampano, who asks her to “stop the bullshit”; Gelsomina then leaves.

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Il Matto walking on a high wire. [Source – IMDB]

Reaching the town, she witnesses a religious procession, watches another street performer, Il Matto (The Fool), walking on a high wire, relishes these new experiences, her eyes gleaming with joy.

But this joy doesn’t last for long, as Zampano reaches there in his bike-cart, thrashes Gelsomina and leaves with her, shouting at the silent drunk onlookers.

Who can speak up against the short-tempered strongman, the brash brawn mind, the rude and cold-hearted? Who else, but The Fool?

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Il Matto played by the fantastic Richard Basehart. [Source – IMDB]

Zampano and Il Matto hit off on the wrong foot as Il Matto doesn’t stop giggling, teasing Zampano about his chain-act, calling him an animal, telling the circus owner that they indeed needed one in their circus.

In Roma, St. Paul, a world-famous circus Girafa, presents the audience with its amazing acts. Gelsomina, Zampano, and Il Matto perform on the same platform now.

Sticking to their traits, Il Matto jokes around with Zampano in between his act and Zampano chases him, swearing that he will kill him.

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Gelsomina, Zampano, and the circus owner looking at Il Matto walking the rope. [Source – IMDB]

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Il Matto interrupting Zampano’s act. [Source – IMDB]

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Il Matto training Gelsomina. [Source – American Cinematheque]

Later when Il Matto wishes Gelsomina to be a part of his skit, Zampano roars at him, warning every circus artist that Gelsomina will work only with him.

To cool down a grumbling lion, The Fool strikes again, this time with a bucket full of water and splash, he empties the bucket on Zampano.

Zampano chases Il Matto with a knife; luck favours The Fool as the police intervene.

With Zampano still in jail, Il Matto asks Gelsomina to work with him or join the circus crew, leaving Zampano for good. But understanding Gelsomina’s dilemma, Il Matto tells her that everything, even a stone, has a purpose, and maybe she is meant to stay with the poor brute Zampano.

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Gelsomina playing the trumpet. [Source – Little White Lies]

The journey continues and Gelsomina dreams of marrying Zampano, she believes they are meant to be together; the nun, whom they meet in a monastery where they take shelter for a night, also tells her the same, that “we both are travellers; you follow your God, I follow mine.”

But a reckless Zampano is too numb to think so. Moving towards a disaster, Zampano and Gelsomina meet Il Matto one day; a bitter Zampano hits him twice only to accidentally kill him.

Scared and shocked, he then dumps both Il Matto and his car into a nearby stream and runs away with Gelsomina.

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A troubled Gelsomina. [Source – IMDB]

“Il Matto, he feels bad”, says Gelsomina and cries every time Zampano tries to talk to her; she looks shattered, she whimpers or stays quiet.

Zampano asks her if she wants to return home, but she refuses to, saying that Il Matto had suggested her to stay with Zampano.

Travelling in a snowy region, after a gap of ten days, Gelsomina steps out of the bike-cart; a haggard Zampano tells her that he did not mean to kill Il Matto, that he should not be punished for an accident.

Wavering thoughts make Gelsomina enjoy the cold weather and then make her cry for late Il Matto.

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Before abandoning Gelsomina. [Source – Charles Matthews]

Finding Gelsomina sound asleep, Zampano, in his desperation leaves; he keeps some cash, her wears, and the trumpet by her side. He looks at her as he quietly drags the bike-cart, starts it at some distance, and drives away.

A few years later Zampano, now working with another circus group, living with another woman, performing the same chain-act, on a roadside hears the tune that Gelsomina used to play on the trumpet.

A woman who was humming the tune tells him that her father gave shelter to a strange girl some four-five years back and that she picked the tune from her. When he asks about her whereabouts, the woman says that she is no more; the woman asks him if he knew her, but Zampano leaves without saying a word.

That night a drunk Zampano, after having a fistfight with some people at the bar, comes to the seashore, washes his face, sits down, looks at the sky and breaks down. All alone there, he cries.

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Zampano at the seashore. [Source – Vague Visages]

Characters

Gelsomina represents the gentle femininity, one who always forgives, makes sacrifices and is loyal, and Zampano the harsh masculinity, one who is stubborn, insensitive, and also self-destructive; both are the extremes, lacking a balance.

Zampano made it a point to tell everyone that Gelsomina knows nothing and felt jealous if others praised her. At the monastery when the nun is left amazed by how well Gelsomina plays the trumpet (a tune that she picked from Il Matto), Zampano goes to a side and starts chopping woods, to show off his prowess.

He needed her, but could not admit this and thus, never changed his behaviour; in the end, he meekly chose to run away instead of facing Gelsomina’s honest eyes.

Il Matto, whose entry formed a triangle, though acted like a fool, laughing every time in a high squeaky giggling manner, understood them all better. Il Matto valued relations and he valued life, but nevertheless was a lonely soul.

As fate would have it, Il Matto and Gelsomina both die, and Zampano, reaping what he had sown, lives a miserable life.

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Even a stone has a purpose. [Source – SP Film Journal]

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Feminine Masculine. [Source – Film at Lincoln Center]

Music

The melancholic yet dreamy tune that enchants and leaves a listener yearning is one of the key elements in the movie; the entire score was composed by the brilliant Nino Rota.

First played by Il Matto on his kit violin, later by Gelsomina on her trumpet, the tune is a leitmotif that marks these two character’s inner voice.

It is through this nostalgic tune that Gelsmina’s inner voice is heard by those who listen.

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The perky track that introduces the circus appropriately captures the attention, alerting the public to gather around and get ready for the show. The element of humour in it announces the arrival of the fools, the jokers, the clowns amongst the crowd.


Theme

In a post-world war Italy, when poverty shackled the majority, the travelling performers set out to earn a living by entertaining the masses.

They left their sorrows, their losses behind and moved from village to village, town to town to sing, dance, and make others laugh. A huge responsibility shared by the marginal class.

Through Gelsomina, Zampano, and Il Matto’s lives, we got a glimpse of the world of the vagabonds, the gipsies, the outcasts. They were crude and curt like Zampano, simple and full of warmth like Gelsomina, witty and notorious like Il Matto; they restricted themselves to the periphery, mingling with the rest of the world now and then, living un-noticed, bringing their unique charm and performing spectacles only heard of in tales.

The nomadic still carry magical chalks, bordering the society, with us on one side and all of them on the other side.

On the other side, life is too unpredictable and ruthless; throughout the film, Gelsomina enquired about her late sister Rosa – whether Zampano treated Rosa in the same manner as he treats her, whether Rosa knew about Zampano’s affairs, whether Rosa had met Il Matto – she had taken Rosa’s place but never had wished for the same end. Alas, she had to face it too.

And in this way, the story completes a circle.  

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On the other side. [Source – IMDB]

Strange for the circus people and even The Fool was Gelsomina, the way she walked, talked, and especially her face; Il Matto in a scene says, ‘What a strange face! Are you really a woman? You look like an artichoke!’, and yet, this outcast amongst the outcasts was the most humane.

Gelsomina’s loving and kind behaviour is a reminder of what Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist, had said about civilisation –

“Margaret Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die … A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.”

Quote from Ira Byock’s book ‘The Best Care Possible.’

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The round-faced clown. [Source – Fellini: Circle of Life]

La Strada

Directed by – Federico Fellini; Screenplay by – Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano; Story by – Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli; Cast -> Gelsomina – Giulietta Masina, Zampano – Anthony Quinn, Il Matto – Richard Basehart; Music by – Nino Rota; Cinematography – Otello Martelli, Carlo Carlini; Edited by – Leo Catozzo

Fellini in action. [Source – IMDB]

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