By Margaret Stokman
When I glanced at my literature syllabus and saw the title Frankenstein, I thought “Oh, cool, the horror story.” When I started reading the novel, however, two things surprised me: First of all, the name Frankenstein doesn’t refer to the monster; Victor Frankenstein is the scientist who created the monster. Second, the horror of the novel for me didn’t have to do at all with the monster, but with Victor Frankenstein’s loss of freedom – this is the unexpected horror that I encountered within the story.
Although the title that is most common to us is Frankenstein, the book is also called, The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus is a character from Greek mythology who steals fire from the gods and ends up chained to a rock and tortured for the rest of his life. Shelley claimed that the book was a “warning about the effects of letting oneself be controlled by ambition and losing control over its own possibilities.” Therefore, what is fire for Prometheus is finding the spark of life for Frankenstein.
The novel is fascinating and fun to read, but I wondered what this science fiction story could have to do with my life as a high-schooler, studying and working? Surprisingly, I not only found an answer to that question, but I continue to rediscover the answer within my circumstances. As the story progresses, Victor Frankenstein becomes less and less human and he describes himself as “…rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines, or any other unwholesome trade, than an artist occupied by his favorite employment.” In the midst of his work, Frankenstein loses his humanity.
At this point in my reading of the novel I saw Victor Frankenstein in myself. The summer started out wonderfully, I loved all my jobs. But as I continued to work, my gaze on work shifted. I was almost addicted to the busyness, no longer was I concerned with the actual work of my jobs but solely focused on how many shifts I could gt in. The thought of not having a packed schedule actually kind of scared me.
Each of my jobs involved direct engagement with people, especially as a nursing assistant in a nursing home. I noticed that toward the end of the summer I gave less attention to the person in front of me and focused on being efficient. One example of this was with my favorite nursing home resident, Doris. At age 93 she still put on lipstick everyday and I loved this about her. At the start I would stop in everyday and chat with her. Her ever-changing shade of lipstick was a connecting point for us. However, as the months went on, I stopped in less and less because chatting with Doris seemed to get in the way of fulfilling my duties efficiently. I also stopped seeing friends after work, isolating myself from my community. When I would come home from work I didn’t quite know how to enter into family life again. I felt really tired as if my head was still at work – always concerned with whether or not I could make it through the next day of work.
Mary Shelley describes Frankenstein in a moment of leisure: “He is often overcome by gloom, and then he sits by himself, and tries to overcome all that is sullen or unsocial in his humor.” I too would come home from work and either sit alone or get on my phone and scroll though Instagram, as if guarding this time to myself would somehow be the answer.
In looking at all of this, I have discovered something interesting about the role of beauty. Shelley describes Victor as he repeatedly misses out on beautiful events: “Winter, spring and summer, passes away during my labors; but I did not watch the blossom or the expanding leaves – sights which before always yielded me supreme delight, so deeply was I engrossed in my occupation.”
My dad loves music and my childhood has been filled with classical, blues, and fold music. One day I came home from work, and as he often does, my dad was sitting in our living room listening to music. Instead of climbing the stairs up to my room I decided to stay with him, curious to see whether being with my dad and listening to beautiful music would help me get out of my “after work haze.” In an instance, the beauty of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony brought me out of my head and back into a relationship with reality and also with my family. It was as if I needed this experience of beauty to help me engage again with faces, to enter back into life free from my preoccupation with being efficient. Through this experience I am learning that it is when I am fully in the real – not my head – that I meet a Person who fits my heart so well that I no longer depend on my success to give me life. Furthermore, I see that there must be a connection between freedom and beauty. For example, choosing to join my dad in the living room that day to listen to that beautiful piece of music reawakened me. Mysteriously, as I listened, I remembered that I am made for more than work. I felt free. And this same experience of beauty allows me to breathe again, making e certain that I am loved enough to start over again.
The complete piece was originally published in the ‘Year of the Worker’ Journal.
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