Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Problem of Ernest Frankenstein

It's nice to know even the classic authors made mistakes. Not little typographical mistakes, either, but large, "how the heck did that happen" mistakes.

Take, for example, Ernest Frankenstein.

Now, at this point I expect half of you are going "Ernest who?" and protesting that the protagonist's - or, depending on your point of view, antagonist's - name is Victor.

The other half of you are going, "It's Franken-STEEN." (Actually, I hope all of you were doing that, first, then splitting into two factions.)

Now, for those of you who either haven't read it, or haven't read it in a while, a great refresher read on the classic novel has been put out by Gris Grimly (whom you can find here). Grimly gave Shelley's novel the graphic novel treatment, and it is GORGEOUS. If you haven't yet read Frankenstein, and have always wanted to, but argue you don't have the time, this is the version for you. If you have read it, this is still the version for you. So go, read, now, and then come back so we can continue.

[I know I joke about this all the time, but on this one I mean it. Even if you've read Frankenstein before, you've not seen it like this. Go, get it from your library, and read it. Or better yet, buy it. Or even better still, buy it for me, because you missed my birthday and Christmas. I shall wait anxiously by the door for the Amazon drone.]

I picked it up from the library, and before I could finish it, my 9 year old daughter picked it up and finished it first. Took her two days, and she enjoyed it immensely. But then she asked me something.

"What happened to Ernest?"

And, because I had not yet gotten that far, I said, "Who?"

So, in case you did not take my instructions seriously, Ernest is Victor's younger brother. Not THE younger brother, however, because that would be the youngest brother William (looking in Grimly's version like a creepy Pillsbury Doughboy). It is William who plays the role of the Monster's first victim. It is William who gets all the press. It is William whose death sets many horrible things in motion.

Ernest is the other brother. The middle brother. And if ever there were an argument for the middle sibling being overlooked between the eldest and the youngest, Ernest would be the poster child. In the first version of the book, which is the one Grimly adapts, Ernest just... disappears. Something is mentioned about him becoming a farmer in a letter and then... nothing. He's just gone.

Meanwhile, the Monster continues the roaring rampage of revenge through the rest of Victor's family and even friends. No one is left untouched. Heck, no one else in Victor's circle is left alive by the end of the book.*

Except Ernest.

Now, in fairness, Shelley wrote the novel quickly, by hand, and seemed to realize what she had done with regards to poor Ernest after the first version was published. By which I mean instead of relegating him to some farm, she sent him off to join the military.

And then forgot about him. Again.

He doesn't get mentioned again. Not for the wedding, not when the father dies... nothing. Again. I'm presuming that it was easier to simply ignore him for the latter sections of the book than somehow rework him in, but the attempt to explain his absence only highlighted it further. Ernest is the only Frankenstein to survive the book, but even in subsequent editions he's never mentioned again once William the Creepy Doughboy dies. I think it might have been less obvious if Shelley had just continued to ignore him.

In this modern age of computers and searchable files, it's all too easy to sit here and poke fun at Shelley. She could not, with the press of a few keys, discover she had created a character in the beginning of the novel that she then subsequently forgot about. I cannot even begin to imagine writing a novel by hand (though I know some still do), let alone everything it took for a woman to get a book published back then.

Still, I find myself asking why, in subsequent editions, she just didn't take him out completely. He adds nothing to the story, serves no discernible purpose, and other than arguing that he just takes on a life of his own (Frankenstein's Monster-like) once he's in that first edition, there's no rationale for his being there.

And it makes me wonder how many other unaccounted for characters are out there in classic fiction. Did Long John Silver have a brother? (Short Tom Bronze, maybe?) Was Ahab avenged by a cousin we didn't know about? Was there a fifth rabbit besides Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail who is not perpetually at the mercy of Farmer McGregor? Maybe the literary world is littered with the likes of Ernest Frankenstein.

In the end, the only answer I could give my daughter was, "Ernest lives."

And maybe someday, someone will write his story.

*(I am not putting a spoiler warning on a post that talks about a 200 year old story. If you don't know it all ends badly at this point, someone neglected your literary education. Possibly you.)


Kara said...

No one needs to write Ernest's story. Remember, the book is told as a first person narrative of Victor talking to Robert Walton. It is not Shelly, then, who forgot about Ernest, but Victor. And this interpretation makes total sense in terms of the narrative. Victor is shown throughout the book to be self-absorbed - He never stops to consider the consequences of his actions, he always considers his suffering before others (often belittling Elizabeth's suffering, in fact), and he puts others in direct danger because he cannot see beyond himself. In addition, at the point the we would expect to hear more about Ernest, Victor is at his darkest. He tells us that the only thing keeping him alive is his hatred and desire for vengeance. This is a man obsessed - the same man who forgot about his entire family and did not even write them a letter for over two years while he was first creating the monster.

It should then be no surprise that Ernest is forgotten. If Victor had thought on his brother, it actually would have been out of character.

Der Staat said...

i have to disagree here. even a very revengeful man would think about his younger brother, at the very least as a companion for his hunt for revenge. also Victor is not fully self-absorbed. he confesses to have been too excited about his scientific discovery when creating the monster but then starts thinking about the consequences of his actions and therefor refuses to create a female one (for the safety of mankind so they dont prosper). he is also in constant fear for his relatives and beloved ones, suffers numerous nervous breakdowns and not to forget: his youth is portrayed as that of an enthusiastic young men, keen to help the world through science.

furthermore: even altruistic people can feel hate and a strong desire for revenge, especially when he is actually predominantly avenging his relatives and beloved ones. the mocking of the monster in its messages it leaves behind is just the tip of the iceberg that makes Victor made. Victor definatly is not a second Ahab.

Oliver Johnson said...

Yes turtles do have shells.