the original era of my being;

Category: Mind | Type: Discussion | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley | Ch: Chapter 11

Speaking so feelingly and cogently, the monster comes alive for the reader, and we're likely to respond with the sympathy Frankenstein denies him. We recognize that far from being unlike us the creature is in many ways our kindred at least as much as he is Frankenstein's. Perhaps, then, Frankenstein is the monster.  Yet in at least one sense the monster is different, and the odd phrase "original era of my being" captures it: he had no physical childhood. He was born with an infantile mind in a grotesque, adult body.  

In the next few paragraphs Shelley offers a telescoped rendering of the origins of consciousness. The monster tries to penetrate the borders of consciousness and memory to describe his awakening into awareness of the world and himself. He recalls a period of undifferentiated sensation in which all perception is connected (something like the undivided chaos before God divided the world). The senses have not yet divided, and perception is initially synaesthetic. If the monster's brain originated as seems likely with a corpse, upon death the brain lost all identity, and memory and knowledge died with the body. Whatever, if any, soul this person or really people had (the Vitalists and others who postulated a soul placed it in different parts or elements of the body), the Hebrew Testament states, "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes, 12:7).   

Shelley says nothing about a soul. If she believes in a soul, then the monster's creation by artificial rather than divine means excludes its existencel. Or, simply, she is among those who, swayed by the anti-Vitalist arguments, do not believe in the presence of a soul or in the literal truth of Genesis 2: 7, "And the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."  

The fact that the monster lacks a soul does not handicap him morally. He is born with virtuous proclivities, grows up kind and compassionate, and reasons intelligently. He understands that murder is wrong and that misery has made him murderous. The eternal soul, which Christians believe is essential to our moral life and is that in us which God judges as representative of our mortal life, is in Frankenstein irrelevant. That said, God too is irrelevant except as the source of noxious creeds and conduct that are inimical to happiness and enlightened life.

Before the early 18th century attention was rarely given to the period of the growth into consciousness or to the early life of the mind, the focus being instead upon individuals when they had arrived at the mature use of reason. Infants and children were scarcely more than ciphers, biographically. But with the increasing explorations of psychology (literally, the study of the soul [psyche] but in fact the mind) the roots of our intellectual and moral behavior in childhood become compelling. Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in 1693, three years after his pioneering Essay Concerning Human Understanding, instantly opened up a whole new terrain, childhood, to scrutiny by psychologists such as Hartley and philosophers such as Rousseau and to enthusiastic accounts by novelists and poets. 

The most bizarre and original novelistic treatment occurs in Sterne's comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-69), a fictional autobiography whose starting-point is the hilarious record in the first couple of pages of his conception. His parents, creatures of habit, are accustomed to having intercourse every Saturday night following the weekly winding of the standing clock. But on this occasion events get reversed, with the horrendous result that "the little traveler's" "animal spirits" undergo a "ruffling." According to a principal authority of the day, Chambers' Cyclopaedia, the "animal spirits" are a "fine subtile juice, or humour" at the nexus of body and mind, the point at which body and mind meet. The confusion occasioned to Tristram's animal spirits defines his mind's most characteristic feature, its susceptibility to disorder and digression owing largely to his wildly associative nature. Hence, after hundreds of pages, he manages to bring his account up only to the age of five. 

Wordsworth, who belongs to the next generation after Sterne, dwells on the arrival at consciousness. His autobiographical poem The Prelude (his wife titled the poem for its posthumous publication in 1850; he always referred to it as the poem on "The Growth of the Poet's Mind") provides one of the most extraordinary accounts in English of this period of development and its outcome. Shelley could not have known the poem except through some published fragments. Nevertheless, those are powerful renderings of a child's earliest years (see for instance "Nutting" and "There Was a Boy"), as are poems in Lyrical Ballads such as "Lines:...Tintern Abbey" and "We Are Seven." Shelley also knew Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality upon Recollections of Early Childhood." It is also likely that the Shelleys knew the account of childhood that appears in Book I of The Excursion (1814).  

A postlude. Two of the greatest prose treatments of early consciousness seem to meld Wordsworth and Mary Shelley: Dickens's opening pages of David Copperfield, published in the same year as The Prelude, and the first chapter of Great Expectations (1860). The latter describes Pip's being born into a macabre self-awareness as he reads his parents' tombstones. He, like the monster, is so alone that he must name himself: "so I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip." The monster, the supreme orphan, never thinks to name himself.

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