Friday, August 19, 2011

Frankenstein Reaction

Now that I’m finished I don’t know what to make of Frankenstein. Parts of it were compelling while others were needlessly prolonged and while its language and purpose were interesting it still had some major flaws. In the novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses a tedious writing style and a mixed feminist voice in her creation of an influential novel that is showing its age.
First of all is Shelley’s multi-layered writing style and varying narrative. In Frankenstein, the story is divided up into narrations told by the stories’ main characters: Walton, an Arctic explorer, who records the narration of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist, who recounts the narration of his creation, who narrates the story of a cabin dwelling family he secretly observes. While I don’t dislike the style in itself, Shelley’s execution is sometimes contrived. In a scene where the narrator switches from Frankenstein to the monster, Frankenstein decides to curl up around a fire with the monster to hear its side of the story (Shelley 98). It was transitions like these, coupled with the drawn out passages, which made the novel rather boring. The only escape from these long narratives was the inclusion of letters from other characters- a technique that quickly became repetitive. Still, even though this technique may seem redundant, Shelley manages to somewhat make up for it. Throughout the novel, an idiosyncratic writing style is used in the narration. Each of the novel’s raconteurs has a distinct voice heard through their stories. Walton’s epistolary section has a sense of isolation attached to it; Frankenstein’s section is highly descriptive and emotional and the monster’s section contrasts between anger and innocence. When Frankenstein is in the mountains before he meets the monster, he describes the landscape as “congregat[ing] round [him]; the unstained snowy mountain-top, the glittering pinnacle, the pine woods, and ragged bare ravine” (92). I found that whenever the characters were surrounded by nature, the idiosyncratic style showed the differences between the characters and gave them depth. Each character’s reaction to nature provides more insight than most of the dull narration. Despite having some structural flaws, Shelley’s descriptive talent and imagination is to be commended in Frankenstein.
            In addition to its monotonous structure the role of feminism is somewhat inconsistent in the novel. Undoubtedly, Shelley criticizes the scientific pursuit in Frankenstein. It is the men in the novel, both Frankenstein and Walton, who are always seeking to expand human knowledge. Frankenstein is punished for his creation and Walton learns from this punishment. Near the end of the novel Walton and his crew are stuck in ice and near death, but instead of continuing on he concedes to his crew’s demand that they return to England (223). Walton now recognizes the dangers of knowledge as Shelley interprets it through her feminist perspective. It was through her depiction of a man in love with his scientific pursuit that Shelley critiqued such an obsession. While the novel’s criticism of science is rooted in male obsession, it fails to produce a strong female character. The novel is filled with passive women who do very little and die: Justine is executed for murder, despite her innocence and Elizabeth waits helplessly and is eventually murdered by the monster. None of the female characters would leave a mark on the story if it wasn’t for their relationship with one of the males. Elizabeth in particular was annoyingly useless and only served as a plot device. In the end all she can do for Victor is “observ[e] [his] agitation for some time in timid and fearful silence” before she goes to bed and is killed (200). It is strange that Shelley would create such women, interchangeable and uninspiring as they are, as a feminist author. Instead of creating powerful female characters, it seems that Shelley’s focus is disapproving man’s thirst for knowledge.  
            Due to her unappealing structure and confusing motifs, Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t end up being very engaging. However, it wasn’t a waste of time as its strengths made up for most of its shortcomings. While she’s not the best storyteller, Shelley effectively created one of literature’s greatest stories.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cannery Row Reaction

            I had high hopes when I started reading Cannery Row. This is due to the fact that I had already previously read Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat and The Grapes of Wrath. Both were very thoughtful and engaging novels while the latter is probably the best book I’ve ever read. Focusing on the struggle of the working man, these novels both drew out sympathy from me for the characters and their plight. Surprisingly enough, Cannery Row was able to do the same without the depressing mood that permeated these novels. John Steinbeck’s writing style and use of regionalism makes his novel Cannery Row engaging and thought provoking.
            The use of regionalism in Cannery Row is important in creating the setting in the novel. Cannery Row is an actual place in Monterey, California that was originally called Ocean View Avenue when Steinbeck live there. It is a waterfront street that was originally home to sardine-canning factories. The novel begins by describing Cannery Row as “a stink, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream” (Steinbeck 405). Steinbeck immediately emphasizes the importance and uniqueness of the setting. In addition to its uniqueness, it is presented as an inaccessible place that doesn’t welcome those who do not belong there. Throughout the novel, the narration rarely leaves Cannery Row and when it does it always returns; resulting in an added a sense of importance to the setting. The Row’s isolation connects it to its inhabitants in such a way, it makes it seem that these characters wouldn’t act the way they do anywhere else. Equally as important as the setting are the characters in the novel. As is typical in regionalism, the characters represent stereotypes and are described as “‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches’” (405). In the novel, the everyday routine of these characters is described in detail. It is in this description and dissection that Steinbeck captures the essence of the novel. The characters embody a nostalgic laziness that I couldn’t help but appreciate. The use of regionalism helps Steinbeck capture the spirit of Cannery Row and its denizen’s “everyman” existence.
            Steinbeck’s writing style reiterates the importance of the characters’ interactions in the novel. Instead of focusing on a plot, Steinbeck instead focuses on the character’s relationships, around which the plot is conceived. In place of a problem that needs to be solved, or a genuine struggle or plight driving the plot; seemingly unimportant events that occur in the characters’ dealings with one another are used instead. One such relationship is that of Lee Chong, the local grocer, and the boys, a band of ne’er-do-wells. When the boys need a place to stay they offer to pay rent to Lee to use an abandoned building as their home, and while Lee knows he won’t get the rent, he allows them to stay anyways (411). This focus on interaction between characters is present throughout the novel and builds a sense of camaraderie between the citizens of Cannery Row.  It is the existence of this warm-heartedness and sense of obligation the residents of Cannery Row have towards each other that drives the plot and makes the novel so sentimental. In addition to his focus on characters’ relationships, Steinbeck also uses interspersed anecdotes to introduce characters and dark twists into the novel. These instances occur sporadically and frequently interrupt the romanticized contentment of the lower class that lives in Cannery Row. An example of this would be the conversation between two boys, Willard and Joey who live in Cannery Row. In an attempt to provoke Joey into a fight, Willard makes fun of the fact that Joey’s father killed himself after failing to find a job for a year (520). It was moments like these that made Cannery Row such an interesting book. It is within these chapters, usually having no correlation to the plot, that Steinbeck conveys his themes of human suffering and hardship. He adds a broader scope to his novel without forcing himself to expand into a larger plot. Steinbeck’s writing style of alternating focus make Cannery Row an absorbing novel.
            Through his use of regionalism and a distinct writing style, Steinbeck creates a compelling novel. Cannery Row was as intellectually satisfying as Tortilla Flat and even The Grapes of Wrath. However, it was the sense of nostalgia within Cannery Row that made it stand out the most. Instead of simply telling me a story, Cannery Row painted pictures in my mind in a way not many novels have.