To celebrate the Halloween season, I went to my very first ballet. It wasn’t just any ballet, though. I got to see one of my favorite gothic novels, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, performed before my very eyes. Watching the Frankenstein Ballet was incredible but appreciating story told through dance is something that will stay with me forever.
In case you are new around here, I feel like I should tell you just how nerdy I actually am. The rest of you already know. Anyway, when I saw that the Frankenstein Ballet was coming to my town, I marked my calendar for the day tickets went on sale. It’s not like we are in Manhattan and tickets sell out in seconds. This was a local theatre and a professional ballet company in Manassas, Virginia. If you don’t know where that is, then you get my point.
So the day I received the reminder on my phone that tickets were on sale, I jumped on their website and got two front row seats right behind the orchestra. I don’t mess around. We literally could have picked any two tickets in that entire theater because everything was available. That was a few months ago, so you can imagine my anticipation just bubbling up between then and now.
I’ll admit the first time I read Frankenstein in high school, it went over my head. I understood enough to do well on the test, but I did not really grasp the meaning of the story. I didn’t understand the terror of Victor Frankenstein when his creation turns into a monster and the parallels to God when His creation disobeys Him. The Creature pleads with Victor, his creator, that he should provide him a mate; after all, Adam has Eve. The monster’s desire for companionship parallels Adam’s desire for Eve, and I didn’t really understand that. Maybe superficially, but not really.
Back then I probably thought I understood what the novel was about because I knew enough to not mistake the monster for Frankenstein. This is something that drives the literary world crazy every single Halloween.
I think part of the reason the story went over my head back then was because I simply didn’t understand the references Mary Shelley. In the article, The Monster Reads Milton: Paradise Lost, W.M. Moek identifies three of those references. After the monster learns to read, he picks up three very timely books and learns something distinct from each one:
On reading the popular novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe, the Creature feels sympathy for the anguish of the young lover. Plutarch’s classic Lives, a compendium of biographies, teaches the Creature the difference between virtue and vice in the rulers of antiquity. But the Creature’s reaction to reading Paradise Lost is most profound.
“It moved every feeling of wonder and awe, that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting,” the Creature reflects. The epic poem causes him to reflect bitterly on the differences between himself and Adam, who “had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous,” while he himself was “wretched, helpless, and alone.” Satan, the Creature realizes, was “the fitter emblem of my condition.”
Like I was saying, these references went over my head in high school. I had never laid eyes on Paradise Lost or anything Milton wrote before college. While in college, I sat under the tutelage of Grant Horner, a man who has dedicated a great deal of his intellectual real estate to studying him. I took his seminar on Milton my sophomore year and sat in on it every Spring after that. And while I enjoy contemporary literature more than anything pre-1800s, there is a special place in my heart and mind for Milton.
When my son was born, I read him 100 lines from Paradise Lost everyday. The new life created through me made me want to crawl inside the mind of God to understand his design in creating mankind. This is the journey Milton invites his reader to take. I imagine this is precisely where Mary Shelley’s mind went when she thought about her protagonist creating new life.
When I reread Frankenstein two years ago, I was completely blown away by the direct ties to Paradise Lost. The monster compares himself to and deeply identifies with Adam.
Adam and the Creature have a great deal in common. The monster starts out benevolent and good and only turns evil after experiencing the maliciousness of others. Adam, similarly, starts out good and lives in a perfect, idyllic environment before falling out of harmony with his creator.
Adam and Eve were the first of their kind, created in a world they understood very little about. Sure it was perfect, but they still had to learn. The Creature, too, was the first of his kind and had to learn how to navigate the world. What I find interesting is that the references to these literary works are not mere allusions the text mentions in passing. After learning to read, the Creature actually reads Paradise Lost in the novel. He experiences the literature and has empathy for Adam. He years for Eve.
Before Adam falls out of harmony with God, God decides man is not fit to be alone and creates a companion in the form of Eve. Victor cannot bring himself to grant this one wish to the Creature he creates. The creature retaliates by murdering everyone important to Victor.
We see a radical difference between the kindness of God in providing Adam a companion and the ill will of Victor in denying the Creature his soul mate.
Now imagine watching this danced out. The suspense of the music taking you through the emotions of the characters. The quickness of movement designed to persuade you to feel grief, terror, joy, sorrow, and despair.
Ballet is mesmerizing, but the experience left me beside myself because of my love for literature and this novel in particular. I’m actually surprised I felt this way. I love literature for the way language evokes emotion, but dance speaks a language, too. In that regard, I look forward to learning that language.