Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Frankenstein and False Flowers

"Falsity" poem from the Dartmouth student newspaperOne of the most exciting aspects of our collections is the way that Dartmouth students engage with them to create new ideas within the context of the classroom. On Tuesdays this summer, we will publish posts that were originally written by students in Michael Chaney's Literary History survey course during the Winter 2021 term. Each student essay comparatively examines two poems, one from the Dartmouth student newspaper and the other by a canonical American or British author.

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and the poem “Falsity,” from The Dartmouth’s archives, do not seem to be linked at first glance. Further analysis reveals many thematic similarities between the two texts. I was drawn immediately to the line from the poem: “’Twas an emblem of youth in its earliest hour.” Initially a veneration of youth, the poem turns into a darkly cautionary tale about youth’s betrayal. A young flower is quickly killed by a blighted leaf, just as a young Frankenstein meets his end at the hand of his own blighted creation. The young Frankenstein creates his monster, a pursuit that was fueled by youthful pride and ultimately ends in betrayal.

In the poem, as in the novel, the question of who is doing the betraying is a rather murky one. Does the “sweet blushing” flower deserve the blighted leaf for its pride, or is the leaf itself merely an arbitrary traitor? By the end of Shelley’s novel, the reader certainly feels that Frankenstein deserves punishment for his sinful pride. Throughout much of the novel, Frankenstein feels betrayed by both himself and his creation. The doubling of Frankenstein and the monster mirrors that of the flower and the blighted leaf in the poem: proud beauty marred by something dark and ugly. The flower, which the poet deemed “too pure and too holy to die,” also reminded me of Elizabeth. Frankenstein’s oft-patronizing way of referring to Elizabeth made her seem at times like an inanimate object, with all the agency of a flower. Like the blighted leaf betrays the flower, Frankenstein betrays Elizabeth—over and over again—by lying to her and ultimately leading her to her death.

By denying Elizabeth agency of her own, Shelley created a character whose most relevant act is a passive one—being betrayed by Frankenstein and killed by Frankenstein’s monster. The poem, just like “Frankenstein,” can be viewed as a love story, just as it can be viewed as a doubling. The leaf—“beautiful” at first, but quickly stricken with blight—performs the same function as both Frankenstein’s monster and Elizabeth in the novel. The monster, so miraculous and beautiful at first, quickly becomes a “dæmon”. Elizabeth, lovely and fresh in the beginning of the novel, is aged by the tragedy Frankenstein inflicts upon her. Both serve as doubles— as mirrors—for Frankenstein. “Blight came at last like the hand of the slayer/’Till it sickened untimely and perished with grief,” indeed.

Written by Nicole Sellew '21