Meet Lord Henry Wotton, a living, breathing epigraph machine. If there is something clever and cold to be said in The Picture of Dorian Gray, then Lord Henry will probably say it. He appears to be the surface that Wilde alludes to in the Preface, but there is something a little troubling and problematic about Lord Henry that does not quite fit this theory. Throughout the text, people poke fun at Lord Henry for not practising what he preaches. It is possible that the deep hypocrisy and envy of a particular kind of youth and beauty is at the core of his desire for power and destruction over his fellow man.
Text: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, 1890/1891
Does he survive the novel? Yes
Family: Wife is Victoria Wotton, separated by the end of the novel
In the beginning, we can easily dismiss Lord Henry’s motivation as being curiosity, but as we are drawn deeper into the story it becomes apparent that there is a kind of dark voyeurism and the desire to dominate that governs Lord Henry’s actions. He is determined to exact an inescapable influence over Dorian Gray. But this desire to control is unsustained after he opens the door to Dorian’s corruption and the damage is done he just leaves him to his own devices. As a gothic villain, Lord Henry falls right into the category of the tempter, see also Dracula.
Lord Henry as the Creator
Whilst Victor Frankenstein and Lord Henry are quite dissimilar in nature they both undertake the process of creating a “monster”. Lord Henry talks of scientific experiments on Dorian’s psyche, and his he bombards the young man with dangerous ideas that foster this the corruption of this naive man. He builds the creature that is Dorian Gray by appealing to his vanity and desire for sensation. His tools of creation are indeed sensation and ideas. There is no one to hold Dorian’s hand as he navigates his way through the consequences of his diabolical pact and his debaucherous lifestyle. Sir Henry has created a monster and has then let him roam the world unchecked.
“It is only the sacred things that are worth touching, Dorian,” said Lord Henry, with a strange touch of pathos in his voice. “But why should you be annoyed? I suppose she will belong to you some day. When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”
Disclaimer: Yes, I’m sorry, I called Lord Henry Sir Henry… I’m very very sorry
This is the blog post for our episode Decorative Sex – The Picture of Dorian Gray in which we explore Oscar Wilde’s construction of a unique gothic monster, Mr Dorian Gray. Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has an esteemed place within the gothic literary canon despite the fact that Wilde may have adopted the tropes of the gothic genre as a kind of set dressing similar to the way that Jane Austen uses gothic tropes in order to satirise Mysteries of Udolpho, and ends up accidentally crafting a superior gothic tale in Northanger Abbey.
In a world of dance cards, chaperones and presentations, the sexuality of Victorians were very heavily regulated. Women were not supposed to enjoy sex, and love and marriage were still not quite synonymous. There is a thinly veiled and thriving gay community that was common knowledge but not commonly acknowledged.
It is in this time of formality, etiquette and highlighted class division that Oscar Wilde unleashes the pleasure-seeking missile that is Dorian Gray. The Picture of Dorian Gray bridges the gap between our idea of uptight Victorian society and the seedy underbelly concealed just below the surface. The story was first published in Lippincott’s monthly magazine in 1890, the publisher feared that the story would insight public outrage and 500 words were deleted prior to publication. Despite this censorship, the story offended mainstream Victorian sensibilities and was reprinted in censored, revised and lengthened form in 1891.
For this episode, I read the edited, and by all reports significantly less scandalous, 1891 novel. In the book after a very revealing preface, which I discussed in a mini-episode called “A Quick Word With Mr Wilde” we are introduced to Lord Henry, a voyeuristic, amoral character with a knack for corruption and manipulation and his friend Basil Hallward a sincere and dedicated artist who has become enraptured with a young man called Dorian Gray who has become his muse. Basil does not want to introduce the impressionable Dorian to Lord Henry for fear that he will lead him astray.
Dorian is a Sulky Pain. He is as you might have guessed the protagonist of the piece, but he is very much not our hero. There are however a series of heroes who present themselves and are vanquished during the process of the story. I’m not going to get into too many plot points in this article but surface to say in the end it is Dorian’s own conscience, such as it is, that eventually defeats him, not the series of well-meaning, kind-hearted people who he evades, destroys or ruins during the course of the story.
This seems to have translated into the film, however, the film needs a force of inextinguishable good and in this case, the force of good injected into the story is Emma, Lord Henry Wotton’s daughter. She is a character who just plain doesn’t exist in the novel. Wilde’s story is much more troubling and complex in that Lord Henry, arguably the most corrupting human force outside of Dorian himself is the only pivotal character to survive the story.
Lord Henry is, well, the worst. He is flippant, immoral and entitled. He is the personification of how Oscar Wilde’s beloved aestheticism can go horribly wrong. He cares incredibly little for those around him, instead of pursuing pleasure and vice in any manner that suits him. Dorian is a good looking guy, so Lord Henry Wotton sets upon actively corrupting him. I really Don’t think Wilde meant for Lord Henry to be as deeply objectionable as he is. Like Frankenstein, I think that through the lens of our 21st century thinking these two men come off as privileged and unchecked. While the characters are very different I think they fall victim to the same fate, their author’s simply could not have foreseen how the
In discussing Lord Henry we have to have a chat about the Male Gaze.
The Male Gaze
The male gaze is a thing in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Okay, that is an understatement. The male gaze is THE thing in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is the chief motivation of the vast majority of the characters and the catalyst that spurs on most of the action. Males objectifying males, males objectifying females, the whole novel the fraught with depictions of people beholding others as a spectacle of beauty or ugliness. In the case that anyone is judged by anything other than beauty, it is to dismiss them by means of class judgement or by virtue of poor reputation. The men in the text are unrivalled and unquestioned in their position of power and their ability to be standard bearers by which all others are judged.
Beauty is conflated with morality and innocence, and ugliness is conflated with immorality and degradation. The picture absorbs the ugliness that is presumed would manifest itself on Dorian through the ravages of time and the evilness of his deeds. But even with the supernatural assistance of an enchanted picture, there are still signifiers that Dorian’s pure beauty has been compromised. The signifiers are subtle such as the changing of the adjective for his hair from “golden” in his time of innocence to “yellow” when his virtue has been compromised.
As for Dorian’s acts of cruelty and indulgence, they are somewhat underwhelming to a
modern audience but his vices and scandals, though slightly hidden and coded behind Wilde’s flawless use of metaphor and innuendo, would have been somewhat shocking to Victorian readers. His treatment of Sybil, however, still seems cruel and inhumane to a modern audience. He chastises her for not living up to his unrealistic expectations of her, and rather than being delighted in her love for him, or even a little disappointed in her performance but ultimately unchanged in his affections, he completely tears her down for being distracted by the notion of a future with him. How dare she not be able to act? Dorian shows himself to be an absolute arse. Who cares if she can’t act! He supposedly loves her but she gives one shitty performance and the glass shatters.
The Fate of Sybil Vane
It is, of course, a horrible irony that his false love for her has lead to her perceiving everything that she would leave behind in being with him to be false. He completely upends her life, making him her whole world and then takes that whole world away. He is culpable in her death to the extent that anyone who has exerted emotional cruelty is responsible for the events that they set in motion. His ignorance and self-centeredness is, of course, no excuse, but he does not have a direct hand in her death and it is not until he kills the creator of the painting, Basil Hallward that he becomes an actual murderer.
From the moment Sybil Vane is introduced in the book we are hit with wave after wave of foreshadowing. It becomes pretty clear that this relationship is doomed. Dorian drags his two friends along to one of Sybil’s performances in an attempt to convince Basil and Henry of her genius, which is a hard task as Henry makes it very clear early on that he believes women are quote “a decorative sex”. The direct quote goes
“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.”
To which Dorian cries “Harry How can you?”
And Henry continues
“My dear Dorian, it is quite true. I am analysing women at present, so I ought to know. The subject is not so abstruse as I thought it was. I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured. The plain women are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. Our grandmothers painted in order to try and talk brilliantly. Rouge and esprit used to go together. That is all over now. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. As for conversation, there are only five women in London worth talking to, and two of these can’t be admitted into decent society.”
Poor Sybil meanwhile is telling her brother, James, and her mother how much she loves Dorian who she only knows as prince charming which is a red flag right there. If you are seeing a guy who only wants to be known as prince charming you need to get the fuck out of there. Dorian has changed this 16-year-old girl’s perception of the world so much that she has trouble pulling together the enthusiasm for pretending to fall in love with the balding middle-aged guy playing Romeo, and consequently gives a shitty performance. Dorian is embarrassed and confronts her, basically calling off the arrangement due to her crappy performance which has got to be one of the worst reviews in history.
And Poor Basil. Poor smitten, sappy Basil. He pretty much saw disaster on the horizon but was powerless to stop it. He knew how shitty Lord Henry was, and although he was blind to Dorian’s true nature he certainly saw his potential for corruption.
Is Wilde being funny when he depicts the death of Basil in the 13th chapter or is he being poetic?
I refuse to believe that Wilde was not conscious of this fortuitous coincidence, and it certainly marks the downward spiral upon which Dorian will slowly begin to descend. He begins to lose his grip on reality and starts in motion the events that will lead to his demise at his own hand.
I adore Oscar Wilde and hopefully, I can find a relatively fleshed out adaptation of “The Portrait of Mr W.H.” that we can cover in a later episode as that is one of my absolute favourite of Wilde’s stories. Wilde’s relationship to Victorian masculinity and the almost exclusively homosocial relationships in many of his books is reflective of a life torn between his desire for and love of other men and his feeling of obligation and love for his traditional Victorian family. As a man who dared to defy convention, despite his attempt to avoid direct public scrutiny for his personal life, no sooner did he begin to enjoy the success and acclaim that he deserved, he became a man under siege. The Picture of Dorian Gray was written before Wilde met the man whose family would shepherd in his downfall, Lord Alfred Douglas. The book, however, is seen by many Wilde fans as foreshadowing the relationship between the writer and the young lord. Dorian is young, attractive and, by the end of the book irredeemably corrupted, Lord Alfred Douglas was young, attractive, frequented sex workers and was a little less naive than his partner Wilde. It is Basil’s relationship with Dorian that is his downfall and one could certainly draw parallels between Basil and Wilde, but I think he would like to think he had the quicker wit of Lord Henry.
That young Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie, was the self-absorbed tornado that turned Wilde’s life upside down, or even that he was some sort of diabolical architect of Wilde’s destruction is to potentially oversimplify what is a real human relationship between two people. To paint Wilde as simply an unwitting victim is to do little justice to the author’s intelligence. I think there is one thing most people agree on…
John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry was a nasty piece of work. The originator of the Queensbury rules of boxing, father of the aforementioned Bosie and all around hyper-masculine bastard, he is the one who started making public accusations against Wilde which lead to public scrutiny and the potential destruction of his career. Rather foolishly Wilde sued for libel, and in the process of trying to prove that Queensbury’s accusations of “Gross Indecency” were groundless, he gave the state enough cause to prosecute him. Wilde was given a heads up and it is implied that he was given a chance to flee, but he did not. Much is made of his motives to stay and face the criminal charges that would send him to gaol in 1895. This is not a great rundown of events, have a look at the references for better sources of information.
The Final Passages of The Picture of Dorian Gray
He looked round and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright, and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it.
There was a cry heard, and a crash. The cry was so horrible in its agony that the frightened servants woke and crept out of their rooms. Two gentlemen, who were passing in the square below, stopped and looked up at the great house. They walked on till they met a policeman and brought him back. The man rang the bell several times, but there was no answer. Except for a light in one of the top windows, the house was all dark. After a time, he went away and stood in an adjoining portico and watched.
“Whose house is that, Constable?” asked the elder of the two gentlemen.
“Mr. Dorian Gray’s, sir,” answered the policeman.
They looked at each other, as they walked away, and sneered. One of them was Sir Henry Ashton’s uncle.
Inside, in the servants’ part of the house, the half-clad domestics were talking in low whispers to each other. Old Mrs. Leaf was crying and wringing her hands. Francis was as pale as death.
After about a quarter of an hour, he got the coachman and one of the footmen and crept upstairs. They knocked, but there was no reply. They called out. Everything was still. Finally, after vainly trying to force the door, they got on the roof and dropped down on to the balcony. The windows yielded easily—their bolts were old.
When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.
For more information and much clearer articulation of the intricacies of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the life of Oscar Wilde see the below references:
We try to trace a line from a from our topic to Frankenstein and Gothic literature. This week it’s pretty simple. The gothic preoccupation with death and confronting the gruesome fate of the body after death is explored in a wide variety of texts vampire and zombie fiction explores ideas of the undead, corpses that come back to prey on the living and ghosts and spectres present a more ethereal threat which occurs when the soul or spirit is separated from the physical body at death. Relating our topic to Frankenstein is even simpler; How did Frankenstein get his corpses?
We’re going to talk about body snatchers, grave robbers and the Resurrectionists today. This post will have information from my research, for Courtney’s research I would highly recommend listening to the episode.
Courtney hosts a podcast with her best friend Ashley called The Cult of Domesticity. They explore intriguing, disturbing and entertaining stories of true crime, disaster and history.
Body Snatchers – A 19th-century Origin Story
In the early 1800s, surgery and anatomical study were flourishing. Hundreds of young doctors studied diligently in medical schools, and many I dare say substantially less diligently. Theoretical knowledge of what squidgy bit did what and which bits to cut was all well and good, but what they really `needed to hone their skills was an actual human body to dissect.
Today cadavers are often donors who give their bodies to science. But the people Regency and Victorian England were quite a bit more religious and superstitious. Donations were not forthcoming.
The only legitimate source of cadavers was from the gallows. Criminals sentenced to death would be sent to medical schools as subjects.
This had some drawbacks. For a start, all of the subjects died from the same cause. Second, the bodies had to be dissected very quickly as preservation techniques were pretty much non-existent. Third this influx of cadavers was not nearly enough to keep all the schools supplied.
As tends to happen when something is in high demand and heavily regulated, a black market sprung up to fill the need. Grave Robbers, Body Snatchers, The Resurrectionists, whatever you call them, they began making a tidy profit from digging up fresh graves and selling the cadavers to medical institutions and schools.
The need for fresh cadavers meant that thieves would often hover just out of sight while the funeral was still in progress.
Grieving families started alarming their loved one’s graves, or keeping vigil until the cadaver was useless to the body snatchers.
In summer medical schools undertook fewer dissections because the heat made it harder to store bodies. A fresh cadaver could fetch 8 pounds. In winter the schools conducted way more dissections so demand was higher and you could get 10 pounds a corpse. That is about one thousand American dollars and one thousand and two hundred Australian dollars at the time of recording.
But Robbing Graves was becoming a high-risk venture, and before long people started resorting to other means for obtaining a fresh corpse.
In England The anatomist William Harvey who was famous for discovering the circulatory system dissected his father and sister after their death. The London Burkers killed three boys and attempted to sell them to an anatomist who blew the whistle on them. At least one of the trio claimed to have robbed between 500- 1000 graves.
And in Edinburgh Scotland Burke and Hare had a system.
Scotland’s Fresh Cadaver Delivery Service
It all started in 1827 when a lodger called Donald died in the boarding house Hare ran. Having heard there was money to be made in selling fresh corpses they brought the guy from upstairs to a guy called Doctor Robert Knox who needed a supply of bodies for his anatomy lectures. Hare rationalized this by reminding himself and Burke that Donald owed him four pounds in unpaid rent.
Knox paid them seven pounds and 10 shillings. This was no small amount. And bolstered by the windfall they went back to their jobs.
When another lodger called Joseph contracted some sort of fever Hare became concerned she might deter lodgers.
So he called over his mate burke and they suffocated him with a pillow and sold his body to Knox.
The next victim is an unnamed Englishman selling tinder and matches who fell ill with jaundice while staying at the boarding house.
They developed a new method that they would use for most of the subsequent victims. Hare smothered the man’s face with his hand and Burke lay on top of him to prevent him from moving and flailing around noisily. Again Hare said he did it, for the good of this business…. Because you know the non-contagious condition of jaundice might scare away customers. In no way was it motivated by the 10 pounds they got for from Knox.
Abigail Simpson possibly next, accounts differ. She was a pensioner, who also sold salt and was travelling from the village of Gilmerton. They got her drunk and shoved her in a tea chest and sold her to Knox.
Maybe a month later Hare’s wife lured in an old lady and got her so drunk she passed out, Hare then covered her mouth and nose with a mattress cover and left her to slowly suffocate. Again Knox took the body, no questions asked.
It was then Burke’s turn to lure Janet Brown and Mary Paterson with alcohol. They went on a bender together, eventually ending up at Burke’s brother’s house. His Brother went to work and Mary Paterson passed out. That left Janet Brown and Burke up talking when Burke’s girlfriend Helen McDougal burst in accusing Burke of cheating on her. Both women left, angry with Burke leaving Mary Paterson passed out. Alone.
Her friend Janet would later be told she ran off to Glasgow with a salesman.
Burke rushed out and grabbed his buddy, Hare. They went back to the house, Mary was still asleep. They suffocated her, and shoved her in the same tea chest as Abigail Simpson, selling her to Knox and keeping her petticoats for Helen, Burke’s girlfriend.
Knox was delighted as the corpse was still warm.
People were going missing, and their relatives began to look for them. Mrs Haldane, who was smothered in an intoxicated slumber, had a daughter possibly called Peggy who came looking for her.
Burke listened to her story and they got talking., talking turned to drinking. Burke killed her without assistance for the first time, then shoved her in the tea chest and collected his 8 pounds.
There are 16 murders in total to get through. Including a range of unnamed intoxicated lodgers, a homeless salvager called Effy and even a visiting relative of Helen’s called Ann.
The tea chest got a lot of use and all the while Dr. Knox is not bothered by any of this.
At this point, Hare’s wife Margaret Hare suggests to her husband that they should kill Helen because she was “Scotch”. The Hares and Burke were Irish. Thankfully he refused.
Their second last victim was unfortunately known as Daft Jimmy. Daft Jimmy preferred snuff to alcohol. So their usual trick just didn’t work. He fought back. But the murderers prevailed.
However, Daft Jimmy was a familiar face on the streets of London, and Knox’s students recognised him at the initial inspection. So Knox presented Jimmy’s cadaver headless and without feet.
Other lodgers made the final murder very difficult for Burke and Hare.
The murder of Michelle Doherty was supposed to take place at the Broggan boarding house. Trusting a fellow person from Ireland she drank with the Hares. Everything went wrong. Fellow lodgers, Ann and James Gray, were so obstructive that they paid for them to stay at Hare’s lodging house. The Gray’s were witnesses to the drinking party and the next morning they came back and discovered the body in a pile of straw.
The police were called.
The two were arrested.
Hare turned state’s witness and after the trial, he disappeared into the night. Margaret also turns states evidence
Helen and Margaret upon their separate releases were chased by mobs… I cannot believe Margaret and William Hare got off pretty much scot-free3.
Knox the doctor who …totally knew what was going on was found entirely without fault which was crazy, and that was because Burke said Knox knew nothing about it.
“docter Knox never incoreged him neither taught or incoregd him to murder any person”.
William Burke was found guilty sentenced to death and was hanged on the 28th of January 1829 in front of a crowd of over 20,000 people.
His body was sent for public dissection and students fought for tickets.
Professor Monro lead the dissection and dramatically dipped a quill in Burke’s blood
and wrote “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head”
His death mask and a book supposedly bound with HIS TANNED SKIN are on display in the Surgeon’s Hall museum…
His skeleton on display at Edinburgh Medical School.
So that’s the story of William Burke and William Hare.
Up the close and doon the stair, But and ben’ wi’ Burke and Hare. Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox the boy that buys the beef. — 19th century Edinburgh rhyme
Thank you to Courtney from Cult of Domesticity for joining me and contributing so much to the conversation!
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.
Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable
mannerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
This gorgeous epigraph at the beginning of The Picture of Dorian Gray might be my favourite part of the whole book. It performs the same function as the modern day disclaimer that we are all so familiar with. This is Wilde getting in the first and hopefully the last word in a hypothetical debate with his contemporary literary critics. Wilde’s work was not by any means universally popular. In fact, there were several critics who took particular delight in eviscerating his works. The mere cheek and eloquence of this epigraph make it one of the most endearing defences of aestheticism in literary history.
Wilde today is acknowledged as being one of the most influential writers of the aestheticism movement that advocated art for art’s sake. Art that does not provide us with commentary or allegory, art that is just beautiful and enjoyable.
This epigraph dares critics to find fault with the narrative that follows, because if they do they will be guilty of the flaws they see in the text.
In summary, fuck you. It’s art and if you don’t like it then that’s your problem.
Calling literary criticism autobiography certainly has its merits for there are as many readings of a text as there a readers. We, as readers, bring the full scope of our life experience along for the ride when we read a book.
The small child sees a lady who is sad and lonely, who gets to go to a party, and, through a series of intervening events isn’t lonely or sad anymore.
As we grow up our understanding of the book changes, it becomes more complex and potentially, as in my case, less uplifting and more problematic. And very discriminatory against people with large feet.
So too does our understanding of more complex gothic stories like the tale of Dorian Gray.
There is no one right way to understand The Picture of Dorian Gray.
And now it is confession time…
This is a poorly worded epigraph or preface to a conversation I would like to have in the future, a conversation that Wilde may have hated.
Can The Picture of Dorian Gray be read as an allegorical cautionary tale?
A tale about the hubris of man wanting to interfere with nature?
This is the accompanying article for another one of those solo FrankenPod’s that I do to fill the gaping void in the main episodes. In this, we continue an exploration of Mary Shelley’s Gothic Masterpiece, Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus.
In this episode, I am going to introduce the myth of Prometheus as it is so critical to Frankenstein or the modern day Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Many of you who are familiar with the myth may have found it the same way as I did in those very dense omnibuses for children that retold stories of myth and legend. In the spirit of childlike wonder and sheer bald-faced laziness, I was going to retell the story of Prometheus the same way I first read it, in a 1920s children’s adaption very similar to the kind I used to read at my Nanna and Grandpa’s house when I was a kid. But I hadn’t anticipated how woefully inaccurate this retelling would be. So instead I’m going to attempt to break the myth down myself. Please bear in mind I’m no Jason from The Myths and Legends Podcast so this could be pretty rough going.
Also, I opted for modern rather than Ancient history in high school so I could tell you about the role of propaganda in world war 2… but I had to double check whether Zeus or Jupiter was the Greek one.
Like I said this could be rough.
Post-Olympian-Titan Kerfuffle Landscape
The creation of the universe had been rough and the war between the Olympian gods and the Titans had been a pretty messy affair resulting in the Titans being imprisoned on Tartarus.
Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus were two Titans who had been spared imprisonment as they did not get involved in the war. In fact, later versions of the myth have Prometheus engaged in a kind of espionage against the Titans, securing Zeus’s victory.
Zeus was an arsehole. A horny, narcissistic arsehole, who rapes women and other female creatures throughout Greek mythology. When it comes to Greek mythology he is the worst. But he was also the King of the Gods so everyone was supposed to head his every whim.
It’s Good to Have a Hobby
Prometheus may have done Zeus a solid but he was far from being just another Olympian servant towing the line of the Gods. Prometheus was a Titan. And he had a project. Pottery. Well kind of. Prometheus is credited with fashioning mankind out of clay. Some myths say it was him, some say it was a collaborative effort between the Gods.
Whoever made humankind there they stood. And Prometheus and Epimetheus set about attributing evolutionary edges to the animals of the earth. Leopards were given speed, tortoises were given shells and if the Greeks had ever seen a Platypus they would have attributed their poisonous barbs as a gift of Epimetheus and Prometheus. But when it came to mankind there was nothing left. Prometheus was sure that without a gift mankind would be eaten the first time they strayed too close to the forest or went for an ill-advised paddle in the shark and jellyfish infested water.
So Prometheus fashioned himself a torch or picked a stalk of fennel (sources vary) and stole fire from Zeus’s lightning. He gave fire to mankind and viola instant civilization. Zeus WAS NOT HAPPY. Fire was for the gods, not Prometheus’s night school pottery project. He was pissed. But not as pissed as he would be when Prometheus told mankind to stop giving the best meat and crops they had as a sacrifice to the gods.
Prometheus was like “guys you are getting a little carried away. Giving thanks to the gods is great but uh, not dying of starvation is better.”
And they took Prometheus’s advice and offered up offal wrapped in something more appetizing to trick the gods.
You Mad Bro?
In an act of extreme overreaction, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock and gave him a liver that would continually replenish, so that every day, for eternity a vulture could come and feast on the liver. Inflicting tremendous pain on the titan that he would have to bear as punishment. All for helping humans lead a less shitty existence.
But Zeus wasn’t done
He then decided that two can play at this pottery game and decides to create a woman, the idea being she would ruin everything. Yes, Zeus is the definition of the fucking Patriarchy. Anyway, this lady he fashioned from the earth was called Pandora. It’s pretty widely thought that she was an unwitting participant in Zeus’s shitty plan.
Zeus in the grand tradition of treating women as property gives Pandora to Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother as a bride.
Epimetheus seems to be more than fine with this and nowhere near as suspicious of Zeus as he should be. Because as I said. Zeus is the worst.
Pandora didn’t really have any belongings with her when she arrived at Epimetheus’s place. Except for this inconspicuous jar that she is told not to open. And like a button that says do not push or a piece of fruit that a god says do not eat, temptation eventually gets the better of her and she opens the jar. Out of the jar explodes all the sorrows of the world, that mysteriously, had not existed until this point. And after all those misfortunes floated away to plague mankind, all that was left in the jar to console mankind was Hope.
Linking Prometheus to Victor
And that is very basically the story of Prometheus. He may or may not get rescued by Hercules or reconcile with Zeus later but that is not particularly important to the story.
What is important is that both Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein are architects of creation that results in a creature that is an affront to one deity or another.
Both creature and creator suffer.
Although I would argue that Prometheus is far more compassionate towards mankind than Victor is towards his creature. But I suppose Prometheus was a Titan and Victor was just a mortal human Doctor.
What I find particularly interesting is that Mary Shelley has used a story in which the god in question is entirely unsympathetic and entirely culpable in the suffering of the creature and its creator. Interesting when we consider that Mary’s partner Percy Shelley was kicked out of at least one university for highly controversial atheist beliefs, beliefs which were antithetical to respectable English society at the time, but was an exciting point of discussion in the literary circles that both Mary and Percy ran in.
Hopefully next week we will release a little something about Mary Shelley.
This is our pilot episode in which Brent and I stumble through the disparate plot points of the 1818 gothic novel Frankenstein or the Modern day Prometheus by Mary Shelley and the 1931 movie Frankenstein directed by James Whale and adapted by James L. Balderston.
The differences between the novel and the movie are so numerous that listing them in detail would take forever.
But here are the 10 most notable differences we touched on in our podcast.
10 Differences Between the Book and the Movie of Frankenstein
1. Victor vs. Henry
The 1931 movie changes the name of Doctor Frankenstein from Victor to Henry. Maybe in an effort to make him more appealing? They take other steps to redeem the mad scientist, Fritz, for example, is the manifestation of some of the traits that don’t make the transition from the Victor of the book to Henry of the film. Because he is animating his creature somewhat in the open in the film he doesn’t need to be as duplicitous as he is in the novel. He also doesn’t sully his hands with a lot of the more gruesome aspects of the creation of his creature and is thus, more acceptable, maybe?
He is, of course, still an awful human being.
2. The Creature vs. The Monster
The movie denies the Creature a voice and denies his the ability to be perceived as an innocent. Whilst the Creature of the novel is depicted sympathetically, with the capacity to learn and love, the Monster of the film still shows some of that potential but as he has no voice and basically no time to develop in any way. The space and time afforded to the creature through his solitude is key to the relatability of Frankenstein’s creation in Shelley’s novel. But James Whale didn’t have the luxury of a whole novel to develop his Monster’s character, but you can see the humanity of Boris Karloff’s bumbling creature in his confusion, fear and desire to understand and explore the world around him.
3. The Fritz Situation
Fritz is the vehicle for all that is distasteful in the creation process. His absence in the novel means that Victor is reliant on his own resources. He also has a bitter and morose internal monologue that would have not translated to screen. An assistant allows him to neatly offload scientific exposition, with the added feature that Fritz is a dislikeable low stakes person for the monster’s first kill.
4. Bad Brains
The movie gives us the brain mix up as an easy out to the dilemma that Shelley sets up… to what extent does Frankenstein harbour responsibility for his creatures actions, and to what extent are the frightened humans of the story culpable for what the creature becomes? If we are to believe that a criminal brain is only capable of criminality as posited by Doctor Waldman then surely the monster was only capable of dangerous or criminal behaviour. In one neat action, Fritz dropping the brain gives us a scapegoat and an excuse for dispatching a creature that is problematic.
Elizabeth still has a limited presence in the film, in the novel she is both an object to be desired and a person Victor can project his mother issues onto. In the movie, however, she is denied even that level of depth. Although Frankenstein does seem to value her more highly than his friend (Victor in the film, Henry in the novel) which is more than I can say for Victor’s respect for her in the novel. Mary Shelley is not unsympathetic to Elizabeth, she advocates for the innocent Justine, despite how deeply affected she is by William’s death. She is loyal, compassionate, intelligent and courageous, all of which seems to be lost on Victor.
6. The Crimes of the Creature
It takes the creature months to kill someone and a lot of awful things have happened to him, pushing him to the edge. The movie has the Creature killing Fritz within the first day of his existence, then Dr Waldman and then little Maria (the girl whose dad left her by the lake with a cat that is very clearly dead as her companion. There is also a slew of violent attacks including his weird predatory attack on Elizabeth and culminating in his attempt destroy his creator. He is painted as violent, but that violence springs from fear rather than hatred. The novel has the space to complicate and problematize the Creature’s crimes further. His first crime is arson as he attempts to gain some impotent vengeance on the DeLacy family who rejected him, this is the point at which the Creature snaps. From here on he carries out the brutal murder of little William Frankenstein, frames the unfortunate and noble Justine and fixates on bringing about a kind of exquisite suffering on Victor. There is a moment of hope, in which the Creature reaches out to Victor to end his isolation and lessen his suffering. He asks for a companion, why he thinks that introducing another creature to the level of suffering he experiences seems like a reasonable thing to him is one of the most unreasonable and illogical expectations the Creature has. But the destruction of his bride breaks this fraught truce and the Creature then kills those closest to Victor, his best friend Henry and his wife Elizabeth. This is his final crime, although Victor will attempt to blame the death of his father and his own suffering through the subsequent chase on the Creature.
7. The Missing Letters
The very effective framing narrative of Walton’s expedition, which sets the tone for the entire novel, is entirely missing from the movie. We come to the movie with only a few minutes of introduction from an announcer giving a monologue or prologue warning of the horror that is about to ensue. This change in framing redirects our attention somewhat away from the ethical dilemma of creation at play and onto the monstrosity of the creature itself. Walton’s doomed expedition primes us for Victor’s obsession, without this framing narrative the focus can be shifted slightly away from the dangerous ambition and self-centred hubris. That is to say that without Walton spend more time beholding the monstrous spectacle of the creature, than the monstrous spectacle of his creator.
8. The Outcome
In the movie, the audience can rest safely knowing that the town and the doctor are safe and that he might have learnt his lesson. The creature appears to be dead and everything seems to be tied up in a neat little bow. Shelley, on the other hand, leaves us with a tragic end. Everyone is dead, doomed or miserable. Walton’s men may get out of the icy wastelands alive but that is as close to a happy ending as we get. The creature remains alive but has no desire to stay that way.
9. The Swiss Landscape
The Switzerland of the film is villages, lakes and windmills. But the novel is able to give us a more complex look at the Swiss landscapes and their surrounds with the Creature and Victor undertaking vast treks, depicted through sweeping descriptive romantic prose. The Swiss are depicted as a noble society in the novel, but unfortunately, the movie only deals in villager stereotypes and class-based stereotypes.
10. The Moral of the Story
If I was to grossly simplify the message of each text into an easy to digest statement it would probably go thus:
The movie: Creation is dangerous, entities can be born evil and it takes a village and a hero to bring down a monster.
The novel: The cruelty and ambition of man are inherently dangerous and should not be left unchecked.
Shelley Wollstonecraft, Mary. “Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.”
Before our podcast release next week I thought it might be a good idea to have a bit of a chat about Gothic literature and what exactly that entails. I am not assuming that everyone knows or doesn’t know about the gothic genre and this certainly won’t be a deep dive because I am simply not qualified. This is just to define the parameters of the initial genre we will be focusing on with Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
First up we need to acknowledge that the gothic genre is super problematic. There are stories that give a strong voice to people of all shapes, sizes, gender identifications, sexual orientations and nationalities but this progressiveness is a pretty recent development. Gothic literature can be racist, homophobic and is frequently classist and misogynist. Whilst we could dismiss these issues as being products of the time in which they were written I think it is important that we are aware of the problems in the things we love and to acknowledge them. The only way we can move forward is to understand the issues of our past. Frankenstein is classist, misogynistic and racist. It is my favourite novel of all time, but I completely acknowledge it’s flawed.
Let’s get into my barebones overview of Gothic Literature.
Particularly popular in the 18th and 19th century, Gothic literature typically draws on a spectre of evil
from the distant past that threatens to reach forward and destroy the present. Bram Stoker creates a particularly threatening creature who oozes ancient evil in Dracula. With vampire myths existing in every culture, some tied to the bible, some tied to ancient Egyptian mythology Bram Stoker had a wealth of ancient evil to draw from. His Count is descended from Attila the Hun and himself is a spectre of ancient or at the very least medieval evil, being virtually immortal. He has been around for centuries, but in Stoker’s narrative, he ventures into Victorian industrialised society to act all creepy around the ladies of London.
The Corruption of the Innocent
The predatory sexuality of Dracula is one of the most blatant examples of the corruption of the innocent, a trope that is revived again and again. He preys on young vulnerable and virginal women in the same way that monsters of his kind will again and again in the novels we cover. But the innocent does not have to be a young virginal woman. The good Doctor Jekyll is corrupted in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the innocent Dorian is corrupted by his own vanity, Sir Henry and a supernatural lack of accountability, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is usually a girl or a woman who gets shortchanged. Even in contemporary gothic tales, the innocent vs. the beast is trotted out regularly, look at Buffy and Twin Peaks. I promise this will not become a Twin Peaks podcast but that won’t be the last reference to the series.
Locked Doors and Secret Passageways
Often gothic literature features mysterious castles, decrepit houses or monasteries. Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) is commonly cited as the first gothic novel, which is a whole ridiculous story that we will get to in another episode. The Castle of Otranto has a lot of the features that would come to be prevalent in the gothic novels that would come after it; an old castle, a family curse, the corruption of the innocent, the supernatural and the sublime.
The Other Goths
The word Goth does allude to a mysterious Scandinavian people who come into the verifiable historical record suddenly in the first century A.D. and this part of the story I am horrifically underqualified to talk about, even more than everything else I have been talking about. If you know a lot about the Goths, the Visigoths or the Ostrogoths please get in touch. Absolutely willing to revisit this! All I know is that as a teenage goth it was a source of very real and deep disappointment that the goths were not pale skinned eyeliner wearing robed people with black hair lounging about nonchalantly waiting for The Cure to be formed.
The Gothic became a pejorative term that was used to dismiss architecture as ugly or barbaric which is a little harsh not to mention more than a touch racist. I also know basically nothing about this aspect of the gothic so again… if you know your way around gothic architecture please get in touch. Gothic literature has a lot more to do with the emergence of the goth subculture as we know it today than the Germanic Goths and gothic architecture.
This architectural notion of the terrible, dramatic and brutal has carried over into the gothic as it pertains to literature. With gothic plots being frequently brutal and dramatic in their content. Gothic literature also blurs the lines between the natural and the supernatural.
The Indefinable Threat
The gothic does not require a ghost or a ghoul but needs an analogous threat. In fact, some of the most ambiguously supernatural gothic novels are the most troubling. Oscar Wilde’s protagonist does not have to wrestle with a literal physical monster, but with his own bargain with a malevolent force and we never conclusively find out if the governess of Henry James’ Turn of The Screw (1898) is actually experiencing a haunting or a psychotic break.
Stemming from the romantic supernatural gothic novel is the detective novel which dabbles in the macabre and the mysterious. These stories might start with a supernatural interpretation, as in the Sherlock Holmes novels, and a shown by the genius detective to be wholly natural, however improbable. The blurring of the gothic and the detective novel is particularly prevalent in The Hound of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which we get an appearance of the moors which feature so heavily in gothic fiction, they are like naturally occurring labyrinthine castles full of mystery and unpleasant surprises.
The gothic film genre is closely tied to horror as it often features a lot of evil, death and destruction, however, it is also closely tied to the genre of period drama as the movies that draw inspiration from the classic gothic novel often keep their narratives within the same time and space as the original narrative. Most of the films we will focus on will have a Victorian or Vintage flavour, but the neo-gothic and gothic noir film has moved the gothic movie into the city and the modern world so there is a rich vein, no pun intended of material to work with.
So what makes Frankenstein gothic?
Well aside from the cliché that it happened on a dark and stormy night. Victor Frankenstein is beholden to a deep ancient desire to create life from whole cloth. The Doctor’s drive to emulate god has a lineage tracing back to ancient Greece. Mary Shelley even renders the curse of the doctor explicit in the title of the novel Frankenstein, or the modern-day Prometheus. The Prometheus myth is a huge thing to unpack so I might have to do that another time. The creature of the novel is not born of God, so while he is a creature of science and consequently science fiction he is also a supernatural innocent that seeks to find his way in the world. There is the corruption of the innocent, death and the fall of a great noble family.
So what do you ideally need for a gothic novel or film? Not all novels will have all these but these are the factors to look out for…
The Gothic Text Wish List
□ A Haunting
□ A Curse
□ A Challenge to the conventional
□ An Artefact imbued with magic or supernatural properties
□ The Corruption of the innocent
□ Creepy architecture
□ Preferably a labyrinth of some kind
□ And an Ancient Evil
*Bats and ambiguous shadows optional
I’ll see you next week with Brent to compare the 1931 movie Frankenstein and the 1818 novel in which we officially apply the concepts of galvanism to the unsuspecting creature that is our podcast.
How could this possibly go wrong?
You can watch the fall out from this act of hubris in real time @thefrankenpod on twitter and thefrankenpod.wordpress.com has all the resources I was diligent enough to include.
In the meantime hit up Project Gutenberg and Librivox for a free copy of Frankenstein and any other gothic tales in the public domain.
Smith, Andrew. Gothic literature. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
My copy of many gothic texts discussed are drawn from:“A Gothic Treasury of the Supernatural: The Castle of Otranto; Frankenstein: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Dracula; The Turn of the Screw” 1981
The feature image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 17 August 2008, 12:59 by Yuriybrisk. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.