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Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues


miserable creature alive,” even as he observes the unremitting misery of the London poor – fervently believing that his own intellect makes him feel his suffering more keenly. Worse, his rage at his isolation is transcended only by his obsessive belief that a female companion is the only thing that could save him from a life of despair, and, as Mary humorously points out to the Creature in one of the most compelling scenes of the novel, the mere existence of an eligible female is no guarantee of a successful union: She recoiled at his self-pity. “You put too much upon having a mate. . . . You think that having a female of your own kind will ensure that she will accept you?” Mary laughed. “Wait until you are rejected, for the most trivial of reasons, by one who ought to have been made for you.” Dismay crossed the Creature’s face: “That shall not happen. . . . The female that Victor creates shall find no other mate but me.” “Better you should worry if you are accepted: then you may . . . ask a new question: Which is worse, to be alone, or to be wretchedly mismatched?” (174–75)

ABOVE John Kessel reading at Quail Ridge

Books in Raleigh, NC, 15 Feb. 2018

Later, her concern for the “bride” is not the bride’s potential for destruction, but the fact that she is one more female pawn in a man’s world, a young woman bartered off to a marriage she is created for and cannot refuse. Victor Frankenstein is much the same as he appears in Shelley’s novel: ambitious, brilliant, morose, self-isolating, and sunk in self-pity and guilt. Both he and the Creature, named Adam in this work, are drawn to Mary Bennett, for her curious mind and her lack of squeamishness, and both have a chance at redemption – and a balm for their cosmic, obsessed loneliness – through her. Through her own suffering, she achieves a lasting self-knowledge and broader understanding for herself that she could never have achieved had she stayed with her parents at Longbourne, and she insists that both Victor Frankenstein and Adam consider their own culpability in the tragedies that have beset them; they must come to terms with their own actions instead of mindlessly blaming the other. The author is mesmerizingly true to these familiar characters;



there is not a moment where the reader is jarred by the transition to a union of these unlikely novels. The development of Mary as a bluestocking and a character of tremendous strength and courage, exerting her last strength to save two men determined to destroy each other and themselves, is touching, and feels quite true. Mary, whose life has been blighted by a failed piano performance and a more general failure to fit in with her peers (particularly her charming sisters), rises well above all the constraints and concerns of her polite novel of manners society and emerges as a powerful character, fascinating and clever beyond anything we might have expected, even from the sister of Elizabeth Bennett. Her answer, and Kessel’s, to the problem of our essential isolation is complex, and avoids easy answers. Her sisters’ successful marriages ironically free her from the necessity of a financially expedient marriage of her own and allow her to pursue a more individual and even radical and classless connection to nature and to other human beings. If isolation is an inescapable part of the human condition, so certainly are loss and betrayal, and the latter can often lead to the former, as it does with Victor Frankenstein and his creature. This is the paralysis at the heart of the plot of Dale Bailey’s compelling In the Night Wood, which begins with the suggestion of a picaresque plot: a young boy, Charles Hayden, who has been deprived of his

JOHN KESSEL’s works have been nominated for the Nebula award six times and have won twice. He earned a BA in Physics and English from the University of Rochester and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Kansas. Kessel Is a professor of English at NC State University. See a review of Kessel’s The Moon and the Other in NCLR Online 2018, and an interview in NCLR 2001.

Profile for East Carolina University

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.