This essay will analyse Bride of Frankenstein (dir. Whale, 1935) using the theoretical framework of Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2004). Booker theorises that “there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling.” (2004, fourth cover). These include, ‘Overcoming the Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Voyage and Return’, ‘Comedy’, ‘Tragedy’, and ‘Rebirth’. Judging merely from the titles, the first theme to stand out as applying to a tale of profane scientists, unnaturally forcing into being creatures rifled together from human cadavers, would be ‘Overcoming the Monster’. This plot consists of a hero setting out to defeat a monster who threatens him and his community; a plot which Booker applies to the original novel, Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818). In actuality, as this essay will prove, Bride is a dual tale, one of ‘Rebirth’ for the tormented scientist, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), and ‘Tragedy’ for the ostensibly grotesque Monster (Boris Karloff). However, as we will discover, the tale verges very close to tragedy for both characters. Furthermore, in addition to the simple assumption that Bride would be a tale of ‘Overcoming the Monster’, this essay will show that some plots are not always easily distinguishable and that just one incident can make a significant difference.
At the outset of the film, Henry is brought home to recuperate after his near-death encounter with the Monster in Bride’s forerunner, Frankenstein (dir. Whale, 1931). With the Monster seemingly defeated, all seems well. That is until our “young hero falls under the shadow of the dark power” (Booker, 2004, pp.204). This is the first stage of the ‘Rebirth’ plot. The dark power is “personified in a mysterious, malevolent figure” (Booker, 2004, pp.205). In this case, it takes the form of Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), a former teacher of Henry’s, who hearing of his successful experiments with the creation of life, has come to persuade him to continue them with his assistance. The dialogue and mise-en-scene immediately establish Pretorius as this mysterious personification of malevolence. Henry’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), has a premonition of death coming for Henry, in which she utters:
“A strange apparition has seemed to appear in the room. It comes, a figure like death, and each time it comes more clearly – nearer. It seems to be reaching out for you, as if it would take you away from me.”
As Elizabeth falls into a fit of delirium, a portentous knocking is heard at the door. It is answered, and Pretorius makes his appearance. His skeletal frame, draped in a black cape, is cast in shadow, presenting him as the embodiment of evil. Pretorius tempts Henry to continue his experiments. However, it is not through some magical spell or enchantment that he wields his power over him, but through encouraging the sinful desire that is clearly still within him. It is evident that Henry’s desire to play God still burns within him, as even before Pretorius’ arrival, he arrogantly declares to Elizabeth, “It may be that I’m intended to know the secret of life. It may be part of the divine plan.” Pretorius is presented as Henry’s dark side, “the dark power represented as something springing entirely from within the hero’s own personality” (Booker, 2004, pp.205), but for the time being, Henry is able to resist temptation. It is at this point we join the Monster’s story.
After escaping the burning windmill, in which he was ensnared at the climax of Frankenstein, the Monster flees through the countryside. Here begins the first stage of the ‘Tragedy’ plot.
“1. Anticipation Stage: the hero is in some way incomplete or unfulfilled and his thoughts are turned towards the future in hope of some unusual gratification. Some object of desire or course of action presents itself, and his energies have found a focus.” (Booker, 2004, pp.156).
After being rejected by Henry, his father and creator, and hounded by the fearful villagers, brandishing their burning torches, the lonely Monster’s one desire is friendship. Ebert validates this conclusion, describing him as “an outcast yearning for friendship.” (1999). The Monster’s goal becomes clear as he comes across the object of desire that gives his energies focus; a Shepherdess (Anne Darling), tending her flock by a waterfall. He hesitantly offers out his hand in friendship, but revolted by his appearance, she screams in terror and tumbles into the pool below. The valiant Monster dives in and rescues and revives her. However, upon waking, she again screams in terror, attracting two passing hunters, who shoot and injure the Monster, and he again must flee. It is in the ‘Anticipation Stage’ that the Monster’s fatal flaw is revealed.
“The fatal flaw in the tragic hero is that deficiency in their character or awareness which prevents them from ‘reaching the goal’. In other words, the very nature of the ‘fatal flaw’ in these central figures of tragedy is that it is something which renders them unable to ‘succeed'” (Booker, 2004, pp.329-330).
The Monster’s story subverts the use of the fatal flaw, which is usually presented as a destructive ‘selfish’ desire within the protagonist such as that for power or wealth. The Monster’s lack of awareness of how he is perceived leads him to continue on his hopeless quest for friendship, but it is not his inadequate character that renders him unable to succeed, it is the world in which he inhabits and the prejudice of its inhabitants who are unable to see beyond his deformity. With the Monster’s story employing this subversion, at this point, Henry’s story more closely resembles the average ‘Tragedy’ plot. He possesses a more typical fatal flaw, as although he tries to resist temptation, his desire to create life is apparent. Furthermore, as was established in Frankenstein with his mistreatment and rejection of the Monster, it is not the noble motivations of a loving parent that drive him to create life, he pursues his goal for power. This is made clear with his initial lines of dialogue:
“I dreamed of being the first to give to the world the secret that God is so jealous of. The formula for life. Think of the power to create a man. And I did. I did it! I created a man. And who knows, in time, I could have trained him to do my will. I could have bred a race. I might even have found the secret of eternal life.”
At the outset of the film, Henry seems to be in the ‘Anticipation Stage’ of the ‘Tragedy’ plot. Clearly thinking his experiments have yet to reach their full potential, he is a man unfulfilled. A course of action presents itself when Pretorius offers him the opportunity to make a mate for the Monster and realise his dream of creating “a man-made race upon the earth”, and it seems he has found his focus.
We see for both Henry and the Monster reluctance in accepting their ‘Call’ to adventure and seeking their goal. Booker terms this struggle within the protagonist, the ‘Divided Self’, an aspect of the protagonist that often separates tragedy from other plots. The Monster, wary of how he has been abused in the past, is reluctant in approaching potential friends. While Henry, trapped in his state of turmoil, attempts to resist the temptation to defy God, uttering lines such as, “I’ve been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life. Perhaps death is sacred, and I’ve profaned it.” This leaves us in doubt as to whether either should accept the ‘Call’ or as Booker renames it, the ‘Temptation’, with Booker describing the reason as being:
“because of the peculiar way in which the summons to action is directed at one particular aspect of the hero’s personality. We have already become aware that there is one part of them, one desire, one appetite, which is nagging at them to the point where the urge to gratify it is building up into an overwhelming obsession.” (2004, pp.173).
Examining this obsession further, he goes on to state:
“in every instance we are aware that what their obsession is drawing them into is something which violates and defies some prohibition or law or convention or duty or commitment or standard of normality. They are being tempted into stepping outside the bounds which circumscribe them. And it is this sense of constriction from which the Temptation seems to offer the promise of almost unimaginably exhilarating release.” (2004, pp.174).
This convention violating obsession is clearly seen in both Henry and the Monster. The Monster, seeking friendship, wishes to step outside the bounds of society’s prejudice and be treated as an equal. While Henry, seeking power, wishes to step outside the bounds of natural law, by defying God and creating life.
Returning to the Monster’s story, attracted by the sound of beautiful violin music, he enters the cabin of an old blind Hermit (O. P. Heggie). Here begins the second stage of the ‘Tragedy’ plot.
“2. Dream Stage: he becomes in some way committed to his course of action and for a while things go almost improbably well for the hero. He is winning the gratification he had dreamed of, and seems to be ‘getting away with it’.” (Booker, 2004, pp.156).
The blind Hermit, able to see beyond appearances, welcomes the Monster in. He declares, “We shall be friends. I have prayed many times for God to send me a friend”, and as he comforts the Monster and tends his wounds, they are both brought to tears. It seems the Monster has achieved his goal as things start to go improbably well for him as he enters an extended period of domestic bliss with the caring Hermit. The Hermit teaches him the joys of life, as they indulge in food, wine, and cigars. He also teaches him to speak, and he is able to verbalise his feelings, declaring, “Alone, bad. Friend, good.” However, the ill-fated Monster has been gifted happiness only for it to be torn away, and his tragedy evolves as he enters the third stage of his story.
“3. Frustration stage: almost imperceptibly things begin to go wrong. The hero cannot find a point of rest. He begins to experience a sense of frustration, and in order to secure his position may feel compelled to further ‘dark acts’ which lock him into his course of action even more irrevocably. A ‘shadow figure’ may appear at this point, seeming in some obscure way to threaten him.” (Booker, 2004, pp.156).
Things go wrong as two hunters happen upon the Hermit’s cabin and attempt to shoot the Monster. In the confusion, the Monster accidentally knocks a broom onto the fire, and the cabin goes up in flames. The Hermit is led away by the hunters, and the bemused Monster flees the cabin, again entering into the wilderness, calling out for his lost friend. Entering a graveyard, the frustrated Monster topples trees and knocks down a statue, revealing a tunnel, allowing him to take refuge in the crypts below. It is at this point we see the re-emergence of the shadowy figure of Doctor Pretorius, who is within the crypts, robbing graves. Taking advantage of the Monster’s frustrated state, he tempts him with the offer of a friend, to be built for him if he enters into his service. Disillusioned with the way the world has treated him, the Monster agrees and is now irrevocably locked into his single-minded pursuit of friendship.
Returning to Henry, he and Elizabeth are now married and preparing to leave for their honeymoon. Pretorius returns to tempt Henry to assist with his experiments, but the happy couple stands defiantly against him, with Henry, seemingly broken from the temptation of his dark side, confidently declaring, “I won’t do it”. This is the second stage of the ‘Rebirth’ plot, in which “for a while, all may seem to go reasonably well, the threat may even seem to have receded” (Booker, 2004, pp.204). We then enter the third stage of the ‘Rebirth’ plot: “but eventually it (the threat) approaches again in full force, until the hero is seen imprisoned in the state of living death” (Booker, 2004, pp.204). The threat to Henry is more deadly and powerful than ever, as with the strength of the Monster behind him, Pretorius kidnaps and imprisons Elizabeth, and is able to blackmail Henry into assisting with his experiments. Imprisoned in a mountain laboratory, Henry is coerced into helping Pretorius in his attempts to bring to life a friend and bride for the Monster from the bones of the dead. Although not Henry’s decision to take part in the experiments, this stage of his story resembles the ‘Dream Stage’ of the ‘Tragedy’ plot. He becomes committed to his course of action, enraptured by the experiments, not once mentioning Elizabeth. What follows resembles the ‘Frustration Stage’ of the ‘Tragedy’ plot, as in a state of frustration, he furthers his dark acts. The heart he is attempting to animate proves useless and Pretorius’ henchman, Karl (Dwight Frye), is sent out to procure another by killing a young girl.
Henry’s imprisonment “continues for a long time, when it seems that the dark power has completely triumphed” (Booker, 2004, pp.204), during the fourth stage of the ‘Rebirth’ plot, as Henry works without rest until the experiments are complete. Finally, as the Monster’s Bride (Elsa Lanchester) is brought to life, in a God-defying spectacle of electrical energy, Henry is seen to relish in the blasphemous acts he fought so hard to resist, as he screams with giddy delight, “She’s alive!” With Henry gripped in madness, it seems the dark power has completely triumphed. Now the fourth stage of the ‘Tragedy’ plot begins for the Monster, but this stage, interestingly, can also be applied to Henry’s story.
“4. Nightmare stage: things are now slipping seriously out of the hero’s control. He has a mounting sense of threat and despair. Forces of opposition and fate are closing in on him.” (Booker, 2004, pp.156).
Presented with his bride, the Monster holds out his hand in friendship, but she screams in terror at his gruesome visage. Like the rest of the world, she is unable to accept his difference. We see the Monster’s mounting sense of threat and despair as he angrily declares, “She hate me. Like others.” Rampaging across the room, smashing equipment, he grabs hold of a lever that if pulled will destroy the laboratory. We also see a mounting sense of threat for Henry, as it seems his unholy dabbling has finally brought about his destruction. It is now we see his story decisively become one of ‘Rebirth’, not ‘Tragedy’. During stage five of the ‘Rebirth’ plot “comes the miraculous redemption” (Booker, 2004, pp.204), where our imprisoned hero is saved by a young woman. Escaping from her prison, Elizabeth races to Henry’s rescue, enters the laboratory and calls to him to leave. Overcoming his past parental failings, he declares, “But I can’t leave them! I can’t!” It is with these words that Henry earns redemption for selfishly creating life in the pursuit of power and not love. The Monster shows mercy where none was shown to him, allowing Henry to flee, declaring, “Go. You live! We belong dead”; finally accepting there is no place for him and his kind in a world filled with prejudice. However, just before the climactic explosion, a single brief shot reveals some evidence as to why Henry’s story so closely resembles the ‘Tragedy’ plot.
“As originally filmed, Henry died fleeing the exploding castle. Whale re-shot the ending to allow for his survival, although Clive is still visible on-screen in the collapsing laboratory.” (Newman, 2004, pp.181).
The Monster takes one last tearful look at his bride, as she snarls sadistically at him, then he pulls the lever, blowing the laboratory to atoms, and stage five of the ‘Tragedy’ plot is complete.
“5. Destruction or death wish Stage: either by the forces he has aroused against him, or by some final act of violence which precipitates his own death (e.g., murder or suicide), the hero is destroyed.” (Booker, 2004, pp.156).
Booker describes a list of characters, at least one of which must die as a result of the protagonist’s actions to complete their tragedy. In both the Monster’s and Henry’s originally intended tale, we see Pretorius take the role of the ‘Temptress’, “a ‘dark’ figure, leading the hero on” (Booker, 2004, pp.178), who Booker maintains, “almost invariably ends up dying a violent death, usually at much the same time as the hero.” (2004, pp.178). Pretorius, having led both Henry and the Monster to pursue their obsessions, is judged unworthy of life by the Monster, and he too perishes as the laboratory explodes.
Henry’s death would have cemented his story as one of tragedy, but instead, he survives, and he and Elizabeth, cradled in each other’s arms, watch as the laboratory crumbles. This demonstrates how a single incident can transform a tale of bitter tragedy into one of heroic rebirth; how a doomed father, seeking power at the expense of his innocent child via God-defying selfish pursuits, can re-emerge as a misguided scientist, who valiantly defies wicked temptation to be rewarded with true love and happiness.
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