This story is paired with Chapter 8 of Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
Hello everyone and congratulations to the graduates! I am so honored to be here with you today. As someone whose formal education consisted of three paperback novels, I’ll admit that I was a little surprised to be asked to be your commencement speaker. My wife pointed out, though, that while I lack official credentials, I have certainly lived through some terrible times—I’ve been vilified, hunted down, and treated like I wasn’t worth a shred of compassion or understanding. So I know a little something about what you’ve been through. I want to say right now that I am so proud of what you’ve accomplished here, so very proud. It’s wonderful that you were able to take your circumstances and make something good out of them. I know a little something about that, too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My name is George. Many of you probably know me as “the demoniacal corpse” or a “miserable monster,” but my name is actually George. The Doctor named me after an author popular around the time of my creation. It doesn’t seem right to me to go to the trouble of naming someone and then never call him by his proper name, but that’s what he did.
I am told that you read the Doctor’s book as part of your coursework here at the prison. Let me start by saying that I am a great admirer of the book. It is famous for a reason—it’s a great piece of literature. But that’s all that it is: literature. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but despite what you’ve been told, almost the entire thing is pure fiction. The Doctor made it all up. He never let me call him Victor. Only the Doctor.
I don’t blame him for doing it—making the whole thing up. In my version, the real version, he doesn’t come out looking particularly respectable. So, instead of telling the truth, he decided to slander me—making up the whole dogsled chase across the North Pole, the conversation on the glacier, and everything else—figuring it’s his word against mine and who would believe a monster?
I am not a monster. I’m not. Just because people call you something all your life doesn’t make it true.
You know, I wrote a whole speech down, but I don’t feel like reading it. My wife is frantically signaling me from the first row, trying to get me back on track, but I feel like you all are a special audience and you deserve the truth. Many of you have been treated unjustly by the press, so I’m sure you understand my desire to set the story straight. I’ll get to the advice and all that in a minute, but first I want to tell you a little bit about what really happened between the Doctor and me. I promise to be brief.
I did burn down the DeLacey’s house, but only because they asked me to do it. They were sick of living out in the country and wanted to move. So I set the cottage ablaze and they collected the insurance, which they used to buy a lovely apartment in town. I know that insurance fraud is bad, but the DeLaceys are really lovely people and they deserved a break. It was a victimless crime, which is more than I can say for the rest of my story.
Now William, the Doctor’s brother: I didn’t kill him. It makes me sick just thinking about it. I was looking for the Doctor, and I thought he might be at home. On my way, I saw the boy and the housekeeper playing in a clearing. Everything seemed fine, so I kept walking. I heard a shout and I ran back to the clearing. By the time I got there, William was gone. I tried to revive him—the Doctor had taught me some rudimentary first aid before he became disgusted with what he’d done, you know, given me life—but it was too late. That’s why my handprints were on the boy. I was trying to save him, not kill him.
I don’t know why Justine wanted William dead. Perhaps it was Munchausen by proxy or some other mental affliction. Maybe she was just tired of being treated as less than human. I don’t know. Whatever her reasons, she took them to her grave. It still haunts me to this day. If I had lingered by the stream, maybe stopped and chatted with them for a minute, William might still be alive.
Henry Clerval’s death was my fault, but I didn’t kill him. On the contrary—I wanted him alive. I needed him to show me to the castle where he and the Doctor were hiding out. When I first encountered him in town, he told me to meet him by the docks at nightfall and he would take me to the Doctor. Just after midnight he appeared, drunk and merry. His rolling gait was no match for the rickety old dock, which pitched alarmingly as Clerval came towards me. Right before my eyes, he lost his footing and plunged into the icy waves. I leapt in after him, but the current swept him away before I could reach him. I take comfort in the fact that he probably did not feel any pain.
I’m no angel and I don’t mean to present myself as one. I’ve made mistakes, done some things that I’m not proud of, definitely. But I don’t deserve to be cast out of society. I also don’t want to paint the Doctor as some evil villain. He was mostly a good man, just like everyone else.
There’s my wife again, gesturing that I ought to wrap it up. I will, sweetheart, but first I need to tell them about you. You are the most important part of my story. Can I get a round of applause for my gorgeous wife, Elizabeth? She hasn’t had an easy life either. She was essentially kidnapped from her foster parents by the Doctor’s mother and father. As a child, she was raised as the Doctor’s sister, but the Doctor was bewitched by her kindness and beauty and decided she would be his wife. Elizabeth wasn’t given any say in the matter at all, which still makes me angry, but I guess that’s not so uncommon.
Once the Doctor and Elizabeth were betrothed, he went to university in Ingolstadt, leaving her at home. He started experimenting with cadavers and electricity because for some reason he found dead bodies more interesting than live ones. The Doctor didn’t tell Elizabeth about his experiments at all—he was too busy chasing me all across Europe, telling me that I’m an abomination and a mistake and that he’s ashamed of me. Can you imagine what that felt like? Well, yes, I suppose you can—perhaps you more than anyone else understand how I felt back then. You know my humiliation, my hopelessness, and my utter desperation. I just wanted to be allowed to live out my miserable life in peace. But the Doctor would not allow it; he had to ensure I never forgot how horrifying and alien I was. As if I could, even for a moment.
I finally decided that enough was enough. I went to France to confront him, to tell the Doctor to leave me alone. When I arrived, I went looking for him but instead found Elizabeth. She was dressed in silk from her trousseau and sobbing to break your heart. She had been dreaming of her wedding day all her life, but her new husband had abandoned her to go poking around in dark corners. Naturally, I asked her what was wrong, and instead of recoiling from me in horror as I thought she would, Elizabeth started to tell me her story, which I’ve now told you. We talk and talk, and it feels like I’ve known her my whole life. Before I knew it, we had been talking for hours. Elizabeth asked me to help her escape from the Doctor. She didn’t want to live out her days in a dreary castle, forever being second-best after the morgue. She’d always wanted to see Paris. She wanted a chance to fall in love with someone she hadn’t seen in diapers.
I am not proud of my behavior. Elizabeth is the best part of my life and I could never regret a decision that brought us together, but I betrayed my friend. Elizabeth and I were meant to be together, but we should have told the Doctor first, talked it over like adults instead of stealing away under the cover of darkness like we did. I left a note explaining that I murdered his love to get back at him, and stole her body to experiment on it (he would no doubt sympathize, given that experimenting on corpses was his favorite hobby). I knew it was wrong when I did it, but I couldn’t help myself. I may be a cobbled-together man, but damn it, I’m still a man, and when a beautiful woman gazed at me with big blue eyes and asked me to take her away, I took her.
I never dreamed that Elizabeth would go for a guy like me. Love is funny sometimes—people think they are lucky their beloved loves them back. But I know that I am truly lucky, because Elizabeth’s love saved me. Without her, I might have always thought that I really was a monster.
What’s that? Yes, you in the back. Did you have a question? Oh, what do I do now? Sure. Elizabeth and I run a small book shop in Montreal. We moved there before our first son was born. Elizabeth had reconnected with her foster family, who immigrated there years ago, and she wanted to be able to raise her children closer to them. In my spare time, I do a little writing myself, just some poetry. It’s helped me process some of the emotions I have as a result of everything I’ve been through. I highly recommend writing to all of you—it’s good for the soul.
That’s probably the best advice I have: to write. Or draw, compose music, anything you like. Whatever outlet you need to let it all out—do it. Don’t keep things bottled up inside until they fester and turn into something ugly. We are all stuck with the circumstances we are given, but we can choose whether we are victims of those circumstances or survivors. You all, by doing what you’ve done, are clearly survivors. You should be proud of that.
Did I ever hear from the Doctor again? No, I did not. After the wild success of the book, he went into hiding, and from what I understand nobody has heard from him since. Elizabeth and I hired a private investigator some years back to find him, but he has disappeared without a trace. Sometimes I wonder where he is, what he is doing. I hope he is as happy as I am. Everyone deserves a chance at happiness—someone who loves them, a job that pays the bills, and a little time for hobbies.
You ask did I forgive him? Yes, of course. I had to. I couldn’t live with all that hate inside me, so I let it go. I know that he did what he thought was best. I like to think that in his circumstances, I wouldn’t have done the same, but I can’t honestly say for sure. We are all human. We all make awful mistakes sometimes. I don’t want to define his entire life based on a few mistakes.
Perhaps I am being too generous. It is possible that the Doctor, despite having all the advantages of a good home, loving parents, and an excellent education, was just a particularly cruel man. Even if that is true, I still don’t want to hold it against him. We cannot help how we are made.
Now I’m really out of time, so let me just say again how proud I am of all of you. I wish you nothing but the best of luck, whether you are going to be released soon or staying here for a long time. What you have done is exemplary; don’t you ever forget it. Congratulations again to the graduating class of the Bard Prison Initiative.
Laura Sook Duncombe is a part-time lawyer, part-time YA novelist, and full-time Christian feminist nerd. Greek epic poetry, Sherlock Holmes, and musical theater are a few of her favorite things.