Giving Bad News

Dec 7, 2017

What follows is a quiz I have given on the book Frankenstein.

How do you tell a father his son is headed for an unhappy life?

By the latter half of Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s behavior has been erratic for some time. His father Alphonse has noticed this, but done little about it. Alphonse does not respond to Victor’s bizarre mannerisms, his sudden trembling and shaking, but seems content to block out anything which does not comport with the idea that the Frankenstein family is good and that his children are well-adjusted. Alphonse has not been a tyrannical father, though he often sequesters himself off from the world, and he has sheltered his wife as though she were an “exotic flower” which cannot be troubled or inconvenienced by anything. The Frankenstein family is possessed of a number of irregularities (foremost, perhaps, the 25 year age difference between Alphonse and his wife) and Alphonse does not want to hear the criticisms and questions of others, so he conducts his business in Geneva, yet he and his family lives in relative isolation ten miles away. The Frankenstein family is so disinclined to honesty and transparency, Alphonse chooses a wife for his son when his son is just five years old and raises her as Victor’s sister. Clearly, the Frankensteins want other people to stay out of their business. They are not open to criticism, rebuke, or advice. Alphonse and his wife have done a fine job raising their children, and that is that.

And yet, shortly before Victor is to leave for England, Alphonse takes Victor’s one friend aside and says, essentially, “My son should not be alone right now. His behavior is strange. Will you accompany him to England and keep an eye on him? I don’t want to alarm Victor by making him feel as though he is being watched, but I fear Victor may become a danger to himself. Go with him, Henry. Act as his older brother. Shepherd him. Cheer him up. He is to marry in a year, and I want him in a good frame of mind when he takes his vows.” Henry, of course, agrees. Given that Victor has secret business in England, having Henry go with him throws a wrench in his plans. After they have travelled for some time, Victor begins acting moody once more and tells Henry that he needs a little time to himself. While Henry knows Victor is not well and has been charged to keep an eye on him, Henry is simply too much a coward to tell Victor, “No. We must stay together. You are not well.”

All through out Frankenstein, the characters are loath to ask one another difficult questions. Alphonse wants the lives of his family to pass easily, merrily, and difficult questions stand in the way of such ease. Rather, everyone is content to let others live however they like, keep as many secrets as they choose, not pry, not question, and not rebuke. The only character in the book who makes regular pleas for justice, fidelity, and integrity is deemed “a monster” and “a daemon.” When Victor tells Henry he wants to go off on his own for a month or two, Henry does not ask Victor what he is going to do. This is the nature of their relationship. They allow one another to get away with everything, for this is easier than confrontation.

Victor went to school in Geneva as a child, though, and one really must wonder what his teachers told his father. Unhappy, miserable, vicious, selfish adults like Victor Frankenstein do not rise up overnight. Such unhappiness and selfishness are years in the making. Of course, given Alphonse’s insular approach to the world, we can imagine how he would respond to any criticism levelled against Victor by his teachers.

Your task, then, is an unusual one. Imagine yourself as Victor’s 9th grade literature teacher. In 9th grade, Victor has already begun to show forth the signs and seeds of what he will become as an adult. You are an experienced teacher, though, and you have seen unhappy, miserable 9th graders become unhappy, miserable adults. You know that most parents do not like to hear bad news about their children, though it is sometimes necessary to give them such news. You also know there is a greasy, overly diplomatic language teachers are tempted to use, wherein they sheepishly try to inform parents of problems without hurting any feelings. Serious problems are couched in generic terms of “struggles,” and every bit of bad news is balanced against two double helpings of good news, such that the bad news is easy to forget, or seems merely par for the course. However, you have also seen miserable 9th graders accept difficult news from teachers and parents, respond with humility, and alter the trajectory toward misery on which they had previously been.

You must give Alphonse some troubling news about his son. Your task is to craft five statements which address Victor’s problems. Keep in mind that some of Victor’s problems are his own, and some are borrowed from his parents. Often enough, criticizing Victor will mean criticizing Alphonse, as well. You are also going to speculate on ways Alphonse will try to deflect these criticisms, brushing them off as the ephemera of adolescence and no real concern. You must provide both the honest criticism and the deflecting response.

I will do the first one for you.

A. You say, “Victor does not willingly receive criticism on his work or his behavior. When he is rude to one of his fellow students and I correct him, telling him to be kind, he is stony, silent, and displeased. He does not readily agree that he ought to be kind. He receives correction as though it were a personal attack.”

B. Alphonse responds, “Victor simply has a very independent spirit. He needs to be given much room. He wants to take care of himself. When people criticize him, he feels as though he is being treated like a child.”

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs.