Sunday, March 21, 2010

IMPELLED TO TELL A STORY -- MARY SHELLEY

"Forthwith this frame of mind was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale,
And then it set me free.

"Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told
This heart within me burns."

That's from "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It's the epigraph for Mary Shelley's story "Transformation." The narrator, Guido, starts out: "I have heard it said that when any strange, supernatural, and necromantic adventure has occurred to a human being, that being, however desirous he may be to conceal the same, feels at certain periods torn up as it were by an intellectual earthquake, and is forced to to bare the inner depths of his spirit to another. I am a witness of the truth of this... I must speak."

Dude. Hardcore. Considering the emphatic language Guido uses, that must have been a pretty strange adventure he had, indeed! The short version is that he makes a deal with a sort of demon to gain the love of a woman. Such big secrets are hard to keep... you need company. Would you want to go around your whole life, not telling anyone you'd made a pact with a demon? 

The narrator of another Mary Shelley story, "The Mortal Immortal," pens his short autobiography more out of boredom than anything else. This narrator, a 323-year-old guy -- relatively young for an immortal, considering the "Wandering Jew" is already more than 1800 years old. "In comparison with him, I am a very young immortal. Am I, then, immortal? ... I detected a grey hair amidst my brown locks this very day -- that surely signifies decay." He continues, "I will tell my story, and my reader shall judge me. I will tell my story, and so contrive to pass some few hours of a long eternity become so wearisome to me." With that kind of start, you feel like the narrator is going to bore you to death -- writing is just a time-killer for him! Or maybe he secretly desires to bore himself to death. Well, by story's end, he conceives a "design by which I may end all... Before I go, a miserable vanity has caused me to pen these pages. I would not die, and leave no name behind."  It appears he'd rather exchange real immortality for the literary kind -- enough to have your name be known throughout time, rather than to have to live for all time.

Whether out of a need to be forgiven, or understood, or remembered -- these are people who are impelled to tell their stories.  

See also my recent post about listening in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." 

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