Mary Shelley, the celebrated author of Frankenstein, scrutinizes the developing impact of Indian culture on a young English soldier, Falkner. As a child Falkner was mistreated and neglected at home and at school. While in the company of Mrs. Rivers and her daughter, Alithea, he is inspired to end grievous habits. But his schooldays are brought to a sudden end when he cuts the head of an usher with a knife in an abusive struggle. His uncle then places him in the East Indian military college. While there, Falkner learns of Mrs. Rivers' death, discovers that he loves Alithea, and asks her father's permission to marry her. Her father refuses so Falkner sails to India as an officer of the East India company's cavalry, still believing that Alithea will someday be his bride. Stationed in India, Falkner witnesses the subjugation of the overwhelmed natives. He learns their language and traditions but also tries to Westernize them with more enlightened social ethics. These divergent attitudes are a reflection of his developing cultural indecisiveness. When Falkner inherits his family's property after 10 years he returns to England to propose to Alithea, but she has already married. He begs her to break off the marriage and run away with him. She refuses, and he kidnaps her. Alithea is terrified, and in an attempt to escape she drowns. Falkner buries her quickly in unconsecrated ground. He then travels to the secluded village of Cornwall to make a sacrifice to Alithea's soul. This suicidal effort is prevented when the gun he is holding as he sits on her grave is knocked out of his hands by Alithea's daughter, Elizabeth. He leaves England with Elizabeth; during their travels he realizes that his obsession with his adoptive child is sexual. He confesses the crime of Alithea's drowning to her and Alithea's son, Gerard Neville. Gerard exposes the confession to his father who has Falkner arrested for murder. Falkner languishes in prison and is humiliated by a lengthy trial after which he is found innocent and forgiven. This is Shelley's final novel, and in it she counsels the unnationalized to master their pride and surrender to the laws and values of a nation they rejected.
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December 12, 2008
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