Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

>> Monday, September 24, 2018

TITLE: Frankenstein
AUTHOR: Mary Shelley

PAGES: 288

SETTING: Various European countries, early 19th century
TYPE: Fiction

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever.
This keeps happening to me with classics. I was sure I must have read Frankenstein already at some point, but I hadn't. All I remembered was stuff from its many extended lives in pop culture, and a lot of it turned out not to be in the text at all. But the book itself turned out to be so much more interesting than the stuff I was remembering.

The start made me go 'huh?'. An English ship captain writes to his sister about something that happened when his ship got stuck in the ice in the Arctic Sea. First he and his men saw a sled in the distance carrying what seemed to be a huge man (clearly a trick of the light reflecting off the ice, they thought), and then another sled, which had seemingly been in pursuit, approached the ship. The man on it introduced himself as Victor Frankenstein and, taking refuge in the ship for a while, told the captain the story the latter is now conveying to his sister.

His story is a doozy, and that's the one with the elements readers will recognise. Young Victor Frankenstein is a student of science who decides he wants to try to create a living being. He scavenges bits and pieces off different bodies, and on a fateful night, gives his creation the spark of life (just how is coyly hidden from his listener -and thus readers- as knowledge that is just too dangerous). When the creature rises, Victor is struck by the horror of what he has done (partly, apparently, due to the extreme ugliness of his creation) and runs away, abandoning the creature.

Over the next months Victor tries to forget what he has done, but his path crosses with that of the creature again, and he finds out what has become of his creation's life. It's a story that starts with hope that he will be accepted by the world, but ends with those hopes being destroyed. And the rejection sours in the creature into a desire for revenge against the man who was the first to reject him, Victor himself.

You hear much about Frankenstein being about the dangers of scientific curiosity and a cautionary tale about what happens when scientists play God. This is not how it struck me at all. I think this may be, in small part, because this is one of the areas in which the book isn't really too good. I didn't find Victor believable as a scientist, precisely because of the lack of scientific curiosity that he showed at every point. His motivation in trying to put together the creature is completely glossed over. One may assume it is about scientific curiosity, but that is not on the page, and his reaction after succeeding shows zero curiosity.

But mostly, the reason why the "scientists playing God" didn't seem to me the real theme of the book is that the "playing God" bit was clearly not the problem! The outcome of the experiment was a creature with all the best of humanity in it, as well as the worst. And when in his 'natural' state, it was the best that seemed to come out first. There's a long section where he tells the story of how he came across a family living in an isolated house and spied on them, thus learning to speak and how the world of other humans works. He loved these people very much, and having encountered fear from the few people he'd come across before, he carefully planned how to approach them to befriend them without scaring them. But that all failed, and he encountered painful rejection again.

So at first, he showed instinctive compassion and caring for the human beings he encountered. He wanted to help, and did. All he wanted was to be, in turn, accepted and cared for by the people he met. It was only when he was met with rejection and violence for the sole reason of his appearance, that the worst impulses of humanity came out. But even then, when he was telling Victor about what had happened, it was clear that the creature was not irredeemably bad. He was sorry about the bad things he had done so far and ready to repent, if someone were to show him even a tiny bit of compassion. It was only because he didn't get it that what happened next took place.

So to me, there were themes that came out of all that much more clearly than "the dangers of scientists playing God". Like the dangers of not taking responsibility for what you do. Like what makes a human a human. Like whether people can be innately evil, or whether evil may be influenced by context and how people are treated. Those themes were much better explored by the plot, and quite successfully, too.

The book is not perfect. The plotting is sometimes a bit creaky and clunky, and some of the melodramatic tone doesn't quite land (oh, Victor was one emo, overdramatic, self-indulgent SOB!). I was literally laughing at some of the supposedly touching moments. But when the pathos does work, such as in the creature's tale, it's incredibly powerful. There's definitely a reason this is a classic.


PS - I listened to the audiobook, and chose one of the best reviewed versions on Audible, narrated by Dan Stevens (you'll probably recognise the name if you watch Downton Abbey). I'm not sure if it was the right choice, to be honest. A large proportion of the book, both when it's Victor and when it's the creature speaking, Stevens hams it up massively, the voices so overly dramatic that it feels like the characters are constantly on the verge of weeping. And yes, the text does support the utter melodrama, but I think the narration may have been what tipped it into ridiculousness for me. Like I said, I was literally scoffing and laughing and going "oh, come off it!" out loud during the most dramatic bits, which is probably not the intended effect, and some of this was down to the narration.

PPS - The cover I've included in this post is the one I think best reflects the tone. Caspar Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Very fitting.


La Karibane 24 September 2018 at 13:20  

After reading your review, I realize this is a truly Romantic work ie from the 19th Century because a lot of the themes you cite are central to the works of that era. There is something of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in what you said about the creature being inherently good but society's ill effects damaging that true nature and making him bad. Even the retreat into an empty, hostile nature is classic Romantic trope. BTW, that painting heads the chapter on Romanticism in my students'French lit book, LOL!

(Like you, I need to actually read the Classics)

Malvina 24 September 2018 at 22:34  

I read this book for a short course on Gothic literature I did some time ago...and what a surprise! Firstly, it was way longer than I expected, and yes, the language was florid and dramatic. But it touched on a lot of things I had no idea where in the book (because everyone ‘knows’ Frankenstein from movies and such, right?!). Then I considered Mary Shelley’s age when it was written and was blown away. An impressive classic. I recently read her book The Last Man - the world succumbs to plague - and it was rather harder to read and not such an impressive imaginative storyline. Hats off to her as an author, though. Frankenstein wowed me, it was totally not what I expected.

Rosario 25 September 2018 at 04:29  

La Karibane: I didn't think about it, but yes, there's definitely the bon sauvage idea here. And yes, the Romantic feel is super strong here. As far as Classics go, this is one that is pretty accessible, actually, so I would recommend reading it :)

Malvina: Yes, that's exactly it, the adaptations and other media inspired on it have often come very far from the original, and a lot of the themes that are actually there never make it.

It really is an incredibly impressive achievement, particularly for someone so young.

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