Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

I found it interesting that unlike other classic literary horror characters such as Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there is almost nothing in the novel Frankenstein that corresponds with the popular image of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster or the 1931 movie.  The introduction by Maurice Hindel from the beautiful Penguin clothbound classic edition that I read (pictured above) notes that Shelley incorporated what was then cutting edge science (galvanism, ie electricity) to allow Frankenstein to bring his creation to life. But it wasn’t even raining on the night of the monster’s creation in the book…so no thunder or lightening needed.  In fact, there is no description of the making of the monster at all; it mostly happens off the page.
What I like most about the book (besides its length, only 225 pages!) was its structure.  It starts off as a series of letters from a dilettante arctic explorer Captain Walton to his sister back in England. In his letters, he tells of rescuing a man who is near death with cold and exhaustion. Once this man is nursed back to health, he relates to Walton his story about why he is alone out on the ice and within the rescued man’s narrative a first person account of the monster’s short and unhappy life is given. So it is a story, within a story within a story, like a set of nesting dolls.

What I didn’t like was Victor Frankenstein’s constant “why me?” moaning and teeth-gnashing, all the while doing nothing to actively change the situation for which he and his hubris is directly responsible.  It isn’t just that he comes off as unsympathetic, but I found most his behavior unaccountable. I much preferred the monster’s narrative over Frankenstein’s and while the monster’s actions are equally despicable, I feel as if I understand where his motivations lie.  There are also some preeettty craaaazy leaps of faith the read must make in order for the story to hang together. For example, not just that Victor was able to make a man from left over body parts, but also things such as how the monster just happens to find three intact novels in the forest, he just happens to be able to eavesdrop on a Turkish girl learning French enabling him to learn French, etc.  This really strained my credulity.
Of course, what is fantastic about the book is the questions it asks about humankind in the here and now (like all great science fiction). Certainly one of the questions the book raises can be extrapolated to modern man and modern science:  just because we can do something (split an atom, genetically modify corn, clone sheep, etc.) should we?  And just how much responsibility do we have for our creations when they escape our control? But for me, most important and most poignant is the question of who is the real monster of the story.

I read this for the  2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate for the Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Dystopian Classic category


  1. I ended up disappointed with Frankenstein after anticipating it for a long time for all the reasons you mention. The idea is great, the execution not so much. I think the ideas set out in the book have permeated society and, as you point out, prompt us to ask the tough questions, but from a literary point of view, I think it weak.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jane! Yes, this book did not live up to the nearly 200 year old hype! :) However, I read in the introduction of my edition that Mary Shelley also wrote a apocalyptic novel called The Last Man and I am curious enough to want to try that someday. Maybe I will like it more?