Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or: The Modern Prometheus, 1818 text (GB 1818)
Novel, 191 pp.
12 October 2009
Frankenstein: isn't that Boris Karloff, horror and Hollywood? Wrong, it's a serious novel, written nearly two centuries ago by the young wife of the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley - the one who wrote the lines "I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed!"
There is surprisingly little resemblance between the novel and the movie. The movie is sensationalist entertainment, the novel an examation of a number of ethical questions, incorporated in an melodramatic story, that - to be honest - turned out to be not quite as good as I had expected (or hoped). The book is firmly set in the tradition of the Gothic novels from this period and for that reason I had more or less counted on a skillfully constructed plot in the manner of Ann Radcliffe, but in this I was somewhat disappointed.
That doesn't mean that the book isn't interesting. It is. Most people will know its starting point: young Swiss science student Victor Frankenstein brings dead matter to life and thus becomes the creator of a thinking, feeling being, without having thought about the consequences his experiment might have. When the experiment turns out to be successful Victor Frankenstein gives his creation just one glance, is startled to death by the hideousness of the creature and simply runs off - leaving the newly created being completely to its own devices.
The book is a frame story within a frame story, which comes across as a little contrived and clumsy. A young Englishman sailing in the Arctic Sea saves a young Swiss man, who turns out to be Victor Frankenstein and who relates how he got there and who, in the middle of his story, also tells the account that the 'monster' in its turn told him. The story of the nameless 'monster' in the central part of the novel is the book's most interesting and most affecting part. Aching for human contact and cursed with a sensitive nature, the 'monster' is violently rejected by anybody with whom he tries to be friends or even tries to help - only because of his extreme ugliness. He may rescue a child from drowning, but all he gets for his efforts is people running away from him screaming. Thoroughly isolated and desperately lonely, the creature becomes embittered and starts behaving as monstrously as he looks. He is then variously driven by horrible acts of vengeance against the creator who made him like this and then abjured all resposibility for him, and by an intense yearning for a mate. On the inside he is as human as anybody, but on account of his appearance he is treated as a monster and an outcast. A tragedy that is presented convincingly by Mary Shelley, in my opinion.
Personally I think Victor Frankenstein is much more blameworthy than his creation (and I suspect most readers will be of the same opinion), but Frankenstein himself for most of the time sees only the monstrous side of his creation instead of the human side, thus making it easy for him to dismiss responsibility for its life and its wellfare. Granted, Victor is regularly torn apart by remorse for the crimes for which he can be held indirectly (as he is aware) accountable, but also tells himself repeatedly that he has done nothing wrong. He does not see his own cowardice in abandoning the creature until it is far too late.
The book is seen by some as an antic-science argument, but this view is based on sloppy reading. For it is exactly one of Frankenstein's main flaws (as he admits explicitly) that his reading during his adolescence was not guided by a well-informed adult and that for this reason his interests and methods became those of the long-outdated alchemists instead of the modern rational scientists of the time (or at least what passed for modern and rational in those days).
In other respects, too, the novel is quite contemporary and modern for its age: intense and fiercely expressed emotions, reflected by nature and by the landscape, are a prominent part of the novel and are of course typical of the Romantic period. For a modern reader this can be a bit much. Frankenstein does rather overindulge in mental hand wringing and self pity, I think. Neither did I find the frequent improbabilities always easy to stomach; the mental and intellectual development that the 'monster' experiences required far too much 'willing suspension of disbelief' for my taste. I had to keep reminding myself that I should not read this book so much as a realistic novel but rather as a parable, a moral fable. In spite of this, however, the many coincidences in the plot kept grating on me.
For this reason I did not find Frankenstein a complete success as a novel. The melodrama, all those selfindulgent sentiments, the glaring improbabilities and coincidences: this is not definitely not one of the best stories I have ever read. But as a portrait of an era, and because of its startling originality, because of the influence it had as the first sf novel and as food for thought this is nevertheless an interesting novel. I specialized in 18th and 19th century literature during my graduate studies, but this book was never on the curriculum and I am glad that this gap has finally been filled.
PS The text I read is not from the more popular 1831 edition, but is the unamended and original version of 1818, as published in a new scholarly editon by Oxford World Classics.