Friday, February 22, 2013

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Source of book: I own this.
Date originally published on Facebook: June 12, 2011

Before I started blogging, I wrote reviews for the entertainment of my family and friends, and posted them as notes on Facebook. Later, I became dissatisfied with the lousy format and limited options of that medium, and started this blog. I am systematically re-posting my old reviews to the blog. My friend Carrie recently reviewed this book, so I figured I would join the conversation.

Mary Shelley came from an interesting background. She was the daughter of William Godwin, a somewhat radical author and intellectual (he is considered the first modern proponent of anarchism); and Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneering feminist. Godwin’s two major books were Enquiry concerning Political Justice, a work on political science; and Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, a satirical novel believed to be the first mystery thriller. Wollstonecraft is known for her influential work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The stories of the lives of these two would make a fascinating essay to write.

The story of Mary Shelley, however, comes at the end of Wollstonecraft’s life. She contracted childbed fever and died when her daughter was 10 days old.  Godwin remarried a couple of years later, as much to have help raising Mary as for love. Unfortunately, this did not work out as well as planned. Mary and her stepmother clashed, to say the least. In any event, Mary ran away with the still married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at age 16, becoming pregnant soon thereafter. To a degree, life with Percy and his friends and fans was like a soap opera, with some questions even today about who was sleeping with whom. Eventually, Percy’s wife committed suicide, leaving him free to marry Mary.

Frankenstein had its birth in a discussion about recent experiments involving “galvanism,” known to us as electricity. The famous experiment in which the legs of a frog were caused to move by a properly applied electrical current had been a revelation to the scientific community, and there were even rumors that Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles, and a poet and scientist himself) had reanimated dead matter. On a rainy evening gather around the fire, Mary Shelley and Percy, Lord Byron, and John Polidori read German ghost stories to each other, and discussed the recent scientific discoveries. Byron suggested that they each write their own ghost story inspired by the evening’s conversation.

Byron himself managed only to make a start on a poem about the Balkan vampire legends. Polidori did better by writing The Vampyre, a short story that birthed the entire romantic vampire tradition of writing. Percy did nothing.

Mary, the sole woman, wrote Frankenstein. This novel is rightly considered to be the first science fiction work, although the genre didn’t become established until Jules Verne popularized it a few years later. However, few books have had such an influence on popular culture as this one. Unfortunately, much of what has entered the culture completely misses the point of the book.

First, Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster. The poor monster never even gets a name. He is described in the book as being hideous, primarily because of his yellowish, watery eyes. Shelley does not waste much time in description here – she allows the imagination to paint the picture. This may be a reason why the novel itself didn’t sell well at first, but an artistically questionable theater production based on the book did. The monster was much more effective with a good visual. Had the theater company done a better job in understanding and presenting the story, rather than indulging in cheap scare tactics, Frankenstein may have been an effective tragedy. Instead, the public was ever after left with the vague idea of a green monster terrorizing the population.

What is Frankenstein really about? On one level, it is about the danger of science without ethics. Victor Frankenstein becomes enamored of himself and obsessed with alchemy. He sees himself as being able to use modern science to do what alchemy wished it could do: create. Heedlessly neglecting everything else, Victor assembles his creature from body parts. Only the best will do, as he intends to make an √úbermensch that will surpass in strength and quality any known human. Through the use of electricity, the creature is given life. Victor refuses to explain the process lest anyone attempt to duplicate it. When the creature looks at Victor the first time, terror results, and Victor flees. So far, the theme is scientific hubris. In the popular imagination, the story would then continue with the monster going on a killing spree before eventually being stopped with (fill in magical or technological device here).

Shelley takes the story much deeper by asking two fascinating questions. First, what is the creator’s responsibility to the created? Second, can a creature remain good in the face of abuse and unkindness?

As to the first question, Shelley references Paradise Lost throughout the book, even giving the monster access to a copy as he learns to read. The monster comes to believe that Victor owes him a mate. Since no human can look on him without horror, Victor should create a female monster.

As to the second, this question strikes at the heart of the nature versus nurture debate. How much of what we are is due to our innate nature, how much to our own choices, and how much to the experiences we have had? Could any of us survive loneliness and rejection without damage? The creature, as is well known, becomes the monster. However, his rage isn’t directed at humankind as a whole. His war is with his creator. What collateral damage the monster causes is calculated to hurt Frankenstein.

Thus, in this book, the monster becomes the sympathetic character, not the nameless horror he appears to those around him. This is both more subtle and far more interesting than the popular conception of the soulless monster to be killed that inhabits the horror genre today.

A few notes on the writing itself. Shelley wrote this book at the age of 20. She was obviously well read and had an intelligent and imaginative mind. As a general rule, she keeps her narrative tight and focused, wasting little space on the page in trying to sound “literary”. She is, however, subject to several of the affectations of her times. With such a thrilling story to write, she would have been better served by the use of simpler language and more direct, active narrative. Later, of course, writers such as Verne and Wilke Collins would master the art of suspense, using the language itself to propel the story forward rapidly, even breathlessly. This fault, although hardly hers alone, makes the story feel overly deliberate at times.

The second fault is the lack of personality in the secondary characters. Some of this is surely due to the fact that she envisioned the book originally as a short story. It grew, but not enough to flesh out the characters. The two main actors, Frankenstein and his creature, are well drawn, and psychologically interesting. The other characters become necessary to further the plot, but are ultimately forgettable. Particularly disappointing in this matter is the lack of a female character with more than a cardboard outline. This is perhaps particularly puzzling coming from a female author. However, it is possible that Shelley never identified with womankind. Her mother, after all, was scandalously radical herself; and Shelley never really knew her in person – merely from her writing and her father’s memory. Her conflicts with her stepmother and stepsister are well known. She may have felt more comfortable writing about men. Alternately, she also may have decided that her tale simply fit with male, rather than female characters.

This is a book to read with careful contemplation. It does not work as a thriller in the traditional sense; to read it this way would fail to appreciate its depth of thought and analysis. Rather, this book should cause us all to look within ourselves. Hubris, prejudice, and our relationship to our maker. These are all bound up together in the classical tragedy. This fantastical tragedy gives us the opportunity to find these tragic seeds in our own hearts.


  1. Frankenstein is one of my favorite books.And I enjoyed her mother's Vindication a lot too.

  2. It's fun reading through your thoughts, having recently completed the read for myself. And I'm still thinking on your question. But am feeling rather brain-dead at the moment.

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