During a stay with Lord Byron in 1816 by Lake Geneva, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin worked on a story that would later become, Frankenstein on Byron’s suggestion that he and his guests each try writing a horror story. Percy Shelley (Mary’s future husband) wrote a short story, later published in Journal at Geneva. Bryon wrote a story fragment, and inspired by Byron’s main character, Polidori wrote The Vampyre. The novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley was first published in 1818 (Wikipedia). If these stories were the result of a competition for best horror tale, I’d give the prize to Polidori’s The Vampyre, the inspiration for the modern vampire genre. On the other hand, if the competition was most thoughtful story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wins hands down.
Before, I had stated I had been meaning to read this classic for some years, but I may have been mistaken. Other reading, study, and culture had exposed me to bits of the the tale, but as I read I began to recognize a great deal of familiarity. I likely read Frankenstein as a child when I read more books than I could ever hope to recall now. Prior knowledge detracts from total enjoyment, but it was still a good read now with more wisdom to better appreciate this classic.
In my review, I assume familiarity with the story even if indirect. A number of points could be dissected, but let’s keep this to a review with consideration that my opinion is strongly influenced by prior experience with this story. I obtained my copy of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley from Project Gutenberg in epub ebook format for my iPad.
a 3-part story
Frankenstein can be broken down into three distinct parts (four counting the collection of letters between Captain Walton and his sister split between the final chapter and the prologue): Victor Frankenstein’s pursuit of knowledge towards his creation, the monster’s story as told by the creature, and Frankenstein vs the creature. Each part is told in first-person narrative, in similar voice as if we’re reading a retelling by Walton, a ship captain and former writer, having listened to Victor Frankenstein’s telling and passing it through correspondence with his sister. It’s a smart arrangement in that it provides a fictitious authenticity of a classic fireside story sharing.
Shelley’s mastery is in the details supporting the plot. The creature is grotesque in appearance, described several different ways with my favorite stated by Walton near the end, “Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome yet appalling hideousness.” The monster is also eight feet tall and proportionally large. Why? Working on small parts being difficult, Victor Frankenstein scaled the body up large enough for him and his tools. In zealous pursuit of creating a better human, Frankenstein hadn’t practiced his skills and created an ugly face not even a father could love. If the creature had been of normal stature, someone may have come close enough to get to know the creature and accept his ugliness. Large and beautiful, and someone may have overcome the immediate intimidation. The creature must be large and ugly, or the story would fail. Shelley wove together these key conditions with reasoning and flowing narrative without hitting the reader over the head with it.
Victor Frankenstein, unable to accept his grotesque creation, cast out his monster leaving this creature without the father he needed. In the middle, the monster tells his side of the story (through Victor as recorded by Walton). Detailed examples show the monster’s logic and reasoning while learning about the world and its inhabitants. Although frightening in appearance, Frankenstein succeeded in achieving the goal of creating a better human being, a physically strong and intelligent person. The monster’s telling paints himself as compassionate victim, but his own testimony shows how quick he resorts to murder. The reader may decide if the fault is Victor’s for discarding his son, the monster’s quick violent reactions disregarding his ability to reason, or the sum of contrasting differences between the monster and human beings resulting in the behaviors of Victor and his creation.
On observing his neighbors, the creature shows his intellect by asking the right questions:
“I saw no cause for their unhappiness, but I was deeply affected by it. If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched. Yet why were these gentle beings unhappy?”
Frankenstein’s pursuit of a better human birthed a monster, and the creature comes to terms:
“I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?”
The plot suffers from one issue: Frankenstein and his monster are weak. Much of the tension is based upon perceived threats driven by over-emotional reactions, contradictory of individuals displaying intellect and reasoning. Naturally fear breaks down reason, but passion get the best of Frankenstein and his monster, and far too often. A great deal of narrative is spent on inner turmoil in place of real threat. And some of the real threat is the result of a reaction to perceived threat. While passionate beings, the regular emotional overreaction discredits the intellect of the actors and weakens the story.
When telling his tale of working on his creation, Victor Frankenstein muses on morality showing us his reasoning:
“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”
If only Victor Frankenstein had taken a moment (or several) to observe his own advice instead of letting his emotions run amuck so often. His passion created his monster, cast out his monster, and destroyed himself. Due to this weakness, I don’t care much for Victor Frankenstein or his monster. I could almost forgive the monster’s violence for lack of wisdom, but he displays too much reasoning to win my compassion. They may be intelligent, but they are also stupid. Plenty of passion, but I simply wasn’t convinced that the disparity between monster and humans, and no matter how freakishly ugly the monster, was enough to induce the behaviors of these two actors.
Of course, this was written during the Romantic era when popular to place emotion before reason.
We might consider Walton may have taken some liberty in his retelling, but we must assume Walton was sincere if not a story of his own devising. Walton was a writer after all.
The novel is very wordy and full of anecdotes. While amusing, much of the extra dialogue and details don’t move the story along. The novel could easily be shorter with a stronger telling. On the other hand, the style fits the letter-writing quality which we assume is being passed on by Captain Walton. Again, Shelley’s thoughtful arrangement. Considering a novel is about the journey or enjoyment of style, my criticism may be your delight.
True to the period, the novel includes strike-outs for bad language, such as “‘D—n the fellow!’ cried he” and dated letters as in “‘Geneva, March 18, 17—.’” The specific year doesn’t matter, and masking it reenforces that the letters, too, are fiction. Better to replace objectionable dialogue with narrative, but acceptable done sparingly where the specific impolite word supported the character.
a must-read classic
I wouldn’t classify Frankenstein as a horror story. Without science, the novel can’t be science fiction. Frankenstein (the Modern Prometheus) is a thoughtful dark fantasy about a scientist and his work. The brilliance is in Mary Shelley taking care with detail and logic to support the plot while gently offering the reader some thoughtful reflection.