Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
Review by M Fenn
I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
For some reason, now seemed the time in my life to finally read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. I don’t know why I haven’t read it before now. The original Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies from childhood and Young Frankenstein is my favourite comedy. You’d think I would have wanted to investigate the source material.
The question puzzles me. Although I have at least one suspicion that I’ll talk about below.
You all know how Frankenstein came to be, right? Mary Shelley wrote the novel because she and her travel companions were stuck inside during a spate of rainy weather near Geneva, Switzerland in 1816. The group, including Shelley’s lover and future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley; Lord Byron; John Polidori; and Shelley’s stepsister (and Byron’s lover) Claire Claremont, challenged each other to see who could write the best horror story. Polidori came up with the first vampire novel, The Vampyre, and Shelley created what many consider to be the first science fiction novel. The other three? They got distracted, I guess.
I found Frankenstein to be a fascinating, albeit stumbling, read, telling the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a young man obsessed with creating life. When he succeeds, he immediately regrets what he’s done and is revolted by the results. The resulting creature doesn’t take its creator’s disgust well and mayhem ensues.
That basic story, I just love. Mad scientists and monsters are one of my favorite sf tropes, and this is the beginning of that. I also love the monster. The tale of his orphanhood after Frankenstein rejects him is heartbreaking and made me wish that the Karloff character in the Universal film had been allowed to speak. Can you imagine Karloff telling that story?
Several points of the novel give me trouble, though.
The framing story, for example, is kind of iffy. It involves letters from an unrelated character to his sister telling her about the journey to the North Pole that he’s undertaken and the strange man he rescues from icy seas along the way. That fellow is Victor Frankenstein, who is chasing after his creation to exact revenge for all the murderous havoc he’s inflicted on Frankenstein’s family. According to the edition of Frankenstein I own (Limited Editions Club © 1934), Percy Shelley encouraged Mary to expand the original story, and the frame sections are the result. I wonder if the story would have been just fine without them; we spend a lot of time with Captain Walton before discovering that he’s not our protagonist. Kind of irritating.
The next problem I had with Frankenstein may be the reason it took me so long to read it in the first place: the language. Nineteenth-century fiction and I have always had a troubled relationship. Too many words! Can I blame reading Hemingway as a kid for this? I don’t know, I just find a lot of Victorian-era works of fiction to be incredibly verbose. One of the reasons Herman Melville is one of my favorite authors of that time period is because his style moved away from that, heading toward the twentieth century before everyone else did. Mark Twain, too: I like his way of writing quite a bit.
Shelley, on the other hand, breaks no new ground with her prose style. While Sir Walter Scott credited the author’s “happy power of expression”, I found stretches of the book to be clunky and annoying.
Perhaps, though, that’s because I found Victor Frankenstein to be even more annoying, and that rubbed off on everything else. I’m going to make a bold statement here.
Victor Frankenstein is a putz!
Gah! What an aggravating little man!
Now, I get that his unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions is an important part of his character and an important part of the story and his self-loathing comes from that. But why does he have to be such a drama queen about it?
Hm, it just occurred to me that one of my big problems with the story might be another ground-breaking device on Shelley’s part. Let’s think this through. Frankenstein creates a man who is hideous in appearance, and yet extremely strong, hardy, as well as being a bit of a genius who defeats him at every turn. How did our hero, who doesn’t come across as very brilliant at all, do this? That was driving me nuts while I was reading, but I think now of all the robot and computer stories written that show how technology will defeat its creators (us) in the long run. Was Frankenstein the first place this trope shows up, as well? I wonder now.
But that doesn’t forgive Victor for the stupidity that gets his wife killed. When the creature tells Frankenstein that he’ll be with him on his wedding night, Victor assumes he’s going to try to kill him, even though the daemon (as Victor calls him) has already killed several of his loved ones with the admitted purpose to make Frankenstein miserable. It never occurs to our hero that his creation is coming for his wife, until she’s already dead.
I also wonder why, if Frankenstein had the skill to make this brilliant, hardy man he had to make him ugly? Was this strictly to feed the trope that ugly people are inherently evil? It reminds me of Sanjuro, where, before Mifune’s character sets them straight, the young samurai are fooled into thinking that Mutsuta is corrupt just because he’s homely. It’s a dumb stereotype, even 200 years ago.
Okay, enough grumbling. Time to sum up.
I’m glad I finally read Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. While I wish it were better-written (from my twenty-first century perspective), I think the monster Shelley created is fabulous, and I’m grateful for the influence the book gave to so much fiction that I do enjoy. It’s worth the read just to see that influence and to meet the original mad scientist who “tampered in God’s domain.”
This review originally appeared on Skinnier Than It Is Wide.