Saturday, February 18, 2012
Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley, 1818
Here's another classic story I'm reading for the first time! Frankenstein the novel, as I suspected, is almost nothing like the various incarnations of Frankenstein I've run across over the years. I've seen so many versions of the monster in childrens' shows, comedy specials, skits, and other forms of media, but none of the pop-culture depictions of the monster seem to accurately represent the sadness and abundant emotion of the book.
I shouldn't be surprised at it anymore, but it seems like all British or American literature from the 19th century has to be set inside a frame story--the narrative has to be told to somebody who told somebody who is telling the reading audience about it, or something equally layered. Frankenstein is actually not told by Victor Frankenstein or by his created monster, but by a third party whose main purpose seems to be praising Victor Frankenstein's character to the high heavens.
The story starts out with some guy, Captain Robert Walton, writing to his sister about the weather in St. Petersburg. He's a sea captain and he is preparing for a big voyage to the Arctic, where he hopes something amazing and purposeful awaits him. As his letters continue, it becomes clear that Walton is seriously poetic and he really wants a like-minded best friend because pouring out his heart in well-composed letters to his sister is just not doing justice to the depth of his feelings. But Walton's loneliness doesn't last for too long because his crew soon discovers a dying man floating on a big piece of ice. As the man, Victor, is nursed back to health, he admits to Walton that he has been in the Arctic chasing another person, or rather a "demon" as he calls him. Then Victor begins to share his long, tragic story with the captain.
Victor's thirst for knowledge led him to serious questions about the nature of life and souls. He was a brainiac who devoted himself to the intense study of various educational disciplines, including a few areas of spiritualism and quackery. Time passed and Victor learned how to give life to inanimate biological objects. He cobbled together an eight-fool-tall body, ran an electric current and some other stuff through it, and brought the ugly creature to liiiiiife. But no sooner does his pet project come to life, than Victor runs away from it in disgust. Strangely, it's at this point that I, as a reader, go from feeling a certain fondness for Victor and his obsessive studying to feeling outright revulsion for him because he refuses to take responsibility for something he made.
And I do feel very sorry for the monster, which I did not expect to happen. The monster does some cruel, vile things, but he had no real guidance. He didn't ask to be created and abandoned, and it isn't his fault that his own creator views him with absolute horror. Victor created a life that could have had some value if he had chosen to assign said value to it, but instead he leaves the creature alone in hopes that it will run away and just not be his problem anymore! But it becomes his problem once again when the creature kills his younger brother and frames a servant for the crime.
At one of the climaxes of the story, the creature confronts Victor and talks to him for the first time. The creature has been through a lot of painful encounters with human beings, most of which began with him trying to do something kind and ended with him doing something destructive. He wants Victor to make him a companion so he can live happily ever after with her in the wilderness, but his plans for a monster wedding don't ever come to fruition because Victor sabotages the effort. Victor and his monster proceed in a gruesome game of one-upsmanship where each tries to hurt the other horribly, and they both succeed. When this very short book is over, the body-count is about as high as your typical Shakespearean tragedy: everyone we care about (and some people we don't) has died.
What's the moral of the story, then, if you're looking for one? Perhaps that seeking after too much knowledge or pursuing science for science's sake is a bad idea. Jurassic Park has also taught us that. Another moral or lesson I see in Frankenstein is the importance of compassion and empathy--if Victor had cared for his creation as he ought to, the many, many deaths could have been averted. That's why the story is tragic; a little less obsession and selfishness from our protagonist would have changed everything. Grade: B
-"Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin." (pg 16)
Victor-"But now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. " (pg 26)
Monster-"I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy" (pg 80)