book reviews

Thoughts on Frankenstein

Am I really going to give my little opinion on a well-regarded classic? A classic so popularized by media that everyone could recite the bare bones of the plot without ever picking it up?

Yes.

Frankenstein is your typical Gothic horror story  that decries the hubris of man in trying to achieve something greater than themselves. Victor Frankenstein learns the hard way that doing so will bring about misery and ruin.

So… I’m a huge fan of 19th century British literature despite some of its more problematic themes. Frankenstein is no exception. I love the way this book is written and found it interesting that most of the story is told in letters and personal flashbacks. The story is framed by letters from an ambitious young captain named Walton writing to his sister about an arctic voyage (which for some reason brought back to my mind the Edgar Allan Poe’s Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym minus all the craziness). Walton comes across Victor Frankenstein nearly dead from the cold on their voyage and after striking up a friendship, Frankenstein relates his tragic tale in his own voice with Walton somehow madly scribbling each word that comes into utterance.

Now, I’ll admit that I came into this story with some preconceived notions. Though I haven’t watched anything all the way through from the Frankenstein Hollywood canon, I was familiar with the images. The mad scientist, the electrifying process of life, the monster, and the simple villagers that put an end to him were all the things that I expected to see. If you come into the book for that you’ll be woefully disappointed.

Victor Frankenstein is not a mad scientist. He starts out as a know-it-all college student who dedicated himself in his scientific aspirations without ever attending class. He even turns up his nose to professors he doesn’t agree with. He intentionally doesn’t go into detail about how he animated the monster because he doesn’t want to give anyone the recipe to the tragedy that is his life. But you can bet that since the story came a bit before the wider usage of electrical currents and an understanding of how it worked, it wasn’t through the light show illustrated in the movies. Frankenstein doesn’t even give a passing reference to lightning. That’s future adaptions filling in the gaps because of its deliberate vagueness.

Interestingly enough, science is framed as more of a moral question than a process. This is perhaps very common in science fiction where the scale of progress is measured more by its impact on human nature rather than if technology makes life easier. Frankenstein does the same. The consequences of the monster’s existence is set to how it impacts human society. Frankenstein spends pages discussing the moral implications of his creation. He brands the monster as a crime against God.

Despite this, I was fairly surprised by the depth Mary Shelley gives to the monster of this story. He’s framed as a wretched creation in a world that believes him intrinsically evil based on his appearance. Even his creator initially shuns him for his ugliness (Thanks Dad!). I have to admit that I felt a greater well of sympathy for the monster, more so than anyone else in the book. He is forced into evil after being originally enchanted with humanity and its capacity for love–something he’s never given the opportunity to experience. The narrative delves into how the monster perceives itself in relation to human society but its is ultimately vilified despite all these things.

My main gripe with the book is with the character of Victor Frankenstein himself. After making the monster he doesn’t really do anything else but is quick to bemoan his own wretchedness when things go bad. Most of the story is just him reflecting on all that he’s suffered. This is nothing new in 19th century Victorian novels, but he constantly undercuts his own agency by blaming fate. One of the story’s central themes is the debate between agency vs fate. Again, this isn’t anything new in Victorian novels but Frankenstein takes the fate argument to a whole new level when the text suggests otherwise. At the same time, I can’t help but believe that Mary Shelley did this somewhat intentionally. It sometimes reads to tongue-in-cheek in certain scenes.

Ultimately, Frankenstein was a fascinating read and I’m glad that I took the time to read it.

I’m curious to know what you all think of Frankenstein. What are your thoughts on Victor Frankenstein? What about the literary depiction of the monster? Do you think it’s a sci-fi title even though science isn’t featured too heavily?

 

Editor’s Note: Originally posted on CreativelyAddled WordPress.

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