Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley’s first novel was written in 1818 when Shelley (then Mary Godwin) was only 20. She was staying with her husband-to-be, the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, on Lake Geneva. As a kind of game, Lord Byron, their friend and companion, proposed that each person in the party write a ghost story. Byron wrote the third canto of Childe Harold; another friend, Polidori, was inspired to write the first vampire novel, “The Vampyre.” But Mary Shelley’s response to the prompt would ultimately become the most famous: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (betcha didn’t know about that subtitle, huh?).
If you’re mostly familiar with the plot of Frankenstein from the 1931 film or various parodies of it, you might have missed a lot about this particular book. Or, more likely, have ideas or mental images that don’t actually occur in the book. For instance, there’s no hunchback assistant. There’s no triumphant “It’s alive!” moment. The Creature isn’t a lurching, flat-topped and bolt-headed green monster who can barely grunt (as in the cover to the left). And the Creature doesn’t die, trapped in a flaming windmill.
What actually happens is a lot more subtle. It’s an exploration of creative ambition, of the ways in which our dreams can blind us to the needs of others, and of the struggle to be a part of humanity.
Frankenstein starts with Robert Walton, a sea captain and Arctic explorer (and my personal favorite character from the book). On his sea voyage north, Walton writes letters to his sister about his dreams of discovering the North Pole. He and his crew notice a giant figure dogsledding over the icebergs. A few hours later, they rescue a nearly-dead Victor Frankenstein, who has been pursuing the giant.
In his letters, Walton relates Victor’s story as it was told to him. Victor is a young scientist obsessed with finding the secret of life. He begins experimenting with dead bodies, trying to reanimate them. But when he finally succeeds in re-animating a creature he formed to be beautiful, he is repulsed by its ugliness — its yellow eyes and skin that shows the muscles beneath. He abandons the newly-awakened Creature in his laboratory and when he returns, it has escaped.
Victor goes home to find that his younger brother William has been murdered. Seeing the Creature near the scene of the crime, he believes it is responsible. However, in his guilt for creating such a monster, he allows an innocent woman to take the blame for the murder and hang for it.
Eventually, Victor confronts the Creature. Walton’s letters now tell the story of the Creature, as it was told to Victor and then relayed to Walton. Abandoned by his creator, the Creature sought love, companionship, and knowledge. Because of his appearance, no one could bear to be around him. But he did teach himself to read. Reading Victor’s journal, he discovered where Victor lived and swore his revenge, killing William. He threatens death to everyone Victor loves unless a companion, another Creature, is made for him — a threat he makes good on when Victor fails to live up to his end of the bargain.
Everyone Victor loves is now dead and he is pursuing his Creature to the North Pole, knowing that his journey will end his life.
I mentioned that Walton is my favorite character in Frankenstein. It’s easy to relate to his love of nature, his quest for the un-explored, and his dreams of leaving a legacy, even if it means his death. He alone, of the three narrators of the book, is relatively innocent, with no plans of murder or revenge.
The Creature is also pretty relatable, especially when he talks about his devastating loneliness and longing for affection and knowledge. In a few months, he teaches himself to read, to speak eloquently, and becomes a sort of philosopher, questioning his own existence and place among humanity. It’s hard to condone his murder of innocent people in order to get back at Victor, but it’s easy to understand a desire for revenge, a hunger for acknowledgment by your maker.
The character I just can’t stand is Frankenstein himself. Victor is alternately self-pitying and self-aggrandizing. He’s so in love with his own genius that he has little humility or compassion for anyone outside himself. Even when he sends an innocent woman to be hanged, his narrative is mostly about how hard it was for him to do that. Some of his passages are difficult for me to read without rolling my eyes and I wonder if Mary Shelley wrote him that way on purpose. What would she know about super-smart, self-involved dudes, I wonder? *cough Byron and Shelley cough*
Even though I don’t like Victor, the book is a finely-written examination of the kinds of actions we are liable to take when the guiding principle is our own ambition and glory, and a statement of the responsibility we bear for our own creations. For many, Frankenstein holds the place as the true first science-fiction novel. We owe so much to its legacy, specifically stories about the potential dangers of messing with stuff we don’t understand, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, the X-Men, and my personal favorite, Jurassic Park.
The audio version narrated by Simon Vance is fabulous.