Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”

The origin of this novel is almost as famous as the book itself. A group of friends seek to outdo one another with their ghost stories. Mary, the youngest and least famous of the group, writes not a ghost story but a brief novel that has far outlived the works of every other member of the party, and that is often cited as the first science fiction novel. I recently attended a lecture on Frankenstein, in which the lecturer pointed out that there was no real science present in the novel as Mary had not been well educated in the subject, and so cannot really be considered science fiction. While I admit that she has a very valid point, I still believe that Frankenstein is indeed science fiction because the plot could not have existed without some nebulous and unexplained scientific discoveries, and helped propel this speculative genre into the popularity it still enjoys today. Even though Shelley was poorly educated in the sciences, she created something that continues to entrance and repel members of the scientific community hundreds of years after she first penned her only famous work of literature.

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

And all of this came from the mind of a girl not yet out of her teenage years. I know that some people think the novel was poorly written, but I have to disagree. I think that Shelley wrote beautifully, with the type of heart and dramatic flair that we all have but most of us lose as we enter our third decade. While I wouldn’t consider this a gothic novel in premise and plot, it definitely felt gothic in its emotional, overwrought tone. But that’s one of the things that makes it feel so special, in my opinion. We still connect with the raw emotion with which Shelley packed Victor’s tale of woe. (There will be vague spoilers in this review from this point forward. You’ve been warned.)

“How mutable are our feelings, and how strange is that clinging love we have of life even in the excess of misery!”

The story begins with a frame, much like Scheherazade over the course of her thousand and one nights, or like the grandfather reading The Princess Bride to his sick grandson. We are being told Victor’s story over the course of letters written by Captain Walton, who is on an expedition to find a route through the Arctic, to his sister. His crew found Victor near death from cold and exhaustion. As he recovers a bit of strength, he begins telling Walton his horrible tale. Two things I really appreciate about this framework. First of all, I’m a big fan of epistolary novels, as it gives us a self-aware, nearly omniscient first person perspective from someone who has already lived through the events being told. Secondly, and more specific, I love the additional framework provided by references to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As the eponymous mariner relates his tale of woe as a warning to others, so does Victor relate his own story to Walton. It makes for a really interesting frame before the true story even begins. It also ensures that we understand we are getting the story from Victor’s perspective, allowing us to brace ourselves of unreliable, skewed narration.

“Man,” I cried, “how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”

Is there any figure in literature more tragic than Frankenstein’s Creature? Yes, I know that Victor himself was tragic. He was a “good man” whose arrogance led him to create his own downfall. The works of his own hands led to the senseless deaths of everyone he held dear. Shelley rightly subtitled her work “The Modern Prometheus.” Prometheus deigned to gift unto man knowledge that the gods believed should belong to the gods alone, and was sentenced to a miserable eternity. Victor gained knowledge that belonged to God and God alone, and he applied that knowledge heedless of the dangers. And he could not even blame God for what happened next, because God hadn’t created his nemesis; he himself had.

“The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine.”

There are also some interesting comparisons to be made between both Victor and the Creature in regards to a work oft mentioned in the novel. Paradise Lost comes up time and time again over the course of Frankenstein. I believe that both Victor and the Creature at times mirror the two driving forces of Paradise Lost, Adam and Lucifer. Victor not only mirrors Adam when he gives into temptation and grasps one of the few things God has withheld from us, the power over life and death, he mirrors Lucifer when he perverts and corrupts God’s creation. The Creature is Adam in that he is the first of his kind, and Lucifer in that he seeks to subvert his creator at every turn. But unlike Lucifer, the Creature was spurned by his creator from the onset for things outside of the poor being’s control, thus almost justifying the lengths he goes to in order to inflict pain on the one who formed him.

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…”

Victor is to be pitied, though I do believe that he brought his misery on himself. But his nameless Creature is the story’s main recipient of my sympathy. (Notice I call him Creature, not Monster? I’m of the firm believe that, if anyone is a monster in this story, it’s Victor and not his poor, hapless creation.) His creator abandoned him in horror the moment he drew his first breath. He was left alone, unloved, uneducated, defenseless. Left to his own devices, he stumbled alone from the laboratory that served as his nursery, hungry and confused and afraid. Every human that saw him feared him and sought his death. He was never shown an ounce of kindness. The Creature witnessed love in the family who occupied the cabin in the woods, and yearned to be the recipient of such love. He did the family every small kindness within his power, hoping for acceptance. But the instant he made himself known, he was cast out once more. While I dearly hope that I would not have the same response, Shelley’s commentary on society’s reactions to anything different from itself is spot on.

“There is love in me the likes of which you’ve never seen. There is rage in me the likes of which should never escape. If I am not satisfied int he one, I will indulge the other.”

By the time he met his creator once more, the Creature had blood on his hands. He had committed two heinous crimes, one to cover the other. He was deserving of Victor’s hatred by this point. But I believe that he was also deserving of Victor’s help. We’ve all sinned gravely against our creator, but He is faithful to forgive. Victor was not. There was no love in his heart for his creation. Yet, even if he couldn’t love the Creature he crafted, he could have made for him a Mate. The request was fair. But his fear led him to irreparably damage what little faith was left within his Creature, leading to the further murders of Victor’s loved ones.

“I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

Everyone is responsible for their own actions. The murders committed at the hands of the Creature cannot be blamed on his creator. But the Creature’s terrifying appearance was the fault of Victor. Had he been made differently, love might not have been so far out of his reach, and murder might not have entered his heart. Both man and Creature were wrong. Both man and Creature are to be pitied.

“When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?”

Not only do I truly feel for the Creature, far more than I do for his creator, I respect him. With no support from anyone, he finds a way to learn. From the Delacey family he watches, he learns language. From that knowledge he becomes one of the most eloquent beings in any classical work I’ve read. I despise the Creature he is so often portrayed as a bumbling, stupid, barely verbal monster in film. I believe that the best representation of the Creature I’ve ever seen was Rory Kinnear’s interpretation of him in the Showtime series Penny Dreadful. He might be frightful to look upon and capable of great atrocities, but man is he eloquent.

“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”

Frankenstein is a wonderful book that I highly recommend. What inspired it? Was it just a lark, a chance for Shelley to finally feel that she could hold her own in a society that overwhelmed her? Was it commentary on her views of God as casually cruel if He even existed at all? Was it a subconscious cry of anguish over her own relation to the Creature of her making, her desperate desire to be enough for her self-absorbed father and untrustworthy husband? Whichever of those motives is closest to the truth, Shelley’s novel made me think and it made me feel, and I’m very glad to have read it. Frankenstein was a tragic tale beautifully told, and one I will continue rereading.

You can purchase a copy of the book here, with free shipping worldwide!

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

  1. Love this review! I love Frankenstein- it is one of my favourites. I love how you have drawn on and acknowledge so much of the contextual information- the book itself is truly ground breaking and a masterpiece. 🙂 The Creature will forever hold a place of sympathy in my heart.

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